Monday, 13 March 2017

Malawi – Cape Ma-not-so-clear

March 3-5

Hello everyone!

March 3rd is a national holiday here in Malawi: Martyr’s Day. Past struggles for freedom now result in present freedom, in the form of a long weekend. An opportunity to hit the beach.




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Malawi is landlocked but much of its eastern frontier is its beautiful eponymous lake. Well, normally beautiful. Heavier rains than normal have washed more than just water into Lake Malawi.

Rubbish strewn across the beach


Lots of plastic is washed ashore but most is still in the lake
  
The place we were staying is one of the more frequently visited travelling spots in the country: Cape Maclear. The village is situated on the edge of Lake Malawi National Park, a protected area which measured just short of 100km2.

Cape Maclear is a 3-and-a-half hour drive from Lilongwe


A panorama of Lake Malawi from the beach at Cape Maclear
  
My first impression wasn’t of a ‘protected’, well-conserved place; rather, a slightly neglected village which could do with a clean and a polish. It was actually quite sad to see so many of the villagers having to bathe and wash plastic kitchenware and chitenge clothes in water which one could politely describe as ‘murky’.

Clothes drying in the sun, using a fishing boat as a washing line


An enormous fishing net, used to catch chambo
  
A villager washing his clothes in the lake
  
This was the other thing that struck me: how many people live here. Quite the opposite to your European beach resorts, Cape Maclear has kept its local soul and hasn’t (yet) sold out too much to the tourist dollar. Sure, opportunists are taking their chances and showing off the entrepreneurialism. On the whole though, you are left alone to enjoy the peaceful whoosh of the waves. The Bradt guidebook says that Cape Mac is one of the most developed resorts on the lake, which probably says more about Malawi’s tourism infrastructure than the relatively sleepy nature of the town.

Kayaks were available from our campsite but other options
are few and far between


Less tourists means that you are more likely to be able
to order local delights such as grilled kampango with nsima 
  
One thing that Cape Maclear possesses is an abundance of fish. Lake Malawi has more described fish species (over 850) than Europe and North America combined. Many of these are cichlids (pronounced sick-lids) which are endemic to the lake.

Cichlids are small, just larger than a finger in length


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Beautiful things, too. Very vivid colours.



Turns out cichlids, like most fish, come close when bread
is thrown in front of you...
  
To see these fancy fish in clearer waters, we kayaked to West Thumbi Island, about a kilometre from the shore. Rumours about crocodiles being around thankfully proved to be false.

A vast array of colours




After admiring the colourful cichlids for a while, we decided to paddle around the island. The different hues of green and dense forest was reminiscent of a scene from The Lost World.

The northern frontier of Thumbi


The water had an emerald hue for much of our expedition
  
Not realising how large the island was, we paddled about 10 kilometres in total before returning to shore as dark clouds loomed ominously in the distance.

A rainbow shining over Lake Malawi

Those dark clouds wreaked havoc on our first night, blowing the top sheet off our tent at four in the morning and resulting in us needing to drag our tent under a nearby straw roof with lightning forks firing in the immediate vicinity.

Where we were camping before the storm...

...and where we ended up after. 


In spite of the polluted nature of this part of the lake, it is worth a visit. The cichlids at Cape Maclear are a joy to behold. Apparently it never normally has this much rubbish lying around; I’m sure I’ll be back at some point to see for myself. Happy Martyr’s Day!






Love you all


Matt

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Malawi – Mud run madness

February 19

Hello everyone!

I talked about the rainy season last time. There’s still lots of fun to be had when it’s wet and muddy…




A few weeks ago we learnt about a ‘mud run’ in Malawi’s smallest national park: Kuti. The park, which we hadn’t heard of up to this point, is surprisingly close to Lilongwe. We drove there on a Saturday afternoon, with the bumpy and very dry dirt road lulling us into a false sense of lowered expectation about our Sunday morning jaunt.

A mere 100 kilometres or so to the east, on the way to Lake Malawi.

We arrived just in time to enjoy a lovely, moody sunset.


Kuti isn’t known for having a plethora of fauna in its boundaries. What there is, however, is seen at close quarters. Very close quarters after dark, most notably when I almost walked straight into the park’s lone ostrich.

