Monthly Archives: February 2015

HITCH HIKING AROUND MALAWI – PART VII

“You have no money?” the driver looked at me in confusion as five angry ‘transport officers’ crowded around his window behind me, yelling as I attempted to explain my travel method, my patience about to take a detour.

Eight hours before Hope and I had been waiting on the outskirts of Blantyre to hitch a ride to Senga Bay, near the main town of Salima. We were going to spend Hope’s last few days in Malawi by the lake, kickin’ back and chillin’ after a few weeks of climbing mountains.

After we had hiked 3 K’s out of the city from where our couchsurfing host, Kanthangu, had dropped us off, Oliver, wearing a cowboy hat, pulled over. Together with his front-seat passenger, Gertrude, he took us to Zalowe, halfway to Lilongwe.

“I can drop you where you can take a bus,” he said.

“We don’t use buses,” Hope said.

“OK,” he said as he pulled into the bus stand.

Lost in translation, we hiked 2 K’s in the searing heat to the turnoff that leads to Malawi’s capital as Oliver sped past, beeping and waving at us.

Merde.

We had waited about an hour and indulged ourselves with a cold beer outside of the Kilimanjaro Lodge when Sebastian and George pulled over.

“No money?” Sebastian repeated what I had said.

“We play music for food and bed and ask good people to help us on the road,” I pitched him my usual spiel. He cracked up laughing as he popped the boot.

“OK, let’s go,” he chuckled. “You’re a funny guy.”

They dropped us off at the turnoff to Salima on the M5. It was about 14:00, hot and the road was completely empty save for the few mini-buses that tried to take us as we waved them off. After a half-hour of waiting, a lone truck appeared and pulled over.

“Let’s go,” the driver chuckled (his name escapes me but, “It means, ‘money’,” he had said), opening the back for our packs.

“How far is it to Senga Bay from Salima?” Hope asked him.

“Six kilometres,” he replied.

“Sweet,” I grinned, turning to Hope, “We could walk that – worst case.”

“We could,” she responded. “Worst case.”

Last thing either of us wanted to do was hike six K’s with all our gear.

146 kilometres later we pulled into Salima. Money had barely brought the truck to a complete stop when some young guys started to sprint across the street towards us.

“Here we go,” I muttered, mentally preparing to decline these ‘transport officers’ that were part of the scene of busy pick-up points.

Self-titled, ‘transportation officers’ are usually drunk, high or just plain annoying – hassling everyone waiting by the road for a ride, pretending they are responsible for filling up waiting vehicles with passengers – a hitcher’s worst nightmare.

This one kid, who had a face that instantly pissed me off, tried to grab our bags.

“Back off, buddy,” I said, grabbing back my pack. I hate being crowded and jostled and I was losing patience quickly after the long day on the roads.

“We don’t have any money,” Hope explained.

As we tried to shake off the guys and walk down the road, the piss-me-off faced kid pointed to a truck being loaded with people.

“It’s OK, you go with him,” he said.

“For free?” I asked.

“Yes, no problem,” he grinned. We loaded into the back and sat waiting, chatting with John, a fellow passenger.

“You should confirm with the driver,” Hope suggested after I had repeatedly asked the piss-me-off kid to make sure the driver knew we were penniless. I hopped out and approached the guy behind the wheel.

“You have no money?” the driver looked at me in confusion while I calmly explained our travel method.

Five angry ‘transport officers’ were screaming at him in Chichewa. One of them was getting into my personal space and screaming into my ear, expecting his words to go through my head to reach the driver.

I was dangerously close to eruption. I don’t anger easy, especially to a point where violence plays a satisfying scenario (in my head. I hate violence) but sometimes, after a long, hot fuckin’ day, sometimes, someone just needs an elbow in the face.

Keeping it together, I whipped around and yelled out, “Back up!” for fuck’s sake. I turned back to the driver. “Look, if you can help, that’d be great. If it’s a ‘no’, that’s fine too. We’ll get off and find another ride.”

The sun was setting and we still had the six K’s to hike – worst case – if we couldn’t get a ride. The driver sat there pondering, all the while screaming echoing around. I looked to Hope.

“They’re saying you lied to him,” she said from the back, getting her translation from John.

I looked around, getting heated on top of what felt to be 45 degrees – in the fuckin’ shade.

