We’ve now spent a couple of weeks in Malawi, and it seems to me that Malawi is the Foreign Aid capital of Africa! Is it actually doing any good? mmmmm read on, but some people may not like what they are reading.
After leaving Liwonde National Park, which is a lovely campsite, basic but clean and efficiently run, we headed south to the town of Zomba. This is the former capital city of Malawi before it was moved to Lilongwe, and has actually got some quite nice former colonial buildings (these have mostly fallen into disrepair, which is a shame as they could be lovely places and have many uses). I dropped Jac off to raid the ATM of the most modern looking bank (also the one that had a guard with a machine gun), she then returned with handfuls of notes. Let me explain, the largest note is circulation in Malawi is 1,000 Malawian Kwatcha, this is the equivalent to about 98p, and because of this, the bank can only give out a maximum of 40,000MK at a time, so two lots is 80 notes, and this is less than £80.00 worth. Malawi isn’t cheap either (compared to Europe its cheap, but not to other Southern African countries, such as Namibia, South Africa and Zambia), so this means we go through 40,000MK quite quickly, especially with diesel being a relatively expensive 77p per litre. Next stop was a Shoprite Cash and Carry “Supermarket” down one of the manic side streets of Zomba, as is usual with most supermarkets in Malawi there was no fresh produce such as vegetables, fruit or even meat (you are expected to buy this on the street from local sellers), so after stocking up on cans of stuff, and few other bits we again ran the gauntlet of locals with their hands out. Malawi is by far the worst country that we have been through for people asking for handouts, could this be a result of all the handouts from western countries, charities and “non profit organisations”?
Zomba town is set at the base of the mountains (at about 800m above sea level) and the campsite that we were aiming for was almost at the top of the plateau (at about 1400m), and that 600m (nearly 2,000 feet in old money) is gained in a very short distance, its a very very steep climb. Thankfully virtually all of it, apart from the final part was tarmac (this was built a few years back when they constructed a large dam wall and reservoir, to supply water to Zomba), Colonel K earned his diesel that day. On the way up we noticed lots of men with their cycles fully loaded up with logs, struggling to control them on the steep decent (walking alongside them), and also many women carrying huge piles of wood on their heads, we would learn more about this extreme work later.
Amazingly near the top of the climb we were met by lots of men selling fruit, not your usual bananas and oranges, but strawberries, raspberries and even gooseberries, we filled our boots! These were the first locally produced “red” fruits we had seen since leaving the England over 14 months ago, and they were fantastic, especially the strawberries.
We had heard that the campsite up here was very basic, and run down, and in true Malawian style it didn’t disappoint. It was previously (not long ago I think) a thriving trout farm, with lots of fish holding tanks, and ponds, and it obviously was an attraction for day visitors and campers and there was a former restaurant over looking the largest pond. It must have been very nice here, but as you can see from the photo of one of the huge log cabins, it would now make a great film set for the sequel of the “Blair Witch Project”!
Zomba Plateau is renown for its hiking opportunities, so we arranged for a guide to take us on a 3 hour walk up in the hills, and we were lucky enough to meet Benson who made the experience very enjoyable and interesting. First stop en-route to the “top” was Williams Falls, this is a long series of fairly short waterfalls.
We climbed a total of about 1,000 feet from the trout farm up to the top of the Plateau, and it was quite tough going for us as we have lost our fitness a bit since we have been away (lots of sitting in the cab, and of course its too bloody hot to walk quite a lot of the time), but it is so green and lush at the top (it wasn’t the highest point, that was further round the plateau).
Even up here, we passed guys trying to hold up their fully loaded cycles under the incredible weight of the logs, it was about 15km down to the town from here, and Benson explained more about this. Each morning before it gets light these men and women leave the town and start the long walk up the hill (men with push bikes), and at the gate (near the top) they have to purchase a forestry permit for 200MK (this allows them to cut logs for that day and remove them from the Plateau), they then spend ALL DAY cutting wood and loading it onto their bikes (I would estimate there is about 50-75KG loaded onto the bikes (they even in-fill the triangle of the frame), and slowly struggle to control the bikes down the long and very steep in places tarmac road, down to Zomba town. Benson told us that the going rate for one of these loads of firewood is 4,000MK, so after buying the permit the profit is 3,800MK (approx £3.80) for a very long hard days graft.
There are two famous viewpoints from up on the Plateau, Emperor’s, and Queen’s viewpoints, respectively named after Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and the Queen Mother of Great Britain both of whom visited the Plateau in the 1950’s. I showed my ignorance of all things African when I asked if the sign was painted in the colours of the Ethiopian flag.
