Travelling down Malawi

 

After a few days in Mbeya, we continued to Malawi and spent the next few weeks travelling south along the massive Lake Malawi, stopping at some beautiful lakeside resorts and charming towns on our way down. During that time we made a lot of new friends, travellers as well as locals, and we fell completely in love with this wonderful place and its charming people. Easy to see why it’s called the warm heart of Africa.

A Walk-on Part in a wedding video in Mbeya

Mbeya definitely had it’s charms, one of which was it’s friendly people, and it was easy to get in touch with the locals in a town with few tourists. As we walked into the courtyard of the Hill View Hotel, a group of overdressed partygoers came out of one of the buildings. Finally the star arrived, in a white, elaborate dress. Africans really know how to dress up for occasions like a wedding, not afraid to sport extravagant colour and bling, and pastel and silver coloured tuxedos are still very much in fashion. Now, the crowd walked towards us, the happy couple in front.

One of the men came up to us with a camera in his hands. He pointed at the group and, In somewhat broken english, explained what we automatically assumed was a wish that we take the camera to get a shot with everyone in it. He gathered everyone together and we congratulated the bride and nodded smilingly to random guests as we we moved to the front, facing the party. But the man had other plans. He motioned for us to get back into the crowd. We did as he asked, and before we had time to think he had placed us front and centre, right next to the bride and groom.

Only now did we notice another man with a videocamera. Suddenly the whole crowd started moving slowly forward while the videographer walked backwards in front of us, filming the scene. We must have looked utterly confused as we walked with them, and on command pretending to chat happily along the way. Before we knew it the scene was a wrap, we were thanked for our participation and the whole party disappeared out of the gate. We stood there for a moment, looking at each other, laughing in complete bewilderment at what had just happened.

Entering Malawi

As we sat on the bus on our way to the village of Chitimba, among locals travelling with their kids, bags of rice, bananas and chickens, we got a satisfying feeling of being on a true backpacking adventure. We had no idea what we were coming to, no guide to help us or itinerary planned. It was just us on a ramshackle bus racing its way down the only main road in South Malawi.

The bus ride down to the border town was a breeze, driving through beautiful landscapes and nice, flowery villages. Once we got there, local boys lined up to offer us their Mototaxi services, and soon we were racing along on two mopeds towards the border. A couple of forms and a stamp in the passport later, and we were in Malawi. The next couple of hours we spent sitting on top of a bunch of bananas chatting to the other passengers in an overfilled minibus, the public transport of choice among the locals. As soon as we entered the country, we could feel the warm hospitality and charm the people of Malawi have become known for.

Everyone we met were friendly and eager to say hello. Walking along the streets of Karonga, our first stop, we felt a little like rockstars on tour. Passing people looked at us smiling, and kids would run up to us yelling greetings in excitement as soon as they saw us, using what little English they knew to ask who we were and where we came from. The incredibly friendly and laid back atmosphere of Karonga made it a perfect introduction to the country for us. As we sat on the bus on our way to the village of Chitimba, among locals travelling with their kids, bags of rice, bananas and chickens, we got a satisfying feeling of being on a true backpacking adventure.

We had no idea what we were coming to, no guide to help us or itinerary planned. It was just us on a ramshackle bus racing its way down the only main road in South Malawi to find a little place we’d read about; Hakuna Matata beach resort. Once our GPS told us we were close, we prepared to disembark. But the bus raced through, and soon it seemed like we were heading out onto open road again. Were reminded the driver of our destination, to which he simply replied “This is Chitimba”, and stopped the bus by the roadside. A moment later he raced on, leaving us on the side of the road, alone in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.

Arriving in Karonga, and it’s damn hot!

Girls on their way home from school.

Women carrying bananas to market.

