I am not inspired to write very much just now. Instead I will post some photos from Mango Drift on Likoma Island. These pictures were taken on the first couple of days that we were there.
I did write other posts, with no photos, on our time there and I will provide the links.
There is a series leading up to our trip to Likoma Island. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnight stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.
The First Likoma Island post is about reaching the island itself on the Ilala. This contains useful information for anyone wanting to know about disembarking from the Ilala.
The next set of posts were written on the island itself and uploaded from the island. Because I was doing this on my iPhone I decided to leave out photos.
The main post that i wrote on and published from the island was about learning to scuba dive on Likoma Island. It is my propaganda piece on why Likoma Island is the best place in the world for learning to scuba dive. I did have a conversation with someone very recently who fully agreed with my view that it is better to learn to dive in freshwater. There were many other reasons, as I recall, for my view that Likoma Island provides the best value for learner divers. I hope you are convinced. If you want to do this yourself then please get in touch. I may be able to help.
Another piece was on the birds on Likoma Island.
The comings and goings of people at Mango Drift are dominated by the arrivals and the departures of the Ilala. The secondary influence on who is at Mango Drift and when are the flights to the islands. However, it is not the passengers who are seen at Mango Drift so much as the pilots. Small planes bring customers to the upmarket Kaya Mawa, the pilots come to Mango Drift. There is probably no better place in Malawi for meeting pilots than Mango Drift on Likoma Island.
The Ilala runs up and down the Lake each week. We were on the northbound journey and some of our fellow passengers were simply waiting for the return of the southbound Ilala. This gave them a couple of days at Mango Drift.
Others there were a very nice Israeli couple, Dan and Gabriela, who were traveling on to Mozambique and the coast. He is a brave man as he is Israel’s answer to Richard Dawkins. In Israel seemingly there would be a lot of opposition to his book launch despite my perception of a large secular community within Israel. It was unfortunate that time was too short for a wide debate as there was a full range of views on offer among the guests. From the tranquil of Likoma Island he would be heading to the storm of his book launch in Israel. I hope that it generates a good debate and light as well as heat…
Here is a musical composition by Dan accompanied by some pictures that Dan and Gabriela put together from a previous trip in Mozambique. Here is his music website. Dan also told us about a tribute to Japan, The Tsunami Song he co-wrote with words by Gabriela.
There was also a family from the UK mentioned in a previous blog post. Several of them, like me, were visiting Malawi after many years away.
I have a series of posts on our trip on the Ilala to Likoma Island. A trip that includes stops at Liwonde National Park and Monkey Bay on the way.
Now, the next part of the trip is the arrival at Likoma Island. I have done a post on that already but it had no photos – because I uploaded the post from Likoma Island itself on my phone and I was not confident about having enough bandwidth for uploading photos.
Previously on this series, which can be thought of as a guide to a trip on the Ilala I have the following posts. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnights stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.
Logically, the next post should be about disembarking the Ilala on Likoma Island. The following is what I wrote the day after we arrived….
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.
I was writing something else for the next blog post but it was too ‘serious’ – despite my little jokes – and too long (I had no idea that there was so much content in my head).
So, instead I am attempting to write a blog post about our first night and the second day on the Ilala. The earlier parts on this series are a shopping stop, a canoe safari, Mufasa and then departing Monkey Bay on the Ilala.
As mentioned in the previous entry it was sunset before we arrived at Nkhotakota. We went to bed early and could hear a lot of the noise that went on outside our cabin. The first thing that happens is that the lifeboat engine gets ‘fired up’ or whatever the correct terminology is. It makes a lot of noise and there is a motor. After half sleeping through the loading and offloading at Nkhotakota we were off and heading directly across the lake to Metangula in Mozambique.
It was a rough crossing. Not for nothing is this known as the great and mysterious inland sea so long rumoured of in the early 19th century and before. Ruth was seasick. Amelia asked me to check that we had life-jackets in the cabin….groan. Queue me rolling my eyes as I was trying to settle down to sleep. It was not only my eyes that were rolling. I wondered how it felt up on deck.
Of course there was no need for life-jackets. This boat has a 60 year track record of charting these waters. What’s more it was made in Glasgow, Scotland in the great old days of Scottish shipbuilding. It was not the Titanic, built in Belfast, Northern Ireland…. (hello to my Northern Ireland friends).
By dawn we were at Metangula on the Mozambique side. What does Mozambique look like? Does the Lake on the Mozambique side look strangely different or surprisingly similar?
