Saturday, June 29, 2013



Monday 23 June

ODOMETER READING: 246 132 (We’ve driven 7 360km)

Tanzania, so far, is exceeding my expectations, at least its natural beauty is. The people are less servile than the Malawians (I doubt anyone is going to call me madam here) and English is not as widely spoken.
A young man scowled at me a few days ago when I asked for directions and said in perfect English: “Speak Swahili to me, I don’t understand English.”
The attitude started at the border. When Julia chided an airtime voucher salesman for coming to stand right up against us and staring into our mouths while we spoke he stepped back, pumped his chest and growled, “Is it because I’m black? You speak to me like that because I’m a fucking black man?”
Within minutes of entering Tanzania signs of prosperity replaced the poverty of Malawi. There were hundreds of motorbikes instead of bicycles, the plots under cultivation were bigger and more organised, the banana plants were huge and Julia gawked at the first four-storey high building we had seen since Maputo, almost two months ago.
We changed our route (AGAIN – and probably will again) at the advice of people we met in Malawi. We had planned to take the main highway in Tanzania to Dar es Salaam, which would have meant constant truck dodging. So we broke our rule not to head south. And boohoo, I didn't get to go to Morogoro to pay homage to the ANC in exile.
Our first destination in Tanzania was Mbeya, a fantastic little town high in the mountains. We stopped at the Mbeya Hotel for lunch and ate like little piggies – Julia had palak paneer and I had Afghani chicken, both with naan. We hadn't eaten meat once in Malawi and I'm missing it terribly. But even though we were at a hotel owned by Indians and I was sure the meat was halal, I couldn't bring myself to eat goat (which they call mutton). 
We went giddy shopping in metropolitan Mbeya, where the supermarkets – that is, family-owned, cramped duka’s, with owners who embellish the less-than-grand storefront with fat words – were filled with South African and American goods.
We shopped at Azma Provisions, where the couple spoiled us. They told me what the total was for the basket of groceries, and when I hesitated while I worked out how much that was in rand, they sliced off a third. So we got all the luxuries we were craving for ­ – cheese, milk, yoghurt, Kerrygold butter, muesli, chocolate, Lay's chips – and a whole basket of basics for less than R300.
There was a leg of lamb in the freezer, a genuine one imported from New Zealand, but far too large for us. When the owner of the supermarket heard we were camping he chucked in a couple of cans of sweetcorn, for free. I said shukran over and over as we left.

Packing our fridge to full capacity

Our main battery died a slow death in Malawi (we have three batteries in the car, but the main one is the vital one). I bought a new one in Mbeya from a guy who looks just like my cousin Irshad. We asked the price of a battery we spotted at another shop and it was exactly double. I've got a feeling that I'm going to like Tanzania.  Julia's also salaaming all over the place.
We headed south so that we could drive a pretty road between the Selous National Park in Tanzania and the Niassa National Park, which we missed out on in Mozambique. The view was beautiful; the road was gravel and dust for about 200km. I have now had it with fine red dust that gets in everything – especially our nostrils and every orifice in the car – and I'm never going to complain about sea sand in the tent again.
I’m going to eat all my earlier words and declare that camping’s so much better than sleeping on someone’s else bed, using their pillows and schlepping our requirements from and to the car, our home away from home. And no-one can make better food than us (except the Indian restaurants in Mbeya).

Our next stop was Songea where we stayed in our flashiest accommodation so far. It was afro-chic and had an en-suite bath with lukewarm water and a huge bedroom with a flat-screen television and Kuwaiti subscription channels. We watched the Simpsons movie with Arabic subtitles.
We tried the town’s museum before we left the next day but it was closed. Julia did take a look at a painted, wooden “eternal flame” outside which paid tribute to the 67 Maji Maji warriors who were hanged by the Germans in 1906. After encountering the snarly young man who refused to give us directions because we couldn’t speak Swahili, we left Songea, after driving in circles for a while, as usual.
But we are trying: Jules and I can take the Swahili greeting, how-are-yoing and what-is-your-naming all the way up to five sentences. And my smattering of Arabic gets me somewhere; I can salaam and shukran and charm people with mashallahs.
The Muslim thing is a bit befok here. For instance, people give their trucks, busses and taxis names. We’ve spotted a Taliban, Al-Shabaab and two Jihads. And all my cousin’s names are all over the place. I saw Najma’s duka (shop) seconds before I spotted Khalid’s superette.
Next stop Tunduru, a frontier-looking town with a dusty main drag lined with gemstone shops. There are mines all around the town; the dealers buy rubies, sapphires and other stones. Didn’t see any advertising Tanzanite.
We stayed at the Kikha Guest House where we paid local prices – Ts8 000 for an en-suite room, almost a tenth of what we paid in Songea. What a room it was! Sophia managed the establishment; she had no English and a lusty, infectious laugh that accompanied all our non-understandings. She brought us water to wash, in a plastic 25l drum that still had green paint on the inside. She placed it under the showerhead next to the loud, obnoxious eastern toilet (Mbeya also had those).

