Lilongwe to South Luangwa National Park

After more than a week bouncing around the shores of Lake Malawi, we headed to Lilongwe from Kande Beach. Some will tell you it takes 4 hours, others 6, but really it takes about 10 if traveling by local buses. These ‘matolas,’ small 14 seater buses, will actually squeeze in more than 20 people, and stop to drop off and pick up people as long as there’s space to sell one more passenger in, including whatever cargo they may have with them (ie. live chickens, 25kg corn flour sacks, or smelly dried sardines). They’ll tell you they’re going to Lilongwe, but really they’re just going to the next big town where they can buy you into their buddy’s bus, which goes to the next town, and 3 bus exchanges later (if you’re lucky), you’ll actually get to Lilongwe.

Goodbye Lake Malawi

In Lilongwe we stayed at Mabuya, a backpacker friendly hostel and camp site, but with the early arrival of the rainy season, decided that sleeping outside in our hammocks was a bad idea. We were short on kwacha, but they accepted visa once in a while, and this was one of those nights. It poured from the moment we arrived until we went to sleep, so the $12 splurge on a dorm bed was well worth it, although we missed out on enjoying the swimming pool.

A warm welcome to Zambia

The next morning we left at 6:30, and took a local bus to the bus station. From there, we found a bus to Machinji ‘border,’ which doesn’t go to the border, but takes you to Mchinji town (2000 kwacha, 2 hours). Another 1000 kwacha in a shared taxi took us the last few kilometers to the border, which we walked across, and bought a single-entry Zambian visa for $50US (NB: the coop $30 Zambia/Zimbabwe visa is not available at this border).

Our first sunrise in Mfwue, just seconds after the baboon perched on our picnic table ran away

From there, it was another shared taxi to the next town, Chipata 30km away. The atm at the border didn’t work, no one exchanged shillings or pounds, and after our unexpected visa fees we had no extra dollars. But the shared taxi took us to a Barclays in Chipata, where we had to wait in a long line to use the atm (it was down for the first 15 minutes) or get special permission from the manager to change pounds. I’ve heard Zimbabwe is bad, but this was still worse than I expected. It may have been because it was the first of the month and a Friday, but it was still surprising how difficult it took for us to get local kwachas.

Zebra crossing on the way to South Luangwa

Now it was 12:30, and the taxi had waited an hour for us, but he still only charged us 50 Zambian Kwacha and then dropped us off to the Chipata bus station, where we could get a bus to Mfuwe. We had heard shared taxi’s also do the route, for the same price and a lot faster, so after talking to a few drunkards and some taxi drivers, we finally found out they were waiting somewhere else 3 km away.

Even a lying down giraffe is tall

We were off by 13:30 in a shared taxi, for another 50 kwacha where they say they only take 4 passengers, but a 5th one was always rotating in and out during the 133km journey to Mfwue. We arrived at the doors of Croc Valley, 2 km outside of South Luangwa Park’s gates, just before 4. We checked in for a 2 night, 2 safari, 4 meal deal and slept in our hammocks the first night.

Lazy cat

Even though Croc valley isn’t technically in the park, there are no gates or fences, so the shallow Luangwa river didn’t stop hippos from coming up on our side. After asking permission to sleep in hammocks, and being assured it was safe, we were told there was a small chance some grazing hippos might show up in the middle of the night, and we had to just stay calm and quiet. Sure enough, around 3 am, a large, chomping, snorting hippo decided to nearly graze me he was grazing so close.

Sunrise from Croc Valley

The next morning, after a game drive, the manager of Croc Valley told us we weren’t allowed to sleep in hammocks, since crocodiles also roamed around freely, and “a hyena might come and bite your face off.” So after that kind of warning, we moved into the canvas tents, especially after seeing the size of some of the spiders and avoiding a snake as we took down camp.

Bushbuck antelope are loving the new greenery after the first rains

The place was seething with insects as soon as nightfall came. All sizes and shapes of insects I’ve never seen, and a lovely bunch of mosquitos, plus thieving baboons and monkeys to avoid. A gecko pooped on me while doing yoga on the patio, and the swimming pool had a warning sign advising “please make sure there are no hippos, snakes or crocodiles before swimming.” We managed to eat our meals in peace, since the waiters carried slingshots to threaten any monkeys away, and took a sunset safari in the park to see pukus and zebras who truly have only white and black stripes (that carry on all the way under their bellies). After running into a few more grazing hippos on our way home after dark just outside of camp, we were relieved to sleep in our bush tent, especially once the thunder and lightning started up.

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Livingstonia, Lake Malawi and Likoma Island

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.

Welcome to Malawi

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.

Our cozy beds – hammocks in trees

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 bar and dining area at Lukwe

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.

Chitimba Beach and a dugout canoe

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 sundowners

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!).

Getting shuttled off the ferry at Likoma island

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).

At Mango Drift

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.

Coming back victorious on the dugout canoe

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.

St. Peter’s cathedral

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.

I can smell the fish just by looking at this photo

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.