Malawi Country Summary

A detailed view of our 3 weeks in Malawi (October 7-30, 2010). Don’t forget to also check out our Malawi photo diaries.

Monkey Bay
Lilongwe
Luwawa Forest Lodge
Mzuzu
Journey to Ruarwe
Ruarwe
Journey to Chizumulu
Chizumulu Island
Nkhata Bay
Rhumpi
Nyika National Park
Chitimba


7 - 8 October 2010: Monkey Bay, Malawi

See a few pictures of our first day in Malawi in our “Malawi Mishmash” photo diary.

Getting there: A bumpy 2.5 hour (though it seemed much longer) drive on dirt roads took us from Cuamba to the Mozambican border town of Mandimba. The border formalities took about an hour and the staff was friendly and professional on both the Mozambican and Malawi sides. TianMa’s big reward for surviving 1652 miles in Mozambique was a smooth, nicely-paved 70-mile scenic ride from the border to Monkey Bay, on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Accommodation: The pleasant but touristy, and not particularly well-run, beachside camp “Venice Beach” in Monkey Bay, where we met fellow travelers from Switzerland and Germany.

Random tips for travelers: Fill up on gas in Mandimba since fuel is much more expensive on the Malawi side of the border.

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: Our first impressions of Malawi were that it’s crowded with both people and way too many touristy lodges along the lake. We initially tried to get to the popular destination town of Cape Maclear but the last 10 miles to get there from Monkey Bay were so badly corrugated that it felt like TianMa’s wheels would fall off. So we turned back after less than two miles to go back on the nice asphalt to Monkey Bay. The most exciting part of the day was driving the last 1km on soft beach sand to get to our camp (amazing we didn’t get stuck). back to top

8 - 10 October 2010: Lilongwe, Malawi

See a few pictures of our days in Lilongwe in our “Malawi Mishmash” photo diary.

Getting there: Got up early and once again successfully drove through the deep sand around “Venice Beach” to reach the nice, paved road to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. A few police stops en route, but no issues at all other than having to give up one of our water bottles to a thirsty officer.

Accommodation: A perfectly decent campground in the middle of town is the city’s Country Club. We parked TianMa on a grassy patch in full view of Malawi’s elite as they played tennis, golfed, swam and relaxed in the clubhouse after enjoying high-society leisure. We even witnessed two big weddings on the premises over the weekend. So we basically classed the joint down with our tattered clothes and dirty car but hey, we had the money to pay, so everyone looked the other way.

Random tips for travelers: If you need car work, we had a good experience with the mechanics at “4×4 World”

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: Lilongwe is actually more of a town than a city and really quite decent as far as developing country capital cities go. The traffic is a mess but other than that things are organized, easy to find, it’s quiet, people are friendly, and it feels safe. The country club was a good base from which to run errands that require an urban setting (which was really the only reason we visited Lilongwe in the first place): grocery and other shopping, Internet work, oil change, stocking up on electric tape… The only issue was the ongoing oppressive heat – it’s going to be a long month :-( back to top

10 - 12 October 2010: Luwawa Forest Lodge, Malawi

See a few pictures of the horrible roads by Luwawa in our “Malawi Mishmash” photo diary.

Getting there: An easy 3 hour drive on paved highways from Lilongwe until we saw the following (very big) sign: “Luwawa Forest Lodge, 2wd, 12km.” Well, it might be 12 km but it is definitely not 2wd passable and even 4wd vehicles have a tough time making it on that road, as later admitted by the lodge’s staff. It was extremely difficult and dangerous, all the more so because night fell and we had to do the last part in total darkness (at one point Ognen had to leave Juan behind and scout ahead by foot to the lodge). Turns out this is not the way to access the lodge and there is another turnoff further up the highway so if for some reason you decide to go there from Lilongwe (which we don’t recommend) don’t take the misleading sign we did… but how would you know?

Accommodation: the crappy Luwawa Forest Lodge

Random tips for travelers: don’t go there… no really, there’s absolutely no reason to visit… it’s not even naturally very pretty… just stay away or risk getting lost/injured on the big and confusing network of dirt roads used by the lumber industry… if you’re looking for a nice getaway from Lilongwe, go to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia (we’ve heard great things and wish we went there instead).

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: This forest highland is definitely a “secondary destination” in Malawi and not one that is often touristed. But after several days of sweltering heat, we were allured by the promise of cold weather and a green misty forest, so we headed toward Luwawa, especially as sometimes “secondary” destinations turn out to be wonderful hidden gems (for example, Cochamo in Chile). Well, not this one!!! It doesn’t even deserve to be a destination of any sorts. Getting there was a disaster and when we asked the staff about the misleading and downright dangerous sign on the highway, they just said “Oh, we haven’t used or maintained that road for years. There’s another one” So how about you take down the sign, jerks?! It would only take an hour of your time and possibly save someone’s life. But no, the staff has a rude and dismissive attitude to all things, including their lodging options and the food they serve. Oh, and it’s ridiculously overpriced if you want to stay in a room or eat there, even by Western standards (thank God we could sleep in TianMa and had stocked up on our own food in Liliongwe). And it’s not as if the surrounding scenery is anything to write home about. It pales in comparison with most African landscapes and probably every country on earth has at least one patch of woodland that’s just as nice as the Luwawa Forest, which, by the way, is quickly being cut and/or burned down. And that was really the icing on the cake, because after we asked for careful directions for how to leave (so that we wouldn’t face the same troubles we had coming in) the staff were not detailed enough so once again we wound up on a dirt track we shouldn’t have and had to face off against big lumber trucks and even a raging forest fire before we finally managed to escape. Definitely makes our “top 5 list of worst places” during our trip. back to top

12 - 13 October 2010: Mzuzu, Malawi

Getting there: After barely escaping Luwawa, we tried to stay in the mountains a bit longer just for the cool weather, but the only other lodge in the area listed by our old Lonely Planet turned out to be closed (seemingly for good)… so we had no choice but to face the heat and head back towards the Lake, our little detour to Malawi’s “secondary sights” having become a monumental failure. At least it was an easy drive on paved roads to Mzuzu.