“Let’s just get off,” Hope called, barely audible over the rising tension. We grabbed our packs and began to hike away.

Salima is a town in a flat pan of land just off of Lake Malawi. The main mode of transport are bicycle taxis. Two-wheeled, old, rusty, painted up, painted down, mirrors, handle bars on top of handle bars bikes were peddling by, some with passengers-some without, clogging up the road – an African Amsterdam.

We had assumed that this was the worst case as we began to hike away from the noise and the anger. I was fuming. That sonofabitch asshole of a kid calling me a liar. Boy, I outta –

“Where are you going?” asked the bald African with a huge, toothy grin from inside a single cabin bakkie packed with eight people.

“Senga Bay,” I said. “But we have no money.”

“It’s OK,” he continued to grin. “Let’s go.”

We thanked him and piled in the back, holding on as the driver kept stopping to pick up people.

“There’s no way he can fit more people,” I said to Hope after I counted 15.

We chugged along, escorting the setting sun dropping over the green fields. We had been riding for about ten minutes when I realised that we should have already arrived if Senga Bay were only six K’s away.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Hope said, “I found out. It’s 20 K’s.”

“It’s what?” It sounded like she said it was,

“20 K’s.”

Jesus.

I turned to the wind while a total of 21 people squeezed into the car.

“Where in Senga Bay do you need?” the driver asked when we arrived in the main part of town.

“We don’t know,” Hope said as we grabbed our bags, thanking him and wishing him a happy New Year.

That’s when Tosh appeared and escorted us to Murfasa’s backpackers. It sat on the shore of Lake Malawi. Reception was the bar. I explained our travel mode and offered to, “Play some music for you tonight. Hope sings and has an amazing voice.”

Two guys were sitting and drinking around the bar. One, an Indian and the other sounding South African. The Indian was checking my website on his smartphone to see if I was legit, the Afrikaans was encouraging the bartender to say, ‘Yes’.

“I have to ask my boss,” the bartender said.

P1010482He went around the bar while Hope and I took in the small garden that surrounded the beachfront lodge. The water was calling and I urgently needed a dip to wash away the day’s frustrations.

Hellington came back. “So this man here,” he indicated to the Afrikaans, “said that he will pay for your stay, food and drinks.”

It astounds me every time this happens. I’ll get a few ‘no’s’ every now and again but most of the time it’s a ‘yes’ but when complete strangers offer to pay from their own pocket – which is never my intention – I get a clichéd re-strengthening that the human race might still make it.

“We can’t thank you enough,” Hope said as we shook hands and introduced ourselves to Leon and Mahir.

Hellington showed us to a dorm room in the back where we grabbed the beds by the window. Not for the picturesque view of the lake but for the overhead ceiling fan. As Hope untangled the blue mosquito net, I slipped into my swimmers and, counting about ten steps, hit the water while Hope put together a playlist for the evening.

It was knee-deep for about fifty meters before I could dive in for a bit of submerged meditation. After showering we sat with Leon and Mahir and ordered dinner.

I tuned ol’ Red, managing to reuse the E-string that had snapped in Zomba and opened with Bob Marley’s, Jammin.

“You sing the rest,” I whispered to Hope. “Not feeling it.”

Our second song was Michael Jackson’s, Dirty Diana which Hope belted out. As soon as she sang the first words a resounding applause erupted around the bar. Either they were happy I wasn’t continuing with the singing or they were really blown away by Hope’s talent. Unlike myself, she actually has a voice that sounds amazing.

Halfway through the set our food arrived.

“We’re gonna take a break,” I announced to the ten people that had filled Murfasa’s bar, cheering us on for more. Hope and I shared a plate of beef kebab and beef curry – both with fries – and sipped on Special Brew while conversing with our new friends and benefactors. We finished the set after dinner. Leon and Mahir had to leave and Hope and I sat on the beach while Hellington closed the bar.

“What a day,” I said as we watched the lightening of an incoming storm that had brewed up somewhere in Mozambique. “What a fuckin’ day.”

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HITCH HIKING AROUND MALAWI – PART VI

P1010172“Here’s an idea,” I suggested to Hope. “How about we spend New Year’s Eve up on the Zomba Plateau?”

Sure, we had just climbed up and down 2,699 meters of Malawi’s tallest mountain (see here). Indeed, the highest mountain in southern Africa. The last thing Hope wanted was to climb another rock.

