We are in Cape McClear on the Southern Shores of Lake Malawi. Malawi was in my top 5 list to visit. I had heard and read so much about the beautiful lake and that its inhabitants were the friendliest people on earth. To add to that, while in Mozambique, some people told us that Malawi was cheaper, more beautiful, safer and more developed. So we decided to rush out of Mozambique to spend more days in Malawi before we head North to catch up with the Great Migration of the Wildebeest & Co.
Now we regret speeding out of Mozambique because as of now it seemed friendlier, safer, more advanced, food was better, prices are the same and yes Lake Malawi is pretty but can’t compare to the Mozambican coast. As it has turned out the places were I’ve had very high expectations, such as Mongolia and Malawi, have not met my expectations, whereas places where I expected nothing of have been wonderful surprises. From now on I shall not expect much and be pleasantly surprised instead. This is not to say that Malawi is not beautiful and that we are not having a great time because we are.
We arrived at the Mozambican border on the craziest chapa ride yet. Border formalities were very simple and after getting our exit stamp we took a taxi through the 7 km of No Man’s Land. For Mozambique both Tony and I had to obtain visas (70 and 60 Euros); fortunately for Malawi I was the only one requiring a visa as they charge a steep 90 Euro fee. Quickly clearing immigration we looked for transport to carry us to our destination of the night, the old capital and commercial city of Blantyre.
New country, same form of transportation: a beat-up white minivan. Tony asked the driver how many people he would fit in per row and we got really excited when he answered that the maximum the police allowed were three. We were liking Malawi so far. Well, as it turns out they put in the van even more people than in Mozambique, as they know the tricks of their trade. They know where the police checkpoints are so they turn before them and get people out of the van, these people walk to a point past the checkpoint and then get in the van again. Our first ride in Malawi was worse than the worst one in Mozambique. Not only were we overcrowded, but the van was almost breaking down, so we were inhaling all the fumes, driving at 20 km/h and praying that it wouldn’t completely breakdown as night had fallen on us.
Luckily we arrived in Blantyre. We checked into the most popular hotel for travelers, but checked out 30 minutes later as it seemed pretty sketchy. We were warned not to walk anywhere in Blantyre and that if we needed to go to the ATM (200 meters away) we should take a taxi. While waiting for our taxi Tony met a fellow Irishman at the bar who recommended we go to a new hotel a bit away from the town. We followed his advice and it was an expensive option, but we were tired and in need of comfort so we took it and even stayed for 2 nights.
The next day Tony in need of a haircut walked into town escorted by Precious, the hotel manager, who refused to let him walk alone in town. I chilled for the day watching the U.S.A. TV channel E Entertainment, to catch up on celebrity gossip.
Malawians have interesting names. So far we have met Precious, Friday, Innocence, Promise, and Freedom. There is evident Irish influence in this country as Patrick is a very popular name. Some locals even speak the Irish slang, so it is quite entertaining listening to them speak. As we have seen there is quite a lot of Irish Aid and NGO’s in Malawi. In Cape McClear the health clinic is Irish, founded by the family of an Irish young guy who drowned there.
We left Blantyre headed for Cape McClear. Although the distances in Malawi are not long, we had to make three transfers and wait for each bus to fill up. We arrived in Monkey Bay, a small town, from where we had to get the last transfer to Cape McClear. It was dark already and to our fortune we decided against continuing onto Cape McClear and opted for spending the night in Monkey Bay. During the last bus ride we met Chifundo, a local, who was the first person to display the famous characteristic of the Malawians: their friendliness. He guided us to a nice place to stay and recommended that we should not talk to the other locals as they try to take advantage of tourists. The 30 minute walk at dark through the wilderness with all our belongings on us were tense moment as other locals decided to join us. The place we stayed was in the lake shore in the middle of a traditional village and as we went by the locals would yell: “mzungu” which we would later learn that it literally means “whites”. For the rest of the trip in Africa we will keep on hearing it. I find it quite funny, but Tony gets annoyed as he sees it as racism, something he strongly opposes.
We woke up next morning to walk the lake-shore and watch the villagers come back from the early morning fishing activities. The lake on Monkey Bay seemed more like a sea as it has a very wide white sandy beach and quite a movement of waves and winds. Chifundo came back to say goodbye and gave Tony his photograph with his address so that they would write to each other.
We then continued our journey into Cape McClear and confirmed we had been wise not to venture to do this journey at night. No more minivans, the only transport available was a matola, a truck with an open flat bed at the back, who beeps his horn through the town announcing the departure and doesn’t leave until there is not a single bit of space left. Unfortunately we could not take a picture of us in it because you have to see it to believe it. We were piled with boxes of salt, vegetables, vegetable buckets, luggage, etc. along with about 20 locals. We had to sit on long bamboo sticks that some passenger was carrying. After an hour of waiting to fill up and an hour of travel we arrived in Cape McClear. We traveled through a bumpy dirt road in the mountains. At one point some of the luggage fell off the truck.
It is not easy to get to Cape McClear therefore it retains some peace and charm due to its isolation. The one annoying factor is some of the male population who are evidently drunk all day and harass tourists through town. We found a very nice and comfortable lodge on the lake front where we have spent lazy days in the hammocks, garden and terrace. We took a kayak out to an island and did some snorkeling. I can say that it is not comparable to what you see in the ocean but it was fun seeing all the colorful cichlids as it reminded me of my childhood; my brother and I were obsessed with aquariums growing up so it was nice to see all the fish we had, in their natural habitat.
Unfortunately the food here is not as good as in Mozambique. There is not much local cuisine on offer, the most common dish is hamburgers. We always try to consume as much local meals and beverages as possible. While in Mozambique we tried the very sweet and strong “rum”. Besides the normal types of beer, Malawi has a peculiar brew: Chibuko. It is a sort of beer labeled “International” in its 1 liter milk carton style. It does not indicate the amount of alcohol, as it all depends on how long it’s been fermenting in the carton, the more inflated, the higher the alcohol content. It looks like pancake batter with some chunky bits and its taste I’d rather not describe. I had just a few sips, Tony was braver and had almost ½ liter. Then he gave the rest of it to the watchman at our hotel, who was already happily holding his hands out before Tony spoke a word. Happy Days!
The best part of it all is our walks through town. The little kids here are adorable. They run up to you and grab your hands and go on the walk with you. They do this authentically with no hidden intentions. We are not surprised in Madonna’s interest in adopting Malawian kids. I’ve seen many tourists scold them and hide their hands in their pockets so the kids won’t grab them, that is sad. Tony also plays football with them. As of now we have quite a big number of groupies waiting for us everyday and I am very famous in town as they all yell my name as I go by. Tony has collected more addresses from the older boys to keep in touch. Once in Cape McClear, Malawi has started to look up. Tomorrow we depart to Lilongwe, the capital.