October 2, 2013: Driving to Lake Malawi with an “Abnormal” Load

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Nicholas, Anne and Jason came to meet us at 7:30am from the nearby property where they camped, thrilled they would not have to “rough it” by taking a series of jammed, smelly mini-buses across the country to make it to Lake Malawi. After we solved the puzzle of how to fit everyone’s backpacks in the back of our station-wagon, all three of them squeezed in the backseat of the car. Keep in mind that Jason is a pretty big guy … my guess is that he probably weighs at least 250 lbs. We had not left the driveway of the lodge that we started bottoming out the car every time we would go over a bump or pothole … and we had about 400 km of beat-up roads ahead of us. When we drove away from the mountain, we crossed beautiful fields where tea was being picked up. Tea is Malawi’s number one export and Mulanje is known to be one of the country’s most productive tea regions.

With time Steve got really good at maneuvering around or through roadway obstacles, which in addition to bumps and potholes, included pedestrians, bicycles, slow minibuses and trucks, dogs, chickens, and lots of goats. And the rest of us got really good at spotting them and giving Steve as much advance notice as possible. When the bumps got too large, including the speed bumps in Limbe, all of us (except Steve of course) would get out of the car to lighten the load. I think we had the entire population of Limbe laughing at the sight of a bunch of Mzungu jumping in and out of a car every couple hundred meters. Needless to say all the precautions to avoid puncturing the bottom of the car slowed our progress significantly. While on the Robert Mundabe Highway, we passed a large truck with a sign that said “Abnormal Load” instead of the “Wide Load” designation we’re used to in the US. In my view, our car was more than the wide truck represented what an abnormal load is all about.

With only a very large scale 2-country map (Malawi and Mozambique) as a guide and the lack of signs and road names, I did a terrible job as a navigator. I should have been fired given that we got lost 4 times which probably added 100 km and 2 hours to our journey. It didn’t help that one the only north-south paved roadway was in construction and all the detours were on very bumpy dirt roads. It’s almost a miracle that 8 hours later (without a significant break) the car was still in one piece when we reached Cape Maclear at the southern end of Lake Malawi. We had a great time in the car though, sharing travel stories, talking about what it’s like to live in Africa, the difference between various African countries, and debating why most international development efforts do not yield more significant results.

I had identified the Mgonza Lodge as the place I’d like to stay, partly because of the description in the my Lonely Planet and partly based on a recommendation from a British couple who we met at our lodge in Blantyre. The low-key lodge had bags of charm with brick-and-hatch cottages spread around a leafy garden that opens up to a picture-perfect white-sand beach on Lake Malawi (Africa’s 3rd largest lake). When we first talk to Alan, the British owner of the Mgonza property, we were disappointed to learn he didn’t have any room with two single beds left. He offered us a cottage with a double bed but we declined explaining we were sister and brother. I asked if we could see the dorm which is located on top of the lodge. The large open to the outdoor room with 8 bunk-beds was totally cool with amazing views of the lake and only a young Danish couple has set up camp up there. So for about $7.50 per night (instead of $65 per night for a cottage), we each got a bunk bed and full access to all resort amenities.

We immediately got solicited for all kinds of activities on the lake. The key decision each one of us had to make was weather to go in the water and chance being exposed to the Biharzia parasite, which originates from a species of fresh water snail. The parasite, which is rife in the lake at Cape Maclear, can penetrate human skin if in contact with the contaminated water. It can cause Schistosoniasis, which is a disease with symptoms of fever, rash and blood in stool and urine. Long-term effects can be very harmful, including kidney failure if the disease is not treated properly. The reason why most people don’t hesitate to still go in the water is that there is a pill one can take 6 weeks after contact with suspect water that is apparently pretty effective at controlling any potential infection by the parasite In fact, most people we met who visited Lake Malawi couldn’t resist going into the crystal clear water. Not too thrilled about having to deal with the pills and taking a chance to have these nasty looking red warms crawling around my body, I made the conservative decision to avoid all contacts with the lake water. Because all resorts use the lake water for their potable use, not only could I not swim or kayak, I also couldn’t wash my hands with water, shower or drink the water unless I boiled it. So needless to say I feel pretty filthy after a few days at the lake.

That first night at the lodge we cut a deal with Ben, a charming young man walking the beach back and forth in search of clients for his boat tours. For $20 each, Anne and I could spend the day on the boat without going in the water and the 3 guys in our group would pay double for the full snorkeling experience. The trip included an authentic Malawian lunch. We agreed to leave at about 10am the next morning.

We ended our long travel day with a nice relaxing dinner at our resort’s beach-side restaurant with stunning views of the lake. In need of proteins, I was pretty daring that night and ordered a beef/chili burger. Malawian cows are actually very tasty and my stomach didn’t rebel overnight.

Description of a Few Photos:
1 and 2) Driving away from Mulanje
3, 4, 5 and 6) Tea plantations at the bottom of the mountain
7) Mgonza Resort
8) View from dorm room at Mgonza Resort
9) Inside dorm room of Mgonza Resort
10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15) Life at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi

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