Zebra wandering around near our room

The ostrich, a female called Evelyn, is a harmless and hilarious soul. She wonders freely around the park, including through the lodge dining area and A-frame sleepers. Memorably, she decided to full empty her bowels in the middle of the restaurant whilst everyone was eating brunch after the race. The splattering sounded like a very large tap had just been turned on full blast.

Evelyn leaving her mark on someone's trainers

Evelyn, being an ostrich which is capable of reaching very high speeds, would probably have struggled in our run earlier that morning.  In spite of the recent dry weather, away from the beaten paths Kuti National Park resembled a bit of a quagmire. We didn’t realise this at this point…

Being taken to the starting zone on the back of a truck
  
…but after running 400 metres and then taking a sharp left into the thicket, we came across this…

You couldn't avoid the mud for long

…and it got progressively deeper and harder to actually run in. I could use the fact that I was taking photos using Hannah’s rather expensive phone as an excuse for my slowness; I doubt I would have gone much faster hands-free.

This section was waist-deep, with no escape on the outer edges

The route wound its way through the undergrowth of the park’s southern frontiers, marked fleetingly by pieces of a plastic bag. Of course, some of these didn’t stay in place, resulting in confusion during parts of the race. Looking up for these also meant not looking down at where your feet were going to squelch next, or which branches or trunks you were likely to trip over.


It was less a ‘mud run’, which I associate with army training and eating brown gunk as you crawl through murky abysses, and more a ‘run through mud’. The one major ‘obstacle’ occurred on dry land. It was great fun and also made me realise that my speed is instantly killed when I go off-road.

The tranquil, muddy waters of Kuti National Park

We’ll likely be back in Kuti in April with our running club for a similar weekend to this one. I’m very much looking forward to wading through the wet stuff once again! Maybe Evelyn this ostrich will even join us this time…

Our running club's mud runners



Love you all


Matt

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Malawi – Here comes the rain again

February 12

Hello everyone!

It didn’t rain for the first two months after we moved to Malawi and rarely rained before the end of November. Things have changed recently, though…


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School doesn't get affected much by the rain

Well, it is rainy season. Malawi is one of those places which doesn’t have what we view as traditional seasons. They have three. We arrived at the end of the dry season with moderate temperatures (which were similar to the UK in the summer) and then endured the hot, dry season which runs from September to November. From November to March it is also hot but with a caveat – a very watery caveat…

A newspaper picture of recent flooding in Lilongwe

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What I’ve identified above is the ‘typical’ climate for Malawi. Unfortunately it hasn’t followed that pattern for the last couple of years, with rain not arriving until the end of December. For a country which is mainly agricultural and lacks significant irrigation, this delay is disastrous. Crops don’t grow, people don’t get food: all sorts of problems arise.

The view of from our back garden when we arrived...
The rainfall is also important for Malawi’s power network. 99.3% of the country’s power comes from hydroelectricity generated by dams to the south. Without sufficient rainfall, those dams cannot produce enough energy to power the country. As the last two years have been close to drought conditions, the water reserves in the dams were very low. Thus it was common for us to go in excess of 24 hours without power, which of course results in major problems for food safety in addition to making our lives slightly less cushy.

Our first night in Malawi was spent by candlelight

We’ve arrived in a more prolific year, as you’ll see from the various videos. Even this first deluge was in October, though that was very much a one-off.

Rain on 29th October - it didn't rain for a while after this

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It has rained fairly frequently since the end of November and it’s amazing how the landscape has been transformed. Land which was once brown and flat has blossomed into lush, vivid greenery, with maize stalks on the side of the road towering taller than the men and women walking past them.

Honey I Shrunk the Teacher!

This was the view from our garden after a February downpour.
That area used to be my running route...

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At the moment, a typical day begins overcast, with bright sunshine heating up Lilongwe until the early afternoon, when dark, ominous clouds start to dominate the sky. A shower will then burst, making a cacophony of noise on the tin roofs. A couple of times a week this will be more persistent heavy rain, accompanied with an incredible spectacle of thunder and lightning. It’s quite the show, which admittedly we usually watch from indoors.

A storm approaching

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Of course, you can have too much rain. Last week had a particularly huge downpour which flooded parts of Lilongwe, including the land behind our house. A helicopter, possibly one of the only ones in the country, belonging to the Malawian Defence Force had to airlift some stranded souls to safety. Many crops were also washed away in this flash flood.

