Liwondwe National Park (Drove all day thursday, park on Friday)
We quickly morphed from established foreigners to tourists once again as we carted heavy backpacks across Old Town to the bus depots. Navigating the broken and disrupted sidewalks during morning rush hour is somewhat treacherous; especially since you can’t describe the better half of our group as morning people. We turned into the bus station, pressing our bodies up against the brick wall to avoid being clipped by the mirrors of the dirty white minibuses that came flying by, closing their doors in motion and screaming their destinations. Seeing azungos, drivers jumped on the opportunity to con us into traveling with them, regardless of the destination. When we finally found a large bus appropriately labeled we discussed prices with the man in hasty English and boarded the bus at half past seven. Leaving required every seat to be filled. It wasn’t until a little after nine that we inched our way out of the station, just barely clearing the crowded lot before our driver accelerated, setting a pace that would be maintained, if no exceeded, for the remainder of the trip.
The city of Lilongwe and its surrounding Traditional Areas is the bottom of a bowl with jagged mountains forming its sides and city limits. The scenery leaving Lilongwe changed dramatically as we sped along, crossing through foothills and winding up through the various small mountains. The road narrowed, shifting from dusty asphalt to uneven red dirt that dropped off drastically within feet of either edge. I steadied my body, forcing myself to maintain my upright position while keeping my gaze out the window. The driver jerked the bus to the side as a van flew by, kicking up a small dust storm in its wake. My nose bumped against the cool Plexiglas, adding to the other decorative smudges that obstructed the clarity of my view. A young boy watched with interest from across the isle as I fidgeted in my bag to find hand sanitizer, which I promptly lathered on my hands and used to dab the tip of my nose. My smile caused him to bury his head in his fathers lap, overcome with embarrassment. As with most children and curiosity, he soon lifted his small forehead, revealing two wide, almond shaped eyes.
Below the road thatched huts lie in small clumps and the occasional fire released thick, grey smoke. Everything appeared relatively barren and uninhabited. The distant figure of a woman wrapped in a faded chitenje hanging laundry on a line was the only indicator I saw of life I saw for miles. As we climbed higher the land below us extended endlessly under a vibrant blue sky. Clouds cast lazy shadows over tree-speckled hills. Never in my life have I seen such vast, vacant land.
I can count on one hand the number of vehicles that passed us on our five-hour trip south towards Blantyre. We were very much alone and the driver took great liberties with both speed and road surface to shorten his trip. Approximately every half hour we would come to a stop while passing through more densely populated villages. Inspectors would board the buses in search of rogue children while vendors knocked at the windows, displaying their goods on their heads. Most were peddling edible items and by the end of the journey our bellies were stuffed with a nauseating mix of fried doughs (donuts, maize dough balls, somasoosas, chips) and Fanta. The old women who sat behind us appeared bent on making stew during the trip and they purchased a wide variety of vegetables at each stop. At one point the bus lurched forward and plastic bag busting with small potatoes released its contents over the floor. The one woman was elated when we stopped in front of a market along the Shire River where vendors approached with fish in hand alive and flipping. She fumbled with her bag and, much to our dismay, revealed just enough for the purchase of two large, live filets. Fortunately we were only a few minutes from our destination.
Stepping off the bus was relieving for only a few seconds before drivers offering to take us into town swarmed us. The uninformed traveler would have agreed, open landscape seemed to stretch for miles with no indication of where “town” would be. Nick pushed us forward, navigating his way through the crowd towards the dirt path that ran alongside the road. Behind a small cropping of trees appeared a wide unmarked road and a black metal gate marking our accomadations for the night.
Emily and I woke in a balmy room and struggled to overcome the oversized mosquito net that served to insulate our beds, restricting the breeze and trapping our own body heat. Ross knocked again, with a little less compassion, and we grumbled, rolling out of bed. I switched on the bathroom light, allowing it to dimly light the entire room. Fifteen minutes later we were seated on cushioned planks, elevated in the bed of an old maroon pickup. The six of us huddled, shivering beneath a black sky with our knees digging into the backs of the seats in front of us. The stars had all but disappeared and the sun was just beginning to rise. Wind tore past us as we sped into the mountains, the sky beginning to grey. An orange haze deepened as it crept over fuzzy crests with teasers of sunlight and warm appearing between the peaks. We wound our way into the park past small, rural villages as a dense fog settled over the mountains. Women looked up from their work, their faces blank and eyes tired. Children squealed and waved their hands with vigor, throwing up tiny thumbs. The sun had all but risen when we pulled into a compound with an assortment of small buildings and elaborate reed roofs. We were seated on a circular patio on cushioned wicker furniture and given mugs of chombe tea and properly percolated coffee. We relaxed and explored, looking through the odd assortment of old books that lie on the coffee table.
