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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HITCHHIKING AROUND MALAWI – PART V

“We’ll see you at Mushroom Farm,” Paul said when he and the group left for Livingstonia that morning from Nkhata Bay.

After a few nights gigging at Mayoka Village where we had all been staying, Hope and I hit the road to reach the Mushroom Farm Eco Lodge, some 120 K’s north and about 1,450 meters above Lake Malawi. After breakfast we hiked down to the main area of Nkhata Bay in order to reach the police roadblock and hike towards Mzuzu. I was stopped by a few stall vendors that I had befriended who wished us well on our journey before we hit the market area where a truck was slowly trudging along. Behind it, was a bakkie driven by an Afrikaner.

“Mzuzu?” I asked, pointing up the hill.

He pulled over and we hopped in. “Where in Mzuzu do you need?” Desmond asked as he raced the vehicle past villages and heavily-fruited mango trees.

“The immigration office,” I said. A visa extension for my last 30 days in Malawi beckoned.

P1010625We were dropped off at the office, thanking Desmond, bidding him farewell. After the quickly applied extension, Hope and I hit the road where we hitched a ride with Benedict to Chilamba, the small village at the foot of the Chombwe Plateau and the road that leads up to Livingstonia.

It was 14:30 when we were dropped off and, unable to get a ride from the base, we decided to sit in the shade of a fruitless mango tree to await the sun to drop behind the mountain. By 16:00 I was too restless.

 

“Let’s head up,” I suggested.

And so began the 8-K hike up to the Mushroom Farm. My eyebrows were useless, sweat pouring down my forehead and into my eyes. Locals guided us up some shortcuts after we accomplished the steepest ascent (out of 22 bends). Although it saved us hiking the entire length of the road, some of the shortcuts were steep enough to make me wonder if they were actually shortening the cut.

I refused any assistance in carrying my bags from the locals or Hope. I saw this type of physical torture as not only satisfying in a sadistic kind of way but as training for my future hikes up Mt Meru, Mt Kenya, Mt Sinai, trekking the length of Israel on the Israel National Trek and, of course, the Himalayas somewhere in the next four years.

At bend number 7 we took what appeared to be a vertical wall as a shortcut. Just as we clambered onto the road I missed the last step. I felt myself going over the side. I threw my guitar as far over my back as my pack would allow and grabbed at air before my fingers wrapped around a rock as though it were a lifeline in the middle of an ocean.

Hope caught me out of the corner of her eye and came running to help me. I looked down at the vast tumble I had just avoided.

“Jesus,” I breathed heavily, pausing for a few minutes of gathering myself.

Around bend number 9 the sun had already extinguished all light. Not the best time to discover that my head lamp’s batteries had died. Just as we were taking the first steps of a shortcut steep enough to have you wondering why you didn’t pack climbing rope, a diesel engine echoed up the road. Hope hopped back down just as headlights appeared and managed to flag it down to a stop.

Jo, a volunteer midwife in Blantyre and her friend Em visiting from the UK, were on their way to the lodge, saving us the remaining 3-K uphill hike.

Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge is owned and operated by the American sibling duo of Cameron and Maddy. “During the rainy season this mountainside is covered with mushrooms,” I overheard Cameron explain to one of the guests where the name was derived from (Malawi is famous for its huge, dog-sized edible mushrooms, found only in this tiny African country).

The lodge itself has no running power, rather lanterns that operate on solar-charged batteries as are the lights in the rooms and chalets. The stars were out, spread across the clear night sky above us. Below, lights of fishing canoes dotted Africa’s 3rd largest fresh water lake. I wondered what kind of view would await us in the morning.

After dinner we chilled with our friends before retiring for bed, the 04:30 rising of the sun was on our itinerary.

***

04:30

DSC_0302The sun came up over Tanzania on the far shore, illuminating Lake Malawi as it gently washed onto long stretches of sandy beaches. A forest of green stretched from the shore all the way up to the Mushroom Farm and beyond.