Sophia brought us candles; there was no power on her side of town. The bed was wide and comfy and I slept like an exhausted log till the azhan woke us at sunrise with the call to prayer – the electricity was on again.

The lovely Sophia

As we left Tunduru we, of course, got lost again and drove around in a little circle. I had spotted a black jeep tailing us and when the road widened it pulled up in front of us, a hand stretched out of the passenger window flagging us down.
The two polite men in dark sunglasses said they were from foreign affairs or tourism or something and they wanted to see our passports. Then they said they wanted to make copies of our passports and walked off to a nearby office, where they had a desk, a phone and a photocopier! They looked like spies to me, not tourism officials. But we played nicely, they did whatever they were doing politely and they gave us directions to get out of town when they were done.
On the drive to Masasi, where we had planned to spend the night, the dry woodland gave way to palm, Baobab (here called mbuyu) and bright yellow fig trees. We checked the Garmin. The coast was only three hours away, we were back on the tar, so we kept on going.
At Mikindani we discovered an ocean as beautiful as Mozambique’s - striped with different blues and warm as pee. For the very first time since we left home we were in a humid place, the nights not much cooler than the days.

Back at the sea again.

We went on a tour of the town with Awadh, a waiter we met at the Boma Hotel – a renovated century-old German fort – where we went for a just-verging-on-okay meal in a fantastic setting poolside.
In Mikindani there are ruins of mosques built with burnt coral in the 12th century and, sadly, the old slave market and dungeons where they held thousands of people before they shipped them off to Saudi Arabia and its neighbours.

The ancient slave market at Mikindani

I'm still amazed at the blatant lies we were taught in school about Portuguese, Dutch and English voyages of discovery. There's so much proof on the coast that the Arabs and the Indians and the Chinese were living in Africa and trading here for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
Vasco da Gama apparently used an Arab pilot to take him from Mozambique to India (which he then “discovered”, I'm sure).

Ancient Arab mosque

Burnt coral in the ancient walls

We met Abdul, an eighth or ninth generation Omani (he’s not sure) in the warm waters of Mikandani Bay. We had gone to the Yacht Club for a swim and Julia goaded him into taking a running dive off the jetty.
Like everyone else in the town, Abdul’s very excited about the gas that was discovered off the coast and the new highway – 50 years in the making – linking them to Dar es Salaam. His family is in construction, and he’s already dreaming of the big house he’s going to build for himself in a nearby fishing village.

Mikindani had adorable kids

They got cuter and cuter

Awadh, Khadija and Amina

Tuesday 24 June

Julia’s fuming. We’ve discovered the joys of the Tanzanian Parks Board, which we’ve been reading about with growing horror for years and listening to gripes about for weeks as we’ve met people who’ve recently endured them.
We’re at the Ruvuma Marine Estuary Park where a cool $20 (US) per person gets you through the gate for 24 hours. The young official at the gate couldn’t speak a word of English but managed to direct us to the Ruvuma Lodge where they charge Ts20 000 per person per day for camping (That's R300 a night, you get a lot for that in a South African campsite).
At Ruvuma there is no running water; we have to collect it from a tank under a gutter of the main building. The shower only has cold water (and so had 10 degrees South Lodge in Mikindani) but the trickle here is so slow there isn’t enough to make you chilly. Believe it or not, the toilet’s okay – it’s a proper Western one with a wooden seat and it flushes!
Best of all is the staff; who are completely uninterested in doing anything for us and can’t speak a word of English. The woman who may or may not be the manager of the camp spent all afternoon lying on a rattan bed staring at our every move. I do understand Julia’s anger – no-one’s lifting a finger as we carry water from the gutter tank and remove the tadpoles before we use it.
But on the upside, says Pollyanna Rehana, we’re the only tourists stupid enough to be here. We have coral reef and fish fantasia in bathwater-warm water a few metres from our tent, a long beach with compacted talcum sand, fronded by palm trees all to ourselves (and the few hundred people who live in the huge marine park). 
We went straight into the water when we arrived and found huge, mostly pink coral dotted with fishies as soon as we were waist deep. We’ve hired a boat for a day trip tomorrow. Jules and I saw waves breaking on a reef when we went for a walk at high tide and I can’t wait to sample it.