“OK, but if there’s a road going up, we’re hitching,” she demanded. I agreed to the compromise.

 

Zomba (quite possibly the coolest name for a town) is about 200 K’s north-west of Mulanji. As we began to hike down the road through Likublu village to reach the town of Mulanji, an old man showed us a shortcut.

“It will take five kilometres off,” he said. We shrugged and joined his escort. “This is where I live,” he pointed to the brick house as we waved at his sons who waved back. He then continued with us to the road, a further 3 K’s down the track and the old man, bidding us a safe journey turned and hiked back to his home.

“What a guy,” I commented as Hope and I began to trek along the dirt road, trying to avoid getting hit by the numerous bike riders. It was like an African Amsterdam. A car came up behind us and I managed to flag it down, taking us into Mulanji town.

The best spots for hitch-hiking are a little bit out of town. Luckily, Mulanji is tiny habitat which we crossed within five minutes. Thirty minutes later, a car had pulled over for us.

“No money?” the driver gave us the look I was accustomed to when explaining of my penniless ways. “OK, let’s go,” he said with a smile.

He took us to Limbe, a large extension of Blantyre’s east side from where we hitched north to Zomba.

We had barely arrived at the T-junction when Peter and Chico pulled over.

“Get in, Rasta mun,” said the dreadlocked driver. “I’m visiting my grandmother in Twange village. It’s half way to Zomba.”

Before we had had a chance to buckle in we were offered cold beers.

“Well, how does one resist such an offer?” I grinned.

We chatted amiably and decided to try to make a plan for New Year’s Eve. Peter stopped in his grandmother’s village where he bought some vegetables including cucumbers that were offered to us as breakfast. He then continued and went out of his way to take us to Zomba, dropping us off at the Shoprite supermarket.

Thanking him he gave his number and agreed to try and meet up later.

“He just gave me a thousand Kwacha,” Hope told me as they pulled away. “I know it’s probably against your principles,” she said apologetically.

She’s right. It does go against the bartering ways. Sometimes I get offered money when people don’t fully understand my bartering system. I always decline but on occasion they force it into my hand and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

“Think of it as beer money,” she said, instantly redeeming herself.

While Hope went to spend the gifted money, I waited outside with our bags, conversing with a young lad of 14.

P1010448“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Peter,” he said.

“Ha!” I grinned and explained how our driver was also Peter. Peter the boy volunteered to show us where the lodges were located. I stressed the point that no payment would be coming his way.

“I don’t like money,” he said proudly.

Maybe my bartering ways were catching on.

He led us through the golf course up to several lodges, all of who declined our musical offer. “We don’t have any guests,” was the repeated excuse. “Everybody goes to the lake for New Year’s and Christmas.”

It was a cloudy grey day and it appeared that we might have to camp in the botanical gardens which appeared to be maintained by baboons.

I hate baboons.

As we hobbled around on sore calf muscles from the previous day’s mountainous climb of Mulanji, we came across Pakachere Backpackers. A relatively new lodge we walked in, greeted by a huge open-spaced garden dotted with mango trees. Reception was formerly the garage where I bartered with Isaac who offered us a night.

The room we were provided with was large with a closet large enough to teach a class in. The beds had mosquito nets and the shared bathroom and toilet where conveniently close by. The upstairs rec-room had a book exchange area, board games, a long dining table and a small souvenir shop in the corner.

The staff, as is custom in Africa, are genuinely friendly and happy to teach you how to play Bao while kicking your ass at it.

That night went by peacefully, a well-earned sleep on a soft mattress lead us to the morning.

***

We spent the majority of the day in the gazebo-like hut in the garden, playing Bao (Hope kicked my ass) and munching on our leftover food. We had texted Peter (the driver, not the 14-year-old boy) and he had replied that he was coming to pick us up. I looked towards the ceiling as one does for no apparent reason and that’s when I saw it.

“Holy shit,” I exclaimed.P1010452

Hope raised her head to observe the black arachnid that looked like the classic spider portrayed in all books except this one had a white line across the width of the top of her abdomen. The bottom had eight white dots in two parallel rows of four and a red centre on the bottom of her cephalothorax (prosoma). Its web took up half of the space between the ground and the ceiling of the hut.