Accommodation: Mzuzu’s only hostel, the Mzoozoozoo, which despite seeming to be nothing special at first is actually a good place to relax and chat with the owners (imagine stereotypical old hippies… seriously, they look and sound just like Ben and Jerry… and they even run a recording studio of sorts a la the Grateful Dead). They, along with fellow guests we chatted with, made our stay in Mzuzu pleasant.

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: Having eaten through our provisions in Luwawa, we already needed to restock prior to exploring Lake Malawi (where we anticipated heading to remote places). So we headed to Malawi’s 3rd largest urban dwelling, Mzuzu, described by the Bradt Guide as a “friendly city.” Well, it’s not really a city and there was nothing particularly friendly about it. And there was sadly not much of a chance to stock up, as the “main street” is a dusty, hot, 200 meters of nothing-in-particular. To be fair, this is not unique to Mzuzu – Malawi, despite being so (over)populated, is not urban at all. There are no real cities, just a lot of towns (nothing particularly good or bad about them) that are connected by a good road network… and then there are the many many huts, villages, and people sprinkled seemingly uniformly throughout the rest of the nation. It’s almost like the monotony of American suburbia, except instead of a constant stream of SUVs connecting the little towns, in Malawi it’s people on bikes or on foot impressively carrying super-heavy things on their head.

The Mzoozoozoo folks also encouraged us to visit Ruarwe, a town on the lake reachable only by boat that had already been highly recommended to us by a friend. So the next morning we left TianMa on Mzoozoozoo’s lawn and headed off for the lake with our backpacks and tent (should be fun). back to top

13 October 2010: Journey to Ruarwe, Malawi (via Nkhata Bay)

See the pictures of our long boatride in our Ruarwe photo diary.

Getting there/Summary and Impressions: This long post is all about how to get to Ruarwe via Nkhata Bay. You know how we realized that “people make all the difference” after our nightmare experience at the Luwawa Forest lodge that was only worsened by the inept management and staff? Well, it works the other way around, too, as during this day a potentially disastrous boat journey turned into a rather romantic (although still barely manageable) cruise down Lake Malawi.

Our destination was the Zulunkhuni River Lodge in Ruarwe, which several people had raved about as one of the prettiest spots on Lake Malawi. Unfortunately, it is quite a challenge to get there. We first had to take a minibus from Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay and hope/pray that a boat would be leaving to Ruarwe that day. A big ferry or smaller boats usually go twice a week but they are notoriously unreliable, overloaded, and slow. We were there on a Wednesday but the ferry running on Wednesdays has been under repairs (for over 2 months!!!). Luckily, we learned there would be a small boat going up anyway. We were able to arrange everything with almost no hassle thanks to the Nkhata Bay office of the Zulunkhuni, located in the Kaya Papaya restaurant, run by friendly English manager Max (food there is ok). We were advised to stock up on water, go to the bathroom, and prepare mentally for a 6-hour journey in a small boat, even though Ruarwe is only 50km away.

We boarded the mid-size boat with about 20 other adults and 6 children at 1pm – scheduled departure was noon, but hey, that’s how it goes here. It was actually not as small as we had feared and there was even a shade to protect us from the brutal mid-day sun. So we squeezed in together with hundreds of pounds of rice, flour, coke, beer, and other supplies to be delivered to the villages along our route – again, it’s only 50km total but this is the only means of transport. Despite the boat floating (sinking?) rather low in the water, we were assured by the smiling owner Chen (who introduced himself to Juan as “I am not Chinese but I am the Malawi Chen!”) that we were “well below capacity.” That seemingly incredulous statement may actually be true considering that we did have room to stretch our legs, move our arms, and even adjust our seating position on the uncomfortable wooden benches once in a while (anyone that has dealt with African public transport “at capacity” will confirm that such luxury is unheard of). The water was calm so the situation didn’t seem perilous (and we’d be sailing very close to shore so if worse came to worse, swimming to safety seemed like an entirely realistic proposition) and we confidently set off (at last!) a little after 1:30pm.

Our “good fortune” up to that point did not protect us from the voyage starting off terribly – it was simply way too hot and the air incredibly still and stale. We were in the middle of “burning season” and all the usually lush green mountains along the lake’s edge were either a super-dry brown or – quite literally – on fire. The boat’s slow movement along the water created no wind or breeze at all and pretty soon all the women and children (seated in the interior where the air circulation is the worst while the men sat on the edges of the boat) were visibly ill. The slight waves and shaking made for an especially unpleasant combination of heatstroke and seasickness that Juan, like the other women, was subject to. To his credit, Mr. Chen did do everything possible to keep us comfortable, even giving Juan some blankets for cushioning and making room for her stretch out. Meanwhile, some of the men in the front were maintaing their high spirits by drinking beer, playing music, and dancing in their seats. Nevertheless, the first 90 minutes were fairly miserable and the thought of another four and a half hours of this seemed pretty hopeless.