The expensive, facility-challenged campsite was beautiful

TOMORROW: The boat never came. The staff kept asking us, “boatie?”, but doing nothing. They tried to demand the Ts100 000 fee for the day-long ride, even though there was no boat or boatman in sight at noon.
We walked to the reef; it wasn’t that far from the campsite. It had seemed about 400m from the shore at high tide, it was more than a kilometre away.
To reach the reef, we had to spludge across shallow pools filled with seagrass, sea slugs, sharp shells  pieces of coral and occasional fantastic forms of life. We watched a conch shell, which I had only previously seen on sale to tourists, burrow into a low-tide pool.
We had to watch every step. Our reef shoes weren't even protection and we had mask and snorkel in one hand, flippers in the other. Finally, we reached water deep enough to submerge.
We couldn’t get into the water. We were trampling on coral, scraping on coral and hoping there was nothing lurking below as waves buffeted us around. Jules spotted an urchin seconds after we arrived at the reef. There was no way I was going to extend my entire body into the shallow foamy water so there was more of my skin at risk of a sea urchin’s sting. Jules and I already have welts of hard red blisters after our swim in Mikindani Bay with Abdul and unseen stingy critters.
We decided to walk to our left, where the waves were gentler. Same problem, we were knee-deep in coral for a long, long time. The reef would be much easier to reach by boat. We gave up and walked a kilometre back, watching every careful step, to where we had left our stuff on the mangrove trees at the shore.

Back at the camp, matters had gotten worse. It was 3pm, the staff were still saying “boatie?” and doing nothing. Jules and I were exhausted but determined. We needed a break after our two-hour attempt to enter the reef.
After a quick lunch we picked up our masks and flippers again and headed into the water. The tide was coming in and washing us away from the dark patch of reef we had selected; it was hard work getting there.
So we swam back to the shore, trudged on the caramel-warm beach to beyond our spot so the tide could take us there. Too late! The coral waved merrily at us, five metres below. The only fish I saw was a huge, brown potato cod.

Can you believe this beach?

Still, we hadn’t had enough. After two games of Scrabble while the sun subsided - into the SEA! We were on a peninsula facing west - Jules and I took another long trek up the irresistible beach.  You have to pause for the sunsets that drop into the water and hour-long twilight shows featuring clouds lighting up with rays of gold, red, pink and violet.
We when returned to the campsite, it had deteriorated significantly. The trickle of water in the shower had dried up. We showered our sandy selves, snorkeling and swimming gear in half a bucket each of tadpoley water that we collected from the plastic tank.
I locked myself in the toilet (there’s no handle on the inside), despite Julia doing that on the first day and warning us all. The door closed ominously behind me after I pushed it wide open and cast my eyes about for something to keep it slightly ajar. Fortunately, the broken handle was on a shelf and it made a satisfying racket when I banged it against the door.
When the “manageress” came running to open it I stalked past her like an adult cat caught playing with a fluffy toy. I hissed a few minutes later when she presented me with a bill for Ts80 000. “Not good enough! Just not good enough!” She smiled.
The only thing Rovumu Lodge has to offer guests is a stunning location and a flush toilet. Sophia at Kikha Guest House in Tunduru could teach them a thing or two; Mike said she heated the water on a brazier before she lugged it to their room in a paint bucket.
Seems the nasty things people are saying about the Tanzanian Parks Board is true. I almost feel like whining on Tripadvisor, but I won’t let them reduce me to that. I plan to visit more of their parks. Can’t come to Tanzania and skip Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, can you?



I find the ubiquitous police roadblocks cute when they’re not irritating.
Julia asked before we left what we were going to do when we came across men with machine guns blocking the highway. I said we should reverse at high speed and do one of those James Bond turn around and go in the opposite direction moves. But they’re so commonplace we’d be doing 10km forward five kilometres back this whole trip if we tried to dodge them.
Okay, the AKs in Mozambique grew jarring after a while; they need to carry something smaller. They’re also armed with radars. Seems you can’t go more than 10km in Mozambique without being stopped. Except in Ponta, where we never saw one cop in a town where people drove quad bikes with babies on their laps.
Every police and traffic officer asked where we’re going. Some ask for drivers’ licenses, three issued a fine, but most of them wave you through.  Not one asked for a bribe. The fabled Mozambican corrupt cops were nowhere to be seen. They were all charming and helpful.
The roadblock minutes after we entered Zimbabwe made us a bit paranoid – especially Carol, with a little help from our friend Maryjane. But the policeman who checked my paperwork (I couldn’t find some of it) put his white teeth on display.
He couldn’t believe his luck; he had been to Joburg recently and really liked it. Wanted to tell me about all the places he’d been. We said goodbye like old friends.
In Malawi the police roadblocks are sponsored by companies; brought to you by Mister Cement and even Carlsberg lager. We only saw one boom across a road that didn’t have company branding on it.
Every policeman wants to know where we came from and where we’re going. They’re very proud of us when we greet and thank them in Chichewa, and give us language lessons along the way. A cop outside Nkhata Bay insisted that Julia’s father had come past a few minutes earlier in his silver Landcruiser. Mike was not amused.
In Tanzania they also want to know where we’re coming from and where we’re going. They’re a little more stern here, especially the one who gave me the fine. So far Carol’s the only one was hasn’t been fined for speeding. The rest of us have all been caught going at exactly 75km/hour in a 50km zone. The fines have all been around R100, a slap on the wrist considering how fast we had been speeding (or not!).
The Tanzanian policemen who stop us regularly are mostly curious, our paperwork isn’t scrutinised much. There are many unmanned roadblocks set up with an oil drum in the middle of the road and poles blocking one lane, but they seem to target trucks mostly. We smile and wave when we slow down and dodge them. Smile and wave.


