Life In Paradise: Part II
Malawi Travel Blog› entry 11 of 12 › view all entries
At 580km long and up to 100km wide, Lake Malawi is the third-largest lake in Africa, and is feckin' huge. Being on its shore is far more like being on a sea-shore, with fresh breeze and lapping waves, than being on a lake shore. Except for the fact that it is fresh-water, which means it is nicer to swim in and has a unique biota. And has Bilharzia, which is a lovely tropical disease that we might all have. But its not fatal, usually. And takes six weeks before you can even test for it, use preventative medicine, show any symptoms. All to do with worms burrowing into your skin and the time it takes for the parasites therein to develop. Which is nice. But back to the lake. Its also 700 metres deep at its deepest point, which would be over 200 metres below sea-level, which I find rather cool. And for the geologists out there, it means that the below a couple of hundred metres the lake is indeed stagnant and anoxic. It also covers 20% of Malawi's surface area, so is rather important economically.
Cape Maclear, where we've stayed for the last week lies on the southern end of the lake on a peninsular. Like most popular travelling destinations it lies just outside a national park, which in this instance, was the world's first freshwater park. Once a backpackers mecca, the crowds moved on in the late nineties, notably to Nkhata Bay further North up the coast. Many of the established haunts and activity centres have gone broke and closed since the travel guides were last there. But the place is picking up. New establishments have opened and its still fairly touristy. Well fairly, to be honest there are virtually no tourists numerically, but its a small place and fairly tourist centric so it feels like there are more than there are. We've spent our week at Gaia House, right on the lake shore (as all these places are). Its a nice little touristy lodge, a little more expensive than the true backpacker's haunt Fat Monkeys down the other end but we were splashing out at the end of the trip. And they did pancakes as part of the breakfast menu, so I indulged everyday for a week! Its a little slice of paradise, with trees and hammocks and a beach on which the beach boys, more on them in a mo, can't tout for business. A lovely place to spend a week at the end of our trip.
The beach boys are a group of charismatic, friendly locals who's main purpose is to extract money from you. Being it selling you goods, such as paintings and necklaces and bracelets, or organising beach barbeques (Braii's) or day trips on boats with snorkelling and such. You can view it in two different ways, either they are exploiting your lack of local knowledge of what things cost, and are outrageously overcharging for what is never quite as awesome as they make out, constantly pestering you to do stuff when you don't care etc etc. Or you can see them as friendly guys wanting you to have a good time in their village and extend your few days here into a longer trip (which we did) to pump more money into their incredibly poor economy. I thought the former at the start of the week, the latter by the end. The truth, like all things geological (and probably in life aswell, i just haven't checked yet), is somewhere inbetween. The beach boys tend to learn your name very quickly and because they deal with tourists they tend to earn enough money to be able to drink at the tourist bars in the evenings, so you end up having nights out with them too. Again you could regard this cynically, that they easily make more money from you than they do spending money in the bar. Its the old adage of having to spend money to make money.
So what did we actually do? Whilst Chris was off on his PADI course Alex and I spent a day on the beach, where I got sunburnt a bit, which was annoying, but it wasn't bad enough to peel, which relieved me greatly. We also went on a boat trip out to the local islands organised by a couple of the beach boys. They provided snorkels and masks so we went snorkelling and such, and the lunch was excellent but it was overpriced. Once Chris was done we attempted to climb the local mountain overlooking Cape Maclear. We took with us a beach boy who claimed to know the way to the top, but in fact, only knew the way to the look-out points where most people go. And also got blisters in his undone boots with no socks. Oh really, what a suprise. So we sent him packing and attempted to climb the mountain ourselves. We got quite far using the general tactic of up, as the paths became more and more vague and animal created, baboon tracks rather than sheep tracks in Malawi! But eventually the vegetation closed in around us too much to make any kind of signiciant forward progress, along with an ever increasing frequency and size of granite boulders (them again) that made the mountain pretty much impassable from the southern ridge we were attempting to ascend it from. So we descended suprisingly quickly.
At this point I wasn't best pleased with life in Cape Maclear, it seemed like a lot of hassle, especially from the beach boys for not much reward, and to be honest, I was quite ready to head somewhere else. So when Rich and Claire (I think that was their names), friends of Rob, Chris' PADI instructor, told us that they were willing to give us a lift to the airport in their rented car on the morning we and they would fly out of Malawi, I wasn't exactly up for it. It would mean an extra two days getting bored on the beach with not much to do (some of the extra water based activities, such as sitting in those rubber tube things being towed along by a boat!, were run by hostels/lodges which either only catered for residents (the posh ones) or had broken boats (the cheap ones). And no time spent exploring what is meant to be an excellent market in Lilongwe, much better than any markets in any of the towns we had visited so far, along with missing out on the tobacco market auction halls which are meant to be a cool sight. But it meant a day not spent on cramped buses. And Alex and Chris were both in favour of such a move, as Alex is quite content to sit on beaches doing nothing and Chris wasn't likely to get bored when he could go scuba diving whenever he wanted. So we went with staying for an extra two days.
The rest of the week turned out to be really cool, and I grew to love the place. We spent a full day kayaking between the islands and various points in the national park. Spending time on deserted, isolated, beaches and lots of snorkelling. The snorkelling was fantastic. Cape Maclear is home to loads of different kinds of fish in a multitude of colours, though blue seemed to be a particular favourite, there were various white, completly black, translucent, yellow, orange, brown fish. And there was variation between each site we snorkelled at so each time was new and exciting. All in all great fun. The following day I climbed the mountain again with two guides. One of which was in training so we spent a fair amount of the lower slopes letting him make mistakes and walking about the wrong routes until he realised. But despite taking a different approach to the mountain, we encountered similar problems to before, the paths disappeared and the vegetation closed in. And despite the best efforts of all three of us to find a path, any path to get us up, it became difficult. We had reached the stage where we were above the shoulder of the mountain so as the gradient decreased it became harder to determine the right way by gradient. The patch of tall trees could have been up, or they could have been a patch of tall trees. Coupled with yet more granite boulders we eventually decided to descend. Although it was a much more enjoyable experience. My final full day was spent sitting on the beach under a tree, getting my hair dreadlocked! It took three hours of two people tugging and pulling my hair and generally causing pain and discomfort before they were done. But the results are pretty cool, and much less ridiculous than I was expecting.
We've made friends over the course of the week with a group of eleven students from the university of Glasgow who were in Cape Maclear for a week, having been teaching kids in schools near Blantyre previously. Three of them were doing the PADI course with Chris, and over the course of the week we got to know them a bit, sharing Braais, going on the boat trip and nights out drinking. Although it was quite hard at first to even attempt to integrate such a close knit group (eleven people together for ten weeks gets quite close-knit), they were friendly enough and interesting people. And generally we had some good nights out with them. Their karma boosting work did make me feel a little guilty, especially when combined with the volunteer clinic located next door to Gaia. If I get to go on another lengthy trip, and who knows if I will what with the world of work looming after next year, then I think something volunteer based would be quite cool.
And so the onward journey home beckoned, but more on that soon. I really can't do straight-forward border crosssings anymore. I appear to have lost the knack!