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Malawi – Utter Beauty, tangled with the Raw Truths of Africa

By January 19, 2020 Hikes, Our Travels, Parks No Comments

The unsettling reality of Africa, when you look behind the beautiful façade, managed to take hold of me as we wound our way through Malawi. It had been gnawing at my ankles for the 4 months we’d been on the road, most of the depressing things falling under the heading “governments are not about the greater good”. But the disparity between the ‘tourist’ version and the ‘real’ version of Malawi was hard to stomach. It’s not exclusive to Malawi though, it is true of most African countries, I think I had just reached my quota. I want to paint a fair picture of Malawi, because it is without a doubt one of the most magical places we have visited. But I can’t completely ignore the emotions that were stirred up while we were there. So this is my shot at an honest account.

Read Part 1 for tourist anecdotes. Part 2 for unfiltered truths.

Part 1

Each new country we visited on our African journey held treasures to explore, but none caught us quite like Malawi did.

It is such a narrow country, small by African standards, yet it packs a punch that reverberates longer than many of its larger neighbours. The majority of the country is flanked by Lake Malawi, spanning its eastern border with Tanzania and Mozambique, leading to the name – The Lake People.

We arrived in the country through its northern border from Tanzania. It was a dog-show of a border. Very African in its efficiency and in its use of self-concocted taxes. There is no way of avoiding any of it, so you put up with the queues, the blatant bribery, the heat, and all that goes with it.

The north of Malawi is more rural and less traveled than its southern half. Arguably the most beautiful and unspoiled beaches along the shore of the lake are found in the northern half. We had been told this by countless people we had met on our African expedition, and this helped us plan our time there, enjoying the less spoiled areas the country had to offer.

Apparently the southern beaches boast bulhazia, pesky beach hawkers and a desperate lack of indigenous fish, whereas the northern beaches are often completely remote, have incredible freshwater snorkeling and far fewer people. We avoided the southern beaches all together, being less keen on the idea of bulhazia, so we can’t say with any certainty if this is the truth. But the places we visited along the northern shore were among the most beautiful we visited on our whole African trip.

We camped at a lodge on the beach that rocked waves big enough to surf in the afternoons, and calm enough to float your cocktails on in the mornings. I mean, we weren’t drinking cocktails in the morning all of the time, just when we needed it to quench the insatiable thirst generated by a relentless 40 degree heat with 100% humidity. Really, the heat was intense! I don’t think the night time temperatures dropped below 30 degrees. This was all coupled with our not taking anti-malerials, which meant we were constantly trying to cover up to avoid the terrifying blood sucking monsters. Unfortunately the mosquitos plagued us until our return to a cooler climate, and had us testing ourselves for malaria on more than a few nerve-wracking occasions.

We did have a small break from them as our journey detoured inland and rose in elevation until we were at almost 2700 meters. We went in search of Nyika Plateau, Malawi’s fern covered wonderland of rolling hills and wild flowers. Other than the obvious beauty of the landscape, the appeal of this area is its concentration of many of your usual bush animals, including leopard, hyena, jackal and elephant (to name a few), yet because of the altitude, they are all slightly different from those you would find in the typical African bushveld. We weren’t lucky enough to see the hyena, just hear them on their nightly prowls, but we saw plenty of zebra, antelope and best of all, a large leopard sauntering through the ferns. The pictures still seem surreal, the animals are nowhere near where you would expect to find them, they seem completely out of place, yet they have adapted to life at a colder climate amongst the lush greenery.

After hiking the wilderness and exploring the fields of green (in-between torrential downpours), we ventured back down to the lake to soak up some more beach life. We spent a few nights in paradise on a loan beach before catching the local ferry with our backpacks and tent on our back. We were off to a remote part of the lake in search of a rock shelf with rare indigenous fish. The ferry was an adventure on its own, a decommissioned boat given to Malawi 60 years ago from the Scottish government. It has operated up and down the length of lake Malawi ever since, transporting animals, people and produce. It is essentially the main mode of transportation of the lake people, and gets them to places that are otherwise unreachable. It got us to those places too. We met some incredible people and absolutely selfless volunteers working in tiny villages, and it was an African experience I won’t soon forget. Swimming in the crystal clear waters gazing 300 meters below, as you swim around a rock shelf that plummets into the abyss, is both terrifying and mesmerising.