The food in Mozambique was expensive, in Zimbabwe the prices were ludicrous and restaurants were in short supply wherever we went. Except for the high-end pricey establishments, good food was hard to find in the first three months of our journey. In Malawi fresh produce was scarce.
No problem, name a dish and we could make it. We ate soft on our journey.
Ponta: moskos, as best described by Julia. Prawns and chips, burgers and chips, ribs and chips, fish and chips, bunny chow and chips. Washed down with R&R. Everything was expensive – around R150 per person for a mediocre meal.
We cooked a meal for the first time (we had braaied at Mabibi before our fridge went on the blink and we had to give our food away). I made beans curry on the night Mike and Carol arrived at Ponta and Jules made roti. Best thing about Ponta was the pao (bread) made at the town’s bakery. People queued for it and it was worth waiting for. Best eaten warm, with butter. No fresh milk.
Maputo: as we drove to our guesthouse I spotted the Woolworths and lo and behold, it was just around the corner from our destination on Avenide Vladimir Lenin. He was bourgeois, he would have approved. It had everything you expected from Woolworths and Mozambican pao as well. Except for fresh milk. Didn’t eat Mozambican food in Maputo – taken out for dinner by our local friends to an Italian and a Thai restaurant. The periperi chicken sold on the side of the road looked yummy, and there was sugarcane juice, which I had loved in Egypt.
Jay’s beach camp: Woolworths steak, braaied to perfection on a fire built with dodgy wood that only made ash, not coal. Leftover steak with Ondie’s chickpea salad. Leftover steak with leftover steak. We never finished that steak. It had been a while since we had red meat – last time was Mabibi, when we had braaied chops.

Our braai stand is the best invention, ever

Xai Xai: the shocking realisation that there are no establishments that cater for the bourgeois urban types. Nothing wrong with an fried egg roll with unasked for tomato sauce when you’re hungry.
Maxixe: surprisingly good grilled chicken and chips.
Vilankulos: I saw meat in a freezer that was grey. Bent down to take a closer look and discovered that every variety was the same colour – beef, lamb and pork. No chicken in the freezer, those you buy on the side of the road, even on the national road where a leg is tied to a stake. No wire cages, that’s good. But I don’t think I have it in me to kill and pluck a chicken. Kill maybe, pluck – no bloody way. No fresh milk, but there was very nice yoghurt. Very little fruit besides bananas. The market was a municipal concrete shed, piled high and reeking of dried fish. There were nice tomatoes and what looked like hellfire hot chillies. I was too scared to touch them. A warren of wood and iron stalls surrounded the shed, selling everything we didn’t need. I tried to choose Mozambican cloth, but I was put off by our backpacker neighbours. They wore loose-fitting trousers made of the cloth Mozambican women draped around their elegant waists. The restaurant at Baobab Beach finally agreed to serve me plates of prawns – hold the chips and the salad. They had no lemon, but we had come prepared with our own.