We were not too long at Metangula before we starting heading up the far eastern and Mozambican shore line. Surely this was why I came on the Ilala, to see some of the other stranger and less familiar shores on the vast and long lake of stars. What was fascinating about this shore is the knowledge that it is the front-line to the vast and utterly wild north and north-eastern Mozambique.
[I have heard stories of long flights over this wild land where only a single track was seen in hundreds of miles (and it led straight up to a house and stopped). I have heard of wild animals that are tame and come close – because they don’t have experience of humans. On the human side I have heard of ‘go-nakeds’. On the far side are scarcely touched Indian Ocean beaches, archipelagoes and turquoise waters with some of the best diving in the world.]
Sadly I could not see much evidence of all this except the relative sparseness of signs of human life. (Tiny villages on the shoreline of Lake Malawi here are probably the local equivalents of London, New York and Paris – am I getting carried away?).
Anyway, I did look out for the sight of elephants on other wild animals coming down to the Lake to drink. Sadly I did not see any despite being told by some that you can see this “all the time”.
Most of the first class passengers were however on the far side of the boat looking out to ‘sea’. Some were fascinated by how much like a sea this lake looks as on this side there was no chance of being able to see any land.
The main activities indulged in by first class passengers were reading, sun-bathing, listening to music, having a beer with someone you have just met, having a long conversation about the meaning of life and telling everyone about your particular NGO project. (I was a bit rude and did not listen to the people who wanted to talk about how their NGO was something you could believe in but someone’s else’s was counter-productive).
There were various groups of people in first class – almost all of them foreigners. Some foreigners were in second class but not many. Not all the foreigners were the backpacker types that you are probably imagining…and there is nothing wrong with backpackers. Some people were on holiday. Like me some were re-visiting Malawi after many years away and showing the new members of their families their old country. I wrote about that family on a previous post (and hope to write about them some more as our adventures were destined to continue together). Others were going on holiday to Nkwichi Lodge (a self sustaining ‘off-grid’ five star establishment on the Mozambique shore just south of Likoma Island). They were fortunate in that they knew the owners from when they lived “back een Lundin” (London). Others were a couple with a little girl Ruth’s age who were traveling all over the world (or Africa), I can’t remember which, for two years. We thought that they were brave traveling with such a young child. He is from Belgium and she is from the Philippines. They have rented out their house in New York to spend the time on the road. Others were something like backpackers or overland travelers. One interesting person was the owner of Dedza Pottery who was on his way (with cargo) to Likoma Island to build a new ‘mid-range’ lodge. I told him that I knew the geologist who discovered in the 1970s that the Dedza area in Malawi would be very good for pottery.
There were some interesting characters on the return journey – more about them in a future exciting installment!
Eventually, as the light was fading, we were within sight of Likoma Island. Now, I have already written a post about our arrival on Likoma Island. I wrote that while on Likoma Island and uploaded it with my iPhone. For that reason I did not upload photos – but believe me, it is a post that could do with photos. It was a post that appealed to my mother’s sense of humour as I remember her laughing about it when we spoke on the phone. Perhaps I will improve on that post and add some photos.
So, a day and a half after leaving Monkey Bay, one the one day delayed Ilala (that is very unusual I should add) we were arriving on Likoma Island.
Before I leave the Ilala story for now and until I cover the return journey let me offer some advice for future Ilala travelers in first class
1. bring the following
⁃ blankets (we loaned ours out) or a good sleeping bag
⁃ a mattress (or some sort of equivalent)
⁃ a good book
⁃ games to play with your new friends
⁃ your favourite music
⁃ supplies of kinds of food from the market or supermarket that you might fancy when considering a change from the ships restaurant Or just some feel good chocolates or ‘crisips’.
⁃ a sun hat or equivalent
2. time your trip
⁃ according to the moon if you want to stare up at the vast array of stars in the great southern sky unobscured by a bright full moon
⁃ according to the season
⁃ without a strict end deadline just in cast the Ilala is a little late
⁃ to enjoy yourself at Mufasa (or elsewhere if Monkey Bay is not your departure point) just in case it leaves late.
⁃ you are boarding or offloading somewhere other than one of the ports then consider the possibility of a rough small boat voyage to the shore and especially if you are carrying expensive electronic equipment which you don’t want to get wet
5. Chill out man
⁃ this is not a trip for people who get hot under the collar if their transport is five minutes late. You are not going to an interview – you are supposed to be enjoying the traveling more than the arriving.
