First stop after saying goodbye again to Eddie and Carmen at Chitimba Camp in Northern Malawi, was Mzuzu to replenish our much depleted larder. There are certain things that just can’t be bought locally and on the streets, important things like decent bread, and items that needs to be kept in a refrigerator like butter, cheese and yoghurts. And most important of all, you can only get YYCCPB in South African supermarket chains.
The drive up from Lake Malawi onto the high plateau of the west of the country is epic, it climbs seemingly for ever, and in places we were down to 2nd gear for long periods in Colonel K. The tarmac is good on this stretch of road and despite the steepness and the slowness of our travel, we were still catching up and overtaking several fully loaded trucks as they crept up this marathon climb. It also gave us time to reflect on the travels of an English couple that we met at Chitimba a few months previously. Lloyd and Emily were cycling from Nairobi to Capetown and the day they left us they were going to do this epic climb in the mid day heat, respect to these guys, and I can’t wait to read about their adventures (no pressure Lloyd !).
Anyway, Shoprite Supermarket in Mzuzu didn’t disappoint, I virtually cleared them out of Yum Yum Caramel Crunch Peanut Butter, and we managed to get almost everything that we needed. After a quick chat with a few locals, and a trip to a bank for some Malawian Kwatcha, we found a great new backpackers with camping right behind Shoprite. This place is owned by a South African couple, and despite having a fridge full of fresh produce we decided to eat in their bar/terrace, he recommended pizza. Wow, these pizzas were amazing, we have had pizza before on this trip and they have always disappointed, not this time…… delicious. As with Chitimba, we also had a dog fest, with three crazy dogs protecting us and our truck overnight we felt safe in this town centre camp (in truth the dogs weren’t needed as it is a very safe place anyway).
Before we left Mzuzu the next morning, I ended up chatting to the same locals as the day before (Jac had gone back into Shoprite to try for some freshly baked bread). After explaining to them what a “Cockney” is, and why they can’t understand a Liverpool footballer being interviewed with a” Scouse “accent despite the fact that they are english. Oh and to try and convince one of them that he shouldn’t be supporting Arsenal! As I started Colonel K’s engine one of them turned around, and said “we like taking to you, you don’t tell us to go away!” I took this as a compliment but also explained that once I had told them “I wasn’t going to buy anything off of them or going to give them anything” they didn’t ask again, so I enjoyed chatting to them. Will they learn this lesson?
Last time we were in Malawi we followed the route along the lake, just with the occasional trip up into the hills, this time we were staying up on the highland route, which really is stunning.
We decided to stop at a lodge and campsite in Luwawa Forest, which promised a very different side to Malawi that we were keen to see (away from the huge population of the lakeside areas). Looking on a map or indeed our trusty Garmin, we saw that there were three ways into the forest from the main tarmac road. The first turning that we came to actually had a sign for Luwawa Forest Lodge, so we took this track. It very quickly became apparent that we would need to select Low Range in the transfer box, as this route had a lot of sections of deep sand, and it was quite steep in places (this is the end of the dry season in Malawi and the rains are expected soon), but after 15km we arrived at the campsite deep in the forest.
The lodge is run by an English couple, George and Christine and it has a real feel of the old colonial days about it, especially in the evenings where after having a beer or a G&T on the terrace overlooking the stunning garden, you can retire to the lounge complete with settee’s and arm chairs and finish your drinks in-front of a roaring log fire in the brick built fire place (not that a fire was needed, it was so bloody hot there!).
We stayed here for 4 nights, and early every morning we took a map from reception, and followed a different walk into the forest each day. The walks ranged from 2 hours to 4 hours long, and though it may have been reasonably cool when we left Colonel K, by the time we go back it was very hot indeed. One thing the walks had in common was that they were all through stunning scenery.
They have a huge problem with forest fires here on the Viphya Plateau, mostly caused by illegal charcoaling and logging for domestic cooking. There is also the issue of illegal logging where they sell to timber mills in the forest, the government have done nothing to stop this practice and the forest is disappearing at an unbelievable rate.
One morning we were walking up in the hills, along a very narrow path, when we heard voices off to our right, to see what was going on I climbed up on an old termite mound and looked down into the gully below. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then the guys below spotted me, they had built a “pit saw” over the gully and were using a “Push-Pull” logging saw and were ripping down a huge log into manageable planks. On seeing me, a “Mzunga” (white man), they grabbed their belongings and ran off up the hill opposite and away into the deeper forest. I was glad that we didn’t get closer to them before they saw us as the outcome could have been very different, but it does highlight how big a problem this is. In four days of walking in the forest we saw very little wildlife other than birds and small reptiles, the fires and logging (which seem to go together) are devastating this environment.
The lodge owner was telling us that the only way this is going to change is to take the forests out of Government hands and put areas under the control of non-profit organisations that manage the replanting and the foresting operations. This has been done with great success in a few small areas. He also told us how the UK government had paid millions of pounds to Malawi to organise the rest of the forests and put into non-profit organisations, this was all sorted out with the organisations in place, and then at the last minute the Ministry in Malawi withdrew the plan. The millions from the UK have strangely disappeared and the forest is still also disappearing…….
