Durban Hymns

Durban Hymns

Thankfully, my last day in Malawi was minus any mishaps, bloody shins or the need for further stitches. It was quite dull actually, which was a welcome relief to be honest. The day was spent doing exciting activities such as drinking coffee, packing my bags and buying biscuits. Told you it was dull. Despite some of the setbacks I have had along the way, I would have to say that Malawi was one of the friendliest, safest and most enjoyable countries I have been to. Certainly worth a visit. Just make sure you bring sun cream, don’t drink their boxed wine and watch yourself as you disembark public transport.

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New Year’s Eve made its annual appearance and I hopped onto a plane back to Johannesburg to say adios to 2016 and hola to 2017. In many ways, 2016 has been the most difficult of years for me but being back in South Africa seemed a fitting way to exorcise those demons and have renewed positivity for the 12 months ahead. I decided to check into a fairly nice hotel in Sandton as a reward for staying in relatively basic accommodation for the past few weeks in Malawi. Opening the door to my 7th floor room, I was in heaven when I realised the room had hot running water, tea and coffee-making facilities, a double bed, Wi-Fi, constant electricity and, the cherry on top of the cake, a flat screen TV. I was in heaven sat next to John Lennon, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix when I realised that the TV also had 7 dedicated sports channels. In the afternoon, I joined some friends to party in the New Year in the traditional, boozy fashion that we have all become accustomed to. 2017 started with a massive hangover, gorging on junk food and watching Premier League football all day on my TV. I suspect many of you had similar experiences on 1st January.

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The next few days and nights were spent in Johannesburg without doing many wild or crazy things. The most adventurous activity I did was watch the new Star Wars movie in 3D and then treat myself to an ice cream. Led Zeppelin could only dream of the extravagant and outrageous lifestyle I was living. At night, I would often wander down to the hotel bar to sit and nurse a few drinks, chat to some of the other patrons and people watch. On one occasion, I happened to notice an older guy at the bar on his own sipping a whiskey on the rocks. Moments later, a middle-aged woman approached the bar dressed in the tightest clothes, wearing looped earrings so large a dolphin could have jumped through them and a face that had so much make up, you would think it had been applied by a bricklayer’s trowel. Not to mention the Tina Turner-esque hairstyle that sprouted from her head and the pungent perfume that could have floored an elephant. She went straight up to the older guy, looked at him with a blank, professional stare and within seconds, he had necked his Johnny Walker and they disappeared into the elevator. Now, I used my Sherlock Holmes powers and deduced that she may not have been his wife or partner. My hunch was confirmed when I saw the older guy the following morning welcome his real wife and young son in the hotel lobby. What a creep. Apparently, this is a common occurrence here, the barman told me. Who needs a TV in their room when you have these types of nightly episodes to watch?

On my final day in Johannesburg, I had to remove the stitch from my shin. It seemed to be healing well. But with no proper medical training to my name, I couldn’t really be sure. However, it looked fine despite the purple and black bruising that was now on show around the wound. In true backpacker, budget traveller style, I would try to take out the stitch myself armed with a pair of tweezers and nasal scissors. The tea and coffee making facilities came in handy as I boiled the kettle and sterilized my ad hoc, surgical implements in a mug of hot water. Now for the fun part. Using instructions I had seen online, I began the process. I braced myself for a painful extraction as I delicately used the miniature tools to pull, hoist and cut the stitch. Here it goes. Snip. I pulled the stitch out and held it with the tweezers. Painless. What an anti-climax. I anticipated having to go through the pain barrier and, as a result of my brave self-surgery, see a long thread covered in goo and blood. Yet I barely felt a thing, the stitch was about the length of a staple and quite clean for being housed in my shin for a week. To stop this from happening again, I will be more aware of the very real dangers to my body when getting off a public mini-bus. Perhaps, in future, I should wear shin pads when travelling on these vehicles.