I was watching the scene from the entrance of the dorm room. Take another four steps and I’d be standing on the edge of the cliff of which the Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge seemed to be hugging.

DSC_0430What appeared to be a 200-meter cliff-side drop (could be more, could be less) dropped beneath me to tiny villages waking to the morning. Noticing some hammocks strung up on the edge of the precipice, I strung up my Ticket to the Moon hammock by the cliff edge with the intent of sleeping under the stars that night.

 

DSC_0345

 

The day was spent hiking and exploring Manchewe Falls and gorging at Mr Banda’s restaurant. That evening Hope sang while I played guitar to the diners as they chowed on a sumptuous meal.

Later we sat in the fire pit, jamming on guitar with Major (a moustached member of the missionary group with one lone Canadian). Earlier in the day he may have quite possibly broken the world record for the longest flight of a paper airplane. Throwing his simple aeronautical design from the cliff-side we watched as it glided gently down just shy of the main road, some 10 K’s out and below us.

I called it a night as Hope and I were going to hike a 10-K roundtrip to the Chombwe Plateau. I carefully climbed into my hammock. I stared up at the stars, grinning in anticipation of the morning, knowing the view that would await me when the sun would show itself again at 04:30.

I just needed to remember not to get out on the wrong side of the hammock to avoid impersonating Homer J. Simpson tumbling down the cliff-side.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Malawi | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

CAPE MACLEAR

DSC_0574

© Hope Bowie, 2014

“You may camp in exchange for playing music,” Watson informed us upon our arrival at the Cape Maclear Eco Lodge with Kanthangu and his wife, Mbutchi (our couch surfing hosts from Blantyre).

Situated on a picturesque beach, I noticed the island that appeared to be a few hundred meters off-shore. 18 months before I had swam to an island in Indonesia with Baz, a hundred feet off Lombok snorkelling around it.

“That island is very far,” Watson indicated. “It is almost two kilometres.”

Hmm. “Think I’ll just swim around here,” I grinned.

Hope and I set up our campsite, stringing up my hammock between the trees. The heat begged for a dip. I hit the water, swimming out to the small taxi boat anchored off-shore. The boat was being used as a perch by cormorants and other lake birds I couldn’t identify. I dove under until I could see the hull and then, with my lungs screaming for air, I breached the water like a sperm whale and watched as the birds took flight, fearing the great hairy lake monster that had just snuck up on them.

The water at Cape Maclear is clear and the bottom is sand with underwater grass growing just up to the surface of the water. It’s like swimming through a forest canopy. The only drawback to this beautiful area was the amount of plastic I found in the water, close to the shoreline.

At sunset Kanthungo and Mbutchi joined us as we walked along the beach, sipping on beers, admiring the various resorts and discouraging all the local kids that would run up and say, “Gimme money,” hands stretched out.

I’d give them a piercing look which they brushed off with a repeat of their demand to which I would sternly say, “No,” and then proceed to lecture them on why it’s rude to demand money and why they shouldn’t perceive that every foriegner they encounter has money nor should they expect that every white person will give them money.

They looked at me blankly. “Gimme money,” they demanded, stretching out their little hands.

Even though it was Christmas, I bah-humbugged and refused to do any Christmas songs or have anything to do with one of the most commercialised and materialistic, paganistic holidays that the Coca Cola Company has helped push to the forefront of all holidays (the ‘Christmas Spirit’ that makes everyone so charitable and friendly should be daily, year-round and not just in December. Human nature. Go figure).

While playing, Watson presented us with two cold beers on the house. After the show, while Kanthungo and Mbutchi went out to a club, Hope and I chilled on the beach.

Sitting in the shadows has its perks. People walking along can’t see you. I used this to our advantage and began to make animal noises and watched with child-like delight as people jumped to the sounds (I’m easily entertained).

