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Arriving at Likoma Island

2011 08 08
We arrived last night on Likoma Island. Not long before nightfall we could see Likoma Island from the deck of the Ilala.

The last few hours of the journey were very interesting as we were closer to the shoreline than at any point apart from the very beginning of the journey when we proceeded up the eastern shore of the Cape Maclear peninsula from Monkey Bay.

Now we were close to the Mozambique shore and the start of that wild and forgotten area of north eastern Mozambique. It stretches from Lake Malawi or the Malawi border all the way to the Indian Ocean. I heard that on this part of the journey you could quite easily see elephants coming down to the Lake to drink (we were not adjacent to a National Park or a Game Reserve – just wild Africa as it had been for centuries).

As we approached Likoma Island, that island of Malawian territory within Mozambique waters, we started to think about the life-boat right next to our cabin.

At each stop when there is no harbour, the life-boat is lowered into the water before people from a lower deck pile onto it. We asked if we could get into it before it is lowered as we have a lot of luggage as well as a three year old and a baby to carry.

It was a difficult conversation because we knew that if we put our luggage in and could not get on ourselves except from the lower deck, then we could get separated from our bags.

The reason we had a lot of luggage was because we are carrying a large tent, blankets, sleeping bags, food…and a pushchair. We have a four wheel drive, high sided, off road style of push-chair (Americans call them strollers I think). Amelia likes to take these on holiday as they can carry a lot more than babies. One advantage of carrying blankets is that they were loaned out to very grateful (non-cabin) 1st class fellow passengers on the top deck of the Ilala. They were also loaned out at Mufasa Lodge the previous night when some had to sleep on the beach.

I can make further excuses for why we are carrying a lot of luggage but that will do for now.

Our luggage was accepted on the life-boat and we went down to the lower deck and pushed our way to the front of the queue. We had after all paid to go cabin class (one step above 1st class) so surely we were entitled to some sort of favourable treatment… Amelia was better at pushing her way through the throng carrying David than I was carrying Ruth.

Soon we were first on board the life-boat and on top of all our luggage and many more poured on. We looked up to the upper decks in the dark to the first class and other cabin class customers peering over the side and watching the show.

Suddenly with large numbers of people, bags of rice, food and miscellaneous other forms of luggage we were off to the shore. We got to within about five yards of the very crowded shoreline and stopped. My main concern was of course the possibility of my iPhone, my macbook, my camera, my wallet and numerous other important electrical items getting wet. There was no way that I was moving until I was as sure as I could be that they were not going into the water. Amelia jumped in as I transferred my iPhone from my pocket to my small rucksack. She shouted at me to take off my shoes….which was the least of my concerns. I completely ignored that bit of advice and regarded it as simply an example of her sense of humour. One of the crew members held Ruth as I organised the important stuff between handing the large heavy suitcases to Amelia to carry to the shore.

Although only a small distance to the beach it was difficult to see either her or the luggage (or David) due to the darkness and the dense crowds of people. The arrival of the Ilala is the main event of the week here and a lot of people are involved one way or another.

By the time I was ready to risk a jump into the dark waters below, 75% of the passengers had got off, so it was now time for others to jump on board. This meant that I had to fight with some difficulty to get over the side of the life-boat while at the same time remaining in enough control to be able to prevent my rucksack and it’s precious cargo getting at all wet. Fortunately this part worked out fine but I did notice that my trouser pockets ended up being a bit wet and so congratulated myself on my decision to move the iPhone.

I then was able to turn round and collect Ruth from the life-boat and make my way to shore. She of course was perfectly calm and I was relieved that the crew member who was holding her did not in any way seem to expect a tip. It was not a perfect environment for looking through my wallet for an appropriate sum. Actually no one seemed to be looking for a tip in order to help us.

On shore a few yards away I wondered how Amelia could be sure that we had everything. I could see no way of us moving without others helping us to carry some stuff so I reached for my iPhone to call Josh or Kevin from Mango Drift – “Sorry, he’s five minutes late – can you make your way up the slope towards where there will be a couple of lights.”

Before I could say “No” the call was cut off and I hoped that somehow we would be found within this crowd. Amelia had no such hesitation and said that we should start moving the stuff. I was against this idea on the basis that we would have to leave some bags and come back for others and something could go missing. I am not wishing to say anything against the character of the people of Likoma Island but for all I knew, this was a possibility.

Ruth thought that this was all a great adventure and was rushing around playing with children round about – much to the amusement of everybody.

I insisted that we only move the luggage in very small steps but I could see that Amelia was ignoring this as she headed up the beach and back with one item after another. In the end, despite the complication of watching Ruth and the luggage at the same time, in the dark, and in a crowd of people, we made a great deal of progress. The two vehicles from Mango Drift soon arrived.

Finally we were on board, much to my surprise, a game viewing vehicle. Ruth and I sat at the back with a couple from England. An Israeli-English couple sat in the middle and David and Amelia sat in the front with the driver (Josh I think).

Unfortunately the other vehicle seemed to be broken down and the English-Scottish family were eventually abandoned (for now) as we headed off to the other side of the island. It seemed a much longer journey through baobab country than I had expected. At one point those of us at the back were hit by low hanging mango tree branches and at another I counted a total of seven laughing children hanging off the back of the vehicle.

Ruth entertained us all by singing “Twinkle twinkle little star”. However, she point blank refused to sing “The Wheels On The Bus” as that is a daytime song…apparently.

Eventually we arrived at a point which we were informed was as close as the road gets, and we all got out. Our excess baggage was distributed between Mango Drift employees and other guests and all I was carrying was my rucksack and David. It was a complicated journey even for our four wheel drive pushchair and we were all very glad of the bright moon over the baobabs.

Finally we reached the beach and Mango Drift. It was dark but still looked a little bit, I thought, like paradise.

The vehicle then returned for the others.

Eventually at the bar we all assembled and relived our different but related stories of how we somehow got ashore. Some people were appalled at the “lack of organisation” and the fact that people were jumping onto their lifeboat before they had got off. This situation was compared unfavourably with tube etiquette on the London Underground. The whole thing was described as almost the experience of a lifetime. I personally thought that the whole thing showed how honest Likoma Island people in particular and Malawians in general are. There were ample opportunities for people to take advantage of us – or worse, steal – and it certainly did not seem as though anything like that was even imagined by the locals.

It then emerged in conversation that Amelia had carried all our heavy luggage from the lifeboat to the shore and people started looking at and also…talking about my shoes (they were all wearing sandals).

I mentioned that I had other priorities and the idea of taking off my shoes seemed trivial in comparison. “I was thinking about my iPhone.”

Someone said “Your shoes look dry?!”

Realising how surprised people were that Amelia had done all the heavy lifting I decided to press home my advantage and claimed that “Amelia carried me to the shore.”

Today, the day after and our first day in paradise the events of last night seem to be a very long time in the past.