Tuesday, May 4
Half of our white friends leave the boat at midnight at Chizumulu Island. The remainder of our new travel companions alight at Likoma Island at 5am as the first shards of a magnificent sunrise begin to consume the skyline. You can partake of some of the world’s cheapest diving lessons on this beautiful island. Just jump off the MV Ilaya, dive and relax, and wait 7 days for her return.
Once again, Bjorn and I have the top deck of the boat to ourselves and greet the crew members at breakfast as if we ourselves are now part of the ship’s company.
The day is spent as follows:
Sunbathe on deck. Write blogs. Think. Admire the almost entirely deserted coastline. (It puts me in mind of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, and reminds Bjorn of the Norwegian fjords)
Consider meaning of life. Start dreaming about the World Cup. Walk around the wooden deck watching the ship’s crew working.
The ship pulls anchor at Metangula, Mozambique in mid-afternoon, on the eastern shore of Lake Niassa (Mozambique name for the lake). Mountains soar above; strange and wonderfully-shaped trees dotting the landscape. As well as being home to a local community of fishermen it is also where the Mozambique Navy has its base on this huge inland sea.
A flock of 30-40 birds of prey circle in the sky above Metangula, looking for a kill, like a scene from a Spaghetti Western. I have never seen this spectacle anywhere else in the world.
For the remainder of the day we ride the waves of Mozambique’s territorial waters. For the moment, Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi seem relatively laid back about what and where constitutes their watery boundaries, but you feel that water, minerals and fishing rights might change all that one day on this magnificently beautiful stretch of African water.
We are the only passengers using the first class deck to live and sleep, and on the only foreigners on board.
Evening life on the ocean waves:
Reading the excellent ‘Dangling Man’ by Saul Bellow. Egg and chips for dinner. 3 bottles of Malawi’s finest stout. Thinking. Watching five pirate episodes of Prison Break. Once again contemplating the meaning of life. Missing my family. Wishing my girlfriend was with me. Watching kids fishing in canoes. Staring up in childlike wonderment at the star-filled sky.
Cockroaches crawl everywhere and the rat tries to gnaw its way out of one of the boxes containing lifejackets as we once again make up our beds for the night. The diffused deck lights give one of the cockroaches a 2-metre long shadow as I zip up my sleeping bag and close my eyes.
Monday, May 3
I am awoken by a blast of the ship’s fog horn as anchor is cast close to Ncharo in the early hours. I drift back to sleep.
The morning light comes early in Malawi and I am fully awake by 6am. Bjorn is shivering and has either picked up some kind of bug or ten months of travel has finally caught up with him. Can’t imagine eating flies on the Tanzanian border helped!
Fleetingly, and in silence, I admire the lake in all of its morning glory and then enjoy ‘a full English breakfast’ in the crew dining room.
We dock at Usisya. Fifty women, kids and men cram into the support vessel that is designed for twenty two.
We haven’t created the best of first impressions. You see, we rather assumed there world be an ATM in Chilumba prior to boarding the Ilaya. There was not. We have no Malawian Kwacha and not enough dollars to pay for our passage.
The boat docks at Nkhata Bay around 2pm, on the shores of Lake Malawi. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly for us, it is a national holiday today meaning the banks are closed. No ATM.
Two store-fronts away from the bank I meet the local money changer. He is the only man in town I have seen who isn’t African. Turns out he is from Lahore. He looks like a baddie in a well-made gangster film and, although friendly, seems to treat me with suspicion. Still, he offers me the best dollar-kwacha rate in Malawi and we now at least have cash for a decent lunch of Nsima (a great dollop of maize that looks like mashed potato)
Nkhata Bay is a pleasant town of well-run stores, street traders and small restaurants. It appears to be developing nicely. We watch the local football team play in front of a thousand or so spectators, sip a bottle of Kweche Kweche beer with an affable Malawian army officer by the waterfront and then return to the ship.
The MV Ilaya is a beautiful ship. She resembles a 1920s coastal steamer and puts me in mind of Humphrey Bogart in the classic black & white film, The African Queen.
