Wednesday, May 5
Monkey Bay, Malawi
Another crack-of-dawn spectacular sunrise. I awaken feeling the most relaxed I have since I left Birmingham on April 9.
The Lake Malawi scenery is as amazing as ever as we dock at Chipoka. When we finally pass Mumbo Island (real name) and turn into the southern most section of Lake Malawi I feel sad to be leaving the MV Ilaya. It has been three days of magnificent fjord-like scenery in a corner of the world where few outsiders visit.
The feeling of absolute freedom and being far removed from the modern world has also built in the past 24 hours.
The peninsula is home to Lake Malawi National Park, dramatic rock faces soaring out of the lake as we pull into boat’s final stop: Monkey Bay.
We are greeted by two uniformed customs officials, who have probably been sent to check whether we have genuinely had an ATM nightmare or are taking the Michael.
We are also greeted by the world’s worst wide boy, Shaun. You know the drill: overly friendly local wants to be your best mate within three minutes of setting foot on dry land. He wants to help you find accommodation, transport, marijuana…love. He reckons that you are so wet behind the ears that you believe it costs 30 quid for a room in a crap motel and 10 quid to take a bus one hour to the nearest village.
We dump all our things in a room at the Ilaya Village and set off on a 120-kilometre round journey to the nearest ATM. Yes, a whole afternoon of travel and an almost 100 mile return journey just to take cash out of an ATM.
Our unwanted trek does have its reward however. The local bus ride from Monkey Bay to Mangochi conjures up some of the most unique and inspiring scenery I have seen anywhere in the world on my travels. I see at least four types of tree I have never set eyes on before; there are ancient rock formations jutting out of the landscape in all shapes and sizes; giant termite mounds dot the fields like mole hills would in the rural English countryside. I know nothing about this place but it feels remarkable. Unique;
Truly ancient and inspiring to the imagination.
The ATM trip proves to be a success. We manage to withdraw the necessary cash, narrowly avoid a tight spot with some local lads and get back to Monkey Bay before sundown.
The fun is not over though. Wells, a member of the MV Ilaya’s crew, asks us to join him at his favourite local Monkey Bay bar so that we can try a dram or two of Malawi’s favourite beer, Chibuku.
Chibuku is sold in one-litre milk cartons. It costs a fraction of the price of local beers, and discarded containers litter the floor of the bar and its environs.
Chibuku is the pride of Malawi. It is made from a combination of ingredients including maize, starch, sugar cane and sugar. It tastes like a mix of home brewed beer, milk, vegetable pulp and spirit. I know that sounds a bit all over the place but, believe me, this stuff is all over the place.
“How strong is it?”
“It depends on which day you open it. It gets stronger and better with time…but then gets worse,”
We spend some quality hours with Wells and some of his mates discussing subjects as varied as techniques for the measurement of Lake Malawi lake floor and England’s likely chances of winning the 2010 World Cup finals…then break our don’t-walk-home-alone-in-the-dark-rule.
Safely tucked up in bed, Bjorn grabs the copy of the Gideon bible that lives in our room.
As I have mentioned before, Bjorn is not a religious man but seems increasingly interested in the bible, particularly when he has had a beer or two:
“Justin! Tell me when to stop.”
“Tell me when to stop and I will open a page in the bible.”
“Now say stop again and I will select a verse.”
“You OK mate? Err, stop.”
“Ezekiel chapter 1, verse 20:
Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”
I kid you not. Surely the only bicycle reference to be found in the bible. The way it is going Bjorn will become a missionary by the time he reaches Johannesburg.
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.