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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.


Brian, Nyala Lodge and Princess Bag

Brian was in town yesterday evening so we met up at Doogles, a famous backpacker haunt in Blantyre. I had long heard about this place but never actually been.

Brian is the manager at the Nyala Lodge in Lengwe National Park. Nyala Lodge is probably the best place to stay in the Lower Shire and although busy he was up in Blantyre to meet family off the long distance bus.

For the sake of my image I sat with Ruth's bag next to me for the evening. Ruth was happy with the reconciliation this morning (above)

I headed to Doogles early to check out the information boards before he arrived. It turns out that they have a good map of Mulanje Mountain. I listened to travelers discuss their walking plans and mispronounce the names of some peaks. In a different mood I would have joined in the conversation to give them some advice – I just was not in that happy, friendly, independent traveler mood and instead concentrated on a game of snake on my mobile phone.

Doogles has a pool, a bar, a lounge, what looks like a garden and of course some notice-boards of interest to travelers. I did not bother requesting a look at the rooms. I took address and direction notes on a disabled people’s ‘factory’ on the outskirts of Limbe. I am interested to see what standard and level of crafts are produced – and how they are produced. What Malawi can export is something I am trying to pick up on.

When Brian arrived he caught me drinking from a bottle of water so I remedied the situation by buying him a drink. I don’t think he particularly enjoyed the public transport journey up from the Shire Valley.

One of the reasons for us meeting up was that Ruth left her ‘Princess’ bag at Nyala Lodge in Lengwe National Park. Her great fear was that monkeys or baboons would steal her bag but I assured her that Brian would keep it safe in his house. Brian said we should transfer this bag before I left. Fearing that we would forget I said that I did not mind sitting with a Princess bag next to me for all to see.

Brian says that the tourist industry in Malawi is doing very well this year – a big change. They have been fully booked and Jambo Africa, who own the lodge but also do bookings throughout the country, are seeing a big increase this year. Brian said that this looks as though it will continue throughout the year.

We speculated on the reasons for this and wondered whether the fatal drugs taken by western governments to ‘stimulate’ – or produce a final death kick to the world economy was resulting in false optimism. Also mentioned were Icelandic volcanic clouds and perhaps the thought that flying south would avoid flight disruption – possible. I suggested that tourism to Japan was probably down and would cause a ripple out to other areas. Perhaps there is a ‘lets try the southern hemisphere’ mood this year. If that is true then it sounds sensible to me.

I asked Brian if there were any general themes coming over in conversation with visitors at his lodge. He said that everyone who comes says that they would like to move to Malawi – but of course don’t, they head back.

I told him about my conversation with Darren at Bushman’s Baobabs next to Liwonde National Park. In the context of a mention of the weather Darren had asked “How is it been in Britain recently?”

I told Brian that I was 60% sure that this was a sarcastic question and 40% sure that he was asking about British weather (another form of sarcasm I suppose). Darren’s supplementary question removed all doubt “Why do people still live there?”

My answer – 1/ family ties and 2/ inertia. After some further thought I decided that ‘fear of the unknown’ was another factor that slowed down mass emigration from Britain.

Brian and I agreed that family ties is a powerful factor. I mentioned that I had seen in my own wider family a lot of movement based on where other members of the family have moved to. The way people should look at the pull of family ties is to take the lead – make the move and encourage close relatives to follow. When it comes to the pull of family ties one should aim to do the pulling…in the right direction.

Our discussions were interrupted by a text message. ‘Check the moon dude’ Brian was told and he headed over to the pool and stared up. After he came back I mentioned that I had noticed a great white full moon earlier on my way to Doogles and so I went out to have another look.

I was surprised to see what was either a disruption of cosmic proportions….or a lunar eclipse.

This morning Ruth was happy to see her long lost Princess bag.

Photo post

The house that I lived in in Zomba until I was six.

Ruth on top of the new Mulunguzi Dam waves to people below.

We visited the graves when departing Cape Maclear

It was a sunny day

Ruth at Cape Maclear

Cape Maclear Sunset

Another of many sunset photos

Our friend from Thailand offers everyone our crisps

Bram from Holland got some Fish Eagle photos on our boat trip

Ruth has been in the wars

First Days in Blantyre

Apart from giving my wife and daughter a tour of my childhood haunts the first few days of setting into Malawi are hard work. The great thing is that there are people willing and able to help.

One of the more interesting trips was the visit to my old primary school – Phoenix International. I was pleased to see that they had the same uniform as in the good old days when I sometimes played left-wing for the first team against such noted rivals like St Andrews Primary and Hillview. I am not left footed but practised so much with my left foot that I created that niche for myself in the team. Or perhaps they had a weakness in that position.

Anyway as the four of us walked into the school we immediately aroused the suspicion of a prospect of a new pupil. However it was my announcement, in the tone of ‘I own this place’ (not really), that I am a former pupil that caused the biggest reaction.

It was interesting then to sit in the room of the school’s administrator and go down memory lane. She mentioned the names of pupils who were around my year and I mentioned others that I could remember. Interestingly I realised that I could remember more names from my the school football team than from my own class.

After this long conversation I then went and found Amelia, Ruth and David in the music room with all the other pre-nursery and nursery pupils singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus.” It took a while for me casting my eye around the room to find Ruth. She was captivated by learning new actions to this, one of her favourite songs.

We promised to come in the next day and meet the Headmistress to talk about Ruth joining the pre-nursery. Somehow the combination of tiredness, disorientation and rushing around with other essential settling in tasks meant that we forgot. Over the weekend we worried about our forthcoming grovelling apologies. We did not even have mobile phones set up to call and ‘explain’.

Fortunately all was forgiven, Ruth was accepted and the first part of our Malawi routine was slotted into place. We are now very proud parents.