On deck we have been joined by the biggest collection of mzungus we have seen since my first days in Nairobi. Our deck companions include Nina, a German journalist, who is travelling for one year with her boyfriend; a Slovenian couple; a pair of Basque lesbians and a fascinating Maltese-British bloke who sold his business in the late 90s and has been travelling ever since.
It turns chilly as soon as the sun sinks below the horizon; our warm sleeping bags and carry mats sucking in moisture causing them to be wet by the time we decide to sleep.
I leave the muzungus to it and crash out early along with the deck’s resident rat and two-dozen cockroaches.
Sunday, May 2
Malawi border - Chilumba, Malawi
Upon waking up, Bjorn admits he has considered 'strangling me to death with a pillow' because of my crap bike and amateurish cycling skills.
After a slightly odd breakfast consisting of a flask of hot milk and a loaf of white bread the owner of Lubele Village Motel, Clement Mchomvu, goes out of his way to help us with the impending issues of the day:
A bicycle repair man comes to the motel and provides a new tyre and inner after repairing the wheel. Total price including labour - 7 pounds.
Next, Clement finds a trustworthy money changer who exchanges our unused Tanzanian Schillings for Malawian Kwacha…at a fair rate.
As if all this help wasn’t enough, Clement then cycles with us to the border to make sure we get through both sets of customs and sends us safely on our way into Malawi.
My initial impressions of Malawi and Malawians are that this country is poorer than either Kenya or Tanzania, and its people look tougher. The road to the first big town, Karonga, is flat as a pancake meaning we make quick progress. From there it is around 65 kilometres to Chilumba on Lake Malawi.
Kids ask for pens, shoes and money. The road is still flat but, aside from the colourful people that reside close to it, uninspiring compared to the amazing countryside on the other side of the border.
We reach Chilumba and locate the ferry terminal. Relying on unsubstantiated information I believe a once-weekly ferry leaves from here around midnight but it doesn’t appear as if a ferry has docked here in years.
Looks, however, can be deceptive and it turns out, fortuitously, that my information is correct.
Chilumba is a one-street cowboy town. Its restaurant-, bar- and store fronts haven’t seen a lick of paint in a decade. Every male of adult age appears to be drinking beer or spirits. It would be rude not to join them. Amongst our new found friends is Moses, who used to work at the nearby BP storage terminal but now does odd jobs to make ends meet, Justice, the River Steamer ticket master, who wants to become a preacher, and Joseph, a dapper, proud-looking 65-year-old man wearing a stetson and sharp pin-striped suit. Justice is the only man in town who doesn’t drink. But he, along with 90 per cent of the locals, is, shall we say, a little eccentric (in a nice way).
If Kenya and Tanzania are typical of Africa then the inhabitants of this tiny corner of Malawi, at least, remind me of the good citizens of Barbados and Jamaica.
Care of the only parable antenna in town we watch Chelsea overhaul Liverpool along with two-dozen kids crammed into a hut that resembles a classroom then set up camp at Chilumba Port as darkness cloaks the landscape.
Justice is so keen to become a preacher that he asks Bjorn to put him in touch with some Norwegian Missionaries. It is fair to say that although my Norwegian friend is a man of many good morals, he is not a religious man.
Not a man to be easily put off, Justice then requests that we join him in his solemn retro-office where, surrealy, he shows us three type-writer versions of the same CV. He got ’7’ for Bible Reading when he left school in 1974. He wants us to make a video of him so that potential missions might see our short film and contact him.
You can watch this fascinating little piece of cinematic magic here:
(LINK will appear here later)
The MV Ilala arrives at 9pm and we are allowed to board this beauty of a river steamer. She will be home for the next three days as we sail the entire 700-kilometre length of Lake Malawi to try and make up for the time we have lost with my ongoing bike problems.
Bed for the night is a sleeping bag on the wooden top deck of the steamer, under the brilliant stars.
This is travel at its most romantic; a throwback to a bygone era. I lay my head down, smell the fresh breeze, admire the starry sky...and fall into a deep, cosy slumber.