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Next port of call on my journey was Durban; the city where my mum was born and spent her early school years. I flew down and met up with one of my cousins, and her husband from the UK who happened to be in town at the same time. Upon arrival, the heat and humidity hit me. This was my first taste of sunshine and warmth in Durban as the last time I was here it rained and rained. My accommodation was a nice hostel in an old colonial building with a pink-painted façade. Despite the welcoming pastel coloured walls, it was located in a decidedly, dodgy part of town. Even the hostel staff informed me that walking in the area with your mobile phone in daylight hours was a risky pursuit. Clearly I should have done more research but what’s done is done. With my mobile safely back in the room, I walked along the beachfront to join my cousin at her hotel for dinner. We met, hugged and had a pre-dinner drink. I also had the pleasure of meeting other local family members whom I hadn’t met before. Together, we all shared the most gargantuan of gargantuan buffet dinners. I wouldn’t need an Uber back to my hostel after the meal; I needed to be airlifted out of the restaurant and returned on the back of a flatbed truck.

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While my cousin and I were in Durban, we arranged to visit the school that her dad and my mum attended some 60 years ago. We were greeted by the vice-principal and taken on a brief tour around the facilities and classrooms. Bouncing from one room to another, we met some great teachers and pupils who treated us to a few songs that they sang beautifully in unison. As I was wearing my Manchester United jersey, there was plenty of banter too, especially with the Year 1 teacher who supported Liverpool. Not sure if she appreciated seeing me kiss the badge on my shirt as I left the classroom. But it was a very humble experience to walk around the school where my mum spent her early years. From the school, we made our way to see the house where my mum’s family lived many years ago. It was still standing and the current owners were very friendly and allowed us to come onto their property for a better look. Though I didn’t get to have a very close inspection, as the family Labrador was more interested in attacking my groin. Still, it was wonderful to see the building for myself with my own eyes and think of the memories housed inside these walls. Strange to imagine my mum in her primary school years playing in this same garden with her siblings.

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A new day dawned and I was back on my own again as my cousin and her husband flew back to a slightly less sunny England. The sun was beaming again today, so I took a walk along the beachfront promenade, passing the skateboard park, the public outdoor swimming pools and a few amusement parks for the many people out and about to enjoy. I reached the end and plonked myself down on the sand to read, listen to music, relax and nod off to sleep. This was the perfect way to waste away a Sunday morning. That was until the children, playing with the sand, lobbed a handful in my direction and woke me up. After a couple of hours, the sun was scorching my skin. So, before I burst into flames, I picked up my belongings and trudged back along the beach towards my hostel and purchased a much-needed ice cream. For the first time, I was aware of the somewhat undignified, and unsavoury, characters hanging around outside my hostel. Nearby hotels offering hourly rates was the first clue. Then, the slew of scantily clad women loitering around on the pavement was the second, cryptic clue. The slowing cars, driven by solitary males, crawling along the curb were the final pieces of the puzzle. Ignoring the calls for my attention, I kept on walking whilst enjoying my vanilla cone. I know an older guy in a Sandton hotel who would have responded differently.

Due to personal reasons, I had to fly back to London. The following week, I was back on my travels and back for a few nights in Johannesburg. I avoided the same hotel/whorehouse in Sandton and plumped for an Air BnB accommodation in the Paulshof area of the city instead. The grounds were lovely and the room was, what you would call, quaint. But getting a working signal to log into the Wi-Fi was a struggle. In fact, I had to sit on a garden wall to check my Facebook and Whatsapp messages. Breakfast was served in the nearby laundry room as it rained each morning I was there. The table and chairs outside of my room had no shelter, so I bit into my toast and ate my cereal as the buzzing whir of the washing machine entered its final rinse and spin cycle. One morning, I made the mistake of resting my tea on the washing machine whilst it was in operation. The cup hopped up and down on the appliance resulting in the majority of its contents ending up on the laundry room floor.