Chillin’ at Hakuna Matata

We had no idea where we were or which way to go. There were a few huts and booths selling local produce and dried lake fish nearby, so we asked an elderly man if he knew where Hakuna Matata was. Thankfully he did, and pointed in the direction we had come from. We went off the road and a few minutes down a sandy path to the lake where we reached a large gate. Inside we were greeted by Maggie, the cook and warm and friendly “mama” of Hakuna Matata, and shown to our room in a small building at the far end of the compound. It was a modestly large, sandy clearing among palm trees and bushes at the back of the deep beach, with only a couple of buildings, a simple dining area and a beach bar.

In the small dining lounge made from bamboo and palm leaves, an elderly man was lying down on a bench made from an old dug-out canoe, reading a book and smoking a pipe. It was Willie, the owner, a sweet and friendly man with more stories to tell than any vacation time could cover. In the tiny kitchen behind a thin wall, Maggie was doing dishes. We saw no one else around and it was delightfully quiet. The wind rustled lightly through the palm trees, birds were chirping and we could sense the sound of the lake beach behind a sand hill in front of us. It seemed the perfect paradise, and many hours would be spent in that tiny lounge with Willie and Maggie in the coming days.

We initially planned to stay three or four days at Hakuna Matata before moving on, but it was simply too hard to leave this small and friendly place, so perfectly situated by a large stretch of empty beach mostly used by local kids. A few other guests came and went, and we made some new friends. This is where we met Kathrine, a norwegian girl travelling alone. On day two, Americans Sam and Kenchi arrived and the five of us would spend a lot of time together in the coming days, relaxing on the beach during the day and drinking beers around the beach fire in the evenings, talking about everything from politics to “chicks and beer” – or how to get rid of the annoying swarms of lake flies.

One day Willie took us on a day trip up to the town Livingstonia, a small and almost strangely pristine old missionary town i the nearby mountains. Kathrine had gone up the day before, so it was the two of us in Willies little car, with Sam and Kenchi on the roof holding on for dear life as we crept up the steep and narrow mountain pass. In Livingstonia we said goodbye to the boys, or so we thought, as they wanted to stay there and we were planning to leave the next day. But after uttering the by now famous words “One more night” to Maggie the next morning, and the next, we were all reunited when the boys and Kathrine came back to Hakuna Matata again.

We left Hakuna Matata with heavy hearts after ten days. By now Willie and Maggie were almost like family – their warm hospitality and personal touch made our stay truly a special one, together with Sam, Kenchi, Kathrine and all the other wonderful travellers we met. But for Kathrine and us the adventure had just begun. Our next stop was the town Mzuzu further south, where Kathrine was going to reunite with friends she’d made earlier, so we hailed and boarded a bus together.

Asle, Kathrine, Beate, Maggie and Willie

View from Livingstonia.

Maggie, Sam, Kenchi, Asle, Beate, Kathrine.

Hanging out with the locals in Mzuzu

Climbing carefully over the chickens that occupied the front of the bus, we stepped out and into the busy terminal in Mzuzu – the biggest town in southern Malawi and a hub for travellers. It is still a fairly small town, and as friendly and easy going as it is crowded and buzzing. Our new travel mate, Kathrine, was now our guide, having spent a few weeks here earlier and made some friends. One of which was a taxi driver who she now called to pick us up in his tiny car. They dropped us off at our hostel, and we agreed to meet in the evening at a handicraft shop where her friend Joseph worked, and get some dinner together.

After meeting Joseph and the charming crowd of Rastafari guys at the shop, we went to the marketplace to get some vegetables. A maze of narrow walkways between small shops and cafés, the marketplace was a perfectly chaotic and fascinating place, full of colours and exotic smells. After shopping we all walked together to the house where Kathrine stayed couch surfing, to prepare dinner for ourselves and her host, Milla. We prepared the food on a small charcoal burner on the floor of the small kitchen, and stayed in the little house drinking wine and talking into the late hours. The next night we’d do the same again.

We spent three days in Mzuzu, leaving on the third for Nkhata Bay, a small fishing village down by the lake. Thanks to Kathrine and her friends we had a unique experience in Mzuzu, and got in touch with local life in a way we would never have, had we only stayed by ourselves in a hostel eating at restaurants. In stead we were hanging out with the locals, meeting Milla and cooking dinner in her charming little house. Even here, in a busy and dusty city, we felt the warmth of Malawi and its easy going but poor people. Everywhere we went there were friendly faces, bright colours, song and music – it’s hard not to like such a place.