Luckily, the mountains at the lake’s edge are strikingly tall and steep (quite beautiful, really) and soon we were in their shadows even though it was only mid-afternoon and the sun was still high in the sky. That provided significant relief and soon most of the passengers relaxed and watched the party boys up front happily dancing and drinking the journey away. After 3 hours, we finally visited our first unloading/toilet stop. “Almost half way,” proclaimed Chen, and then he suggested that perhaps we would be more comfortable riding on the boat’s roof, with a bit of cargo, rather than in the interior benches with everyone else and the main cargo. The sun was quickly going down and the appeal of spreading out and lying down quickly overpowered any safety concerns we harbored. So up we went with our bags, and that’s when the real fun started!

As the sun set our stops became more and more frequent, sometimes to unload cargo, sometimes simply to deliver a message (verbally) to the many fishing villages we visited. It seemed that entire villages came out to greet our small boat and the kids were always quick to spot us two “mzungus” on the roof. Though a few asked for money (we did not give) the vast majority were just amused and happy to wave and grab our attention, or ask us to take their photo. Above all, everyone danced as our boat approached – adults and children alike – whether or not our party boys up front were blaring their African pop/reggae. And they danced really well, too, with smooth moves, vibes and shakes – must be in the genes or something cause any one of those villagers would be the best dancer in any American or European club. We’re not sure if they do this dance all the time or just when a boat calls, but it was a thrill for us to see it.

As the sun disappeared a bright full moon burst forth and offered good visibility (kind of like a long-term late dusk). At this point we could see long, curvy, orange rivers of fire on the hills and mountains all around us (remember, it’s “burning season”). The smoke that had been smothering us all day was now strikingly beautiful to gaze upon. Especially from our 360-degree panoramic “luxury deck” on the boat’s roof. Chen brought us a soft blanket to lie on and constantly checked up on us to make sure we were comfortable and happy. And we truly were, as the water became calm with almost no waves and – at long last – a light breeze emerged to cool us down a bit. There we were, lying directly above the “disco”, and once in a while a party boy would stick his head up for a chat or to offer Ognen a beer.

After a while (we didn’t check the time but knew we had been traveling for well over 6 hours already) we came to a stop where everyone unloaded and we were invited for a dinner break in Chen’s home village of Usisia. This was both a nice gesture and welcome break as well as a bit of a downer since we knew that Usisia was at least another 2 hours away from our destination.

By the time we got moving again (significantly longer than the announced 15-20 minutes for dinner), the moon itself had set and was replaced by a star-filled sky for us to enjoy on the roof. On the horizon to our right we could see an endless line of yellow dots (hundreds of fishermen out in their wood dug-out canoes for a night’s catch) while to our left we still had the blazing hills, where we could now just see the blazing orange against the near-pitch-black background. We continued to make frequent stops although it was now very late and villagers no longer came out to greet us en masse. The party boys were – incredibly enough – still at it, but their tunes changed to mellow gospel-style ballads and some political/protest songs. It was a bit chilly and we dosed in and out of sleep in each other’s arms (even more romantic than it sounds :-) ), completely exhausted but tranquil, having lost all sense of time and how long it had been since we last awoke or how much progress we had made.

It had been so long since we left Nkhata Bay that we were almost shocked when Chen came up the roof and announced that this was the end of the line for us – we’d reached Ruarwe! We scampered down from the roof half-awake and were greeted in the dark by the night staff of the lodge. We waved goodbye to Chen and the remaining passengers who still had a lot of ground to cover up north before their own journey was to end, and we finally checked our clock. It was past 1 am on Thursday morning. The advertised 6 hour journey which seemed so daunting earlier in Nkhata Bay had morphed into 12 lazy hours on Lake Malawi but we didn’t mind. By the time we set up our tent and fell asleep it was well past 2. What a nice journey – the right people make all the difference! back to top

13 - 19 October 2010: Ruarwe, Malawi

For pictures, check out our Ruarwe photo diary.

Getting there: see our previous entry

Accommodation: The beautiful Zulunkhuni River Lodge. A great place that is somehow not even mentioned in the latest Lonely Planet guide – yet another reason for us to swear off this lame cookiecutter guidebook series. Lonely Planet officially sucks! Overall, the lodge is reasonably priced (camping and 3 meals costs about $30/day total for both of us and you can get a nice “chalet” and 3 meals for around $60) and we highly recommend it despite the very real hassles of getting in and out of there.

Random tips for travelers: bring some of your own food or ingredients for the chef to cook, if at all possible, cause they have a pretty limited menu

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: On our first day, we awoke before 6am, only 3 hours after going to bed, thanks to a gorgeous sunrise. We had fantastic views of from our campsite perched on the edge of a cliff above the lake. Attempts at going beck to bed were fruitless, not just because of the brightness but also because the tent got unbearably hot in the morning hours. Luckily, it was in the shade again by 10:30am for the rest of the day, so catch-up naps were entirely possible.

