New country, new history, new languages, same landscape (more or less), at least until you hit this giant lake. Malawi is tucked away in south central Africa, landlocked by Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. It has a population of about 15 million, a poor economy, one of the only female presidents in Africa, and is home to a massive lake accounting for almost its entire eastern front.
I visited the northern part of the country for just under a week, stopping at Chitimba, Livingstonia, and Nkhata Bay. I got extremely sick in Nkhata Bay and am still feeling the effects as I write this now. However I will save the sticky details of my stomach virus for later in this post. The first few days with normal bowel movements were a great introduction to Malawian people, food, landscape and culture. There is an incredible history of early exploration, tribal warfare, and missionary settlements found in this country.
Malawi was once known as Nyasaland and was a central trading route for the infamous and brutal African slave trade. Any unlucky captives would be driven to the lake and forced across by boat, then marched over 1,000km through Tanzania (lion country) to the Indian Ocean and likely Zanzibar before being sold and shipped all over the world. David Livingstone (Scottish) was one of the early foreign explorers in the area and also a historical champion for the abolition of the slave trade. Throughout his years in Africa, he travelled from the northern reaches of the Kalahari Desert to the coast of Mozambique, from the interior of Zambia to the coast of Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar. Livingstone is even thought to be the first white man to ever set eyes on the thundering chasm of Victoria Falls bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia. He put Nyasaland and Lake Malawi on the international map and set the stage for the first of many people to follow in his footsteps, most being missionaries looking to spread education, healthcare and the word of god through south central Africa.
Anyway, enough of my brief history, let’s talk about the trip. Chitimba was my first stop in Malawi after crossing the border from Tanzania. It is a small fishing village located on the northern shores and a convenient 16km hike up to the town of Livingstonia. I got to Chitimba midafternoon on day one with perfect timing to catch a swim in the lake before saying goodbye to the setting sun. The next morning I awoke at daybreak to begin the 32km round trip hike up to Livingstonia. It was tough. A 1,500 meter gain over 16km on the way up, with a 1,500 meter loss over … blah blah, you get the idea. The hike was well worth the effort, with stunning views over the lake and the warm African sun at my back, not a bad way to spend the day. Plus I found a sweet coffee shop at the top.
Livingstonia, Malawi is a lost missionary’s village in the high hills of Central Africa. It is quaint, quiet, picturesque, and beautiful, a hidden gem of the backpackers trail. It was founded in 1894 by the Scottish Missionary Dr. Robert Law and named after the famous explorer noted above. The idea behind the mission was to create a small sustainable community in the high hills, void of malaria. The idea worked and the town today is very much as it was 100 years ago.
The road into Livingstonia is bad, really bad. It took me 3 hours to hike the 16km up to town. There is no public transport available and it is impossible to drive the road without a 4×4 vehicle. This simple fact alone tends to keep the culture hungry crowds away and often deters many a tourist. In short, Livingstonia has been kept very much frozen in time. The 2,500 population is self-sufficient with a local hospital, elementary school, high school, bakery, small grocery shops, and a generally stable small economy. I was amazed to learn that some of the residents had never left the escarpment, and it makes sense really, with all services at your door step, why venture into the unknown, unless you’re a traveller.
From Livingstonia I spent one last night in Chitimba before heading south along the coast to the picturesque town of Nkhata Bay. This is one of the hot spots for tourism in Malawi. It is a backpacker hangout and for good reason, chalked with stunning inlets and crystal clear fresh water bays. Nkhata Bay is also a centre for diving the lake and one of the places I had been looking forward to visiting on this journey.
Upon my arrival I rocked up at a nice little guest house called Mayoka Village, across a small cove from the main village centre. The guest house is a backpacker must see (according to the bible) and I figured I could meet some other people travelling Africa and get some tips on where to go next. It was not as busy as I was expecting, but still buzzing with a few able travellers. During the time I spent at Mayoka I met an Isreali guy, a girl from Belgium, a Dutch guy, three girls from Australia, a British guy road biking across Africa (awesome), and many local Malawians, each with their own take on travel through Africa.
Small world right, I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. Who doesn’t like a small world story? Turns out that the only dive shop in town is managed by a Canadian guy named Rob. Rob is from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Where I grew up, and part of the title of this blog (Shwa). Pretty random coincidence in a remote part of the world. Rob and I have no mutual friends, but it was still super cool to shoot the shit with a fellow Shwaite.
