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July 28, 2005

Lake Malawi

I finally managed to reach Malawi on July 6, after travelling from Rwanda, through Uganda, and across Tanzania. The day's travel was pretty uneventful: it just took four minibuses, a sharetaxi, a private taxi and a little bit of walking to get from Mbeya (Tanzania) to Mzuzu (Malawi).

It was on one of those minibus rides that I caught my first glimpse of the beautiful sparkling blue waters of Lake Malawi. Staring out at the lake I had one the rare "I can't believe I'm here" moments that I still occasionally get. When I was younger, about middle school, my brother Chris and I both kept tropical fish. Some of the most interesting fish to me were cichlids which are found primarily in Lake Malawi, hundreds if not thousands of different species. Back then the lake seemed so far away that it might as well be on another planet. And there I was, staring at its waters knowing I would soon be there.

Less than 48 hours later I arrived in Nkhata Bay, one of the really popular backpackers spots on the lake. I spent the next few days there and truth be told, I didn't do very much. I hung out with the other backpackers and went swimming and snorkelling. The snorkelling was amazing. I finally got to see in their natural environment the cichlids that I had read so much about as a kid. And they were way more brilliant than I had imagined: lots of vividly blue and yellow fish, many with stripes. I also finally started to really get the hang of snorkelling and have faith that yes, I would actually be able to breathe under water. This made the snorkelling so much more enjoyable than it had been previously.

Upon leaving Nkhata Bay I went to Chizumulu and Likoma Islands, which are part of Malawi but which are actually on the Mozambiquan side of the side of the lake. I got there via the Ilala ferry, which travels up and down Lake Malawi once a week in each direction. To get to Chizumulu it was a four hour ride in the middle of the night. It was a rather pleasant ride: the waters were fairly calm and I got to talk with the other travellers on the boat -- the people I would be stuck with for the next five days. Unless you have the money to charter a flight, there is only one way off the islands, and the Ilala wouldn't be returning for five days.

Arriving in Chizumulu was nothing short of magical. I almost felt like I was in a Harry Potter novel, arriving at Hogwarts for the first time. As we starting to get close to the island we saw about a hundred or so small lights off in the distance. At first, we thought that the island had gotten electricity, but as we got closer the lights parted from us leaving a pathway for the ferry to go through and then closing in behind us after we had passed. The lights were actually the lanterns on fishing boats and we were soon surrounded. It was very dark out and for the most part we couldn't see the boats or the fishermen -- just balls of light floating on the water.

The ferry soon pulled in as close to the island as it could go and the lifeboat was lowered into the water to ferry people to the island. As it turned out, though, the backpackers place on the island had sent a boat out to fetch all the mzungu who were getting off and we were soon on our way. Away from the lights of the ferry, it was pitch black as the boatmen paddled us toward the shore. The many, many stars in the sky looked absolutely brilliant. The boat soon pulled up to the dock where we were met by Nick, the owner of the lodge. He had a couple dogs with him and we couldn't see his face -- he was carrying a lantern, but the light only went down. He welcomed us to the island and led us up the path to the lodge by lantern light. (Lanterns were the only light available at that point. The island actually had gotten electricity, but it was turned off at 10pm.) Nick showed us around the lodge and I was soon settled in my bed, fast asleep.

The next few days were spent on Chizumulu and were very similar to the days at Nkhata Bay. I hung out with the other backpackers, read, went swimming and snorkeling, hiked through the villages. I also got a chance to take out a dugout canoe. They are rather difficult to maneuver and require a lot of muscle. The also seem exceedingly unstable -- I am actually surprised that I didn't capsize. After a few days most of the other backpackers and I (seven of us in total) took a dhow over to Likoma Island. Likoma I thought, though very similar to Chizumulu was not quite as nice. The only things worth note on Likoma were the cathedral -- just the fact that there is a cathedral on an island in the middle of nowhere -- and the strangler fig tree in the middle of the market. Strangler fig trees are very neat looking trees. Basically, they grow like vines on other trees, eventually killing the other tree. In this case, the fig had killed a huge baobab tree which had long since decayed, leaving only the strangler fig which had surrounded it and taken on its shape -- but leaving a hollow center that we could actually go into. Very cool.

After a day on the Likoma we all caught the ferry and I took it up to a village just norteh of Nkhata Bay called Usisya. Usisya doesn't get many tourists -- in fact there were only two of us when I got there -- which makes it a lot of fun to walk through. I spent the next day hiking through the villages and the following day hiking back. The hikes were just beautiful. I walked through villages, hills, fields, and beach and saw gorgeous views of the lake. I met many friendly people, said hello to a countlss number of kids, and had tea with the village chief in Usisya. After my hikes, I returned to Nkhata Bay and soon travelled on to the south of Malawi.

Posted by Jillian on July 28, 2005 04:03 AM
Category: Southern Africa

I just love your posts

Posted by: Mark on July 30, 2005 08:00 AM

Your parents were here in Illinois about 2 weeks ago. It was nice to hear about your adventures from them. I am getting caught up now on your BLOGS. It is quite an adventure you are on. I have friends in S. Africa if you are going there.

Posted by: Aunt Ruth on August 5, 2005 09:08 AM
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