Our two-week trip to Malawi – my first and only vacation outside of Zambia in my two-year service – encompassed many ups and downs. Literally. Samuel and I went from the heights of Mount Mulanje to the steamy lowlands of Lake Malawi, experiencing two very different parts of the country, both topographically and culturally.
We began with a six-day backpacking trip along the Mulanje Massif. It was my first time seeing real mountains in two years! And my first time backpacking in two years! The gorgeous views and super-steep trails (I recall seeing exactly two switchbacks on the whole trip) both took my breath away. Because we went in the rainy season, we didn’t make it up the tallest peak, Sapitwa (the steep, sheer rock on the way up was scary-slippery, and the top was covered by rain clouds anyway), and we hiked the last day in a downpour. But there was a major upside: every night, we had entire mountain huts to ourselves. Think the New Zealand hut system, only nicer and with attendants who start fires and heat bath water for you!!
So this portion of the trip followed a perfect pattern: hike our butts off for four or five hours each morning, then have the rest of the day to read, write, swim in mountain streams, do yoga, and just relax.
After Mount Mulanje, traveling by minibus through the rest of crowded southern Malawi was quite the change. We made it to beautiful Cape Maclear, where we met up with two other PCV friends, Ryeon and Matt, as well as Ryeon’s friend Leah, visiting from America. There we took a beautiful – though very choppy – kayak trip (my first kayaking in two years!) during which Matt and Samuel flipped and flooded their kayak several times. Luckily a very nice local fisherman went to help bail them out – and make sure they were still alive. We also snorkeled, lounged, and took in some beautiful sunsets. I also unknowingly drank water directly from the lake for almost two days – and lived to tell the tale. :+)
The journey back to Zambia proved more interesting than we’d anticipated, as heavy flooding had completely washed away a road along the way, leaving us to cross a swollen river on foot, then walk two hours in the rain until we found transport in the back of an insanely crowded (even for Africa) pick-up truck. (There were 43 of us, plus a lot of bags.) But we did it. Made it from Cape Maclear all the way to Chipata, in eastern Zambia, in one crazy day.
View of Blantyre from inside one of the many, many minibuses we took.
Homes were much the same, but the landscape of Malawi beat that of Northern Zambia hands-down!
Farming on a steep, unterraced hillside. They’ve gotta be losing soil like crazy … but this part of Malawi is so crowded – and so much land taken up by commercial farmers – that small-scale farmers have been pushed into the hills.
Overall, there were a LOT more metal roofs in Malawi than in Zambia.
Me and Samuel in a crowded minibus.
Map of the Mount Mulanje Massif. Of course, the forest station had no maps available to actually take with us. That would have been much too practical.
First mountain view on the first day’s climb!
Steep, ridiculously eroded trails were a staple of the trip. This is what happens when you chop down all the native trees …
Up and up.
Samuel on a rest break.
Local man carrying timber down the mountain. All the timber harvested is non-native pine, and it’s all carried down manually.
In front of Chambe Peak at the end of our first day’s hike.
View from the Chambe Peak Hut.
Samuel reading on the porch.
The next day’s hike brought a striking difference in vegetation.
Mists of rainy season.
Ba Dennis, our unregistered, sort-of porter and guide, is using the job to put himself through school.
Quite unexpectedly, we ran into a huge pack of hunting dogs. Even though hunting is illegal in the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve.
But the illegal hunters didn’t seem to mind being photographed.
Ba Dennis and Ba Samuel.
Basking on a rock above a stream.
Dinner on the porch of Chisepo Hut. We wanted to be outside, but it was cold! (Hence the sleeping bags.)
Morning view from Chisepo Hut after an overnight rainstorm.
View from the start of the Sapitwa Peak hike.
Ba Dennis helps Samuel up slippery rock on the way up Sapitwa.
Ba Dennis on the way up Sapitwa.
Samuel enjoying the view just before we turned back.
Looking back down toward the village of Linkhubala.
Mountain mists and crazy trees.
Down, down, down into the forests below Lichenya Hut.
Looking back up a steep trail through the forest, tree roots and mosses form a beautiful green staircase.
Fern leaf unfurling.
Mancala! We found this board at the Lichenya Hut and spent a lazy afternoon playing – after Ba Dennis patiently taught us the rules.
Ba Dennis teaching Samuel how to play Mancala.
Evening view from Lichenya Hut.
Samuel and me, decked out for our hike out in the rain.
Samuel and Ba Dennis.
Me and Ba Dennis.
Well, this will be an interesting stream crossing …
More mists in the Lichenya Valley.
Ba Dennis holds Samuel’s hand on a particularly steep, slippery section of rock. Aaaawwwww …
Back into the familiar miombo woodlands.
Unexpectedly, we got to hike right through Linkhubala Village on our way down. Not a bad spot for a farm, if you aren’t worried about rocks …
More Linkhubala Village views.
Muzungu gear explosion. Although we never met Ryeon, Matt, and Leah on our hike (they were just behind us and did a shorter loop), we were lucky to meet up with them at the forest station at the end.
Kids playing in floodwaters on the way to Cape Maclear.
The flooding apparently got even worse after we left Malawi.
Southern Malawi was so densely populated that we passed through a ton of small towns like this. Far different from the long distances between settlements in northern Zambia.
More flooded fields …
Beautiful mosque. Unlike Zambia, Malawi has a sizable Muslim population.
Rainbow view over Lake Malawi from Cape Maclear as locals pull in their fishing nets.
Sunset in Cape Maclear.
Line fishing at sunset.
Lounge chairs on the beach.
I LOVED this boat.
Out on the water.
Lake Malawi island view.
Ryeon, Leah, and I pulled our boats up in this sheltered cove so I could hike along the coast to find Matt and Samuel, who’d gone missing. Turns out they’d flipped and waterlogged their kayak – repeatedly.
They finally arrived back safely, with the help of a local fisherman who I asked to go find them. (The waves were too big, and I was too tired, to paddle all the way back to where they were.)
Sadly, I don’t even remember the name of the fisherman who helped us out. But he surely earned his Good Samaritan award that day.
Back together again, Samuel, Ryeon, Leah, and Matt prepare to go snorkeling.
Bird on the rocks.
Cool bird in flight.
Ryeon in the water.
Ryeon free diving.
A yellow fish that I think may have been a cichlid swims beween Ryeon and Samuel.
Dudes in snorkel gear.
Chicks in snorkel gear.
Me in snorkel gear.
Luckily we all arrived back safely, with no more unexpectedly overturned kayaks.
Delicious curry dinner (with crispy fries!) at the end.
A big storm came up on the last day, blowing water into everything and forcing us to hole up in our rooms.
Samuel holed up in our tiny room, writing in his journal while waiting out the storm.
A major road wash-out on the way from Cape Maclear to Lilongwe sidetracked many travelers that day.
Bus passengers ferrying their luggage across the swollen river.
Band of stranded travelers.
Leah paid a local guy to carry her across the flooded river to the other side of the washed-out road.
Ryeon walks across a thin strip of remaining concrete, where a culvert had been.
This truck didn’t make it.
Flood refugees: stranded on the side of the road in a downpour. Isn’t this what traveling’s all about?
Ryeon and Leah in the back of a super-crowded pick-up truck, which we boarded after two hours of walking.
Crowded in with 43 other people in a pick-up bed: Matt, Samuel, me, and Ryeon. We did eventually make it back to Zambia, just about 13 hours after we started out.