Malawi is a new country for me, but felt somehow familiar and friendly right away. Lonely Planet calls it “Africa for Beginners,” which might not be totally accurate, but it was a breath of fresh air after the crowds and chaos or Dar Es Salaam and Tanzanian travel.
You cross the border, and the pace of things slows down. Kids play with sticks and stones, literally, and the stone game Bao was one we actually learned and got quite good at. Stress levels drop, people decrease, and our bus was often the only car on the road for the 130km drive from the border, to Karonga, and then Chitimba Camp where we slept in our hammocks beside the beach.
We wanted to visit Livingstonia, which was only 16 km away from Chitimba, and walking up the crumbling and windy mountain road should have taken only slightly longer than driving it in a beat up pick up. Most of the other roads were fine in Malawi, and the lack of traffic made them seem safer. But for this dirt-road, even hiking seemed dangerous. We met four other Mzungus wanting to go up the mountain and decided to share a car, even though we were paying four times the local price. It was just too hot to imagine hiking up with 10kg of luggage and enough water to make it 1,000m above sea level.
The main two camps are Mushroom Farm and Lukwe Lodge, both very well run eco-lodges. Compost toilets, solar power, organic gardens and potable spring water created a sustainable environment, and the mostly vegetarian, hippy/hipster, yoga type travelers lazing around reading for leisure made the atmosphere perfect. We only stayed one night, and it was a cold night in our hammocks, but we hiked to the falls and Livingstonia village, taking all kinds of “short cuts” that mostly made us hopelessly lost and take a lot longer.
We bounced around Lake Malawi to two other beach camps, first Nkhata Bay, then Kande Beach. We were trying to get to Kande Stables for some horse back riding, but they had just vaccinated their horses and the rains had started so we spent most of our time at Kande doing yoga under thatched roofs and playing cards with Kuche Kuche beer.
Nkhata Bay was addictive. Its this tiny slice of Malawi that has perfected the backpacker appeal, especially at Mayoka Village and Butterfly Camp, both running eco-friendly and community supportive initiatives. There’s the token beach bar, a PADI dive center, a safe little village with a market, an ATM, and a couple restaurants catering to westerners. We stayed at Mayoke, where kayaks, snorkel gear and stand up paddle boards were free to use. Everything you ate or drank got added to a tab, and by check out time 3 days later, it barely cost $40 for all our meals, booze, accommodation, and a 3 hour boat trip to feed fish eagles and cliff jump (off trees off cliffs!).
Nkhata Bay is the main port for boats to Likoma Island, and we were lucky enough to fit their infrequent ferry schedule into a 2 night trip. The boat was supposed to leave at 8, but left at 10:30, and was supposed to take 6 hours, but took 7 and a half. But the boat was airy, roomy, and only started to smell like fish after a cargo stop at Chizumulu Island. The fisherman rowed up to our ferry to sell us a few fish each, but it was more impressive to watch how they maneuvered these dug out canoes with a single wooden paddle, standing up and rowing over waves – I tried to row one a distance of about 150m and it took more than 30 mins and I almost flipped 3 times. But I still got a free drink out of it, because some people can’t make it 1 meter (and that’s with legs outside the boat – inside is nearly impossible).
There’s not much to do at Likoma Island other than do a lot of nothing. Snorkeling, diving, SUP’s and kayaks were also available, and the main tourist attraction is St. Peter’s Anglican Church, but they do boast one of Africa’s best boutique hotels. I didn’t get to visit, and it cost an arm and a leg just to eat there, so I’ll save it for some romantic getaway another time.
Malawi felt slower and safer than Tanzania, but also in many negative ways. Wifi was nearly nonexistent, and where it was, it didn’t work, but our one Airtel simcard managed to give us enough signal for whatsapp and google maps. Malawi seemed poorer, but only in wealth, not in pride. People were happy, and took care of their shacks with dignity, swept the street garbage, and never complained about carrying sacks of maize on their heads at high noon up the Livingstonia road. All the market ladies came each day to sell their goods, even though they all sold the same things. Oil, salt, tomatoes and dried little fish were repeated stall after stall, and no one ever seemed to buy it, but bananas and cassava (which grew everywhere!) were also in season and that’s what I saw people eating. Mangos didn’t need to be sold because they fell from the sky, plump and ripe and ready to eat, faster than we could eat them.
They say tobacco rules (and sometimes destroys) their economy but I barely saw any tobacco farms and only one brand of local cigarettes exists. Only one type of local beer is sold, and a handful of terrible moonshine gins and pineapple liquor pretty much summed up the only other local produce. I really wish the avocados had been more in season, but goat meat was sometimes fresh and live chickens roamed around quite healthily.
The one thing I was relieved to leave was the power cuts – for every 24 hours of black out time, the electricity provider sometimes turned on power for 8 or 16 hours, only to turn it off for another day or two, and this repeated itself over the days we were there on some ridiculous schedule, just convenient enough to keep our torches and phones charged, but not much else. Having a generator was a luxury item, and funnily enough Likoma Island, the more remote place we visited, was the most power sufficient. Our ferry back from Likoma was filled with dozens of 25 kg sacks of dried fish, the same as the ones from the market, and after lying around and on top of them for 8 hours, I’m still trying to shake the smell one week later… I definitely won’t miss that smell.