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After my short stay, I boarded a plane heading back down to Durban. The next morning, I went back to my mum’s old school to give them some pens and pencils I had brought from London. A small gesture but was told that they were much-needed for some of the poorer students in attendance. A couple of days later, I got a ticket to watch South Africa play Sri Lanka in a one-day international cricket match. Being in possession of a lawn ticket with no designated seating and unsure how crowded the event would be, I arrived 3 hours before the match was due to commence. I need not have been so worried as I was the first person in line. Carrying a bag full of drinks and snacks, I made my way inside the stadium and headed for one of shaded parts of the stadium on the grass. As soon as I sat down, I realised I had made a big mistake. Everyone else behind me was loaded with chairs, blankets, duvets and pillows to lie on the hard ground and cushion their bottoms. I had no such things and this would be a long day sat in the field for me. Brilliant sunshine greeted the two teams as they came out to play. South Africa batted first and smacked the ball all over the park with 2 of their players getting fabulous centuries. They both received a standing ovation, which allowed me the opportunity to get off my numb bum and stand up for a few moments. Every time the ball got belted for 6 runs, there were big cheers and spilled beers. Sri Lanka went into bat chasing a big total to win and lost 4 quick wickets. At 7.30pm, with the sun going down and almost 8 hours sat on my poor arse, I had had enough. While South Africa were cruising, I was bruising. I left the stadium happy to have witnessed my first international cricket match and, having been in the shade for the majority of the day, with minimal sunburn. Upon returning to the hostel, I shared a few drinks with some Aussie guys and reflected upon another fine day spent in sunny Durban. The added bonus was finally being able to sit down on one of the bar’s comfortable, padded seats. Sheer bliss.

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Keep Your Shin Up

Keep Your Shin Up

In the western world, air-conditioning can often be found in homes, shops, offices and cars. However, in Malawi, this is a rare luxury. In a budget taxi from Cape Maclear to Blantyre, having this cooling system available is rarer than finding a smile upon Jose Mourinho’s face. The 4-hour journey proved to be a very sweaty and uncomfortable affair. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t the worse part of the trip. The beaten up, old Toyota had no radio or CD player but never fear, the driver had his phone with him and we could play the songs he had stored on there. Being an indie, rock, metal type of guy, listening to hip-hop, r ‘n’ b and warbling love songs are not exactly my cup of tea. But hey, it’s either this or nothing. After 8 unlikable tracks, the playlist stopped. Relief. A brief period of respite as the driver then played the same songs again. And again. And again. And again. For the entire journey, I was subjected to just these same 8 tracks. My head was fried. I was brainwashed by some rapper whining about his hard luck story, an r ‘n’ b singer pining for his 3am booty call and a Caribbean sounding female banging on about someone called “Johnny.”

To try and block out these turgid, turd-laden tunes, I turned my attention to the passing landscape. We drove by villages dotted with wooden huts, agricultural fields with their diligent workers hacking at the dry land, mothers carrying babies in knotted material on their backs and ram-shackled markets and stores selling their wares. All this was happening under a relentlessly, hot Malawian sun. Once more, the highlight for me was seeing the huge baobab trees along the way. Though I have been lucky to see these wonders of nature on a few occasions, they never cease to astound me with their size, shape and importance to the life around them. Their beauty is in stark contrast to the rapper’s sexist, degrading lyrics that were on track number 4 of my driver’s playlist. With the heat rising fiercely in our vehicle, the only saving grace was having a breeze come through the open windows. This was all fine until we had to stop at road crossings or security checkpoints, of which there were many. At one of these stops, an armed police guard, with a large automatic weapon at his disposal, walked around our car and leaned his head into my window. “Do you have anything to drink?” he asked. I picked up my half-full, water bottle and showed him what I had. He shook his head. “Something to drink,” he responded and motioned his hand to his mouth to symbolize consuming an alcoholic beverage. “Sorry, no,” I returned. He moved away from our car and motioned for us to continue on our journey. Now that was a first. Never been asked to bribe an armed policeman before. In retrospect, I should have handed him my driver’s phone and done us both a favour.

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We arrived in Blantyre around midday. Being situated in higher ground, the temperature was much cooler than at Cape Maclear. As we pulled into my lodge, where I would be staying the next 3 nights, it even started to rain for a short while. I said goodbye to my taxi driver and thankfully, he and his phone sped away. Later on, a wonderful rainbow arched over the sky with lush, green mountains providing a perfect backdrop behind it. The taxi ride, with its lack of air-conditioning and the repetitive playlist, were already a distant memory. My lodge was quite nice with several separate, self-contained buildings. I was placed in a cottage with a couple of guys who were both volunteering at the local hospital. In the evening, I joined them and some of their friends who were also medical volunteers for dinner and wine. This was lovely, imported South African red wine and infinitely more palatable than the putrid, boxed wine I had downed on Christmas Day. We discussed what there was to see and do in the area. The best and most intriguing option was to go to the Zomba Plateau, which was about 2 hours away by mini-bus. Here you can go trekking in the forests, visit beautiful lakes, natural waterfalls and enjoy some spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.