“No” Benson replied, “thats the Rasta colours”! And so it was, down at the viewpoint was a stall with a Rastafarian selling all the usual tourist stuff, but with a Rasta theme, very strange and also very friendly. The view from both here and the nearby Queen’s is quite breathtaking, and really shows the old volcano that stands on the other side of Zomba.
On the way back down to the trout farm, we passed two man made lakes, the highest one was so still, and peaceful in amongst the pine trees.
Benson, only guides walkers when required (he said its usually only once or twice a week, there really are very few tourists staying up here), the rest of the time he works with his brother who’s a carpenter making things to sell to tourists and when he told us that he wanted to take us to their shop on the way back to the campsite, I groaned inwardly! Another tourist trinket trap, selling all the same old crap? Well no, quite a bit of this stuff was actually very good, and a bit different. They make everything themselves in their “workshop” opposite the shop (obviously not an actual shop, more a set of tables with roof over them), and in this instance we broke our usual rule not to buy any touristy stuff. In the end we bought a “globe” with a map of the world (approximately) hand carved into it, then cut in half and the insides chisled out and sanded to allow some storage (peanuts?) inside. Its all made from one solid piece of “ironwood”, and is beautifully finished, we agreed a price of 10,000MK (approx £10.00). On the way back to the campsite I asked Benson how long it took to make this one off globe, he told me it took his older brother about seven days to make this one item, and judging by the quality of it, I believe him.
It took us as long to get down from the Plateau as it did to get up there! It was tough on the brakes this time, and most of the time we were doing about 15kmph down the long steep road. Concentration was the key.
Next stop was back to Lake Malawi, and this time Senga Bay, we chose Steps Campsite, as we knew it had a private beach, and that we could use the facilities at the adjacent Sunbird hotel. We got there on a Friday, and was met at the huge steel gates by the head of security “Pax”, he suggested that we use their “old” campsite as it was likely to get very busy at the new campsite with day visitors at the weekend. It was already quite busy so we took his advice and parked right next to the sandy beach and almost next to the actual hotel rooms. Next day was very busy and included a coach load of teenagers that were just finishing their exams at school and were here to let off steam. The music was pumping, and it was great to see them having a fun time in the lake, playing football, and generally doing what all teenagers do. Most of them had no change of clothes or swimwear, they just went in fully clothed.
We spent a couple of days chilling around the very nice swimming pool at the hotel, and watching Euro 16 football in the nearby bar, but while we were there a local choir (consisting of about 30 women) used the hotel pool and beach areas to film a video (very low budget) for their latest song, it was quite surreal really, but they seemed very excited about being in this hotel.
We heard that song so many times, that I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards!
Whilst at Senga Bay, I asked Pax why there was such a high level of security at the campsite (we were the only guests staying here), his immediate answer was to tell us that it was to make us feel safe (his guards are dressed almost as paramilitaries and march and salute as such), but then he also explained that it was to stop the locals coming to sell Cannabis on the beach. I was quite shocked at this, and asked him if it was a big problem in Malawi, he said that although it is illegal to grow, sell or smoke cannabis here it is a huge issue for them here at Senga Bay. I was intrigued about this and wondered where it was coming from, we were soon to find out!
After again being on the lake for a few days, we decided we would head inland again and this time to a campsite on the Bua River in the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Bua River Lodge is about 12km from the tarmac M5 lakeside road, and as we turned onto the dirt track, it was soon obvious that they had received some rain here earlier that day, and in places the hard packed mud had chewed up a bit and was very slippery, but eventually we got to the Reserve gate, and was told that we would have to pay $23.00 to enter the park to reach the campsite . We agreed with the female ranger on the gate, that we would pay when we came back out, as we didn’t know how many nights we would stay for (and also if the campsite wasn’t suitable for our truck then we could leave within the hour without paying). From the gate Tracks4Africa was showing that it was about 4km to the lodge and campsite, and with 800m to go, the track split and was signposted left to the lodge and reception, and right to the campsite, there was also another sign below instructing campers to proceed straight to the campsite, so we turned right…….
After about 250m we knew we had made a big mistake, the track was extremely steep, very rocky, and after the rain that morning, very very slippery! There was no way that Colonel K would be able to reverse back up, we just had to carry on very slowly and hope we could turn around at the bottom and drive back out. It got worse, a lot worse, in places we had wheels locked up and was sliding down (9 tonnes is a lot of weight to hold on wet, muddy and slippery rocks), but eventually we got down to a very small tight campsite, and was met by a very smiley Manager. My first words were “why the hell don’t you have a ‘caution steep descent’ sign at the top?”, at least that would have given us some warning and would have walked down and checked it out first. He just looked and smiled again, and said “you should be ok to get out tomorrow if it doesn’t rain again!” I walked up the track and thought NO WAY!