The colours in these hills are stunning, with wild flowers coming up through the burnt areas, and we even found some wild Blackberries and Raspberries.
But George and Christine’s constant lobbying to the Malawi Government, seems to have at last been listened to, while out walking one morning we were approached by a platoon of Malawian soldiers piled into a Land Cruiser, it seems that this small band of armed soldiers are to carry out patrols in the forest, and punish (really “beat the hell out of”) anyone that they find illegally operating in these areas. As Christine rightly said, “how can you fine someone that has nothing?”. Time will tell if this initiative works, and for how long the army will stay here in the forest.
Our last walk took us to the highest point of the forest, to the manned “Luwawa Fire Tower”, the last part of this walk is very steep and in an area devoid of trees so offered no shade at all, but it was well worth the climb. On a clear day (it was a little hazy) you can see Lake Malawi one way and across into Zambia the other way.
Obviously I had to climb the fire-tower, and I really don’t have an issue with heights, but this little gem was a different kettle of fish. It was a concrete tower with a very dodgy wooden staircase, every tread was a different size and height, the hand rail wasn’t fixed in most places and the stairs were seriously steep and completely mobile!
Despite it being the dry season, the “fire spotter” wasn’t at home, but we were told by another guy, “that he may be in later”………mmmmmm. Hope there are no big fires today then!!!!
A short walk from the campsite is a beautiful little lake (lakes in Africa are known as a Dam), the owner told us that the lake holds a “population” of Wide Mouthed Bream so after digging out my fishing gear, we walked down to the nearest part of the lake which is accessed via a very long board walk made up of very rickety and rotten timbers. This took us across a long marshy stretch, and poor old Jac seriously struggled with the flexing and moving of the timbers below her.
The water here was so murky and muddy, but ‘what the hell?’ lets give it ago anyway.
Within two casts I realised that it was less than a foot deep for as far as I could cast my lure! Bugger, we need a rethink, then George the owner appeared along the boards and suggested that we walk further round to the “Dam wall”. So then I thought, is the dam wall a dam for the lake, which is actually called a dam anyway? Whoa this crazy terminology is sooo confusing. Actually the lake was originally build by the British to provide a reliable source of water for the replanting of the forests in the 1950’s.
The water here was much deeper from the dam wall, but the problem now was that this wall is used as a thoroughfare from the forest into the local village and we were being watched by a multitude of locals as they made their way home. I told Jac, that there was no way that I’m leaving Luwawa Forest until I caught a Wide Mouthed Bream!
Sometimes in life you just can’t keep promises, I never did catch one of those elusive fish from Luwawa Dam, but that night while talking to George and Christine, he did let slip that if he can gain full control of all the shores of the dam, he will carry out a restocking programme. As a fisherman, I took that to mean all the locals had stolen ALL the fish out of the bloody lake.
The last two evenings that we were at Luwawa Lodge, it rained, and the last night it rained a lot, for quite a long time. This worried me a little as we had seen the state of the track when we arrived, if the sandy dust turned to deep mud we could be in trouble, but luckily we spoke to George who told us to leave on a slightly better track that the logging trucks use, but we should leave early before the commercial boys start to chew it up and turn it to rutted deep mud. We needn’t have worried, this track was much better and despite it being very slippery in places, Colonel K managed the track with ease.
We decided that rather than “hack it” to the border with Zambia, we would stop in the Malawian capital Lilongwe for a couple of nights, this would give us a full day in town to ‘do shopping’, ‘do lunch’ and (Jac hoped), to ‘do ice-cream’!
We parked and camped at a well known backpackers place in the city centre, and were surprised how busy it was, of course about 90% of people here were “Volunteers” either just finishing their short stint in a school or orphanage, and having their holiday in Malawi now, or they were having their holiday before their “voluntary” spell in a school or orphanage. Perhaps I sound rather cynical about aid and volunteers in Malawi, and if I do thats because I am. I’m not sure what good it does to go into a rural Malawian school, or orphanage for 4-6 weeks and then leave again, but I guess it looks good on a CV.
A quick ride into town in one of the little “Tuk-Tuk’s” for about £1.00, and we were doing, shopping, lunch and even ice-cream. I even managed to find yet another tub of YYCCPB in a Shoprite, RESULT!
After crossing the border into Zambia, we stopped for a night in the town of Chipata, and paid our bill for camping that evening with a plan to leave early the next morning en-route to Lusaka. After sitting down with a Gin and Tonic though we decided that we couldn’t leave this area without visiting one of our favourite places of this trip, the South Luangwa Valley and National Park. It would mean a round trip of 300 kilometres, but we thought we may never come back again, it also meant that we didn’t need to get up at “stupid o’clock”.