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Early the next morning before I went on my trek, I had the complimentary breakfast at the lodge. The coffee was as thick as tar and not much tastier despite a whole cow’s worth of milk dumped in it. I made some toast but the butter substitute was so disgusting, I would rather have spread the bread with wallpaper paste. Unperturbed, I left on schedule and walked down to the mini-bus stop to make my merry way to Zomba. There was no direct route, so I had to change vehicles about 30 minutes into the journey. It was chaos. Dozens of mini-buses all crammed full of people and bags of produce, rice and lord knows what else, were sat by the road. Meanwhile, the money collectors and drivers scrambled to lure you onto their bus instead of their rivals. Luckily, a guardian angel appeared before me. She helped locate the correct bus to Zomba amongst the melee and I leapt on board, placing myself at the back well out of the way. To get as many people as possible on these mini-buses, there are a few extra fold-down seats in addition to the permanent ones. If you wanted to alight the vehicle, you would have to get up, fold the seat back up and allow the person behind you to get off. I was ok. I was at the back. The only time I would have to go through this charade was when I was at my stop in Zomba.

The journey took around an hour and a half as we went through numerous security checkpoints and picked up passers-by to fill in any tiny crevices still available inside the mini-bus. Finally, we reached a petrol station in Zomba where I was due to hop off. It seemed most people were getting off here too. I waited until the people in front of me made their way off before I got up to go. As I stood up and took a step forward with my right leg, one of the fold-down seats in front of me came crashing down on my shin. Instant pain. The metal frame dug into my flesh and tore open a giant gash that bled immediately. Within seconds, more blood was gushing out of my leg like a volcanic eruption. As I looked down, I could see how deep the cut was and made myself feel quite sick. Gingerly making my way towards the front the mini-bus, the kind operatives hastily ushered me off and sped away as quick as possible. Cheers, fellas! Standing in a petrol station forecourt with a bleeding wound in the middle of nowhere is not how I envisioned the day unfolding. My second guardian angel of the day appeared. One of the petrol station assistants had seen my bashed up shin and brought out a first aid kit. Though it looked like a toy doctor’s case that my nieces play with, inside there was at least some gauze, sterilising pads and a plaster. With blood spilling onto the concrete and in agony, I was grateful to this young man for helping dress my gaping cut. He said I would need to go to a clinic for stitches, as the wound was pretty deep. The gauze was barely stemming the flow of blood, so I knew I had to heed his advice. But I was in the middle of nowhere, where on earth could I get my leg patched up? Where could I find a clinic around here? He pointed to the building next door. “That’s a clinic there.”

Some good fortune at least. A bunch of staring onlookers with puzzled expressions watched as I limped my way over to the clinic. Once inside, I noticed the place was tiny and deserted with just a few lines of empty plastic chairs in the middle. It looked more like a village community hall than a place to administer medical treatment. Still, what choice did I have? A third guardian angel appeared. A young medical assistant popped up behind the counter and took me into a small cubicle to examine the cut. Her face winced when she took off the plaster. Clearly not a good sign. She said I would need stitches for sure. Great. Perfect for a day of trekking then. Once she cleaned the wound, she said that one stitch would probably suffice. To numb the leg, a large needle was thrust into the cut. I have many tattoos but this was way more painful. Thankfully, it was a brief sense of pain before she methodically applied the stitch. Within a few minutes, I was patched up, bandaged up and ready to go. In a week’s time I would have to remove the stitch and hopefully, all would be healed and back to normal. Leaving the clinic, I was determined not to let this minor inconvenience stop me from going on my trek around the Zomba Plateau.