A rusty olive green jeep of sorts pulled up and a lanky British man with some of the worst teeth I’ve ever witnessed pointed towards it and politely told us to enjoy our trip. The vehicle was European and from the early 70’s. The engine gurgled as it idled, allowing us to scuttle over the side and plop our already tender behinds onto the wooden plank seats. We did so in complete disregard for the man who had so kindly attached a metal latter to the side and stood with his hand extended as a gesture of assistance to all who were boarding. Despite the intensity of the early morning sun, the air was still unpleasantly chilled with an unforgiving breeze. We approached a gate and sprawling Jurassic Park style electric fence. We hopped off the truck and paid a uniformed officer a small fee to grant us entrance.
The road narrowed, each side sloping downward and blending into the rest of the forest. Our guide, a jolly, kind faced Malawian man, was in the process of placing a disclaimer on the entire trip when one of us let out an excited gasp. Despite our acquired immunity to many of the strange and often unbelievable things we have experienced in Africa, this weekend offered its fair share of stunning experiences. The large pack of grey elephants that lumbered across the path only a few meters in front of us was no exception. The dominant male pushed through the brush with his stubby tusks and made room for the rest to stop and graze. A baby eagerly followed the lead of what I can only assume was his mother. When the novelty of it all finally began to dwindle (although only minimally) we drove on and for the next two and a half hours we dangled our legs off the vehicle and watched as herds of impala grazed alongside warthogs. Baboons scattered themselves amongst them all, digging their way through heaped piles of elephant dug or sitting slumped, letting their tails hang limp behind them. There were a whole assortment of cute critters, but what seemed to strike us the most was the 4,000 year old Baobob tree that towered over the rest of the forest. Its trunk measured well over four meters around and it extended throughout, branching out to form and elaborate, leafless canopy.
Our morning began at five so by the time we returned to the lodge we had hours to waste before any buses were expected to leave for Nanchenga. I would say scheduled to leave, however, I don’t believe such a concept exists in Malawi, things occur whenever they please. Liwondwe is much more rural then Lilongwe and it was rare to see any vehicle venture off the main road. Bikes serve as the primary form of transportation, carrying up to three people through town. They line the roads, marketing their services and religious proverbs on comically decorated passenger seats. (Passenger seats are basically a padded board attached behind the bike seat itself and extending over the back tire.) For one hundred kwacha, Nick, Alexis, and I each hoped up behind young Malawian men and anxiously asked them to cart us to the market across the river. Anxious as always, I cringed as my “driver” pushed off and struggled to leave the dirt and cross onto pavement. Alexis and company made it off without a hitch while Nick’s bike swayed violently, the back tire flattening into the dirt. The ride itself, once it got rolling, was phenomenally smooth and relaxing. We coasted downhill, crossing through a predominantly residential village and crossing the Shire River by bridge. The stench of the market hit us while crossing. Fish dangled from wooden beams, spinning as people and wind passed. A literal leg of lamb, the whole darn thing, extended out over the path. On the bus ride to Liwondwe we had stopped alongside this particular market while the police lazily searched the bus. Vendors swarmed, haggling prices of half-dead catfish and bundles of sliver chombo. (Chombo, not chomba; that would be weed. I’m not sure why they made the spelling of their staple food item and most marketable good so similar…) A man approached balancing the lid of a cardboard box on his head containing a shinning auburn colored tea set and yelling 3,000 kwacha. Not to shabby folks, that’s less then twenty American dollars.
Nice exchange rates and hand made goods make me a very compulsive shopper. It’s fair to say I have a slightly more then slight obsession with Malawian woodwork. Over the past twenty-four hours I have been dropping obvious hints to show how badly I wished to revisit that market. The bike came to a halt along the side of the road and I awkwardly dismounted. Sitting beneath a shabby tree along side of a superette the vendor was casually polishing a wooden mortar. It turns out my beloved tea set happens to be solid mahogany. Lauren decorating heaven? Correct.
Nanchenga Bay and Lodge (Friday night)
I had never been so content to be grimy and unsanitary in all my life. Without any reservations I stretched out along the sand swept wooden dock, letting my feet dangle off the edge. It swayed gently as someone walked out towards us in silence, creaking slightly as they slowed their pace, coming to a halt somewhere in the darkness behind me. The rocking remained. Rolling waves slapped against wooden beams, glistening as they receded in the light of one small bulb fastened to the underside of the dock. I tilted my head, glancing through gaps in the boards at the schools of fish bumping into each other, illuminated just enough that you could see straight to the bottom. All six of us laid in silence. I had never seen a sky so dark or so stunningly speckled. The only artificial lights for miles was the one beneath us and a warm glow coming from the bar on shore. The sky was blanketed in stars and light dustings that glittered. I didn’t believe that stardust was a real thing, simply a concept created for the magic of Disney movies. That sky was coated in it. A few of us cried.