On Saturday we finally boarded the Ilala. Although I had booked weeks earlier I had still not purchased my ticket from the ticket office. As Amelia and I had booked to go Cabin Class we were high status travelers. Others discussed what class they would travel and David (the Scottish guy who had been sceptical of my crocodile tales) confirmed that they would be “slumming it in 1st class”.
A first class ticket was approximately half the price of a Cabin Class ticket. We booked a cabin because we have two small children. First class passengers sleep on the top deck. If they time in right they can lie there with a great view of the southern sky. Second (and third?) class passengers sleep below with the cargo. At the ticket office I regret missing a great photo of about fifteen or twenty baboons jumping from a nearby tree onto the office roof. It would have been the ultimate ‘Monkey Bay’ photograph.
We saw the historic Chauncy Maples ‘parked’ next to the Ilala and soon we were off. Amelia and I were carrying an UNBELIEVABLE amount of luggage. Truly this was the Lampoon Taylor Family Holidays. I had figured however that people would help us carry out stuff at the critical moments. However the blankets that we brought were life savers for some of our fellow passengers – we brought them for our planned camping at Mango Drift. For a beach trip I usually would want to pack at least two boats in my suitcases plus all the camping gear I could think of.
First we passed along the western side of the great Cape Maclear peninsula. We were only a few days short of one hundred and fifty years from the day David Livingstone first saw and named Cape Maclear.
Soon we could see the gap between the mainland and Domwe Island where the second ever group of westerners ever to set sight on Cape Maclear sailed a few years later (they were a government expedition sent to investigate the, as it turned out, false stories of David Livingstone’s death). Locals now say that a lone leopard lives on Domwe. Soon we could see ‘White Rock’ which is reputed to have underwater caves with one of the top ten fresh-water dives in the world. Next is ‘Elephant Island’ otherwise known as Mumbo Island. The first Scottish missionaries to settle at Cape Maclear (the third lot of Europeans therefore) found an elephant on this island. It seemed incredible as the island is so far from the mainland so the elephant would have had to swim.
Then the Ilala heads out into open water and over to the first stop which is Chipoka. Chipoka is, I think, one of only three proper ports for the Ilala, the others being Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay. The other stops make use of life-boats and small local boats to ferry the cargo and the passengers.
Before reaching Nkhotakota it was sunset. The evening stop at Nkhotakota would be followed by the night crossing to the far side and to Mozambique.
Our big August holiday was to the Lake and Likoma Island. We took the Ilala boat from Monkey Bay to Likoma Island and returned just over a week later. It was a beach and scuba diving holiday.
Between Blantyre and Monkey Bay a good place to stop is Liwonde National Park. It is half way. Early European explorers in this place reported seeing an extraordinary variety and concentration of wildlife here. The first missionaries, from David Livingstone onwards, en route from the Indian Ocean to the Lake took their steamer along the Shire River through what is now Liwonde National Park.
We wanted to stay at Bushman’s Baobabs, a new place run by Darren, the previous owner of Chinguni Hills Lodge, towards the southern edge of the National Park.
We took a ‘canoe safari’ from the Shire river tributary next to Bushman’s Baobabs into a large lagoon adjoining the Shire River itself. Assured that it was safe because the experienced local boatman sticks to shallow waters (too shallow for crocodiles to get any upward trajectory) and knows what distance to keep from the hippos, we got on board.
It is an ideal way of getting among the animals and birds in their natural environment. Over 400 species of birds have been spotted in Liwonde National Park and even for a non bird lover for me it was clear that there was an extraordinary variety of birds round every corner. Unfortunately we did not see any elephants drinking but we did see many other species of wild mammals.
The next day we were ready for Monkey Bay.
One of the advantages of shopping in Malawi is you can quickly get all the fruit and vegetables that you need without making a special journey. While driving through the countryside you can get good prices and some of the stalls are quite colourful.
Some people may feel intimidated at the thought of bargaining at the side of the road in a poor country. In Malawi I don’t think it is really a problem. When there are various sellers in a small market town they are usually enthusiastic rather than aggressive. There is not much aggression in Malawi and few people do the ‘hard sell’. Outside of market towns you will often see stalls separated by several yards. This gives you thinking time as you drive past the first two or three. Different areas specialise in different types of fruits, vegetables or crafts so you have time to think ‘now do I want melons?’ as you zoom past the first few stalls. It also means that in these particular areas you can get better prices.