I calmed down and just crossed every part of my body that it remained dry for the next 18 hours, but even if dry (and it was completely covered by a thick canopy of trees), I really had my doubts that our 150hp Cummins engine would haul our 9 tonne truck up that bank of rocks and mud. So we went on a sunset walk with a couple of beers and our guide “Tony”. Health and safety don’t feature very highly in these parts, and as we walked down and along the river bank, we came into a clearing for our beers to watch the sun go down, and it was full of sun bathing crocodiles!
Also present at this lovely pool was a family of Vervet Monkeys, a stunning African Fish Eagle, and a young Bull Elephant.
It was a lovely hour or so, and the walk/guide was free, we just had to pay for our beers (which Tony carried for us of course).
After a good nights sleep (for me anyway, Jac said she hardly slept as she was worried about getting out of the campsite) in this very peaceful spot, we woke to thankfully a dry morning, so after putting the coffee pot on, and planning to have a leisurely breakfast I went to use the toilet. Bugger, the sky is seriously black in the distance, rain is on the way………. So a rapid pack up, with the truck having a very long warm up of the engine, Jac went and settled the bill, and we readied ourselves and Colonel K before the heavens opened! First Gear, Low Range, and off we went……..In the end the Daf made very light work of it, just feeling the tyres spinning every so often on the wet and muddy sections, but once again Colonel K surprised us with his capabilities. We stopped at the Reserve gate and had toast for breakfast and laughed at how worried we were about getting out, and the young female rangers ridiculously large military style boots (she was tiny, with about size 43 boots!). Oh and it didn’t rain, the sky cleared and it was another hot sunny day.
On the track back to the tarmac, we suddenly noticed the crop being grown here, Cannabis on a huge scale (small plots, but almost everyone was growing Pot here), there was no sign of the usual maize or sugar cane. This theme continued all the way to Kande Beach. Yes there was now some plots of sugar cane and maize, and even a few people growing cotton, but there is tonnes of Cannabis being grown here, and apparently most is exported to South Africa, and Mozambique (where of course it is sent to Europe amongst other places). It is illegal to grow it here and yet it is so blatant along side the main roads, the authorities must be turning a blind eye to this (or taking a cut), but what really makes me angry is this is prime land and could be used for growing maize etc, and providing food for the amazing people of Malawi. But of course hundreds of tonnes of food aid is brought into Malawi each year, so why bother growing your own when we could grow profitable illegal drugs! Rant over? Nope not yet!!!!
While travelling around Malawi you get to realise how many “volunteers”, aid workers, and NGO’s there are here, I’m sure that intentions are all good, but with literally thousands of “gap year” students spending a month, or even a few months ‘painting a school’, or ‘playing with orphaned children’ (then leaving them behind once they have got used to them), is it really helping this country?. Almost every child that you drive past is screaming “sweety”, or “pen” with his or her palm held out, they have got used to the “Mzungu” (white man) bringing gifts into the communities. Is this good for the long term of this country or its people? We have met a few “overland truck/bus” drivers that say that Malawi is the only country that they drive through (except Zimbabwe), that hasn’t moved forward at all in terms of infrastructure, and this is despite the massive amount of aid that comes in from the EU and USA. Along the tarmac roads, especially the long lake side road, at almost every 10km you will see a sign with the EU flag on it proclaiming a new initiative such as a “Goat Club”, or “Community Feed Initative”, many are now faded, so are they still operating? Who knows, but I doubt it. Then there’s the obscene amount of money spent on brand new Landcruisers, Hilux’s, etc that are driven by idiots that have no regard for other road users, cyclists, and pedestrians, all have got some sort of charity or foreign flag stuck to the front doors. Money well spent? Not in my eyes.
We are currently staying on a fantastic campsite on Kande Beach, which also has a number of good quality cheap rooms (there is also a certified dive school attached) they employ 40 full time local members of staff (yes 40! not including the dive school), there are many like this place on Lake Malawi. As I see it, having a two week beach holiday in Malawi may benefit the country more, and you would have a great African experience as well. As with a lot of Southern African countries, there is a lot of hope in the new president here and that any curruption will stop, I for one hope so too, the people of Malawi deserve better.
Ok rant over, sorry if you don’t agree with what I said, but its just a view on what we have seen and listening to people here in Malawi.
Thanks for reading