A newspaper picture of the flooding from February 10-11

This helicopter landed quite close to our house

Even with rain, life still goes on. Even the volleyball matches in our league are seldom stopped, though it takes a bit of creativity to get the water off the court…

Volleyball court at 6:30pm, more resembling a water polo arena

Volleyball court just after 7pm after trenches were dug on the
left-hand side of the court

The rain is expected to start relenting from its almost-daily deluges in March and is predicted to not appear from April until next November or December. Being British, I’m used to the rain so a daily dose of wet doesn’t overly bother me. It’s also made Malawi much more beautiful than it was when we first arrived. To badly paraphrase a Christmas song…Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

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Love you all


Matt

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Malawi – One of the world’s easier border crossings

January 15-16

Hello everyone!

Borders are a trending topic in the news at the moment. Certain countries are threatening to build walls, others are preparing for longer waits at immigration before citizens can enter their country. Not Malawi, though.

To the left is Malawi, to the right is Mozambique

Mozambique surrounds the southern half of the country I currently live in. I’m sure that there are proper border crossings and stipulations that need to be fulfilled before entering Mozambique. Unofficially, however, all you have to do is cross the road…

Mozambique has our southern frontier surrounded

Mozambican beer is also far, far superior to the Carlsberg offered in Malawi. Manica is…better. I’m sure there’s a more eloquent way of describing the fact that Manica is quite nice but people get paid good money to do that job.

Czech beer > Manica > urine > Carlsberg

The village we were staying in is called Lizulu, a bit over 100km south of Lilongwe. As with the other villages we’ve stayed in so far, it is a world away from the sprawl of the capital. Shops are congregated around the main road, with the rest of the land being allocated for housing and farming.

A stall in Lizulu's market, where people from across the region
come to shop every Saturday

The countryside behind Lizulu - we spent a lot of enjoyable
time walking through it

On the Saturday afternoon, we went on a walk through some of this land and passed a small hamlet. Being a group containing a few muzungus, we quickly attracted a crowd…

Dozens of followers on our walk

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Whilst in one of Lizulu’s watering holes on Saturday night, I was offered the chance to play for their local football team. Common knowledge suggests that I become more confident than I should after a couple of drinks, so ‘Gareth Bale’ (Welsh, same school, left-footed: similarities peter out after that…) gladly accepted.

Me after three beers...

We were due to play an ‘international’ friendly – i.e. across the road in Mozambique – the following afternoon. At Sunday lunchtime we were informed that the game would instead take place in Malawi on this…

The picturesque setting for our game

A beautiful setting, I’m sure you’d agree. The pitch was a little below the standard of what we call ‘Sunday League’, with its rivets, potholes and tractor tracks proving to be extra obstacles. The very long grass also inhibited any passing game, not that this was part of our team’s plan it seemed.


After being introduced to the rest of the team as ‘expert’ and ‘Gareth Bale’, I lined up in left midfield. My first involvement was to release my inner Welshman by attempting to rugby tackle a Mozambican who had torched past me on the wing.

An inauspicious start...

It got better, with me becoming their chief attacking outlet for the next 10 minutes. After a bit of Bale-esque dribbling and Smith-esque crosses, the ball dropped perfectly for a left-foot volley for me to crash into the top corner (not of the net – no nets here). A defender from the other team nicked the ball away just as I was in the process of shooting, resulting me kicking his heel as hard as possible.

Top tip: if your standing leg is this far from the ball,
you will shank said ball out of play

Not wanting to be the newbie who cried off at the first instance of pain, I tried to carry on, even after being offered ‘first aid’ by the other team’s bench. Alas, after another 5 minutes of hobbling and attempting to sprint, I gave up the ghost and was subbed off. The fact that the opposition scored less than a minute after I exited stage right is probably a coincidence.

Hobbling on - some would say bravely,
others would say stupidly

The foot swelled up nicely and took a few days to be able to walk freely on. Meanwhile I was able to watch our team play hopelessly for the rest of the first half, trudging back to us 3-0 down at half-time, before they gained a bit of respectability by drawing the second half 1-1.

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I really enjoyed my time in Lizulu, meeting some wonderful people and being offered an opportunity which few will experience in Malawi. Maybe next time I’ll add Mozambique to the list of places I’d played for a football team. After all, it is only across the road…

The temperature dropped sharply when the clouds rolled in



Love you all


Matt