Malawi: Zomba & Blantyre

24th April - 14th May 2002


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I really wasn't feeling too well when I finally arrived at Monkey Bay after my three-day voyage south down Lake Malawi from Chilumba. My previous nights meal on board the Ilala had not been good and I was now suffering from diarrhoea; together with the rough seas and being seasick, I hadn't eaten anything all day and was feeling weak and tired. There was a slight melee outside the gates of the port as a small crowd of taxi drivers touted for business; most taxis were Landrover pickups and their destination Cape Maclear. Niall, my cabin mate on the Ilala jumped on a minibus to Blantyre as he only had a few days to get to Johannesburg to catch an onward flight on his ten-month tour of the world. I took George's recommendation of the Venice Beach backpackers as a good place to stay in Monkey Bay. I had arranged to meet up with Graeme tomorrow, Thursday so I only had to spend one night in Monkey Bay. A young lad waiting outside the port showed me the way to Venice Beach, a walk of a couple kilometres out of the town. We walked across the disused airfield and along a dirt road to the next village on the lakeshore. As we walked under the hot sun I began to feel weaker and weaker and soon realised that Venice Beach was a bit of a mistake. My guidebook printed almost two years ago said the place was still under construction. My young guide showing me the way seemed to indicate that this was still the case.

I arrived exhausted to find an empty, half built backpackers resort built on the beach alongside the village. The main building, two floors high built of red brick with a thatched roof, looked horribly out of place alongside the circular mud huts of the village that it dominated. I was too tired and exhausted to walk back into town to find alternative accomodation, so I stayed for one night. There was no running water, the nearest toilet was halfway down to the beach next to a bar that had been completed but not yet stocked. The manager cooked some rice and vegetables for dinner on a fire in one of the half completed rooms. There was only one other guest staying there, George from Greece. He had been there for a month, most of which appeared to have been spent in a stoned stupor. The comments in the visitors book seemed to sum up what I was thinking; why not complete one section of the complex at a time before opening to guests. The bar had apparently been built some time ago but had yet to serve a single beer.

I awoke the next morning feeling one hundred percent better and with my refound energy hiked back to Monkey Bay, my memory of Venice Beach disappearing quickly behind me. I reached Gary's Cafe, which had changed it's name twice over the last couple of years, and waited for Graeme to arrive and pick me up. I guessed that he would probably arrive in the early afternoon so I made myself at home on the veranda outside the cafe overlooking the only street in town; when Graeme drove past I would see him from this vantage point. The family running the cafe were very hospitable and I drunk a few cups of black tea during the morning and had some fried fish with rice for lunch. By about 14:30 Graeme drove past, there was not much traffic along this road as it only went as far as the port, but he didn't see me. I waited on the road for him to turn around and five minutes later he was back and we were once again reunited on the road. It had only been a couple of days since we last saw each other, but it seemed a lot longer as we caught up on each others travelling news.

We drove south out of Monkey Bay along the lakeshore to the Palm Beach resort, about half way to Mangochi, where we stopped for the night and camped by the beach. It was a large resort but we were the only guests that night and the place was peaceful and quiet with just the sound of the frogs in the reeds and the gentle waves lapping at the white sandy beach.

We made an early start the following morning and drove the short distance to Mangochi, which sits on the western banks of the Shire River between Lake Malawi and Lake Malombe. The Shire River flows out of Lake Malawi and meanders south through the country and joins the Zambezi River in Mozambique, which flows east to the Indian Ocean. The town was once an important slave market and then during colonial times an administrative centre when the town was known as Fort Johnson. Along the main street that runs down to the Shire River we stopped at the small Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. There were around forty graves, the majority from the First World War, together with a few from early settlers. There was a small, but interesting museum in the centre of town about Lake Malawi. I found the information on the ships that had sailed on the lake extremely interesting, especially after spending three days sailing down the lake on the historic Ilala. At last I saw a photo of the original SS Ilala, the first steam ship to sail on the lake; she looked a lot smaller than I imagined. Down by the river in the centre of a roundabout was the Queen Victoria clock tower, one of the few remnants of colonial architecture left in the town. The clock tower was built of red brick, today the clock faces are broken and the tower looked out of place in the centre of this African street. Alongside the clock tower was a very small memorable for the 145 victims of the Vipya disaster in 1947 erected by public subscription. Stretching out east from the clock tower across the river was the new Mangochi Bridge, funded and built by the Japanese government and officially opened in January 2002. The old bridge had been dismantled and just a small section was left on the eastern bank going nowhere. Around the stone foundations of the new bridge women were busy doing laundry while children played and splashed in the water. The banks of the river were a riot of colour as the washing was laid out to dry under the pleasantly warm sun.