Middle of nowhere? No stress for the camp cook

CHIMOIO: Julia and I rushed into the Shoprite when we spotted its flags outside a proper mall. It had cheese, milk, yoghurt, vegetables – peas even! - and a variety of South African biscuits. We left laden with shopping bags. Who would have thought that we could ever be excited at the sight of a mall, and a Shoprite nogal? Fresh milk, but we stocked up on long-life milk, there's nothing worse than Cremora in excellent coffee. There's excellent coffee everywhere.
MUTARE: Tragic.
SENGA BAY: Their roast chicken was billed as a “veritable roadrunner” on the menu. Despite Mike’s goading, Jules and I couldn’t bring ourselves to order it. I finally get the “chicken crossing the road” joke. Or, at least, it would be funny if it weren’t so damn irritating. Thousands of chickens we’ve encountered have one working brain cell which urges them to wait on the side of the road until our fat, heavy tyres are almost upon them before they streak across the road, feathers flying in our slipstream. Several have gone under our car, but I doubt we’ve killed one yet. We’d smell it after a day or three. The fowl with flocks of fluffy chicks coach their youngsters assiduously: they herd them onto the verge, wait until our dust casts a thick film over their teeny eyes before shoving their beaks into their bums and pushing them into the path of our big red car. Veritable stupids, I say.

Mike and his veritable friends


Mr Jealousy Mawarire


Tuesday, June 18, 2013



4 June

Walking amidst trees, both in Zim and here in Luwawa, Malawi, is a different experience when in the company of Ntengo Mzangas – Carol and Mike, the Tree Friends.
This is because the genus and classifications of things treey are unknown to me and Rehana, and we know only the broadest categories: plantuswelikus, which is pretty much everywhere you look, and an occasional watchoutesia, which usually have claw-like thorns that seem to stretch out in an effort to snag you as you pass.
But with our Ntengo Mzangas with us, we learn a thing or two about the details of the Masaasa Woodland trees, which favour high-lying areas and this part of Africa. Masaasa is all awash with sashaying numbers of brakesteejeeah, with their thin brown pods that explode at a certain time of year with a KA-RRACK atop their canopy.
You get the ordinary ones and Prince of Wales (yes, I’m afraid so) feathery-leaved ones, or micro-leafed ones. Now and then the leaves on the end of a slender branch stands out vivid red, lemon, orange, as if a painted fingernail. The branches are dappled with lichenincredibilous of an ivory-grey tinge and drip with old man’s beard.

Splashes of glamour in the woodland wonderland


When walking with Ntengo Mzanga Carol, one is apt to hear from some way behind – she does meander just so – first a gasp, and then an excited, “Mike, Mike, you won’t BELIEVE what I just found, just look, LOOK!”
We all gather around on tenterhooks. Carol is gawping at a small brown seed pod thing.
“From the combreetum,” she beams, “One of my favourites. Just look at these amazing four-winged pods, and so so lovely to hold.” 
You look closer, and see that it not so much a plain brown as dusky pink. Looking more closely now at the ground around, you also see that there are golden ones littered about, which have fallen down and dried.
Then there are the unlikely magobogobo – which get their name from the sound the dry fallen leaves make when you step on them (pronounce it with a hearty Scottish-Boer gggg sound) - with their buffonfatcurly leaves big in relation to the stick-branches they’re attached to only around the top of their small, branchless trunks, with little brown fruit-clusters.
There’s the big canopy-spreading Luckybean (or more properly, erathriner) – big spreading trees with sprays of flowers unusually dark red in these parts (as you know). And the Cabbage tree. And then dotted all about, stalky flowers like floppy-orange Lion’s ear (Leonardis leanorumii) and Ever Lastings (I keep calling them Forever Afters as if by stubborn mistake).

After lastings, or whatever

Ahead, from where Ntengo Mzanga Mike has ambled off, I hear a soft grunt and go off to see what he’s peering at among the grasses beneath the trees. It’s a fairytaleperfect redcappedmushroom, although its white dots are raised as if braille. “Not exactly sure, but some kind of spongeymumblemumble [I didn’t quite catch the name]. 
Probably urban legend, but the story goes that Viking men used to feed these mushrooms to their women, who would then ingest and digest all the very horrible toxins, and then the men would drink their women’s pee, which would give them the wonderful high without all the side effects.

Safe when passed through a bladder

I catch up to where Rehana’s waiting along the red dust path gazing into the middle distance through the masaasa woodlands to where she’d be able to see the edge of the plateau if it weren’t for all the trees.
Ntengo Mzanga Carol meambles with Mike. She says, “You know Mike I was just reading Mike, Mike, Mike – ooh, yes, I see, look at that dwarf dispebiggeldysplig [missed that name], amaaazing - about this local butterfly, one of the mereamumblemumble [missed that one too] that lays its larvae in Old Men’s Balls so that, when they become butterflies, they’re poisonous and predators avoid them. They’re so successful that other butterflies have started to adopt their colouring – you know, the lemon yellow with tiny white dots and black edges around the wings…”.



