The Lake of Stars

Malawi was one of the few countries I had previously visited, on a whirlwind weekend trip four years before. We had shot over for a 2 1/2 day weekend from Zambia to the highlight of Malawi – the Lake, with a stopover in the capital, Lilongwe, and compulsory attendance at a Reggae concert that was in fact pretty much a rally for the black emancipation movement. My time here was going to be a bit limited due to a later than planned arrival because of fitting in with the Tazara timetable, coupled with an impending start date for work in Zambia. I had high hopes for taking the Ilala, an ancient ferry that plied its way up and down the lakeshore villages on a weekly cycle. However, its age and corrosion had appeared to catch up with it, and it was now out of service, which was probably a good thing from a health and safety point of view. With only 4 nights in Malawi, I wasn’t going to be able to get out to the highlights of Likoma Island on the far side of the lake, Monkey Bay on the southern end of the lake, or to climb Mt Mulanje in the far south of the country. Rather than chew off a bigger bit that I could eat, I decided a couple of days of R+R was the best course of action. Our mid afternoon arrival in Mbeya had meant a crossing into Malawi on sunset, and therefore limited our progress down the lake, only making it to the northern town of Karonga. The next morning, at the local bus stop, we managed to precipitate a bit of a calamity. Standard operating procedure for touts at bus stops involves scoring the approaches, ready to get first dibs on any business that doesn’t have prearranged transport. It normally results in them grabbing your bags, putting them in the boot of their nominated vehicle, reassuring you that the vehicle is about to leave despite being empty (and no vehicle goes until it is full), and telling you that there are no other options available for you. We weren’t born yesterday, so when our bags were whisked into the back of the first minivan, we performed basic due diligence, seeing whether there was in fact a van about to leave. Upon finding a van that was just about full and informing the initial tout and his associated driver of our plans, the loss of business of three muzungus (which are more valuable to take, partly because if muzungus are happy to go in the van, then it must be good!), was not going to bode well for their morning’s business. When the driver of the new van tried to fetch our bags with our assistance, the initial driver took offence to this perceived poaching of business, and the fists started flying. Despite our protestations, the dusty bus stop soon transformed into the stage of Ultimate fighter with punches, foot trips and headbuts flying, much to the excitement of the normally friendly malawi locals. Trying to defuse the situation didn’t work, so in the end we grabbed our bags and found a hire car that wasn’t much more, and would take us to the exact place we wanted to go which was a bit off the beaten track, allowing the touts to continue until they realised they were fighting over nothing. We all piled in, along with a few locals, so the hire car wasn’t a spacious luxury any more, but the price remained the same. On the road south along the lake shore, we had a couple of customary stops pre police checkpoint where one or two of the locals that were passengers with us, would get out, and onto the back of one of the waiting bicycle taxis, so that when we rounded the corner to the police checkpoint, our driver didn’t face a fine for overloading – one of the many tariffs that seem to be variably enforced.
Our destination was Mushroom Farm, a small ecolodge which a friend Nav had insisted that I stay at. It lies nestled on the edge of the escarpment that divides the southern end of the Great Rift Valley from the western plateau of the country. The Rift Valley which stretches all the way up past Ethiopia into the middle East 6000kms away in the north, tails off in Malawi, where it forms the basin which is filled by Malawi’s defining feature, Lake Malawi. The Lake provides a major source of income for the people of Malawi. Due to a combination of political factor during the 20th century, Malawi ended up with a much higher population density than neighbouring Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. With limited innate exportable resources, the country has relied on crops such as tobacco to provide export dollar, but remains one of the poorest in Africa. What the country lacks in inherent wealth, they make up with warmth and character, with the scuffle at the bus-stop being far the exception to the welcome visitors get.
To get to the Mushroom Farm, our car we had loaded in to had to navigate a rocky dirt road that traced it’s way severalhundred metres up the escarpment through a number of sharp cut-backs. Our driver had assured us he new the way, and was fine to tackle what was definitely recommended as 4WD country especially in the rain. We wound our way up the cliff, with one eye on the small boulders that at times made up the road, and the other on the temperature gauge. About an hour later, and relieved to have not ruined the car and therefore the income of a fledgeling businessman, we got to our destination. The views out over the valley, across the lake to the mountains of Mozambique on the far side were magnificient, and such a tranquil setting was the perfect way to see out the last few days of what had been a dusty, and times tiring but thoroughly fascinating descent down a good chunk of the African continent. With a menu chocker full of vegetarian delights, it was pretty easy to get up from my tent in the morning, facing out over the lake, to grab a cup of freshy brewed coffee, some pancakes and then do very little.
We weren’t far from Livingstonia, which as a settlement set up as a mission station on the high plateau, it was hoped the european missionaries wouldn’t be as prone to malaria, that had devastated previous lakeshore attempts. Named after the great explorer of East and Southern Africa, David Livingstone, the village still retains some of it’s historic sentiments which the others staying with us headed off to explore. Come nightfall and two further feasts later, we were greeted with a stunning display of why Livingstone called the lake, the ‘Lake of Stars’. With darkness, the fisherman slipped their wooden canoes and boats out into the lake, each with it’s own lantern providing light for the nights work. The resulting speckling of the lake with light gave it the source for the epithet, and continues to do so. The lake is the 9th largest in the world, third largest in Africa after Lake Victoria and Tanganyika, and with over 1000 different fish species, has thelargest fish diversity of any lake in the world. The fish species are mainly cichlids, which are popular with divers in the lake, for their bright colours, and the way the young brood will seek resort in the mother’s mouth at any sign of danger.
Unfortunately I didn’t have any time to get some diving in, as I had a border pick up to make. After two nights sleeping on the cliff edge, we arranged for our car from the drop off to return to get us to a place where the local minibus networks serviced. However, with 7 of us heading back, the car was now bottoming out on the smallest suggestion of a stone, so the heavier half of us instead descended the hour or so walk on foot, with the car threading its way down the road. Once back on the coast road, the previously employed tactic of offloading pre police checkpoint wasn’t going to fly, as muzungus don’t just happen to be getting bicycle taxis down the road past police check points without possessions. With some negotiating about what was the correct ‘fee’ to pay, we were back on our way, and a couple of hours later made it to Mzuzu, the major city of the north, where we split up, some of the group heading to Nkhata Bay, and three of us making tracks on to Lilongwe.

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