A Travellerspoint blog

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 Comments (0)

Island life on Likoma

I had originally planned to cross from Chizi to Likoma by getting a place on a local Dhow, but barely minutes before i started to walk to the dock, I somehow managed to arrange to hitch a lift on a handily timed passing World Food Program boat. As you do.



Likoma is a slight curiosity. A small island with a correspondingly small population, it also houses a cathedral that is bigger than the one in Westminster, and one of the largest in the Southern hemisphere. It is very pretty, well kept, and decidedly out of place.



Though I couldn't tell you why, I much preferred Likoma to Chizi. It was large enough to be able to get a decent walk, with more varied terrain, some good beaches and also some good cheap local restaurants: Rice, beans and veg for about 65p at the Hunger Clinic (and no, i was not spying) became a daily staple. Likoma was also home to hoardes of very friendly young kids, though surprisingly few 'give me's'. Whilst out exploring one day with an English girl called Lisa, we ended up collecting an ever changing mass of kids: At one point I counted 54. All they wanted to do was talk to us in a local language we knew 3words of between us, whilst walking alongside us, preferably (for them) whilst holding our hands. Which meant that I often had one small child hanging off each finger, and a few off my arms as well. At one point, i was convinced I would loose a finger on my right hand to a particularly enthusiastic 5year old. But they enjoyed being lifted up, and just walking with the mzungu's, and even – oddly – stuck strictly to boys to me and girls to Lisa.

Menu at the hunger clinic. No I have no idea what the spy thing is about either

I would certainly recommend that anybody who has time to visit the islands, but time was something I was now lacking. So I had decided to return to Nkhata Bay and go overland rather than wait for the ferry to next head south. But by now the Ilala was properly b*ggered, and the island rumour mill in full swing. Depending on exactly who you talked to, the ferry was definitely coming; definitely not coming; Coming at least 24hours late or Canceled for 3weeks. Inquiries to friends in Nkhata Bay produced more confusion, whilst phoning the shipping company didn't help either – 10 calls returned 4 different answers and 6 non answered. And the 4 responses all turned out to be wrong anyway.

Eventually, consensus said that whilst the Ilala may or may not turn up late to some degree, there was going to be a replacement service to Nkhata Bay (only) the following day. A much smaller boat had been 'borrowed' from the Mozambiquians (Mozambiquei?) and would be leaving at a changeable time that seemed to be being pulled out of assorted hats. On the plus side, there was a boat in evidence tied up near where the Ilala normally moors, which was bigger than anything else around (although admittedly, that isn't saying much).

So at the moment, we basically have no idea what is going to happen, or when. And I don't just mean in the game of beer-dice, to which I have just been introduced, but is fairly incomprehensible to me. We'll just turn up, pray, and see what happens.

Sounds like a fairly typical Rich journey, doesn't it?!


Posted by Gelli 03:06 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


Chizumulu is small, relaxed, friendly, and home to what I can only describe as the most bizarre and inventive set of 'Give me kids' in Malawi. I didn't do much on Chizi: I relaxed a bit, played numerous games of Backgammon and the worryingly addictive Bao. I wandered around the entire circumference of the Island (and yes, if Nose, Fester, Baz or one or two others happen to be reading this, there is a very old joke in there somewhere), collecting kids pied piper style, excepting the lack of music.

But the kids on Chizi were creative to say the least: One kid of about 7 told me long and in great detail about his long struggle, and great jihad he is currently undertaking against his T-shirt (showing me the holes in the T-shirt's back here he had had some victories) to the endless amusement of some of the other kids. I was also bombarded with 'Give me's', which ranged from the normal (money, pen, sweet etc) to the cheeky (Give me cellphone) to the surreal: Give me Grandma, Give me Big Issue and Give me Vagina being the 3 most memorable, though I'm not entirely sure which is my favourite.





About the only other thing that we did was buy and slaughter a goat. And he was pretty damned tasty.

Billy, out goat, before, during and after...



Posted by Gelli 03:05 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A return to the Ilala

In the end I decided that I had to return yet again, in what I assumed would be a valiant if utterly fruitless attempt to get my police certificate. But in a stunning twist with tradition, I actually got it after only 3 further visits to the police station, and much shouting amongst themselves in Chichewa, of which i have not the foggiest what was being said. And so it transpired that I was in Nkhata Bay on the day the Ilala left for the islands. Over a month ago, I had rocked up in Nkhata Bay with the aim of making just such a journey, but without knowing what day the boat left , to discover I had just missed it. 3weeks in Nkhata Bay and Ruarwe later, and I left Nkhata Bay not expecting to return or be able to visit the islands on this trip.