We spent four full days at the Zulunkhuni and, as advertised, it is one of the prettiest spots on the entire lake (and that’s saying a lot because the lake is gorgeous!). There are jagged cliffs right under steep, tall hills (which are a lush green most of the year but dry when we visited) on the water’s edge, with just enough of a small, sandy, private beach to turn the place into a paradise for visitors like us. The water is clear and just the right temperature for frolicking, with colorful tropical fish swimming around (first time we have seen such creatures in a fresh water body). It is shallow for a while and then gets deep suddenly, which makes for great diving off the cliffs (the best in Malawi, we’re told). As if that weren’t enough, this is also the point where a river enters the lake (hence the “River Lodge” name) and you can also go frolic in it’s colder waters, including some waterfalls a mere 15 minutes from the lodge. There is also a footpath along the water’s edge that hugs the cliffs and connects the isolated villages. The biggest of these is Ruarwe where we got to meet the chief, checked out a school project and – as always – got swarmed by eager, happy and friendly children. Through it all we were adopted and faithfully accompanied on every step (not kidding – every single step, including to bed and even trips to the bathroom) by Gondras, a large but extremely mellow dog that just hangs out at Zulunkhuni and has developed friendships with visitors from all over the world.

The Zulunkhuni lodge itself is very comfortable, unimposing and solidly built to fit in with its natural environment. We’re told it’s owned by an English guy but he’s mostly absent and it was staffed and run very well entirely by the locals during our entire visit (take  hint other lodge owners! the locals often do a better job than the expat workers you bring in!!!). The camping spot is gorgeous, the bathroom clean and of the flushing variety, the double rooms nice and romantic, and the dorms decent. There are board games, a library, a kayak, and snorkeling gear to keep guests entertained. The cook at their vegetarian restaurant is surprisingly good considering this is Africa (where food generally sucks). Our only complaint was with the limited variety of ingredients for the food, of which we started to tire of (even fish was hard to come by on the lake). There was also no electricity to even recharge camera batteries (the lodge should really invest in one of those $20 solar units) and, sadly, we were the only guests so there was no one to really strike up conversations with (but ideal for a honeymoon, we guess). back to top

19 October 2010: Journey From Ruarwe to Chizumulu Island (via Nkhata Bay), Malawi

See pictures of this long and colorful day in our “Ilala and Chizumulu” photo diary.

Getting there/Summary and Impressions: This long post is all about going between Ruarwe and Chizumulu Island – two remote destinations in Lake Malawi connected by the (in)famous “MV Ilala” boat

We left Ruarwe on the large ferry-boat “Ilala” that is correctly known as the “lifeline” of Lake Malawi. However, just because the Ilala is the lifeline upon which hundreds of thousands of people depend for just about everything does not suggest that it is at all punctual, dependable, reliable, or orderly. It was scheduled to call on Ruarwe at 9am on Monday morning but didn’t show up until 2am Tuesday – a mere 17 hours behind schedule is not bad, we’re told. We were extremely sleepy but had to summon all our strength and focus just to make it on board safely. The ferry drops anchor about 200 meters off the beach and overcrowded little boats shuttle back and forth with hundreds of people and thousands upon thousands of kilograms of cargo (mostly stinky dried sardines) trying to get onto the Ilala’s decks. Despite the crush, rush, and madness, the loading/unloading procedure is not quick and stops like Ruarwe require an incredible 2 to 6 hours from the time Ilala drops anchor to the time it reels it back in and sets sail. There is no way to know in advance how long it will take or when the ferry’s captain will declare the boat full  – i.e. dangerously overloaded – and simply pull up the anchor and set sail, leaving tons of cargo still not loaded behind, which will either rot or wait another week for the ferry to reappear. We forked over almost $20 each to get access to the upper deck – “first class,” meaning that there is breathing space, no fishy smells, and a bar, but still only limited seating. We promptly passed out for most of our 6-hour trip to Nkhata Bay, waking briefly for yet another spectacular sunrise over the giant lake.

We had a 4-hour scheduled stop at Nkhata Bay, where getting on and off the Ilala is significantly easier thanks to an actual dock and ramp. We took a lunch break and met up – as previously arranged – with our friends and fellow aimless wanderers Jo and Abe, whom we’d last seen 5 months earlier in Buenos Aires. That’s also when Ognen’s little toe on his left foot really started swelling and hurting. Two days earlier, we had noticed a small black dot on the toe near the nail and – although it looked a bit strange with some numb white skin around it – we concluded it was just dried blood, probably the result of a scrape on the cliffs in Ruarwe while diving. But during the midnight walk to catch the Ilala in Ruarwe, the toe began to feel uncomfortable and by the time we arrived in Nkhata Bay it turned red and began to swell. It slowly became more and more painful. Fellow tourist and Ilala passenger Peter – a German bacteriologist – advised us not to take it too lightly, to keep an eye on it, and take antibiotics to reduce the swelling. Still, we didn’t see a compelling reason to delay our reunion with Jo and Abe so we returned to the Ilala and proceeded to our next destination, Chizumulu Island, another 5 hour sail on the lake.

As we began to describe Ognen’s “scrape” that had swollen up during lunch to Jo and Abe, Jo said that she didn’t think it was a scrape because one of her toes also had a weird black dot with awkward white skin coloring around it… and hers had puss coming out of it at night for the past 2 weeks, leaving her worried and unsure what to do about it. This was a strange coincidence, and as we were laughing loudly and making a big deal about it, a group of fellow backpackers overheard us and one of them told us it sounded like one of the weird flesh-eating infections she read about in her Malawi guidebook. She found the appropriate page and with the detailed (and gross) description in the Bradt Guide to Malawi, Jo and Ognen self-diagnosed themselves as having been infected with jiggers in their toes, or as we termed it, a “jigger-toe”. For all you ever wanted to know about jiggers, see here (but be warned it’s super gross and Ognen’s case was much milder).The gist of it is that it’s a flesh-eating sand fly that loves to lay eggs near or under the toenails of humans and can lead to painful swelling and infections. And many people get it by going around barefoot near dogs – suddenly it all made sense and Gondras, the dog that followed us everywhere in Ruarwe, must have been the source of Ognen’s infection.