The diving outside of Nkhata Bay is considered some of the best in Malawi along with Cape Maclear in the South. It was the second fresh water experience I have had in over 200 dives, the first being in Canada outside of Brockville, ON. The lake is known for its diverse array of endemic fish which resemble reef fish, but live in the shallows of the fresh water lake. There is obviously no coral here, making the attractions mostly the fish and also the unique rock formations found at certain depths. It felt as if I was flying above the wreckage of a submerged volcano eruption, but one with colourful active fish. A surreal diving experience and one I am glad I decided to do.
Nkhata Bay also brought with it my first bout of semiserious stomach illness since I was in India exactly two years ago. Something I ate on day two at Mayoka took its toll on my gut. I was out of commission completely and ended up bed ridden, weak, and noxious for another three days. It was a terrible time curled up in my banda bed, waiting for the bug to be literally shit out of my system, drinking as much water as possible and forcing food even though the appetite is lost, seemingly for good. The stomach cramps were intense. For a couple of minutes every hour or so, I felt as if there was a small pterodactyl hatching from within my abdomen, clawing and fighting its way to the surface of my stomach.
After much rest and a few extra days then intended in Malawi, I am feeling better. However, I plan on being more cautious in the future as to what I am eating and where. The good news is I think I have lost some weight, cause you know the best way to lose weight is to get really, really sick.
From Nkhata Bay, I took my sick self on a 12 hour public transport mission down to Cape Maclear at the southern end of the lake. This is another hot spot on the backpacker trail through Malawi and also home to the only fresh water national marine park found in all of Africa. I made the journey without literally shitting my pants, which I am proud of.
Cape Maclear is beautiful. It is a small beach side town about 18km from the next “major” town, Monkey Bay. It is a place where one could get stuck. Good weather, kind people, cold beer, and good diving. Sounds like a smaller version of Zanzibar. The Cape was home for another two days spent mostly writing, reading and relaxing. I did go diving one morning off a nearby island. The site was a 30m ferry wreck that had been sunken intentionally in 1994. It was a cool wreck and another good fresh water dive, however I must say that fresh water diving is pretty boring in comparison to the ocean and I cannot see myself doing much more of it in the future.
My stomach finally started turning its self-right side up and I regained my appetite, which still feels nice. I am actually hungry right now. Breakfast. From the Cape I took a six hour transfer in the cab of a Toyota pickup truck to Lilongwe. It was an awesome ride, beauty sunny day, warm, good scenery, with tunes and the road. However, I want to write a short note about my experience with public transport in Malawi.
It is a fucking death trap. The Toyota pickup I was in, at one point, was carrying 24 people. This vehicle has a capacity of 8 max. The problem is that the gasoline prices in this country are astronomical. It is 450 Kwacha (about $2) per litre. The people cannot afford this yet still need to travel. The solution I keep on seeing is that people are shoved into vehicles like cattle. The more people the more money. Space is money. There is no regard for personal safety and the drivers still even fully loaded down, way over capacity, drive at ridiculous speeds to seemingly get to wherever it is they are going as fast as mechanically possible. It is fucking ridiculous and I am very much looking forward to not having to take Malawian public transport anymore. Not that it was much better in Tanzania, but shit being in these little mini buses and trucks feels like being a small piece of tuna in a can, waiting to be thrown into a tree splitter.
Malawi is the first new country of this trip and one I did not plan on spending much time in. However, with the bout of sickness experienced I did up end spending a few more unintended days. It was an interesting introduction to backpacking in Africa. I am learning new things every day and trying to keep my wits about me. So far I have met some amazingly kind people and even picked up bits of the local dialects just to put a smile on their face when I say good morning in their local tongue.
I am currently in Lilongwe, Malawi heading to Zambia this morning. I am going to South Luangwa National Park for the next four days. This will be a bush camping side trip and my first true wildlife safari in Africa. I am nervously excited and look forward to the anticipation of seeing a lion in the wild for the first time, or a leopard finishing of a kill, or a herd of buffalo stopping to drink, or a baby elephant chasing it’s mothers and hiding between her giant legs, or crocs, more hippos, whatever. Zambia and the interior wild lands await.
Wish me luck!