After working our way back to civilisation we found a more easily accessible resort to camp at, where we found not only glittering white sandy beaches (quite seriously the sand did look like glitter, but this was due to the high mica content, not really magic) and warm water, but some friendly fellow explorers making their way around Africa on a journey similar to ours. They also had a South African number plate! That kind of thing is irresistible when you’ve been on the road for as long as we’d been, so we waited at least half a minute before we popped our heads over to say, “Hiii!”. It was a fateful encounter that would see us all the way back to South Africa, and provide endless joy for the remainder of the journey.

Bug and Dave, the owners of the SA vehicle, turned out to be Zimbabwean, our age, and childless, meaning they had all the more energy to entertain our kids! After days of unruly fun at the lake where Dave spent hours keeping Lincoln busy, and Bug mentored Lola in her comic strip drawing abilities, we somehow managed to convince them that we were worth hanging out with on a more long term basis. So we left the lake for the final time heading southwards.

Warning! Stretching into Part 2 territory…

The rains found us again on this leg of our journey, and we spent the next 2 days in amongst the clouds, hiking in the mist and huddling in front of our fire to keep warm. It was a world away from where we had just been, and the contrast left us all a little miserable. Exploring what was left of the indigenous forest both lifted our spirits, but also put a little dampener on our hearts, seeing the last of the hard wood trees cut down in an attempt for the locals to both keep warm, and earn a living from the carvings they make. There is almost no forest left in Malawi and it was a shock and a heartache we tried not to think about while we were there. The government seems as corrupt and incompetent as the rest of Africa, leaving the majority of the people in absolute poverty, eeking out a living and decimating what’s left of the natural resources. The people of Malawi are among the most warm and friendly we have encountered on our travels and, like the warm hearted people of Zimbabwe, possibly the reason the government has got away with what it has for so long.

After driving the length of Malawi and feeling the despair of what is left of it, we arrived at the tea plantations at the base of Mount Mulanji. We were set on hiking to the peak of this magnificent mountain range, despite – or maybe because of – our months of sedentary behaviour. The landscape is flat with tea plantations as far as you can see, and then in amongst it all a mountain rises seemingly out of nowhere. It begins at 700m and rises sharply to 2300m (and eventually to 3000m). Our prep time was limited, and food choices at the local grocer even more so. It was a grueling climb, eased only by the fact that we had Bug and Dave to encourage Lincoln and Lola, which left me to wheeze and groan in unfit agony without interruption.
We summited the mountain on day 3, which gave us time to explore, as well as relax, in one of the most serene, picturesque places on the continent. Paradoxically, climbing Mount Mulanji felt like the first time I got to relax in months. As hard as those climbs were, once we stopped, we were actually still. All the work that goes with life on the road was left at the foot of the mountain. Finally, we could let our brains freewheel, taking in everything around us, totally free to enjoy it. No working, schooling, or planning where to go next. Just quiet.

It wouldn’t be a ‘Wuth hike’ if everything went according to plan, and we managed to get lost on the final summit, even though we had a guide! Although the guide proved useless in actually guiding us up the mountain, he came to the rescue in the food department, providing plates of nsima (what Malawians call millie-pap/ground maize) to supplement the insufficient food rations we had taken up for the 6 of us (thereby saving our lives, and redeeming himself)!

It is an incredible mountain to explore and something you can’t miss if you are venturing all the way to Malawi.

This is a bucket list destination!

Lola and Lincoln meeting some of the tea pickers.

Mount Mulanji looming in the distance.

Putting their new picking lessons to good practice.

To complete our experience of the country, we were treated to 3 days on one of the biggest tea estates in Malawi. It gave us a real appreciation seeing how a tea farm operates, from growing, picking, drying and packing, to tasting the fresh leaves in the old estate home where we were treated to old school elegance and hospitality. It was a little too colonial for our comfort, desperately in need of racial equality and upliftment, but we found that to be true of almost every country we visited in Africa.

Malawi was many things to us, ticking boxes other countries had failed to do, but it also brought home the stabbing reality of many African governments, and the injustice they do to their country and their people. The corruption, poverty and destruction of natural resources is heart breaking. There is so much promise, but it is hard not to see the ruin around you. I have struggled to reconcile our time in Malawi, possibly one of the reasons I have delayed writing about it for so long. The superficial top layer sparkles, and as a tourist, the country is magnificent, the people are warm and friendly, and there are without a doubt many magical places to visit. Maybe it is simply that as our time in ‘deepest darkest Africa’ was drawing to a close, I had simply had my fill of blatant corruption, natural destruction, and the lingering colonial attitude that still wafts around on the breeze.

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