And while Jo’s case of jigger-toe was progressing rather slowly over 2 weeks, Ognen’s was worsening by the minute. We resolved to go to the clinic on Chizumulu Island first thing the next morning, but with over an hour to go until we even reached the island this evening, Ognen’s toe had already become so large and painful that most of “first class” deck knew about it and was recommending puncturing a hole in it to let the puss out. Uncomfortable about attempting that procedure by ourselves on a crowded boat in the middle of Lake Malawi without any sterile equipment on hand, Juan resorted to the time-tested method of walking around a vessel asking “is there a doctor onboard?” And, as luck would have it, the very first person she randomly asked this question to – a friendly social worker – responded that there was indeed a doctor from Lilongwe traveling on the Ilala that day. To make a long story slightly shorter, Ognen was soon undergoing painful minor surgery on the deck, much to the amusement of supportive fellow passengers. The doctor – a young, friendly, and very competent woman with a super cute little daughter that busied herself comforting Ognen through the whole ordeal  – obtained a sterilized first-aid kit and antiseptic from the boat crew, made two cuts on the badly swollen toe and painfully squeezed all the puss out before wrapping the toe in gauze and prescribing antibiotics (that friendly German bacteriologist Peter quickly provided). Half an hour later, Ognen got special help from Peter and the boat crew to avoid getting the bandaged toe crushed during the madness of unloading at Chizumulu Island.

That was the end of our 17-hour odyssey on the Ilala from Ruarwe to Chizumulu.. but it was by no means the end of our troubles. back to top

19 - 24 October 2010: Chizumulu Island, Malawi

For pictures, check out our “Ilala and Chizumulu” photo diary.

Getting there: see our previous entry

Accommodation: The reed huts next to Jabavu’s house (see below for details)

Random tips for travelers: Don’t go there if staying at Wakwenda Retreat is your only option. Try to find somewhere else to sleep and eat, like we did, or else stay on the Ilala and keep going to Likoma Island, where we hear there’s a nice lodge.

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: Our 5 nights on Chizumulu island revolved around discomfort, especially Ognen’s jigger toe. Although we had a good night’s rest following the mini-surgery aboard the Ilala the day before, Ognen’s toe again swelled up and developed strange colors in the morning. It turns out Peter’s antibiotics had been expired for 5 months and another infection was already setting in. So we made quick arrangements for a local boat to take us to the other side of the island where the local clinic sits. Although we worried about what sort of medical care exists on a poor, isolated island in the middle of Lake Malawi (we were making contingencies to quickly find a way to get to the larger and more developed nearby Likoma island), we were pleasantly surprised to end up in a very solidly-constructed, clean, large and modern clinic. Although there is unfortunately no full-time doctor based on the island, we were attended to by a young “medical assistant,” basically a small step up from a nurse (these people are the primary health providers in rural Malawi). Our interaction with him started a bit awkwardly but soon he was competently cutting away another chunk of Ognen’s toe to deal with this secondary infection (a lot less painful this time since he had anesthetics). He gave us a bunch of antibiotics (not expired!) and gauze for follow-up care. We were charged nothing for the treatment or pills and could not even make an on-the-spot donation to the clinic as we wished. Apparently we got to chatting and befriending the medical assistant too much because by the time he got to cleaning out the jiggers from Jo’s toe (so she wouldn’t soon end up like Ognen), he mostly neglected the task at hand and instead was asking us to troubleshoot problems he was having with Microsoft Word on his laptop.

With Ognen on a strict antibiotic regiment and largely confined to sitting around in order to keep his toe clean, the scorching heat draining everyone’s energy (it was mostly too hot to sleep indoors under mosquito nets and only cooled down in the early morning hours), and the lake too choppy for swimming and snorkeling, we passed our days in Chizumulu chatting away under shade. This was a shame because the island is naturally very beautiful and if we had come in a slightly cooler and greener time of the year, there would have been spectacular hiking opportunities.

Along with Jo and Abe, we stayed in two reed huts (imaginatively referred to as “chalets”) in front of the house of Jabavu, a 35-year old Malawian who lives in Sweden but happened to be home visiting his mom during our 5-day visit. Like almost all Malawians we met, Jabavu was extremely friendly, gracious and welcoming. And because he is married to a Swedish woman and had lived in South Africa for many years before moving to Europe, he had excellent English skills. By having feet in two worlds, he could relate to us much easier than most locals, which led to many interesting conversations on life, work, hopes and dreams, Malawi, Europe, America, interracial marriage, racism, family, politics, getting away with murder, travel and much more in our strange quintet – the two of us, Jabavu, Jo (originally from Taiwan) and Abe (from Ohio).