It was still relatively early in the morning when we left Mangochi and continued driving to Zomba, about 70km south. I was not used to getting so much done so early in the morning; usually while travelling on local transport I spent most of my mornings sitting in a dusty bus park waiting for a bus to fill with passengers before we could depart. It was not unusual for me to spend three or four hours going nowhere in a bus. By mid morning we were in Zomba, a pleasant down sitting at the foot of the Zomba Plateau that rose up steeply to the west almost overshadowing the town. Zomba was a fairly large town for Malawi with a busy, bustling market in the centre where we stopped to buy some food supplies and grabbed a snack for lunch. Up until the mid 1970's it was the country's capital, before it was moved to the more central city of Lilongwe. We didn't spend too long in the town, as our main reason for coming here was to visit the Zomba Plateau, where we intended to do some hiking and camp for the night.

We drove up the Mkulichi Road that gently winds its way through the lush green suburbs on the foothills of the plateau past the golf course and the State House grounds, a reminder of the town's political importance. There are two roads going up to the plateau, the usefully named, up road and the down road. We took the up road but later on our descent found that most locals use the down road to go up as well as it has been recently re-paved, probably as a result of the construction of the Mulunguzi dam on top of the plateau. Zomba is the smallest of the three main plateaus in the country, the other two being Nyika and Mulanje. The plateau is a forest reserve and is divided in two by the Domasi Valley, the northern part of the plateau has been left as a wilderness section where hiking is not encouraged and there are no paths or roads, we were driving up to the southern half of the plateau. The southern half is not a true wilderness area and most of it has been planted with pines. There is also a hotel at the top of the road, the Ku Chawe Inn, a couple of campsites and some forestry workers cottages. There is a dirt road that circles the plateau that we followed to the Chitinji Campsite, just below the highest peak, Malumbe Peak at 2,085m. The campsite was very secluded, hidden away in the pine trees. We set up camp and then went for a hike for the afternoon.

We hiked up the nearby Malumbe Peak. The top of the plateau was covered in rolling grassland, where pine trees hadn't been planted, the long brown grass swaying in the wind. There were still a few patches of indigenous woodland; most of these patches were in steep valleys that cut through the plateau, where obviously it was too difficult to create commercial pine plantations. Malumbe Peak was not a deserted mountain top, there was a narrow road that lead all the way to the top where there was an impressive array of aerials, microwave dishes, antennas and transmitters. It was the communications hub for Zomba that lay over 1,000m below us. The escarpment was covered in indigenous forest where the trees were draped in old mans beard and blue monkeys jumped from tree to tree.

It was a pleasurable evening at the campsite. The temperature felt cool and we kept warm sitting in front of a fire as we cooked our dinner of grilled steak. There was no-one else staying there, except the caretaker and the night was completely silent except for the slight sound of the wind whispering through the pine trees around us. There was a very skinny dog that adopted us during the evening and sat around looking desperately hungry and cold. I woke early the next morning as the mist was rolling across the plateau shrouding the surrounding peaks. The dog was curled up by the embers of the fire, keeping warm. I felt a pain in my right foot and on closer inspection found my second toe, next to my small toe, badly swollen and bright red. Underneath the toe, on the soft part of skin between the pad of the toe and the foot, I discovered a bite mark and the skin all blistered and white. It looked like it could have been a spider bite; two fang marks about 4mm apart were clearly visible on the blistered, white skin. It was painful to walk on so I did my best to hobble about for the morning.

