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How not to drown on Lake Malawi

It was a slightly inauspicious start. A lovely but very 'feely' Welsh-German couple (Marcus and Alena), Lisa and I had decided that we couldn't really afford to wait and see if the Ilala ever showed up again, and so would try and leave the following day. Not knowing what time anything (if it ever did) was going to happen, we reluctantly decided that we had to leave early. So we were up at 4am to pack up and walk across the island with all our cr*p, so as to arrive t the 'port' in time for the earliest time somebody had guessed at: 6am. And it was whilst packing up that Marcus managed to get stung by a scorpion. Somehow he also managed to capture it in a plastic bottle. The night watchman was found (amazingly, the first night watchman I have come across in Africa who was not drunk or asleep or both), and the question asked of him 'Is it dangerous?'. 'YES' came the shrieked reply, which did not necessarily have the required calming affect on the happy couple. 'Is it poisonous?' Alena then asked after a short pause. 'Oh no', came the reply from the guard. Apparently, Marcus would live.

Starting the walk in darkness through snake and scorpion infested long grass on a steep hill was not ideal, but we managed to walk all the way across without further incident, arriving at the docking area to discover.... Nothing. The boat was gone. B*llox. I had got out of bed at 4am for this???

A much much smaller boat stood on the other-side, and it was soon ascertained that it was also heading to Nkhata Bay, and at 6 'o' clock. Perhaps our luck wasn't as bad as all that. And having agreed a fare, at the astonishing time of 6:03 (so punctual that by African standards it was at least 2hours early) the Emmanuel headed out with about 30 of us on board. Nobody seemed to have the faintest idea where the boat had come from, but that wasn't really any of our concern.

Leaving Likoma, blissfully unaware of what would happen next

After a leisurely trip around the southern end of Likoma, we did start to ponder certain other small questions: Was the boat seaworthy? Where the heck did those waves come from and is my head supposed to be getting continually drenched by them? And wasn't that bag now floating rapidly away on the Lake, on our boat a few seconds ago? That sort of thing. To be fair, it wasn't really all that rough by standards of some places I have been. However, when you are on a small boat, being listing by well over a metre and your feet are getting wet - and basically in the Lake - every few seconds, it felt pretty bad. I was sitting on the metal hatch in the centre on the boat, the only person not crammed around its edge or on the (singular) seat, which mean't that I had nothing to hold on to and was thus sliding around like a giraffe on a skidpan: I was petrified that I would accidentally slide into somebody and push them overboard, though at least that would mean more room for me...

An hour or so of increasingly worse bobbing about and some of the people were becoming antsy. Many of the locals were, erm, not that happy at the state of affairs, although the mzungu's – who were not used to boats of any size – were taking it much worse. I was by far the calmest of the 6 mzungu's on board but that is not really saying allot, and the though of traveling another 6-8-? hours across open lake in this wind and waves was not my idea of fun, especially on a small boat with no seats, nothing to hold on to and no safety equipment. Lake Malawi is large enough to get some very bad – and changeable weather – and small boats are lost with alarming regularity. Marcus seemed to be taking it worse, or at least the most vocally, and it was probably by seeing him (Marcus is a former Cardiff Blues rugby player, and thus not a small man), the biggest of the Mzungus so scared and constantly shouting at the captain, that helped them relax a bit. In general terms, providing there is somebody more scared than you, you will be OK and can calm down a bit. And Marcus was very definitely scared.

Much calmer by now, but stilll some unhappy Mzungu's....

Eventually, it was announced that we were going to go and moor on Chizi to await the wind and conditions hopefully calming down. Whether the captain was going to anyway, I really don't know, but i would say that the threat of physical harm and potential hijacking of the boat by Marcus may have possibly helped his decision making process... So 2.5hours and ll of 11km later, we were back on Chizumulu.

From there, it wasn't so bad. Though it sure as heck was not calm, when we resumed our voyage a couple of hours later (after some very scared mzungu's had almost abandoned and opted to stay on Chizi for as long a needed, and having gained another 15 or so locals to another vocal discussion on overloading involving the crew and certain Mzungu's), our heavily laden small boat made its way back across Mozambique territorial waters to the mainland fairly easily. A few sketchy moments and occasional refreshing wetness to be sure, but apart from being cramped into a horribly uncomfortable small corner for 6hours, not too bad.

Relaxed locals on the approach to Nkhata Bay

I doubt many people have been so pleased to arrive at Nkhata Bay a some of the passengers on our boat were.

The Malawian shipping company had published an advert in the national papers a few weeks earlier (I had not seen it), basically saying that the Ilala is not seaworthy and that everybody travels on her at their own risk: EG – Don't blame or sue us when it sinks. If and when she does go down (pretty much everybody agrees that it is inevitable, though everybody hopes it never comes to that) it will be a tragedy on a huge scale and there will be massive loss of life. And it will, due to a complete lack of alternatives around lead, doubtlessly, to any number of similar crossings on small boats. Lets just say that i'm happy that i've visited Lake Malawi now, and didn't drown to tell the tale.


The Emmanuel, our vessel, at Nkhata Bay and (bottom) the remains of that orange thing was the only thing vaguely resembling a life jacket on the entire boat

Posted by Gelli 03:07 Archived in Malawi Tagged boating

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