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August 13, 2013 / samwilson60

Malawian tour guides for a week

We bundled Chris into the car, ingeniously reworked to get around the seatbelt rules that were so obviously not a problem when we had four in the front in Benin. With just a few bolts and a slab of wood removed, it was possible (if not entirely comfortable) to seat one in the luggage store behind the passenger seat.

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With pillows and bedding falling into the right places from all sides, it actually got quite cosy but for the test drive we didn’t push our luck. We hadn’t wanted to spend our first night with Chris in the city (with or without overland trucks) but likewise didn’t want to subject him to a monster drive on his first day in the country. The obvious solution seemed to be to make the shortest beeline we could to the lake. This landed us in Senga Bay, which apparently had the added bonus of live music for the bank holiday weekend. Everyone we asked confirmed the rumour and explained that this was not just any old gig. The headline act was unanimously described as the most popular musician in Malawi so obviously we stayed an extra night and spent Saturday afternoon trying to find out where exactly, when exactly and how much exactly the gig would be.

We were fairly happy with the information we’d gleaned and, as the show was due to go on all night, decided we had time for a snorkelling trip and some home-cooked food before going out. The snorkelling was fun, although the snorkels were each broken in a different way and the fish were not as exciting as we’d been led to believe. Still, there were lots of them and they were brightly coloured. We specifically chose Lizard Island to snorkel around because we also wanted a glimpse of some giant monitor lizards. We saw none but had fun clambering over the rocks all the same and nearly falling off them every time we heard something that might pass for a lizard.

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Back at camp we had an awesome feed, thanks to Chris, our live-in chef for a week and some inspiring conversation courtesy of some fellow Cape-to-Capers (not only on bicycles but heading back from Cape Town via the Americas!). After all this, we trotted off along the beach to find the gig. What seemed so simple a route was actually quite a challenge but after winding our way around fishing boats and resting fishermen, then trampling across various manicured stretches of private beach, we saw lights and heard music. It all looked so promising all of a sudden. There were lots of people and although the music was neither to our tastes nor live, that was to be expected for the warm-up, surely.

The dodgy music was soon accompanied by an equally questionable compere. We could understand only the odd word here and there but it was painfully clear that the ‘entertainment’ now comprised a handful of men trying to chat up a woman, with the audience invited to pick the smoothest operator. We couldn’t believe our eyes but the penny finally dropped as people started leaving in dribs and drabs. We still had no idea what was going on but this was clearly no warm-up act. We later discovered that the bands had started at 7pm and were now long gone, on their way to another gig elsewhere.

Thankfully we all saw the funny side and settled for an earlier than expected night’s sleep. The next morning we left Senga Bay for Cape Maclear. We’d previously thought we’d take Chris back up north but neither he nor we wanted to spend long days on the road and since arriving in Lilongwe we’d heard good things about this southern tip of the lake.

We had as smooth a drive as they get, despite stopping at every fruit-seller and market we passed. Without really investigating the other options, we headed straight to what we knew was a more expensive but secluded lodge, tucked away at the foot of the hills surrounding the bay. When we arrived there were a couple of South African couples already camped up but, after introducing us to the resident lizard (who needs Lizard Island?!), they left us to it the following morning. From then on we had the whole place to ourselves.

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We swam lots, risking life and limb in the face of hungry kingfishers. Cat was a little offended when one dived straight at her ear but Sam instantly saw the photographic potential and spent as much of the next few days as he could perched on a rock watching his new pals (admittedly rather adorable when not trying to eat you).

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After Cat had nearly got herself stuck on top of the rocks, we all went up together and fared slightly better. We still lost the track at every turn but enjoyed the scrambling, found an awesome little beach and got some great views of the lake and the horseshoe hills surrounding Cape Maclear.

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Before going off “hiking” we’d arranged to hire a pair of kayaks off some locals for the afternoon but having refused to pay in advance, they never turned up. Once we’d tired of waiting we had another dip and then set out to watch the sun set from the lodge’s catamaran – more sedate but very enjoyable nonetheless.

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After sundowners on the catamaran, we feasted on another of Chris’s wholesome meals and on his less wholesome marshmallows, toasted on a fire on the rocks. It was such a nice spot we decided then and there to stay an extra day. We called Kayak Africa – based just a few kilometres along the bay – and for the same price we’d haggled the locals down to, we had two kayaks delivered to our lodge that very morning. With all day to paddle around, we covered quite some distance. We also fell in love with kayaking. We followed the coast to start, past Otter Point to a secluded little beach. Then, our confidence mounting, we set out to circumnavigate a sizable but not too distant island. On our way round we found ourselves within metres of multiple Fish Eagles and startled a few dozen Trumpeter Hornbills, who then startled us enough to almost – but not quite – capsize as they flew overhead.

To end the day, we paddled out to yet another little stretch of sand from which we watched the sun set. We eeked it out for as long as possible, to the point that even the fishermen were getting worried about us, but we made it back to our lodge with us and the kayaks all intact, if a little ravenous.

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The following day it really was time to find pastures new and, based on a recommendation Chris had been given on his flight, we plumped for Liwonde national park. While we’d initially been reluctant to spend any more on park fees without a money back guarantee on seeing cheetahs, we realised it would be nice for our visitor to see a hippo or two at least.