Befriending Jabavu led us to the other highlight of our days in Chizumulu, meeting and interacting with the islanders. Although most of them speak little to no English, all were eager to say hello and we had lots of fun meeting members of Jabavu’s family (especially his sweet and friendly nephew Ralph), going on a tour to a small nearby island, visiting local watering holes (where the men of the island drank beer or “sachets” of rum while dancing away – no women were there as any woman dancing in a bar is presumed to be a prostitute, although it is ok for women to dance so in a “disco,” the distinction between “bar” and “disco” remaining a complete mystery to us), and otherwise strolling through the village when it wasn’t too hot to do so. The local kids were a joy, too, especially a group of 5 that we kept running into and playing with. We later learned they are AIDS orphans essentially being raised – along with Ralph’s daughter – by Jabavu’s 70-something year old mother. She does not speak English and we met her only briefly, but she is clearly remarkably smart and strong to be able to do this after raising, educating and sending away her own children from this little island to hopefully better lives elsewhere (besides Jabavu in Sweden, there were siblings in Lilongwe, South Africa, England, and Minnesota) and losing a daughter and son-in-law to AIDS herself. As Jabavu explained, the distinction between “friend” and “family” on this 3000-person island is very blurry and thee is a strong, lasting, powerful sense of community.

Unfortunately, most tourists don’t get to experience this side of island village life like we did because the only lodge on Chizumulu – the Wakwenda Retreat – is run by a grumpy middle-aged Englishman who is at war with the entire island. On the surface, Nick, who’s been on Chizumulu for 16 years, is friendly and polite to his guests and he serves decent meals by Malawian standards (considering the remoteness of the place the only real complaint about the food is the small portions). The Wakwenda Retreat itself is clean and well-equipped (again, especially considering the remoteness). Also, the bar/restaurant area is newly renovated and tastefully designed on rocks overlooking the lake with drink prices reasonable enough for budget backpackers. But that’s where the positives end and Nick’s miserable existence begins.

For whatever reasons, Nick is convinced that every single islander – especially the staff that he employs – are a bunch of lazy, incompetent, good-for-nothing, hopelessly ignorant idiots and ingrates. When he isn’t politely catering to his guests he is busy rudely screaming at the top of his lungs at his workers – in front of the guests. No doubt Chizumulu is a hard place to get an international hostel up and running. But rather than trying to fit into the environment, Nick (who is literally the only white man on an island far removed from mainland Malawi) has chosen to barricade himself and make a stand against everyone else. This is a terrible business and life decision, as his livelihood is 100% dependent on the weekly stop the unreliable Ilala ferry makes in Chizumulu. This brings in a handful of budget travelers (no high-end tourists ever come) that only stay for 2 or 3 nights before catching a small boat to Likoma island, which is better established for tourism (this was our plan too, but we stayed longer on Chizumulu due to the jigger-toes and Jabavu). The rest of the time Nick is holed up all alone, making zero money, and it is clear he is having trouble making ends meet given his limited clientele. And why don’t visitors stay a little longer and do something else other than hang out at the beach for 2 days? Because Nick explicitly discourages his guests from interacting with the locals. Not only does he not offer village tours or glimpses into village life or hikes up the nice mountain towering over the island (a missed business opportunity if ever there was one!), but he is constantly bashing the village.

Yet when a tourist ignores Nick and contracts independently with a villager for a service (like we did for a boat to take us to the medical clinic or by staying with Jabavu rather than at the lodge), Nick goes to the villager and demands a cut of the profits because it was “his” guests that led to this business opportunity for the villager, thereby entitling Nick to money even though he did nothing. If he is so strapped for cash, Nick could easily just encourage the local men to drink at his bar, which is far nicer than any other on the island but actually only slightly more expensive. Drinking and dancing together would be a great experience for both tourists and villagers and would provide Nick with a plenty of supplemental income, especially when he has no customers (i.e. most of the time). But no, islanders are explicitly not allowed in Nick’s bar and it therefore has a boring typical budget international traveler beachside atmosphere. And what budget backpacker doesn’t get a rush of pure joy when playing with the delightful kids of Chizumulu? Anyone who stays with Nick, because children are strictly prohibited as we learned when Jabavu took some orphans over to buy them a coke and introduce them to international travelers like us – an experience that Jabavu had as a child and that he now credits with positively shaping his world view.

Sigh… in the end, “Nick the dick” (as Juan christened him) is left to idle, struggle, and drink his bitterness all alone while contemplating how if he ever gets kicked off the island (entirely possible given the path he’s chosen) he’ll “burn and tear this lodge down – there’s no way I’m leaving these bastards anything!” Hopefully Nick will go away soon and someone with more life and business sense can set up the type of friendly and sustainable – although it can never be very profitable out here – lodge that Chizumulu island deserves. Until then, we recommend tourists to stay on the Ilala and don’t disembark until Likoma island, which we hear is really nice.

By the time the Ilala ferry returned to Chizumulu to take us back to Nkhata Bay, we were more than ready to go back to the mainland. Because the one thing we did get from Nick was bad food poisoning from the “treated” lake water he passes off as drinkable to his clients (at least Nick also got sick too so we felt slightly better). This unfortunately caused us to miss a wedding on our last night there that we had really been looking forward to attending. Jo was so sick with vomiting, constant fever, headaches and some sore joints, that we began to suspect she might be coming down with malaria. So when we heard the loud horn of the Ilala announcing it’s 3am arrival pierce through the dark, moonless night, we grabbed our stuff and rushed to the beach with surprising quickness for a group saddled by limps, malnutrition, heat exhaustion and sickness, eager to bid farewell to Chizumulu Island – a beautiful place where we can easily imagine having had a wonderfully relaxing stay if not for a series of unfortunate events. back to top

24 - 26 October 2010: Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Pictures of our escape from Chizumulu and recovery in Nkhata Bay are in our “Ilala and Chizumulu” photo diary.

