Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lapping up Malawi

The drive along the coastal road of Lake Malawi was not as close to the Lake as we had anticipated.  Having heard that Senga Bay was not quite as nice as Cape Maclear we decided to only pop in for a visit and see for ourselves, before heading further north towards Nkhata Bay. Senga Bay is very beautiful however quite expensive as it is one of the first tourist stops along the lake from Lilongwe as you head northwards. After visiting two potential accommodation spots we headed out of town to find some cheaper food.  We stopped in at a place outside Senga Bay village where we shared a chicken and chips lunch. The restaurant owner, James, was very interested in our trip and we chatted to him for a bit.  We asked him where we could stay at Nkhotkhota and he suggested a place run by a South African couple.  Although he was unable to remember the name, he gave us rough directions and his number to contact him if we were unable to find the place.  So off we headed back to the M1 to continue our journey north. There were a lot of police stops along the road all starting with the same question “where are you going? Where have you come from? Where are you from?” Occasionally we were asked for our drivers licence but all in all the police were very friendly and did not give us any hassles.
The road was in a good condition and as long as you dodged the heavily loaded bicycles, chickens, goats and people it was easy going.  We arrived at Nkhotakhota and filled up with petrol before attempting to look for James suggested camping spot.  We drove through the town towards the Lake, and when we reached the end of the road, we thought we had missed it, so we turned back and stopped in at St Annes to try call James.  Unfortunately we were unable to get hold of him, but two friendly chaps explained that the place James had referred to was probably Sitima Inn located exactly back along the road we had just taken. So we made another u-turn and headed back only to notice that where we had made our initial u-turn was right outside Sitima Inn – arghh poor signage had let us down.  Sitima Inn is a building from the 1960’s which the then town mayor had constructed using his own initiative and innovativeness without any funding from the government. His thriftiness was so ingenious that he managed to build the house for next to nothing, using the prisoners as labour, discarded railway tracks as lintels, old car windows for windows and building the place in such a way that there is natural light and air flow. The spot wasn’t set up for camping, and we were told that we could camp if we liked but would need to be careful as there is a crocodile in the swamps bordering the property.  So we decided to stay in the dorms instead and stripped our bikes of their valuables.

Towers of wood that the guiys carry on the old school bicycles
Senga Bay hotel
The coastal road
Sitima Inn
All our belongings!!
Excited to see Nkhata Bay after the great reviews we had received we left Sitima Inn early.  The road was in fairly good condition with a few potholes, possibly troublesome for a car, but with the motorbikes we managed to avoid hitting any. The road winded its way closer to the Lake, and before we knew it we were riding within 50meters of it.  Finally the coastal road views that we expected!!  We stopped on the side of the road to enjoy the view and weren’t surprised when a local cycling past stopped to chat to us and find out where we were from and where we were heading.  Malawians are extremely friendly and genuinely interested what we were doing and how we are enjoying Malawi. Before arriving at Nkhata Bay we drove through a rubber tree plantation and all along the side of the road people were selling cleverly wound up elastic band balls made from the rubber found in the rubber plantations.
A curious local
Rubber plantations
Big Blue Backpackers is located just off the main road before the town. A bit of a tricky driveway and we had arrived at our destination planning to stay a few days to use the free wifi.  Just our luck…it was not working! So we headed up to the bar instead where we were greeted with a panoramic view of Nkhata Bay!  Having arrived quite early we set out to explore the town.  It was a weekend so there was a bustle of activity with vendors trying to sell us fish and other arts and crafts.  We had heard about another camping spot called Butterfly and wanted to see what that place was like. The coastline around Nkhata Bay is made of many coves or smaller bays, so to get to Butterfly we had to walk through the town towards the next bay.  Along the way we stumbled into a local soccer match and enjoyed the festivities for a while.  We noticed standing behind a row of small shrubs behind us were a row of men in white overalls. We later realised that these were the prisoners standing outside the prison walls watching the match, while the 2 jail wardens (unarmed) enjoyed the game with them.  We watched until the game ended, and weirdly enough at the end of the match the home team (who had just lost the game) supporters seemed to be throwing rocks at the other team. Not quite the sportsmanship we are used to.   
 The uphill climb from the soccer match to Butterfly was relatively steep but gave us great views of the area.  Next to Butterfly was a place called Mioka Village a slightly more pricey, very well maintained backpackers. Butterfly has camping and dorms available and most of the people who stay there land up volunteering in local teaching programs run by the facility.