10 June 2013

A tall, spreading fig tree soars up above our lakeside veranda and stone-built rooms at Njaya Lodge in Nkhata Bay, its roots entwined in large boulders lapped by the water. The tree has yellow bark, big leaves, and drops thorn-like pointed caps onto our veranda.
One of the lower branches is a favoured perch of a kingfisher. We heard it before we saw it – a repetitive raucous cry, increasing in tempo to a trilling call. We all looked up, to see the peering of a top-heavy head and beak and ragged hairstyle. 
As it flew we saw its spotted body and rufous belly – the markings of a female giant kingfisher. This morning we heard a chorus of calls, indicating a pair of the kingfishers.
When we went by boat to a neighbouring bay we also saw about five or six pied kingfishers, hovering above the water. Julia took photos of the fish eagles!

The first birds to welcome us to our new abode were our regular companions, the pied wagtails. A pair of them hop along our veranda and swoop to the adjacent rocks in the water, calling out a high-pitched tchee sound. We have met wagtails at every camp we have been to, inquisitive and friendly.
Before sunrise we heard a mournful mewing cry – a trumpeter hornbill?
The stone walls and rocks are sun spots for dozens of blue-tailed lizards, just like we used to admire in the Sabi valley when we were kids. They are eye-catching, but elusive camera subjects.
The best swimming is below our veranda, the water lapping around the tumbled rocks. We clamber under the veranda railings, lower ourselves down and step across the rocks to swim in the clear water. Mike was surveying the scenery when his eyes alighted on a huge leguaan, dark brown and yellow, sunning itself on our rocks below the fig tree, two metres from where we were standing.

A couple of days later as Mike was coming down the stone stairs to our room he startled a young leguaan. The sinuous creature hurtled down the rough steps before him, through the narrow archway and onto our veranda. Mike called out a warning as it slithered in terror across the smooth surface of the veranda and hurled itself into the darkened cavern of our room. 
Perched on a bed, I was just as terrified, and shrieked as the leguaan scuttled around our room, beneath the beds and around the walls, before hesitating near the bright sunlight of the open door and throwing itself out. It slithered across the short width of the veranda and leapt onto the rocks below.
We now see that at least two slim young leguaans actually live in a crack in the stone walls of our villa, just below the roof! (In fact, they live directly above Julia and Rehana’s room!)


Easy to see why we got so stuck here


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

We had our first holiday on our holiday at Njaya Lodge in Nkhata Bay. We left the icy mountain for tropical lakeside bliss, taking five hours to travel 130km – the final descent to the lake was on a potholed, astoundingly beautiful tree-lined road. 
Luwawa's maasasa forest was astounding. We walked and we walked and we walked. People stopped and stared, then smiled when we greeted them in Chichewa. Jules took lessons from Kika, who worked at Fish Eagle Bay Lodge at Nkhotakota, and she’s teaching us. A group of four teenaged girls each gave us hugs after we greeted, pressing their soft cheeks against ours.
When the sun disappeared behind the forest at night, winter set in. The generous supply of firewood did little more than heat our legs to our knees. Our backs were frozen. Four layers of clothing were not enough. It was 10 degrees Celsius when we went to bed and must have been around 5 degrees at dawn.

The second night was worse than the first. My thermal underwear proved no protection for the ice that crept into the marrow of my hips and shoulders. I lay awake and wondered which of them would be the first to be replaced. 
On our last morning at Luwawa Lodge we drove our cars to the indigenous forest and pulled off on a narrow track leading off it. As we set off for our farewell walk an old man came to talk to Mike. He couldn’t understand why we were parking so that we could walk along the road. I laughed: we're doing it again, spending a lot of money to live like the poor for a few hours each day.

The drive down to the lake took us through the most spectacular landscape of mountains flanked with trees. Open stretches were dotted with towering outcroppings of steel grey and black granite. I could drive that road a million times and never tire of it.
The owner of Njaya Lodge at Nkhata Bay, Paul, didn’t want us to camp on his lawn, so he offered us cottages for the cost of a campsite. We chose two at the water’s edge; the lake lapped our stone wall. 
Mike and Carol were in the lake morning, noon and night. Jules and I ambled for three days to a beachside bar to watch cricket – South Africa/India, West Indies/Pakistan, England/Australia.
We ate at the lodge. Their food was a bit better than good, especially their peanut sauce and banana milkshakes. The pool was free and both Jules and I were on top form. We got soft and lazy. The toilet was a mere 31 uphill steps away. It was hard to decide when to leave, so we put off that decision for about six days, I think.
And then we stuck to our pattern and left a place where a sheet had us sweating in bed, for Nyika National Park where a sheet of ice coated our windscreens in the morning. 
We drove all day last Sunday, most of it on 160km of disgusting gravel road, up into a mountain plateau (didn’t know you got those, but I saw one with my own eyes.) 
Jules and I arrived first at Chelinda Lodge, drove past the campsite, downed the welcome drink Laurent offered, checked out the chalet and chose the easy option. We had a pyromaniac’s dream of a fireplace, built deep into our bedroom walls. The coals were hot enough the next morning to set a log ablaze in seconds. I fed it armfuls of dry pine logs.
Nyika National Park is beautiful, even in the middle of burning season. The protea and the rest of the fynbos are lovin’ it. I’m reading Darwin and, according to him, you find fynbos all the way to the tops of mountains in Ethiopia. 
I drove into the park and couldn’t take my eyes off the rutted and ruined road, so the next day I admired its purple, gold and yellow roadside grass for hours.