But being in the right place at the right time (an amazingly unlikely occurrence for me) and just about having enough time decided me. It was now or never. The Ilala in all it's 100+year history is now slightly creaking, shall we say, and all was not well. She had been late arriving after an almost slapstick attempts to fix her had failed, and then only managed an unplanned 2hour tour of the lake at strange hours of the morning (a free journey) instead of actually making it North as timetabled, after breaking yet again.

To be honest, I didn't actually expect it to depart, let alone to go anywhere useful for me. And so we sat in the bar at Aqua Africa talking to people long after the alleged departure time. But at 10pm, we were told that the boat would be leaving soon-ish, so said our farewells and tried to board. The problem was that this leg of the boats journey is by far the busiest, and all the locals had boarded hours ago, leaving the 3rd and 2nd class deck which you board through, erm, quite full. In the end I resolved to cheat, and to the amusement of the many locals watching, climbed up the outside of the boat and in to the first class deck area. My Israeli companion fought her way through the lower carnage and appeared much later. Astonishingly, barely 4.5hours late and without crashing into anything overly significant, we finally left, and after 5hours sat on the open deck (Notable only for the rat which ran over my leg repeatedly during the night) arrived at Chizumulu Island the next morning without incident.

Chizumulu and Likoma are two small islands in Lake Malawi; Malawian due to historical links although well within Mozambique's territorial waters. After a failed attempt to disembark passengers (too choppy) we found another more sheltered bay, lowered our bags over the side and fought our way off.

I never expected to actually make it this far. Anything else is a bonus.

The real steering was completely f*cked, so the Ilala was being piloted from this hi-tech backup system, with guys on the bridge shouting directions at them constantly through the night. The rear compass, alas, does not agree with the front one, and the rear steering is also held in place pretty much by duct tape and bungees, and breaks frequently, so it isn't really a huge surprise that it failed again...

Posted by Gelli 03:02 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

What's in a Malawian name?

I still cherish the memory of the looks on their faces. It was, I believe, a Friday night in Nkhata Bay, and 5 young English girls wandered into the bar. They were all dolled up as one might be for a big night out in Romford, or, perhaps, the University of Luton, and to me they all looked about 14years old. The came in with a kind of semi-swagger that implied they were used to being the centre of attention, pampered by all, knew everything about everything and generally looked down on us mere mortals that weren't being funded by Daddy's gold card.

Everybody has to start traveling at some point, and you generally start by knowing pretty much b*gger all. Most learn soon enough. Most of us gave them a quick glance, half shrugged and got on with ignoring them and continuing whatever it was we were doing beforehand. But one of the locals in our group had seen something he liked: He walked over to the girls, who were still standing in the centre of the room taking the atmosphere and setting in, with what now looked like faint unease on their faces. Our friend walked up to them, and says 'Hello and welcome. My name is Chicken Pizza. What are your names?'

The look on at least 4 of the 5 faces was priceless. These alpha-girls, who knew everything suddenly betrayed the fact that they had only been in Africa for 2days and really had no idea what the heck was going on. They also didn't seem to be the brightest, as you could see the single shared braincell desperately trying to compute what Chicken had just said, and if they had heard correctly. A combination of semi laughter, confusion, indignation and incredulity washed over them before almost as one, they said 'you what?!'

But they had heard correctly.

Though they certainly don't all have crazy names, in Malawi it is pretty common for the beach boys and those locals who hang around at backpacker haunts and the like to have taken on assumed names which are often a bit daft, but probably easier to remember and pronounce than their real names. Thus, as well as several Kelvin's, Benji's, Koumbe and good solid African names like Innocent and Special, I have also met the likes of Chicken Pizza, Cheese on Toast, Lemon Squeezy, Bacon Sandwich, Eggy Bread, Happy Ending and Bottle of Gin as well as at least a couple that sound more like old fashioned American Indian chief names: Staggers when Drunk and Shits in Bushes both come to mind. One lovely small Mzungu girl had wanted to take on the local name Battery Acid, though it hadn't managed to stick.

As for me? One or two people tried to come up with a suitable name one night, and then came to a happy drunken agreement. You can be sure, however, that I will not be introducing myself to all that many people by saying “Hi. I'm sleeping with sheep”...

Posted by Gelli 04:21 Archived in Malawi Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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