The main difference between Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear is the 5-8meter sandy shore you have to walk along at Cape Maclear, while Nkhata Bay is rocky with little to no shore to walk along, unless you go to the main swimming beach over into the next bay after Miyoka Village. We slowly strolled back to Big Blue and noticed that a bar close to Big Blue called Jam Rock was having a live local band and happy hour that night. Deciding to brave the local night scene we spent the rest of the afternoon doing a bit of fishing and reading.  The poster for Jam Rock said the party started at 7pm so around 7:30 we went to the Big Blue bar for a drink before heading out on the town.  We met a few other travellers who were also going to Jam Rock, and excited to see the place we left before them down to the pub.  Unbelievably loud music pumped out of the place, and we were surprised to find it nearly empty when we arrived after 8pm.  So we got a drink and attempted to chat over the loud music.  We sat around listening to blaring Reggae music until approximately 10pm when suddenly we realised that the place was full.  Party time! The band only set up around 11:30 and then didn’t even play because they couldn’t link the main guitar to the sound system.  So after a bit of dancing and mingling we headed home for bed. 
We enjoyed a breakfast cooked for us and chilled around the backpackers reading up on Lonely Planet guides and catching a few snippets of TV.  It was at this point that we heard the manager shouting at her staff and realised that the backpackers wasn’t quite where we wanted to spend a few days.  So we walked into town for a few supplies had a delicious egg fried rice dinner and got ready to leave in the morning.
Big Blue bar view
The soccer match we watched
Chips fry up !
Egg fry rice !!!
Road distance markers...easily missed !!
A few people we had met on the journey so far had suggested we visit a spot called Mushroom Farm to see the incredible views over the lake from the escarpment heading up to the Niyka plateau.  The route towards Chitimbe (the town where the turn off to Mushroom Farm is) took us through some incredible passes.  We climbed up and over and suddenly saw the coastline of Malawi from a higher altitude.  It reminded us a bit of the view we had seen entering into Mossel Bay, just the water below was a fresh water lake and not the sea! Stopping to admire the view, we noticed a troop of baboons sitting in the road.  As a taxi screamed around the corner finished corn cobs were thrown out the window and the baboons scrambled to get their share.  At first Teeny was about to warn the driver of the baboons in the road, but when they threw the corn cobs out she realised they were well aware the baboons were there. A little frightened we quickly rode past the baboons worried they would think we had something for them too!
At Chitimbe we saw the dirt road up towards our destination.  Starting with a sand patch, we weren’t quite sure what lay ahead of us.  We had been warned that the road would be difficult, but after the first two bends we stopped to contemplate whether we should go further.  Deciding every bad road is good training for what lies ahead we carried on through bumpy, rocky, rutted switchbacks and inclines like nothing we have encountered so far.  It was quite a tiring ride in the midday heat and we dripped into Mushroom Farm.  The view was breath-taking from 1200meters above sea level.  As we signed in with Mick and told him about our adventure he asked if we had a week to spare to watch his place while he went to Blantyre to do some official business.  Not having had a long break off the bike, we decided that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to help him out. 
The next day we walked with Margot and Louise (two independent travellers who had met up in Kenya) to Livingstonia.  A strange little town scattered with old colonial buildings from 1904-1908 with a university in the centre. We stopped in at the museum for some lunch and before we knew it 3 hours had passed while we shared travel experiences and advice on places to see and stay. Not having enough day light time to see the Manchewe Falls we headed back to camp to chat to Mick about staying for the week.   He was happy to hear that we wanted to stay and start immediately, so the next day we were up at 6am to learn about the daily routine. 
Our first tasks included switching off the lights, turning the solar panels towards the sun and letting out the ducks and chickens and giving them food and water.  We then had to collect the eggs and make sure the kitchen staff were cleaning up and starting the fires for breakfasts and hot water showers.  Mushroom farm is a self-contained establishment using only solar panels for power, a decomposing toilet and fires to heat water and cook food. Most of the herbs and chillies are also grown in the garden.  The rest of the days activities involved turning the solar panels as the sun moved, switching on and stocking the one fridge as required and dealing with guests as they arrived.  At dusk we had to put the chickens and ducks away, feed the 4 dogs (Marley, Charlie, King and Pigsly) and get dinner out to guests.  We had to socialise with the guests and make sure they were happy and had everything they needed for their stay at Mushroom Farm. Pretty easy, so after one more day of getting to grips with the how everything was run, Mick left for Blantyre. 