We stopped at a market town on the way, where we sampled more street food than even Chris could handle, i.e. at least one of everything available. Then we stocked up on fruit and veg and rolled ourselves back into the car. Once on the outskirts of the park, we had to choose between two campsites. The first was run by a guy Sam had spoken to numerous times on the phone and they’d built up quite a rapport. If it hadn’t been so cramped we’d have stayed there without a doubt but as it was, we decided to check out the one next door. This offered much more space, a better viewing platform and – the clincher – kayak trips (instead of motorised boats) into the hippo-infested lagoon. It was only after we’d set up camp that we realised the owner was drunk, and permanently so. This didn’t fill us with confidence in the safaris he had on offer (his was the only camp that deemed it safe to explore the lagoon by kayak) but his staff were lovely and we’d set our hearts set on paddle-power before even considering the wisdom of our choice.

Safe or not, we survived. And we loved almost every minute of it. We thought it would be a treat for Chris but hadn’t realised how special it would be for us. As it happens, we had our closest hippo encounters to date. We were over the moon, and then we got closer still. When we asked our polers how they could tell how close was too close, we were told there was no such thing. While they acknowledged that in some places hippos were considered dangerous, theirs were friendly and would simply swim off if they weren’t in the mood for an audience.

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On our loop around the lagoon, we also saw lots of impala, our first open-billed storks, some up-close waterbuck and no crocodiles (probably for the best).

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After the boat trip we bundled Chris into the car to explore the rest of the park, at which point we realised quite how beautiful a place we were in. The lagoon was magical but on dry land it felt completely different again and genuinely enchanting.

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Animal-wise, we weren’t expecting a great deal. Even so, when all we’d seen after a few hours were herd after herd of impala, we were over the moon when we spied a couple of elephants on the far bank of the river. They were a little distant but undeniably elephants all the same. And a lunch we overheard that those on guided safaris hadn’t been as lucky, so we were quite smug and decided anything more would be a bonus.  As we headed out after lunch, we got our first “bonus” in the form of four warthogs circling the car park. Chris was noticeably underwhelmed and a little bemused by our excitement, but these were some of the most beautiful warthogs we’d ever seen.

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Once Chris had dragged us away, we headed off to see how far north we could get before we had to leave the park at sunset. Before we’d done even a quarter of our intended loop we spotted some more elephant, about 20 of them in fact. They were on the other side of the river again but since we were right on the near bank this time, we had a great view. Despite the already great view and despite knowing we weren’t supposed to leave the car, there was no stopping Chris. He bounded over to the water’s edge, only to spin round shrieking moments later. Still very red in the face, he announced he’d seen his first crocodile. Once he was over the shock he was no more cautious, and gradually even we gave in and joined him on the bank. There was no one else around, Chris had clearly scared off all the crocs and the elephants were crying out for an audience.

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We were feeling very smug and fully content with our day’s game viewing as we finally piled back into the car. Time was no longer on our side, so we agreed to continue along the riverbank just as far as a nearby viewing platform. After that we’d have to turn on our heels and head back to the gate. It took us twice as long as expected to continue these few hundred metres, the bank – and in some cases track – littered as it was with hippos. We really were in luck 🙂

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Once finally at the viewing platform we saw hundreds of bee-eaters (too quick for the camera), yet more hippos and some exciting birds of prey.

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After trying and failing to identify this particular bird, we reluctantly started back towards the park gate. When we’d arrived and paid our fees, the warden had been very lax about us being out by 6pm. “Try to make it there or there abouts,” he’d said, “but don’t worry if you get waylaid,” he clocked off at 6 but a night watchman would take over and let us out whenever we rocked up. This had made us laugh at the time but in reality, with no spotlight or guide, there was little to be gained by driving the length of the river in the dark.

We made surprisingly good time once we put our minds to it, leaving ourselves ample opportunity to watch the sun set and exit the park no more than an hour late. As we were looking for the perfect vantage point for sunset, our path was intersected by a massive herd of buffalo. And just minutes after sunset, metres from the exit gate, we stumbled across the most comical buck we’d ever seen – just as Chris had been trying to ask if we’d seen anything new that day. It took a while back at camp but we worked it out in the end – we’d just seen our first bushbuck, and a very excited one at that!

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After all the excitement of the park, all we needed was to have our camp invaded by a herd of bachelor elephants! Chris was over the moon, understandably, and once we’d got over yet another near miss, we were quite chuffed too. We cooked up a storm that night (what will we do without a live-in chef?!) and focused our attentions on Chris’s last night in Malawi. We had to get to Lilongwe the following day, which meant a long-ish drive punctuated by lots more markets and street food, followed by a night on the town to make up for our failed attempt at live music earlier in the week. As it happens, by the time we’d made it to Lilongwe we felt like shit (Chris having offloaded all his germs) and no one knew of anything worth venturing out for. Chris persevered but the party never left the backpackers. This was a shame but we were secretly quite relieved and Chris seemed happy enough. It also meant he was up the next day in time for his flight, and some more last-minute shopping. Result.

One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Peter Cullen / Aug 13 2013 9:23 pm

    Another great write up. Just to make up for the beach experience

    http://istanbulmusic.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/best-musicians-from-malawi.html

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