Wildlife Camp in South Luangwa did not disappoint! On our way into the campsite we passed a couple of elephants, and once parked up and a quick look around showed many more elephants in the vicinity. There is no shortage of elephants here…..
We were last here at the end of May, and then the river was full and flowing fast, it was full of hippos and crocodiles, but now in November its a very different place.
Our original plan was to pay for a night game drive into the National Park, and last time we did this we had an amazing safari experience. But now it seemed that not much was being spotted in the Park, and that we were seeing just as much from our camp on the river bank and at the waterhole in the campsite, so we saved our $150 (the cost for the two of us including park fees), and just savoured the animals that we could see.
Ever seen a” Pig in Stilleto black boots ” ?!!
Without visiting the National Park, over the 4 days that we stayed at Wildlife Camp we saw elephants, hippos, many types of antelope, warthogs, baboons, vervet monkeys, mongoose, giraffe, plus others, at night we heard quite close by (possibly in the camp) the amazing sounds of lion and hyena. The only animals that we might have seen on a paid night drive were cats such as leopard, lion and other smaller cats. But we had no regrets with not going on a paid evening game drive, our previous game drives from both Zikomo Lodge and Wildlife Camp were amazing experiences and I think this time would have been a slight anti-climax.
Since we were last at Wildlife Camp they have made quite a few changes, including a new hide at the main water hole, we spent quite a long time in there watching herds of elephants coming and going, usually en-route to reek havoc in the nearby village, ripping up vegetables and eating fruit. But also here we saw a beautiful monitor lizard, and just to show how diverse the wildlife is here I managed to get all in one shot a tiny squirrel, a love-bird and a starling.
Whilst you really have to respect the baboons here, they can be fascinating to watch (perhaps even more so the vervet monkeys), and the “big daddy” of the troop did make us laugh as every day he would plant himself on a picnic bench as if he was “lording it up”, watching his troop and keeping them in line, especially the youngsters. These primates are great to watch, but they are a real pain, especially the vervet’s as they are so bloody fast, they appear from nowhere (usually hiding in the trees above you), and can pinch your treasured apple from the table in a flash, or your hat, sunglasses, phone, in fact anything.
The rest of our time here, when not watching animals, was spent in or around the small pool. It was a lovely way to cool off, and the view across the river and towards the National Park is stunning.
Its not the cheapest place to camp (and a beer is $2.00), but at $10 per person per night, its an absolute bargain.
Within 5 km of Wildlife Camp), we saw not one, but three ex-British army T244 Leyland Daf’s (same as Colonel K in a previous life), all in unconverted flat bed condition including the one below which is used by the camp for fetching supplies. We also saw another a few days later on a campsite near Lusaka. It just goes to show how many of these trucks have been shipped to Africa and registered locally, so far we have seen them in camps in Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya. I think this also proves that getting spares for these trucks isn’t such an issue as you would think, many parts are not exclusive to the T244, and they are super simple to fix.
So safe in the knowledge that we had saved $150 by not going on a game drive, we set off on the 150km drive back to Chipata for the night, only for Jac to suggest that we stop at the “factory” of Tribal Textiles…….. Money eh, easy come easy go…….
Tribal Textiles, is a great initiative, owned and run by an English couple, but it employs over 100 men and women from the local community. All designs are set out and coloured by hand, ensuring all items are unique, even the dyes (100% natural) are mixed by hand, using the eye to match the paint/dye to a colour wanted by the “painter” as shown on a colour chart.
As a full blooded male, I guess I’m not really into soft furnishing, but the designs displayed really are very nice. They export all over the world, and do have an on-line shop if you fancy spending a bit of cash on a good cause. I know they are looking to make a profit, but they do offer a large number of people full time employment and also support local issues such as the new primary school. In many ways I think this is money better spent than sending it to a large non-profit organisation only for it to go to yet another $60,000 Toyota Landcruiser! The workforce seemed immensely proud of the goods that they turn out here and the job that they do.
The drive from Chipata to Lusaka is a gruelling 600km, and we ended up doing this in one day, it took 11 hours, but generally the road surface is good, and in true African style they have built a fancy new bridge (with a police road block of course), that is only wide enough for one vehicle and slightly more concerning only one truck is allowed on the bridge at anyone time!
I would guess that on this 600km stretch there are about 15-20 road blocks of one kind or another (this is quite a low number for an African country), most of which in Zambia you just get waved through (after slowing right down or actually stopping), but one of these road blocks stands out as a REAL waste of time. At this particular barrier we were approached by an un-armed guy, with what could only be described as a large white “butterfly net”. The usual questions started “where are you going”, “where have you come from”, then after explaining that we have come from South Luangwa, he looked concerned and grasped his butterfly net tighter “I am looking for Tsetse Flies, I need to check inside your vehicle”. I replied “we don’t have any Tsetse Flies, there are no Tsetse Flies in our vehicle”, with that he lowered his butterfly net, and said “ok you may proceed”, the barrier was raised and off we went, like I said a real waste of time!
Thanks for reading