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I took a taxi to the top of the hill where the treks all start from, grabbed a map and bounded along the trail. Well, maybe not bounded. More ambled my way along. Hey, I just had my leg cut open and stitched up. Give me a break. By now, the day was becoming very hot. So the first stop at a beautiful waterfall was the ideal tonic. It had a few tiers that cascaded down the rocks with a lovely pool at the bottom. I dipped my one, non-bandaged leg in the water and felt the cool water rush over it. Bliss. Onwards, I made my way through some giant pine forests before reaching some fantastic viewpoints of distant hills and a small, tranquil lake. There was no one else around, and standing by the water’s edge, I let a smile form upon my face. What a day I was having. But in the end, my fortitude and determination was trumped by my right leg’s physical inability to go much further. I took a very steady, leisurely walk back to the starting point where I was greeted by a local man who asked if I needed a ride back down the hill. I said I did and he informed me that his brother had a motorbike and that he could take me. In a few minutes, the brother arrived on his bike carrying a helmet that would have been too big for a T-Rex’s head. I put it on; more for appearances than safety. And then we were off. I think he had only just started riding a motorbike because he took the corners very wide; often going into the other lane. This was not a good thing as there were vehicles coming up in the opposite direction at times. The daredevil in me just grimaced and bared it as we careered down the hill. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee. As we descended, I did notice the amazing views of Zomba and its surrounding hills. This really is a beautiful part of Malawi and very different from the shores of Cape Maclear. Finally at the foot of the hill, I thanked and paid my motorbike driver before hobbling off to catch my mini-bus back towards Blantyre. I was extremely careful embarking and disembarking both the vehicles I had to take. As evening drew in, I arrived back into the city and headed straight for the supermarket to buy a few well-deserved, cold beers. With my bandaged leg raised up on a chair, I sat in the cottage at the lodge sipping beers and told the story of my day to the medical volunteers. On reflection, it seemed so farcical. But I was thankful that I had a few guardian angels to steer me through what was a bloody, (figuratively and literally) eventful day.

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I’m back in the paddle again

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Photo: View from my room on Mumbo Island, Lake Malawi

With their cute little faces and playful displays, otters are considered one of the world’s most likeable creatures and are often spotted swimming in Britain’s grimy, shopping trolley-filled waters. Here at Lake Malawi these lovable rodents reside too. In fact, they have a specific area named Otter’s Point nestled within the lake’s national park. With the sun rising up at 5am most days, I decided to take a trek to see if I could indeed see the otters in their natural habitat. After a sun-drenched walk along the beach, I entered Lake Malawi National Park which I was informed beforehand carried an entrance fee of $10. However, there were no park wardens on hand so I sauntered on through with the money untouched in my pocket. I overcame a few giant rocks to reach the final destination, Otter’s Point. Looking around there were as many otters here as there were three-legged dinosaurs. Zero otters; so no point really. Actually, the views here were quite beautiful. I was the only person in the vicinity and was looking upon wonderful clear waters that housed schools of fish easily visible from above the surface. The peace, tranquility and beauty of the lake was a perfect tonic to the bustling beaches nearer Cape Maclear. Careful not to lose my footing on the slippery rocks, I made way along the beach back to town once more where families were hard at work scrubbing pots, pans and dirty clothes by the edge of the lake. So busy witnessing the locals doing their chores, I almost missed the sight of a baboon coming out of the bushes behind me. Don’t see that everyday. Well, I guess you might if you lived here but for me it was a bit of a rarity. Not common to see a primate striding along the streets of London.

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Photo: Baboon on the beach

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Photo: Otter’s point

With my sunburnt body somewhat healed, I joined my cousin and her family for a barbecue in the evening. Sat on their patio, all of a sudden I started to feel a bit queasy. I began sweating so much it was as if I was lugging a sumo wrestler up a flight of stairs. Within seconds, I was up with the intention of going back to my room to sleep it off. 4 steps later in the backyard, I was projectile vomiting my cousin’s lawn with what I had for lunch. Chaperoned by my cousin and her family, I made it back to my room complete with water, toilet paper and an empty bucket by my bedside ready to capture anything else remaining in my stomach that wanted to make an appearance. From both ends. A very restless night with frequent painful trips to the loo ensued. Too much information. Sorry.