That night I crashed in the hammock while Hope took the tent. Enjoying the light breeze I promptly fell asleep.

Until I was awoken by a few heavy drops of rain.

Shit. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and surprised myself on how fast I managed to climb out of the hammock without flipping over or tearing apart the mosquito net. Hope, hearing the thunder, had quickly made space just as I crashed in as the clouds dropped their payload.

Bah humbug.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Malawi | 1 Comment

HITCHHIKING AROUND MALAWI – PART IV

It was four days before Christmas.

“It’ll be tough hitching on Christmas,” Hope mentioned. “Everyone will be celebrating with family so no one will be on the roads.”

Makes sense.

We had about 600 K’s to traverse and beat the supposed day of birth of a supposed savior. But first, why not start the day with an 8-K hike down a mountain? We had the upper hand of knowing where the shortcuts were. The underhand was that after 19 months of travel, I was finally caught out in torrential rains with all my gear. It turned most of the shortcuts into slippery mini waterfalls. The few cars that slowly ploughed their way down the mountain were filled to capacity (although capacity in Africa usually means a minimum of 47 people in a standard-sized car).

We kept trudging, slipping in the mud (but not falling) until we reached the main road five hours later. The torrential rain conveniently stopped when we reached the bottom of the mountain.

We were hoping to reach Nkhata Bay where a package from home was awaiting at the post office. My mother had sent me a new camera she wasn’t using, a bag of cookies and Animal 2.0 (my brother spent a week in Amsterdam and found the original Animal’s cousin). But it was already 15:00 when we reached the road in the town of Chilamba and the hike with all our gear had taken its toll. I spotted a Rasatafarian-themed roadside lodge called African Teachers Lodge.

“Would we be able to pitch a tent in exchange for playing some music?” I asked Rasta Elijah.

He grinned and welcomed us with open arms. “Not a problem, my brother. Jah bless ya.”

“Arie, brother,” I pounded his offered knuckles and tapped my chest.

We pitched our tent and I strung up my hammock between two papaya trees.

Hope and I jammed that night to an audience of three (really, it was a rehearsal on some new and old material). Rasta Elijah even provided us with a sumptuous dinner of rice and beans. Knackered from the day’s slippery hike, we attempted sleep in the hammock. A bright fluorescent light was strategically placed above our heads. Add the constant comings and goings of locals and we retreated to the heat of the sauna-like tent.

The next morning we arose early and headed to the lake for a morning dip. We hit the road only to stay around for a couple of hours. I was playing Cats in the Cradle with a local girl (and failing) when Fred stopped for us. He took us all the way to Mzuzu. He even went out of his way to drop us at Joy’s Place, a hostel that I had heard good things about.

“We just gave away our last room,” said Justin, the Irishman behind the counter willing to give us a room for a gig. “And we don’t have camping facilities. But,” he called his friend, Bernard, the new owner of Mzuzu Zoo Lodge to see if he had any room. “He does,” was the brightening response.

Thanking him, we headed out, flagging down a car that took us just shy of the lodge, saving us another grueling hike. We were granted a small room and later, some friends we had met at the Mushroom Farm – a German couple and Henry, a South African – arrived. We played a set for a room of six with a request of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ which I played as a country-styled\reggae number.

The next morning we got a ride with a local girl. She dropped us off at the main road and Hope and I began a 7-K hike heading towards the police roadblock where I was last assisted with a ride at the beginning of December.

IMG_6828The heat of the day was stifling to say the least. It was so hot you could cook eggs on the road. A pickup truck pulled over and offered us a ride to Nkhata Bay. At the above mentioned police roadblock, the same officer who had helped me the last time demanded to play one song on my guitar.

Reluctantly, I took ol’ Red out and he jammed a tune. It’s not that I mind anyone playing my guitar. I just really wanted to get to Nkhata Bay, pick up my package and set out on the 500 K’s to Blantyre.

