Sunday, 12 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.

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

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


Friday, 10 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