A day passed. Water was the only thing that I could handle. Dawn broke the following day and I managed to get some food in me and importantly keep it in me. Which was just as well because I was due to take a boat out to Mumbo Island, located some 10 kms away in the middle of the lake. The tree-covered island has a wonderful eco-lodge with a handful of rooms using solar power only and I was to spend the night in one of them. Overhead, the clouds didn’t look too good. They were foreboding, dark and stuffed full of rain ready to dump down on any boats that happened to be on the lake at the time. Yes, of course, I was in one such boat. We rocked and rolled our way to the island as the waves crashed against the sides of the wooden vessel. All I could think was, lucky I didn’t make this journey on either of the previous 2 days or I would have been spewing like a burst sewage pipe. Finally, we reached land docking around midday; just time for me to see my room before lunch. And boy was I in for a surprise. The view from my lodge of the lake and the mountains in the background was simply breathtaking. The balcony complete with a swinging hammock overlooked a beautiful rock formation too where kingfishers and eagles stood using the stone surfaces as hunting platforms. This truly was a picture postcard moment. The room itself was tastefully decorated in keeping with the natural beauty around it and a nice touch was the outdoor bucket shower. Any passing birds would get to see a lot more than just trees and plants.

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Photo: Sunrise on Mumbo Island

Lunch was served and I treated myself to a beer; a sure sign my illness was firmly behind me. Later on, I went on a nature walk around Mumbo in flip-flops. An error on my part. Despite slipping and sliding over the rocks and muddy pathways, I visited some notable highlights of this wonderfully pretty island. A few secluded bays with small beaches could be reached too once I had charged through spiky and thick vegetation that is. Lizards, large and small, were dotted all over the island as were many varieties of birds. Lots of photos later, I continued back to the main lodge area with many pit stops along the way as my flip flops battled with the elements. The evening was spent having dinner with the other guests before taking a solar-powered lamp back to my room to read and relax with the sounds of the night singing away all around me. The next morning, I was woken up by the staff bringing coffee and tea to my doorstep; another nice touch. Sat on my balcony, I was joined by a few birds eager to nick a few crumbs of the biscuits that accompanied the hot breakfast beverages. One such little chap even had the audacity to perch himself on the side of my coffee cup. You are a bold one, my feathery friend.

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Photo : My coffee buddy on Mumbo Island

After a full breakfast, I decided to join some other guests and take a kayak out onto the lake. As the numbers were uneven, I took a single kayak while the others all had two people to share paddling duties. Within a few minutes, I was struggling. Not with the heat which was a scorching 35 degrees, but with the physical aspect of kayaking. Sat upright with my knees bent, my back was killing me as we paddled around the island. This was not fun. I was stretching it out, bending forward, backwards, sideways, every way to try to help reduce the pain. Fat use. Surprisingly, my colourful swearing wasn’t helping either. The others all sped off happy as clams taking in the lush green scenery, watching the kingfishers swoop into the water and snapping photos of the regal-looking fish eagles perched high in the treetops. All the while, yours truly was fighting every inch of the way as local fisherman looked on with bemusement and amusement at the sight of me doing some sort of  seated-yoga to relieve the pain in my back. Way behind everyone else, I arrived back on land and exited the kayak in a less than graceful manner. My hammock was calling me; the perfect remedy for my ailing back. I swayed and rested gazing out onto the lake staring at the active birds zipping by and a lone guy in a kayak who seemed to be having a hard time with his back too. I feel your pain, mate. I then drifted off to sleep.

“Anthony!” I woke up startled in my hammock. Opening my eyes, I saw my cousin looking down at me with her little daughter. They had decided to come to the island to join me and that we were going to stay an extra night here. Awesome. I loved it here despite the killer kayaking earlier. The rest of the time on the island was spent pursuing activities that had minimal risk of harming my bones. Can’t get too many injuries from reading, sitting on a beach and sleeping. Well rested and very content, we headed back to the mainland in ideal weather conditions this time around. Mumbo Island is a place of unspoilt natural beauty and was definitely the highlight of my trip so far; one that will live long in the memory. Though every time I see a kayak, I get a sudden sharp twinge in my back.

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Photo: Mumbo Island and my torture chamber otherwise known as a kayak.

The next day was a very sad day for me personally. My wonderful godmother had finally lost her battle with cancer and passed away. Double sad news was that my best friend’s mum also passed away that same evening. It was with a very heavy heart that I walked along the beach that night thinking of them both and of the loved ones left behind. Looking up into the starry sky, there were two extra ones which shone brightly above all the others. I silently said my goodbyes. May you both rest in peace.