Getting there: Our third middle of the night voyage on the MV Ilala went just as our previous two – a mad scramble to get aboard while avoiding getting crushed by people and cargo, making our way to the top deck from where we could observe the amazing scenes of people literally risking their lives in order to load a few more bags of dried fish on the boat, and then settling in for the long ride – except that this time we were sick. Juan and Jo wrapped up in sleeping bags and passed out on deck while Jabavu, Abe, and Ognen lazily guarded the luggage and chatted the 5 hours of night and dawn away by the bar.

Accommodation: The “Mayoka Village” international backpackers. The place bills itself as a community-run cultural experience. But there is almost nothing cultural or community-based about it. It is “gringolandia” all the way and not since we left Argentina had we seen so many western Europeans and and North Americans just hanging out, speaking loudly in English, and doing nothing special while convincing themselves they are somehow broadening their horizons and experiencing new cultures. But this was actually a good thing, because once in a while you really need places like Mayoka Village that go out of their way to cater to the needs of budget travelers from developed countries. Africa could use more places that are as solidly constructed, with good showers, reliable electricity, sparkling clean facilities, a restaurant menu that caters to Western preferences, easily organized activities, a pool table and – oh yes – satellite tv. Anything like that is usually a super-expensive 5-star safari lodge in the middle of the continent’s wilderness. So budget-oriented Mayoka was a nice change. The staff are mostly local, speak English, super attuned to customer service and seem genuinely happy to be working there.

Random tips for travelers: Do make an effort to go to one of the more remote locations on the lake. Nkhata Bay is nice but as long as you’re there, it’s worth to go through the additional hassle of visiting Ruarwe, Likoma, or other more authentic destinations.

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: On our third visit to Nkhata Bay, we finally spent a few nights at this naturally pretty and very touristy (but friendly and manageable) town. Jo and Juan were both still reeling from the water poisoning incident on Chizumulu and we all needed a few easy days in a place without culture but easily accessible creature comforts. We convinced Jabavu to also take a rest with us rather than immediately jumping on a long bus ride to visit his sister in Lilongwe. There are a number of reasonable and reasonably-priced lodging options in Nkhata Bay and we opted for Mayoka Village. The owners are a South African and Swazi white Afrikaans couple who were ridiculously friendly and welcoming (but then again so are all Afrikaans people so this was a flashback to our 2 months in South Africa; we still can’t reconcile the individual generosity and humanity of Afrikaans people with their horrible collective history). On only an hour’s notice, the guy managed to organize a delightful buffet fish dinner for Ognen’s birthday, complete with a surprise cake on the house (banana bread that was already in the oven for the next day’s breakfast ingenuously and quickly converted with some icing and candles). We were all recovering from our Chizumulu ailments (Jo did not have malaria after all) and could have spent a few more days resting in Mayoka Village, but Abe and Jo’s time in Africa was winding down with only two weeks left on the continent. So we said our goodbyes to Jabavu and headed out to explore more of northern Malawi. back to top

26 - 27 October 2010: Rhumpi, Malawi

There are a few pictures of our brief stint in Rhumpi in our “Malawi Mishmash” photo diary.

Getting there: We caught a taxi from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu where – after two weeks apart – we reunited with TianMa and Eski, who were ready for some adventures after just sitting and sweating in the Malawian sun for so long. We made it o Rhumphi along a decent paved road, though we nearly ran over a crazed pedestrian on the way.

Accommodation: Not many choices in Rhumpi, and we opted to camp at the Matunkha Safari Lodge. The campground facilities were nice enough but the whole place is a weird big compound that supposedly serves as an orphanage and community center, but actually feels like a strange cult. The Dutch lady that runs the place is a weirdo and the dinner at the restaurant was terrible, even by Malawian standards, both taste and service-wise. There is high-speed internet available, which is a plus, but it’s definitely not enough for us to recommend this place to others. Look elsewhere.

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: After a quick lunch in Mzuzu, we piled in the van, loaded up on gas and a few groceries, and then realized we didn’t have a destination. A few sights in northern Malawi sounded somewhat interesting, but they appeared to require a 4-wheel drive to reach and anyway we felt we’d seen enough of Lake Malawi (by far the country’s biggest tourist draw). We had also already had a good experience meeting Malawians, so were ready to slowly make our way to Tanzania.

Abe and Jo, however, could not go to Tanzania because  their flights from Africa to Taiwan started from southern Malawi in only two weeks so had no time to get to somewhere interesting in Tanzania and then have to catch a long and grueling public transport ride back to Malawi. They too, however, were mostly “done” with Malawi and contemplated quickly going to a Zambian national park. In the end, we decided it would be fun to spend some more time together cruising in the comforts of TianMa, so opted to seek out some of these secondary northern Malawian sights that didn’t sound so great.

The leading contender was the Nyika National Park in the mountains bordering Zambia. Malawi is certainly not known for it’s wildlife parks, but the Lonely Planet description of the game viewing opportunities was favorable enough and the scenery was supposed to be reminiscent of the Scottish highlands (none of us having ever visited Scotland, we assumed this must be a good thing; more importantly, why oh why did we keep trusting Lonely Planet after repeatedly getting burned?). In any event, we were told in Mzuzu that the dirt road to the park was easily passable by 2 wheel drive vehicles and, if nothing else, the mountains promised a few days of badly needed relief from the dry season heat.