Burning season in the Nyika National Park

We toured the park the next day, and although we had cursed the hours on the 110km of corrugated road on our way in, we drove those damned roads the whole bloody day. Jules and I inadvertently found ourselves in Zambia, which couldn’t have been more than 20km from where we were staying. The road was so bad though, it took us more than an hour to get there.
I realised that we were in Zambia when the park official at the gate to which we had driven wasn’t wearing the same uniform as his colleague who had let us in on the other side.
“Are we in Zambia?” I asked.
“You’ve been in Zambia for some time,” he replied.
He offered to let us through the gate but didn’t know whether we needed a visa or a car import duty. So we took a few photos and decided to go back to Malawi, back up that awful road.

Zambia to the left, Malawi to the right

The drive out of the park was quite charming.  We spotted five elephant in the distance, and smartly cleared a tree that one of them had probably knocked into the road. The best part the drive was under a forest of indigenous trees, down a not-too-bad-in-most-places road.

And I’m sad to report that we had an accident. It was particularly bad for Big Red Car. A truck drove into it. It’s okay, just shaken. We’re okay, just shaken.
On the road descending to the lake from Nyika plateau, a container-bearing truck came around one of the many hairpin bends. He was on my side of the road and hadn’t left room for me. My only option to the left was to plunge off a steep cliff, so I hooted to warn him. He tried to swing away but his cab was already in the bend, and his tyres bashed into Big Red Car.
The bull bar absorbed the impact. It has been knocked a bit out of kilter. The front grill is buckled a bit and the bonnet lid’s a bit out of sync.
Minutes after the accident, we faced another Prometheus-like test. With shaking legs, I drove our bruised car up a brutal, rocky pass infested with narrow switchbacks to a campsite outside Livingstonia. I managed all except the last one, which was too tight for our big car. I had to stop. Put it in reverse. Take it back a bit without going over the edge. Brake again. Put it in first and pull away without sliding off the edge.
My legs were jelly when we reached the top and I rushed for the toilet.
I’ve hardly moved today. Mike climbed under the car this morning, loosened the bull bar’s bolts and readjusted it a bit. Jules and I, mostly Jules, washed off most of the thin red dust that coated everything. 
I am sitting at a table at Mushroom Farm campsite at the top of a mountain. The mission town Livingstonia is a 5km walk away but I didn’t have the strength today.
Below me are ridges of lesser and further-away mountain and hills, stretching north where Tanzania awaits. The lake down below is a sea of blue. I am high, high up.

High on a mountain


Sunday, 16 June 2013

We are leaving Malawi tomorrow. We’ve run out of places to visit and Tanzania’s less than 100km away. We are at FloJa Foundation just outside Ngara. It’s a preschool and a campsite run by a Dutch couple.
At Livingstonia we had a very visity time. There were two Germans driving a Landcruiser from Bavaria to Cape Town. There was Steve, the cyclist we had spotted coming up the pass from Nkhata Bay and again just before the truck collided with us.
Steve arrived, plonked himself down in one of our campchairs, introduced himself and spoke non-stop for three hours. That’s what cycling around the world on a bicycle does to you.
There was also a young English couple, Martin and Sophie. He was a bit supercilious, seemed he had been living in Uganda for a couple of months and thought he knew everything about Africa, even places he hadn’t been to.
Jules and I walked to Livingstonia, up steep slopes in the hot sun. We didn’t want to complain too much; we were constantly being overtaken by women and children carrying heavy sacks of maize on their heads. Carol saw a girl collapse on their walk to Livingstonia. There’s a maize mill at the top of the mountain. Donated by Irish Aid.
Livingstonia was way weird, exactly what you expect from a mission station. The mzungus who came to spread the word of God kept dying in large (by their standards) numbers. After they realised it was the mosquitos what was doing it to them, they moved to colder climes.