Christmas Eve arrived. Ordinarily, on this day in England, it would be freezing cold with people bundled up in garish wool sweaters sipping hot mulled wine. Not in Malawi. At 9am, it was already hot enough to cook a full English breakfast on the bonnet of a jeep. With the sun high in the sky, I joined a group of divers heading out onto the lake. Not being a qualified scuba diver myself, I took my humble snorkelling equipment and spent my time hovering on the surface chasing schools of fish between the rocks. Tremendous fun. At a second location, there were even more fish and it reminded me of rush hour traffic as they all hurried along going to who knows where. Gathered on a rock just in front of me were a concentration of kingfishers. Yes, I googled that. Twenty strong at least. Makes a change from seeing a red robin on a snowy lawn back home.

Late afternoon, there was a local football match going on. The pitch was sandy with not a blade of grass upon it and a fallen baobab tree nearby was a good vantage point for some of the crowd. Not quite the same as Wembley Stadium. Some of the players were even in bare feet which must have hurt when trying to thwack a volley into the goal. Health and safety officials would not have been pleased to see the nets with multiple holes held down by bricks. Still, the players and crowd were extremely enthusiastic and ran onto the pitch whenever a goal was scored. Where are the stewards to prevent this? Another health and safety violation.

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Photo : Local football match complete with baobab tree stand in the background

Santa Claus had come and gone. Christmas Day was upon us. My cousin, her family and some other friends in the town, gathered together at a house to celebrate with a few drinks and to devour a spit-roasted pig. Driving there, the weather turned nasty with a harsh wind blowing which sent up swirling dust clouds before thunder and lightning took over the show. Christmas was spent indoors but it didn’t dampen the festivities at all. I downed a red wine that was so sweet you would think it was bottled by Haribo. Worse was to come when the boxed wine came out. But hey ho, its Christmas. Cheers! The pig dinner was delicious despite the vivid sight of the whole animal spit-roasted, face and all, firmly logged in my mind. The boxed wine help block the image. And all memory too actually. I stumbled home to my room late that night where I slept right through Boxing Day and onto my final day in Cape Maclear. After a day full of reading, swimming and packing, I had a final barbecue with my cousin and her family; thankfully this time I was fine and wasn’t puking in their garden. In the morning, I was off. My taxi arrived punctually and I said my goodbyes to my family; time to head to the city of Blantyre to see a bit more of the country. It was an eventful 2 week stay by the shores of Lake Malawi full of highs, lows and everything in between. Who knows what else lies in store for me. A taxi with no air-conditioning in 38 degree heat is not the ideal start. Oh well, here it goes.

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Photo : Christmas night by Lake Malawi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please Malawi To Introduce Myself

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It’s December and I’m in Malawi. This relatively small African country known for its immense lake is very hot, remote and where I will be spending Christmas this year. Let’s rewind 6 weeks, back to not-so-hot London. Picture me in my ironed shirt, polished shoes and dry-cleaned cashmere sweater sat at my work desk surrounded by more work desks manned by others dressed as neatly as I. The job is travel sales and my anxiety levels are off the charts. As the final line in Radiohead’s song ‘Creep’ states, I don’t belong here. I feel about as welcome as a case of myxomatosis in a rabbit warren.

Not only is the job grating, and that I feel a plum dressed like a Tory voter, the conversation is the personification of banal. One afternoon, my co-workers were engrossed in vigorous debate about the pros and cons of a certain manufacturer’s vacuum cleaner. And even better, one of my co-workers has one for sale. Cue round-the-table discussion and bidding. Minus one participant of course. My mind was elsewhere. It was out the door, gathered its passport and was on a plane going anywhere from here. Miraculously, I made it through to the weekend. On my days off, I spent the time plotting and scheming, mapping and dreaming of going back to travel around Africa. And come Monday morning, I had made my decision. I was going to knuckle down at my job for the next 30 years, get a nice pension and improve my research into household appliances so I could join in more of the office conversations.

Pah! No way. More chance of me marrying Natalie Portman than that happening. Sipping a cup of tea and still in my pyjamas, I drafted and sent a resignation email as I couldn’t bear to go into the office anymore. With immediate effect, I was free to follow my recently hatched travel plans. And this leads nicely into how I ended up in Malawi. But why Malawi I hear you cry. Well, firstly I have never been to this country and secondly I have family living by the shores of Lake Malawi in a town called Cape Maclear. Put 2 and 2 together and you get me gone and on my way south.