Since we headed off in the late afternoon, we made it only as far as the small town of Rhumphi by sundown, where the tarred road ends and dirt begins. We had a good night’s sleep (in our own bed in TianMa for the first time in two weeks) and happily packed up to head to Nyika the next morning. back to top

27 - 28 October 2010: Nyika National Park, Malawi

Check out the pictures in our “Nyika National Park” photo diary.

Getting there: The 110 kilometer ride from Rhumphi to Nyika park’s campground required almost 5 hours, several new layers of dust on the van and everyone inside it, and a lot of bumping. Nevertheless, it was a scenic and bearable ride.

Accommodation: The national park’s accommodations and activities have recently come under new management from the private operator Wilderness Safaris (one of the biggest operators in Africa) and they are still getting their act together. While some facilities have been repainted and renovated, the main campground is undergoing a very strange, and we think undesirable, transformation. For some reason they have cleared out all the trees and natural shade from the grassy patches and are busy putting in 10 large, concrete foundations on which they then construct artificial shade for picnic tables. Weird and not well thought-out to say the least.

But at least it is affordable by African national park standards ($10 per person per night for foreigners) with a large bonfire at night and hot showers. Yes, hot showers, because Nyika is cool during the day and downright cold at night even during this hottest time of the year, so if nothing else, we were thrilled to be at a place where we could cool down.

Quick Impressions/Summary/Reviews: Nyika is a very unexpected highland landscape in the middle of Africa – Abe thought it was quite beautiful while the rest of us were just grateful for the change of scenery. The park has some scenic drives and you are free to hike wherever you please, which is a nice change from most parks. Most of the park is only 4-wheel drive accessible and we made the mistake of taking TianMa too far down one track – we had to have a painful and slow reverse strategy to get out. There are almost no tourists as it is a secondary attraction, so we had the place virtually to ourselves. We read reports of many leopard sightings at the headquarters’ log book but our own “game drive” experience was very limited and far beneath the other parks we’ve visited. Still, we did enjoy a fun sunset ride with Jo when we got up close and personal with a number of antelope.

Abe, meanwhile, tried his hand at trout fly-fishing but did not reel any in. This, it turned out, was the beginning of our downfall in Nyika, as we soon realized our food supply was quite limited and there was nowhere to stock up. Not having caught any fish, our options were to either eat at the Wilderness Safari restaurants (where a small quiche and salad lunch sets you back $20), try to scrape by with our plain pasta and baked beans for another day, or leave the park in search of better sustenance elsewhere. So although we all would have stayed in the park for some hiking and cool mountain air for another night had the food situation been better, we opted to leave earlier than planned because we were really craving a good, solid meal. back to top

28 - 30 October 2010: Chitimba, Khondowe, Malawi

Pictures of our last, tiring days in Malawi are included in our “Malawi Mishmash” photo diary.

Getting there: Taking the bumpy and dusty 5-hour dusty ride back to Rumphi only a day after we got there took a lot of energy out of us, especially on empty stomachs. Nevertheless, we were motivated to push even harder because we had heard good things about a camp in Chitimba. By the time we got back on pavement in Rumphi, it was once again hot and nearly dark, but we soldiered on. We drove down a steep mountain pass with hairpin turns down to the lake that would probably have been beautiful in daytime but was slow and aggravating for us after a tiring day’s drive.  Still, by 6:30pm, we pulled into the Chitimba Beach Camp and arrived at what we thought, would be our culinary salvation…

Accommodation and Reviews: … how wrong we were.  Several sources stated that Chitimba Beach Camp had a good atmosphere and friendly staff… and we presumed that meant good food too. In fact this is the single worst lodge we encountered on our entire trip across South America, Africa, and China. No really, it was absolutely horrible. And we didn’t even have a particularly bad encounter with the staff or owners. Well, they did have bad service and were rude and not friendly, but we’ve encountered worse service. It was the combination of bad service, with an ugly location (worst we saw along Lake Malawi), terrible food (we refused to eat there even though we were starved once we saw the crap other guests were being served), ridiculously expensive food and lodging, and all-around bad vibe that made this place suck so hard. It was just so blindingly obvious that they don’t give a crap about their clients and are instead trying to get rich off this place. And they are getting rich because almost all their clients are those giant “overlanding” truck tours that make Chitimba a regular stopover between Tanzania and South Africa. Sadly, for many of those organized tours, the Chitimba Beach Camp is the one and only experience tourists get in Malawi and it’s gorgeous lake – what a ripoff! They seemed to know it, too – in our one night there, we met many other unhappy clients. And it is only going to get worse – we noticed that they are building many more tiny (and we mean tiny!!!) cabins in the already overcrowded lot that they will continue to charge outrageous prices for. Let’s hope tour operators get wise and abandon this place that deserves to rot away.

The next morning we switched to another nearby lodge on the lake’s edge (and got a flat tire in the process). It wasn’t much better, but at least the owner Mark seemed more decent, the atmosphere was better and more low-key, and the beach much nicer. Still horribly overpriced, though, so we don’t recommend stopping over in this part of Malawi at all.

Summary: While reflecting on the previous few day’s events, Jo and Abe decided that maybe they want to go to Tanzania after all. Unfortunately, their flight from South Africa to Taiwan was even closer now, us having wasted a few days in Nyika and Chitimba. And the only way to “reasonably” make it back to South Africa would be to get them all the way to Zanzibar from where they could catch a flight back down to Johannesburg. So we agreed to attempt a mad dash to Dar es Salaam with them in just a few days, our last bad decision in our 3-week stay in Malawi that was seemingly filled with them. Oh well, next stop: Tanzania.
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