The first few nights were quite busy, but we managed to run the place pretty smoothly.  Mick had also mentioned a few odd jobs that needed to be done around the place, so Nick set to work building shelves for the storage room, a display rack for the bottles of alcohol in the bar and preparing poles to construct a new roof over the shower.  After those were finished and the camp had quietened down we set to work levelling off an area which Mick planned to use for overlanders with rooftop tents.  Quite a job considering the site is built on the side of a mountain with lots of trees, rocks and deep roots.  As there is only one fridge stocked mainly with booze the food at Mushroom Farm is predominantly vegetarian.  After eating that for 5 days we asked Efreeda, the chef, to arrange a chicken for us from the village.  The next day she brought a large white bird in for us.  Lets just say we understand the meaning of ‘running around like a headless chicken’ and after many laughs and intrigue in the whole process we ate a fantastic dinner, lunch and dinner again of chicken.  The rest of the week flew, and we spent the last two days relaxing watching a few movies we had on our harddrive and lying in the hammocks enjoying the amazing views. Mick arrived back happy to see the place in one piece and all the work we had done, and asked if we wanted to stay a little longer on the house.  Eager to move on and continue with our trip we thanked him for the offer and got ready to leave the next day. 
The start of the road to mushroom farm
Teeny tumble spot !
And the views were deffinatly worth it
A cobler mending a shoe
Everyone is allways facinated to see their pics after you have taken them !
Nick starting on the shelves
Kitchen/Bar area
The loo...
With a view !!
Nick starting on the leveling for the overland trucks
Evening moon over the lake
Display shelf
Off with your head !!!!
Neti giving us a hand, what a machine this lady was !!
Hmmmm yummi !!!
A hearty breakfast and exchange in emails we set off down the hill expecting the difficult road we had encountered on the way up.   Luckily during the two weeks we had been at Mushroom Farm, some maintenance had been done on the road and the descent was much easier than anticipated. We drove on to the most northern town, Karonga, where we searched with the help from two locals for a place to stay.  Having had no internet or power to charge our laptop, we had only two criteria.  Neither of these were fulfilled at the places we looked at so we headed out of town in search of another place.  At the police stop we asked where we could camp and the officer suggested Beach Chamber only 1km up the road.  With a secluded beach and possible internet connection, we set up camp happy to be near the Lake where it is warmer.  We treated ourselves to steak and chicken before jumping into bed early.  That night we heard things dropping on our tent all night and in the morning realised we had put our tent directly under a fruit tree and exactly below the bats dinner table. 
We slept in in the morning after having been up at 6am for over a week.  We headed down the road to look for some breakfast and at this point Teeny’s broken slop was driving her nuts, so she took it off and held it in her hand.  As we approached the vendors a guy came up to Teeny, grunted a bit and grabbed her broken slop and walked off with it.  Slightly confused we continued to browse the stalls before searching for the man with Teeny’s slop.  There he was at the base of a tree with needle and string sewing the slop back together.  Aware that we didn’t have any smaller money on us, we waited till he was done and found out his price before heading back to Beach Chamber to get some change.  The search continued for breakfast, and we settled on some doughnuts (excluding the sugar top) and a funny banana mash and maize covered in a banana leaf – not great!
Needing a few supplies from Karonga, we headed back to camp to see if there was someone heading into town.  Just our luck a bakkie was heading into town, and we jumped in and were dropped off at the ‘Old Karonga’ part of the town where the market is located.  We checked our emails and wandered the shops and market finding everything we needed.  The market was amazing, not bigger than an average street block it had everything from fresh veggies, fish, tools, fabrics, clothes, cookware you name it, it was there! We even bumped into a guy who worked at Beach Chamber and recognised us. He told us that a bicycle ride back shouldn’t cost more than MK100/R2 so we headed back to the main road to find transport back to camp.  What a great experience on our last day in Malawi, after having passed so many bicycle ‘taxi’s’ on the road we finally got to see what it was like.  They are surprisingly stable and comfortable and more importantly affordable! When we got back we played some games on the computer as the internet still wasn’t up, cooked an easy meal and sipped on our last Malawian beer before heading to bed.
Beach Chamber camp
Koronga which has a museum with the Malawisaurus
Our bicycle riders

No comments:

Post a Comment