According to everyone, Dr Robert Laws built that town, named after the man who had inspired him. But I saw in the museum the cart hoked to locals to pull the mzungu up the mountain, and there were photos on display of one white stonemason and many black stone hewers. I hope those massive chunks were sourced somewhere nearby.
The edifices they built still stand today – a church that would not look out of place anywhere in Bonny Scotland and a hospital that performs surgery.
The university and the college are a little bit of a sad joke. Livingstonia University has only one faculty – of education – a tiny library and classrooms instead of lecture halls. The technical college is housed in a building where the missionaries taught artisan skills to the local population.

The huge church built at the top of a mountain

The college the missionaries built to educate the locals

A guide attached himself to us as we trudged up the mountain. Joshua is 27 and described himself as a “failure”. He has a newborn baby and is struggling to save money for a car mechanic course. He's poor, but he has huge hopes for himself and his family.
His baby is named Hope. Joshua said his wife had “failed to give birth”, so the baby was delivered by caesarian section at the Livingstonia Hospital.
He took us to his house after the tour of the town. He introduced us to his father, who had only one tooth left in his smiling, silent mouth, and his younger brother Thomas.  
Joshua went inside to fetch his baby. We waited outside. I could see into the lounge. There wasn’t a stick of furniture. On the unplastered wall was a picture of Jesus, his hands outstretched and a pulsing heart in his chest.
Joshua came out with his wife and Hope. We weren’t expecting Thema, who sat down gingerly on the cement stoep. She had only been discharged the day before. The baba was beautiful; as was every single baby we’ve stopped to stroke in Malawi. I understand why Madonna went so Gaga about Malawi’s children.

Joshua, Thema and Hope

In that small house, Joshua’s parents raised 12 children. His older brother had died recently of Aids, and Joshua was mad about it. He said Malawians believed that people who went to witchdoctors instead of hospitals killed themselves. 

Our last stop, the FloJa Foundation, is a melding of the names Floor and Jan, who moved here in 2010 and started a preschool for the local children. They have the most amazing garden, filled with everything we've been longing for – dhania, rocket, basil, several varieties of lettuce, mint, peppers, pawpaw, etc, etc. We’ve been picking and cooking and packing herbs for the road.
The lake’s been roaring all day, fat waves whipped up by the wind crashing onto the rocks. There’s a flock of seagulls here. I did a double-take when I saw them first, but the cawing is unmistakeable.
We’ve haven’t been walking much along the lake, or swimming. There’s a constant stream of people washing clothes, crockery or themselves.
We seem to be on the corner where the men bathe, quite naked. They always come down in groups, so bathing is a long, drawn-out affair. Naked boys cavort in the lake all day, the girls hide behind their cloths when they bath, even the young ones.

In the hot tub at FloJa

Final thoughts about Malawi:

* Even the worst apprentice builder in Cape Town could build brick houses better than those here. Someone needs to teach Malawians the importance of lintels. In their yards, piles of brick that have been delivered but not yet used melt into mud. Someone needs to tell them to add cement.

* Every few hundred meters there’s a sign advertising an aid agency’s good works. Every agency you can name is in Malawi. After farm aid the next big thing is gender development. Most Landcruisers in Malawi are driven by mzungus doing everything and paying for it.

* Then there’s the volunteers, who PAY large sums of money to come to Malawi to help. People set up development organisations to make money from earnest German, Dutch and American youngsters who dig boreholes and teach.

* Even though there’s more churches and mosques than development agencies, Malawi is awash with Christian missionaries. One fat ugly one (aren’t they all?) at Senga Bay was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a fixed-wing plane proclaiming that God is his propeller.

* Malawian drivers are bad, bad, bad. At worst, they drive on the white line but many favour driving on the wrong side of the road. They overtake on blind curves in chugging vehicles belching black smoke.

* There are bicycles everywhere but we spotted less than 10 women riding them. Steve the round-the-world cyclist was taken aback when I raised it with him. He only realised then that although he was in bicycle heaven – there are many, many more of them than cars on the road – he never saw a single woman rider. The women trudge everywhere with heavy loads on their heads and babies on their backs. Guess the gender development programmes aren’t working yet.

* Malawians are fantastic people, with great bodies. We spent most of our time in the country in the rural areas, and boy are these people fit – young and old. They are beautiful, especially their children. Their names aren't as quirky as I had hoped for, although I did meet a Writewell (Rightwell?) in Livingstonia. And Julia met a Blackson in Senga Bay.

* Their beggars beggar belief. They don’t ask, they demand. They shout. They hold out their hands, palms wide open. Give me money, give me dorrar, give me pen, give me biscuits, give me cake, give me food, give me ball, give me sweets, give me job, give me, give me, give.

* That lake! It has to be seen to be believed. Beware though, it’s hard to wrest your eyes away.