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