Arriving in Mzuzu and calling for a taxi.

Hanging at the art shop.

Preparing dinner in Milla’s kitchen.

Back to the beach at Nkhata Bay

We left Mzuzu early in the morning, after saying goodbye to Kathrine and Joseph by the taxi stop. Ang and Iwen, a couple who stayed at our hostel were going to Nkhata Bay as well, so we brought them along and shared a taxi for the hour long drive down to the lake. Njaya Resort was beautifully located on top of a steep hill above the lake, with only a few stone cottages, and we decided to treat ourselves and chose a private cottage with a large balcony overlooking a small private beach. It was picture perfect, and waking up every morning to that view in itself worth the extra cash. On our second day Beate’s phone suddenly rang. It was Kathrine. She’d decided to come down to Nkhata Bay, and now she’d met Ang and Iwen at their place and they were all on their way over to us.

That evening we went to the lively bar at Mayoka Village Resort with a bunch of other travellers. Ang and Iwen had travelled extensively in Asia, so we shamelessly milked them for tips and information about the region. Up until now, our plan had been to travel from Africa to Asia and then lastly to South America, circling the globe eastwards, but they convinced us to reverse our plans to coincide better with the warmer season in Asia. After a couple of days it was time to bid farewell to Ang and Iwen who were continuing to Zambia and South Africa. Two days later we decided to move on to Kande Beach further south, a famous backpacker hangout, and spend a few days there before leaving for Zambia ourselves. Once again we said goodbye to Kathrine on our final night in Nkhata Bay.

Our cottage, and private beach.

Beate, Kathrine, Iwen & Ang.

Kande Beach – A backpacker’s paradise

As we sat there, alone in the middle of dusty Africa, watching a group of friends play pool under a tin roof in front of us, chickens walking around everywhere and people going about their everyday lives, we realised we couldn’t have been more happy. Malawi had gotten under our skin, its people and beauty enchanted us, and now the thought of leaving was utterly depressing.

Kande Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve seen. Blessed with a fantastic sunset, long stretches of empty fine sand and the fresh warm water of the lake. The resort had a few bungalows, and a handful of easy going backpacking guests. During the day the beach was practically empty, but as evening fell the locals would descend from the village, strip down and wash themselves in the water as the sun set. The light at dusk was amazing, and the misty air over the lake sometimes made it impossible to see the horizon as the water and the sky seemed to fuse into a glowing gradient of pink and amber light. One night we got a rare treat; a magnificent sundown was followed by the rising of a blood red moon – the second of four total lunar eclipses in 2014-2015, a so called lunar tetrad.

After a few days, spent on the beach, snorkelling and hanging out with other travellers playing pool, it was time to leave. In the intense midday heat, we started to walk the 3 km path up to the main road to catch a bus back to Mzuzu. As we passed through the local village, kids came rushing up to us just to walk with us as far as they could while holding our hands. Once we reached the road we were exhausted. We went for the nearest bar (a small shack with a fridge and some plastic chairs) to get some water and a rest, and sat down among a handful of local guests. We didn’t exactly know where the bus would leave from, or when, but as soon as our new friends heard of our plans, they assured us they’d let us know when the right bus appeared and help us wave it down, and insisted we relax.

As we sat there, alone in the middle of dusty Africa, watching a group of friends play pool under a tin roof in front of us, chickens walking around everywhere and people going about their everyday lives, we realised we couldn’t have been more happy. Malawi had gotten under our skin, its people and beauty enchanted us, and now the thought of leaving was utterly depressing. That last minibus-ride back to Mzuzu felt too short, but we enjoyed every minute of it, and once again we were greeted by Kathrine and Joseph at the bus stop. We stayed together until we had to get to bed — we had an early bus for Lilongwe the next morning — and this time our goodbye would be the last one. In two days we would board a plane in Lilongwe, bound for Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.

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