After the jam and a speedy ride down the mountain, I left Hope with our bags at the police checkpoint leading to Nkhata Bay and hiked the 3 K’s to the post office. My package claimed and reunited with Animal 2.0, I hitched a ride back where the police pointed out a car that might help us.

“I’m only going about a hundred K’s to Dwanga,” offered the driver.

P1010071“That’s fine,” I said.

We hopped in the back where we chatted with a local guy who pointed out the rubber tree plantations along the road. We were dropped off in the centre of town so we hiked to the outskirts and stood by a billboard.

We sat on our bags as we attempted to hitch a ride. An elderly woman from the hut by the road approached us with a wooden bench (it made me wonder why locals will go out of their way to help a foreigner yet turn a blind eye to a fellow countryman. And not just in Africa, everywhere. Even in Oz.

Humans are weird).

After two hours in the sun I managed to flag down a truck that took us about a hundred K’s to Nkhotakhota where we were dropped off just before the Yanu Yanu Lodge. It was already getting dark so we figured to try and barter for a bed.

“We will assist you,” offered Liam, the owner of Yanu Yanu, “but you don’t have to play music.” It was almost as though he was afraid of the devil’s rock ‘n’ roll we’d emit. Most of the evening Hope and I battled against the crickets that demanded to share our room and bed, regardless of the mosquito net.

The next morning I was determined to make it to Blantyre by the end of the day. We hiked about 2 K’s to get out of town and I flagged down a bakkie.

“Where are you going?” I asked the driver.

“Blantyre,” he answered.

I looked in the backseat filled with bags and sacks of potatoes. The back was full of charcoal.

“Er, that’s where we need to go but I don’t think you have room,” I said.

“No, we don’t.”

“So, er, thanks for stopping and happy holidays,” I said watching a potential ride zip by.

Merde.

Using the strategy of walking with our gear to appear slightly pathetic, a car full of Indians pulled over.

“Salima,” the driver answered my query. After the usual explanation of our moneyless ways, his Indian boss told us to hop on. Halfway down the road they pulled over.

“Breakfast,” they said. “We made curry.”

They handed us plates and home-made na’an bread that we dipped into the most delicious chickpea curry I have ever introduced my taste buds to. As we continued to Salima we got caught in the rain. At the intersection that leads the 300 K’s to Blantyre from Salima we were dropped off.

It didn’t look promising. Locals were pestering, bike taxi riders stood staring at us, distortion blared from local bars, continuous beeping horns attempted to attract passengers.

“We need beer,” Hope suggested.P1010074

And after retrieving two cold brewskies from the nearby local bar we decided to hike out of Salima and wait on the outskirts near the villages. For the next three hours we baked in the sun, got distracted by colourful grasshoppers, pretend-chasing local village kids that came up and demanded money until finally, a UNICEF pickup pulled over.

“Where are you going?” I smiled into the cabin.

“Blantyre,” grinned Simon, the driver.

After explaining our penniless ways and throwing in, “It being Christmas and all,” we were granted passage.

Three hours later, passing through remote villages, alongside majestic green mountain ranges that seemed to grow higher with every passing kilometre, just as another onset of monsoon rains descended on us, we finally reached Blantyre, lightning flashing across the sky, thunder rumbling until it cracked, like a stomach preparing its bearer for a massive burp. And it was here that Kanthungo, our couhsurfing host picked us up from the service station we were dropped at.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked him as he drove us home.

“Well,” he began, “I was thinking of going to Cape Maclear with my wife and friends but my friends don’t want to go so,” he looked at us, “do you want to go to Cape Maclear for two days?”

“Hope?” I threw it to her.

“Sure.”

“Let’s go to Cape Maclear,” I grinned.

Even though it was closer to where we had started the day from, we’d be riding in style with a playlist I’d devise, sandwiches and dip that Hope and I would make and hopefully be able to barter a bed in exchange for a gig.

It being Christmas and all.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Malawi | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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