Luckily we had a car and there was a circular track looping around the southern half of the plateau, so that morning, despite my sore toe I was still able to see a lot of the plateau. We continued clockwise following the outer circular drive, stopping first at Chingwe's Hole. There is a local legend that says that the hole is bottomless and it was once used as a burial chamber. Today though, after some recent rock-falls, the hole is probably no deeper than about 20m. It is also surrounded by a lot of trees and thick undergrowth making it hard to see anything at all. Far more dramatic was the view from a nearby viewpoint on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Shire Valley, the Shire River meandering lazily southwards below us. We continued to drive around to the eastern edge of the escarpment where we stopped at the three viewpoints looking out over the escarpment, Zomba lying at our feet below us and in the distance Lake Chilwa. The Emperor's View was named after Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia who visited the area in 1964; the Queen's View was named after Queen Elizabeth, who visited Zomba in 1957. Just down the track from Queen's View is the small and peaceful Chagwa Lake and dam where there were some fuchsias growing wild beside the lake. It looked like a perfect spot to spend a day fishing completely surrounded by pine trees; I would have never guessed that I was in Africa.

The last place we stopped at was Williams Falls on the Mulunguzi River. The river cascades down a series of small falls surrounded by indigenous forest, it was a very picturesque setting. The river continues flowing across the plateau and down the Mandala Falls, which are no longer as impressive as they were with the recent enlargement of the Mulunguzi Dam that has all but submerged the waterfall. We drove off the plateau following the down road and dodging traffic coming up and bicycles heavily over laden with firewood being slowly wheeled down to Zomba and continued on to Blantyre, 80km to the south.

Blantyre is the commercial and industrial capital of Malawi and is the country's biggest and busiest city, although in comparison to neighbouring countries, it is still quite small. Blantyre merges with its sister city, Limbe to the east and the urban sprawl stretches for about 20km. We drove to Doogles backpacker lodge next to the bus station off Old Chileka Road and checked in and bumped into Klaartje, whom we had last seen back in Lilongwe. Doogles is the kind of place that travellers rave about, someone a long time ago had recommended the place to me and circled it on the map in my guidebook; it was such a long time ago that I couldn't even remember who recommended it or where I was at the time. Doogles lived up to its reputation and was a very relaxed, friendly place to stay. The owner, Lou who was a Maori from New Zealand and the two managers, also from New Zealand, got on well with Graeme. Before Lou left to visit Harare he gave us a couple of bottles of red wine, which went down extremely well.

Meanwhile things with my foot were not looking good. My toe had swelled up even more, probably from hobbling about during the morning on Zomba Plateau. I thought it wise to have it checked out by a doctor, just to make sure I hadn't been bitten by something deadly and Graeme gave me a lift the short distance to the Mwaiwathu Private Hospital, where a consultation set me back US$10. To my relief the doctor didn't think it was too serious and told me just to keep an eye on it and if I felt any other symptoms to come back. I hobbled back to Doogles and spent the afternoon sitting at the bar watching the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea. During the match pus and blood began leaking through the fang marks of the bite and by the end of the day the skin, that had been killed off by the venom, split open and leaked pus continuously for the next three days. I couldn't do much until my toe healed up and spent my days relaxing at the bar or beside the pool writing my travelogue or researching the next stage of my journey south through Mozambique. The staff at Doogles arrange visas for Mozambique and on the Monday morning I left them my passport for the four days it takes to process a visa at the local Mozambique Consulate, halfway between Blantyre and Limbe. For the rest of my time I sat around at Doogles waiting for my toe to heal sufficiently so that I could join Graeme trekking on the Mulanje Massif. Meanwhile Graeme was having a few of his own problems sorted out, namely a major oil leak with the truck. It turned out to be a broken crankshaft seal that took a couple of days and US$70 to have fixed at the local Toyota dealership, which was also managed by an ex-pat New Zealander.

Continue reading this journey: Trekking on Mt Mulanje