3 weeks of arranging passed, then it was time to up sticks and leave my place near Wimbledon. After a thankfully uneventful flight from London, my first few days back in Africa were spent in Johannesburg. Ahh, the sunshine and red wine; what a combo. It made this London lad a very happy chap indeed and the many suffering with winter flu back in England very jealous. Still, life is full of choices and I decided it was best for me to ditch the smart casual work attire for flip flops, shorts and sunglasses. Regret is not a word that springs to mind.

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A few restful days later, I boarded my flight to Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. With my passport stamped by the jovial customs staff, I made way into town and checked into my hotel. What hit me was the heat. It was so hot, I was breaking into a sweat by just blinking. In the evening, I had dinner in the restaurant underneath the hotel. Happily tucking into my food, I was rudely interrupted by an older British guy who started talking about himself and how he used to own this restaurant, run numerous big, swanky hotels and pioneered employing ethnic minorities in positions of power in the hospitality industry. And he carried on talking and talking at me for what seemed a hundred lifetimes. In the end, I was ordering the bill whilst he was in mid-monologue putting a swift end to my first night in Malawi. Trust a Brit to ruin it.

The next morning, my cousin had arranged for some friends of hers to collect me from my hotel in Lilongwe and drive me to Cape Maclear; around 4 hours away. Along the roadside, market traders were selling everything from chickens to bricks, from coal to wooden electrical sockets. Once out into rural Malawi, we passed villages strewn with straw huts, smiling little children and meandering bleating goats. As we neared our destination, huge mountains rose up on the horizon dominating the skyline. While down on the ground, giant baobab trees stood out in the scorching sun providing shade for some sleeping villagers below. Goats weren’t the only wildlife seen en route. A few troops of baboons turned their heads as we passed by. But these were all trailers to the main feature. After several sweltering hours sat on the back seat gazing out the window, Lake Malawi loomed into view. It was beautiful. It was vast. As far as the eye could see there was water. Lake? It was more like a sea.

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Boom, boom, boom, we bopped along the dirt road to get towards the town itself. Upon arrival, I peeled my sweaty back off the car’s upholstery and got my first glimpse of the beach. It was stunning and surprisingly busy. The shore was full of kids playing football while their mothers washed dishes, clothes and themselves in the water. Just off shore, boats full of fishermen and red-faced tourists moved slowly by. While in the middle of the lake, a couple of gigantic, grassy islands stared back at me. As the day reached mid-afternoon, the temperature soared and I took solace on a sun lounger under a tree. And it sunk in. I’m in Malawi. I’m at Lake Malawi. Taking a stroll along the beach, I was getting long looks from the locals. Not sure if it was my pale white skin, tattoo-laden arms or broad smile that drew their attention. Or was it something else? Hope no one had written something rude on my back without my knowing! Anyway, bare feet in the sand, I marched on waving and saying hello back to the friendly kids on the beach while they played football or frolicked around in the water. I met my cousin after she had finished delivering her pilates class. It had been 3 years since we last saw each other and, along with her family and other friends, we shared a few cold drinks as the sun set. The stars came out in abundance when the sky darkened. Been a while since I saw such a starry night. They were actually the only lights in town as the electricity went out. The dormant fan in my room was taunting me during the hot, sticky night while a squadron of mosquitoes circling overhead took it in turns to kamikaze into my flesh. Welcome back to Africa, Ant.

My first full day at Lake Malawi was a mix of the good, the bad and the bendy. I woke up early and took a dip in the lake’s shimmering, freshwater. So relaxing and refreshing while the sun turned up its temperature. I took refuge in a book under a tree. Restlessness took over around midday, so I decided to take another walk along the beach. This was the bad. I walked for ages and realised there was little respite from the sun along the way. I was literally cooking. My shoulders, neck and face were as red as a lobster in a Manchester United shirt. Later on, I was scheduled to take part in one of my cousin’s yoga classes. Despite my flesh bubbling like a witch’s cauldron, I somehow got through the session whilst pulling all manner of weird and wonderful grimaces on my sunburnt face. As the night drew in, thankfully the electricity came back on. The now functioning fan, on full blast pointed at my boiling skin, was a welcome relief. Over the whir of the fan, thunder clapped loudly and lightning flashed brightly. I smiled. But only briefly as it hurt to do so. That damn African sun.

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