Thursday, May 6
Monkey Bay - Lilongwe, Malawi
It is the UK Elections today but I haven’t got a clue what is happening. Haven’t seen or heard any international news since Mbeya.
I have to confess that I lost it with the UNHCR today. For a change Bjorn’s bike is the one causing us problems. The low gears are all kaput. We asked the UNHCR to pick us up and transport us to Llongwe but they told us that ‘after a meeting they decided they cannot facilitate a lift’.
So I told them: “Bjorn has been on the road for more than 300 days; has spent around 20 grand of his own money so that he can help the refugees. And you cannot provide us with a two-hour lift?”
We are both fuming and feeling disillusioned. Disillusioned that is until Mr. Abel Mbilinyi, the UNHCR chief representative for Malawi, phones me and tells me he has fixed a lift for us. He is also organising a press conference in Llongwe and a visit to a refugee camp, and has the initiative to contact Zambia himself to tell them of our ETA there. Now this, finally, is what we wanted and needed from the UNHCR. You help us because we are helping you!
Bjorn needed this news. He was at the end of his tether to be honest.
A UNHCR land cruiser and a driver turn up at Monkey Bay three hours later as a troupe of monkeys converge on the port.
By sundown we have been escorted all the way to the Malawian capital, met a number of local representatives and…been checked into a local lodge where we are accommodated on a dinner, bed and breakfast by our new Malawian UNHCR friends. We didn’t expect this but it is highly appreciated. We each have our own room and enjoy a great meal before retiring to the unique experience of our own individual bedrooms. I even have satellite TV, enabling me to catch the UK election results as they trickle in on Al Jazeera.
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.