I always say to people who want to sell to me “you need to speak to wife” and that seems to work every time. Amelia certainly has much more of an idea over what she thinks things should cost. She is a better negotiator than me but always says that it is not hard to get a fair price.
[I had a quick look on the internet to see how accurate / inaccurate / misleading my choice of heading would be. I was relieved to see that ‘convenience shopping’ means different things in different parts of the world – no set global definition. If anyone is thinking of coming to Malawi and stumbles on this blog post while trying to find out what the shops are like…let me assure you, there are modern supermarkets in Malawi].
When we came to Mango Drift I was vaguely aware that they had scuba diving but had not thought a lot about it. I did think that I might try it but had my mind more set on reading, writing and relaxing. While I have in fact done some of those, my main activity here has turned out to be of the underwater variety.
I have learned almost all I know about scuba diving here on Likoma Island, over the last few days. If everything goes to plan then I should qualify as an ‘Open Water’ diver via PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) today. This should qualify me to swim to depths of 18m.
According to a guide-book, I cannot remember which one, Lake Malawi is the most inexpensive place in the world to learn and qualify as a scuba diver. Someone else visiting the island here a week ago said that she had heard or read something similar. I put this point to one of the dive instructors and he said that this was no longer the case. He mentioned somewhere else that is cheaper. However, he said that there a lot of people are learning with each very newly qualified and inexperienced instructor.
The cost to me of these few days of training and qualification is just over $300 USD. That seems to me to be a good deal especially as it is combined with other factors to do with learning and being here which I thought that I would list.
1. I have had one on one tuition the whole time
2. There are very few others ‘tourists’ here on the island so he, Kevin from South Africa, has been able to give as much time as I have needed
3. Lake Malawi is freshwater which I now understand makes a large difference in the maintenance of equipment. All the extra time and hassle washing (in freshwater) the equipment if one has been diving in saltwater or swimming pool water sound like a real hassle.
4. Lake Malawi has more species of freshwater fish than Europe and North America combined.
5. Many of these species are particularly brightly coloured with all sorts of shapes and patterns.
6. There are many species unique to this island
7. There is very good underwater visibility.
8. It is safe to swim here
9. The accommodation is inexpensive
10. The setting is beautiful
11. The weather is warm and sunny without being too hot
12. The island is unspoilt
13. There are no ‘beach boys’ here persistently selling all sorts of crafts and paintings that you do not really want (this is a slight nuisance in many, but not all, other areas of the Lake). Apparently the local chiefs here do not want tourists here hassled in this way.
14. The food here is exceptionally good, and consistently so.
15. The diving instructors here are very professional
16. There must be one of the best instructors – students ratios in the world here.
I thought I would find ’10 reasons’ for this being, depending on your own subjective opinion, the best place in the world to scuba dive. I seem to have over-shot and found sixteeen reasons.
You might wonder why scuba diver instructors would work here given the low volume of customers (and therefore lower revenues). I wondered myself. Instructors here (there are two) can add more to their CV by being involved in a wide range of other activities to do with the management and running of the dive centre, restaurant, bar and chalets. It is a welcome break from some of the more commercial centres. There is greater satisfaction here in the proper training of new students and the staff here, the Malawians, are very nice people. Kevin last night said that he thought that Malawi is just about his favourite country in the world although he could not put his finger on exactly why.
I have got on quite well will this course. In my final exam I got 94% of the questions right. The underwater skills sounded quite difficult each time Kevin explained what I would have to do next. In the event I got through them all in a quite a straight-forward way. I am not used to sailing through courses like this so it has to be down to the good tuition and the particular circumstances of this place.
So, this is probably the best place in the world to learn to scuba dive.
There was some scepticism expressed over the figure of ‘over 400’ species of different birds seen on Likoma Island.
Josh has backed up the claim by saying that the source is the definitive guide to ‘The Birds of Southern Africa’. Perhaps it is ‘Birds of Malawi: A Supplement to Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa’ or ‘Sasol Guide to Birds of Southern Africa’. I have seen the book or one like it on several occasions in the last few months. I assume that the reason for this is that Likoma Island is on a migratory route. Josh said that only 30 or 40 species are endemic to the island, however that does include the extremely rare Pel’s Fishing Owl.
We have just arrived on Likoma Island (one and a half days late). It has been a great adventure getting here. We have only seen Mango Drift in the dark so far but from what we can see….it looks great. As I write I can hear the sounds of the waves on the shore.