“You saw the web? It’s very big,” explained Isaac when I asked him about it. “It traps birds in it and eats them. The venom isn’t enough to kill you but it’s not a friendly spider.”

Hmm. Coming from Australia, I take pride in knowing what animals can kill me and what can’t. I had never in my life seen a spider like the one I was staring at (at time of publishing, I am yet to discover what species it is).

By 15:30, almost five hours since Peter had promised to collect us, we decided that we needed to outline and find somewhere to barter for the night as the plans to camp on the plateau were washed away with pounding rains that weren’t letting up anytime soon.

We had two more lodges to try – Peter’s Lodge (who declined our offer) and Domino’s Bar and Restaurant that belonged to Domino’s Lodge.

“Do you do live music?” I asked Jacque, the Dutch manager.

“Yes, tonight we have a DJ for the New Year’s Eve party,” he said.

“Do you need a warm-up act?”

“Yes, do you know of any?”

I grinned at Hope. “Just so happens we’re you’re warm-up act.”

“OK,” Jacque looked us over.

“We only ask for food and bed,” I said. “Maybe some drinks?”

“Sure. You can play for an hour,” Jacque offered. He then looked us over. “You probably need accommodation, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “We’ve tried every lodge but they don’t have enough guests for us to play for.”

“We were thinking of camping in the botanical gardens,” Hope added.

“Oh no, that’s a dangerous place at night,” Jacque said. “You can have a room at the lodge but it’s 3-4 K’s away,” he offered, adding the fact that we’d have to find our own way up there since it was, “Uphill.”

“No,” said Hope. “No uphill.”

DSC_0188“Or you can camp here,” he showed us the space under the balcony. “Just be warned the balcony floor is not sealed so you might get beer spilt on you.”

“Can your rain fly take beer spillage?” I asked Hope.

“Sure.”

“Jacque, thanks so much,” we shook hands vigorously. “We’ll set up the tent, put a playlist together and perform at around seven.” He was about to walk off. “Er, how many drinks are we allowed?” I asked.

“Depends how much you drink,” Jacque eyed me.

“I am Australian,” I grinned. “It’s our national sport.”

“I’ll let the kitchen and bar know.”

As soon as the tent was pitched we introduced ourselves to the kid behind the braai.

“Peter,” he said.

“Is it a popular name around here?” I asked. “Cause you’re the third Peter we’ve met in three days.”

We headed to the bar where Patrick, the bartender, gave us Carlsberg’s Special Brew. Dinner was a Vangazza pizza and a burger that we shared. Working on a playlist, we had to shoo away the kids that wanted to listen.

“We’re playing at seven. You can hear us then.”

At seven we opened with Bob Marley’s, Jammin. Hope had volunteered to sing all the songs as she could tell I wasn’t feeling it vocally. It was loud and the crowd wasn’t quite grabbed by our rendition (proof provided by the single guy who applauded). But then we went into Michael Jackson’s, Dirty Diana which started to grab some ears. By the time we did Marvin Gaye’s, Heard it Through the Grapevine we had the house.

And I had snapped the bottom E-string on ol’ Red.

“Shit,” I said to Hope. “Keep singing. I can play without the E.”

Had the G-string snapped, well, we’d be in a whole different arena then, lemme tell ya.

Especially, since I don’t wear G-strings (there’s a spoiler).

We ended our set with Adelle’s, Rolling in the Deep which had the crowd screaming and applauding as Hope hit the high notes, somewhere in the land of I’ll-never-be-able-to-reach-that-pitch. We thanked our audience – the best we’ve had on what seems to have been a musical tour of Malawi – who demanded one more song. But the DJ’s had already opened their set and besides, we had just finished on a high – and not just Hope’s vocals.

After the show we were hunted down just to have our hands shaken as we drank and wished a happy New Year to all. The party went on until the sun came up. Stamping and dancing, the last song was the national anthem. Turns out, Malawi has one of the less depressing anthems I’ve ever heard. In fact, the crowd was stomping heavily.

Welcome 2015.

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LION ABOUT IN ZAMBIA

A few months overdue but that’s how it works in the publication world. My piece on Zambia’s ALERT lion conservation program from when I volunteered back in September, 2014. Thanks to Current Conservation magazine for the platform:

http://www.currentconservation.org/?q=content/lion-about-livingstone

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