Malawi and the end of the road (early draft)

So it’s all over.

After 10 months of traveling through Korea, China, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, and then a long bus journey through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa i’m sitting in Abu Dhabi airport on my way home. There’s an Arab Santa Claus handing out free chocolates nearby and terrible christmas songs on the loudspeakers but I can’t feel that it’s christmas. Today is the first day in 4 months that I pulled on my trousers instead of shorts, and I can’t really believe I’m finally going home.

It’s been an amazing 10 months since I finished my job in Korea at the end of February. I’m trying to think what I was doing on this day each month since then. Photos help!:

10 months ago, 21st February:


Saying goodbye to my second graders in Taebaek

9 months ago, 21st March:

Evening in Qingdao, China

Evening in Qingdao, China

8 months ago, 21st April:

Trekking in Northern Laos with some random South Dublin lads

Muang Ngoi, Laos:
Trekking in Northern Laos with some random South Dublin lads

7 months ago, 21st May:


Ghandruk, Nepal:
Eileen and Suzi show how to walk down hills in the Himalayas: flap your hands

6 months ago, 21st June:

Morning on Chukhung-ri, our first 5000m+ peak in the Everest region

Chukhung, Nepal:
Morning on Chukhung-ri, our first 5000m+ peak in the Everest region

5 months ago, 21st July:

Warm up cycle with Yut and Frankie before hitting the Manali-Leh highway

Manali, India:
Warm up cycle with Yut and Frankie before hitting the Manali-Leh highway

4 months ago, 21st August:

Rajasthan, India:Bull in Jodhpur, the 'Blue City'

Rajasthan, India:
Bull in Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City’

3 months ago, 21st September:


Chenek, Ethiopia:
Pumping water for the trek with Liam

2 months ago, 21st October:

Near Nairobi, Kenya:Cycling out of the Rift Valley

Near Nairobi, Kenya:
Cycling out of the Rift Valley

1 months ago, 21st November:

Songwe, Malawi:Return to Malawi, six years on

Songwe, Malawi:
Return to Malawi, six years on

I had a cracker of a time in Malawi. Spent time in Livingstonia, Vwaza Marsh, Nyika National Park, Mzuzu, Viphya Forest, Bandawe, Nkhata Bay and Ruarwe. I wrote about it on the last flight while I was quite tired and hungover from my last night in Africa in Johannesburg, but it’ll have to do!:

It was great to be back in Malawi. After over 9 months traveling in places i’ve never been before on roads I didn’t know, it was nice to finally be back in familiar territory. And it was also the most beautiful country I traveled in since Nepal, by far the most beautiful in the African leg.

After peddaling along the lake for a day from the border with Gijs, he headed South and I turned up the road to Livingstonia. From the lake it rose 900m up 20 or more switchbacks on a rocky dirt track called the ‘Golotti’ road (a mispronunciation of ‘God’), named so because Livingstonia was where Scottish missionaries finally found a place they could live in Malawi without dying en-masse of malaria as they had been down by the lake. It’s quite a surreal place: little British-style cottages set in neat rows under bluegum trees and a neat town square with a church bell, technical college and university of education set on a campus that reminded me of Queen’s quad in Belfast.

I was there for 6 days, wandering around the place with Barney (a church historian from London) and Matthew and Jess (an Aussie couple interested in botany, compost toilets and beekeeping). Barney was searching out all the old (and mostly forgotten) infrastructure of Livingstonia and we hiked up a nearby hill one day to look at the water system and hydroelectric generator, built in 1908. Hidden away in a crumbling brick shed now used for drying cassava and maize was the hydro generator built in Leeds, covered in dust but amazingly still working. The next day I joined Matthew and Jess at the beekeeping co-operative where they were busy building mango-drying racks. At this time of year in Malawi there are so many mangos falling off the trees that people can barely even sell them in the markets, but in 6 months time you won’t find mangos anywhere. Starting up a business to package and sell dried mangos is an easy money maker, but nobody is doing it here. Hopefully the bee co-operative will soon with these new racks.

Livingstonia was a great place to spend a couple of days. Malawi’s highest waterfall is nearby, with big rockpools to swim in and the place I camped at Lukwe (down the hill from the mission station) has a big permaculture farm, where I learned a lot about the techniques used to manage water and combat Africa’s malicious invasive species (mainly insects). Auke – a Congolese guy – came here 16 years ago and was given the mountainside to farm by the local chief who told him he would never be able to successfully farm the steep, arid hillside. Now it’s a lush garden, producing all sorts of crops – coffee, maize, tomatoes, pineapple, lettuce, peppers etc. It’s made possible by trapping rain and spring water in holding pools and slowly allowing it to channel through the garden, giving growth year round.

After Livingstonia I cycled along back roads to Rumphi and on to Vwaza Marsh. The farmlands there contrasted sharply with Lukwe; the farmers are having the harshest dry season in living memory. The topsoil is blowing off their arid fields and people are surviving on food handouts. One of the previous governments most successful programs was giving out subsidized fertilizer to farmers. This bought them votes and they got a second term, but now farmers are complaining that the seeds they use demand more and more fertilizer every time they plant, increasing the cost and labour required to crop.

I cycled in to Vwaza, an old wildlife reserve lying almost forgotten on the border with Zambia. It’s a huge marsh area that in the dry season (now) shrinks down to just one small pool where vast herds of elephant and hippo congregate to eat, drink and mate. There used to be a tourist lodge here but the company pulled out and it’s been neglected by the government, who prefer to spend the national parks budget buying new SUVs you can see driving squeaky clean around Lilongwe (the capital city). As a result the old electrified fence that used to seperate the marsh from the local farming population is no longer electrified, hunters have stolen large parts in the fence to use for snares and traps, and elephant roam through the resulting gaps to pillage people’s maize plantations, mangos and cassava. I was out walking with Shadreck, one of the few remaining rangers, in the park when gunshots rang out from a couple of hundred metres away. He had to run out to resolve the situation – luckily the villagers were just trying to scare the elephants away from destroying their fields, and he eventually ran them back into the reserve. This is a constant battle, fought day by day and even through the night – as I lay in my tent under the acacia tree that night I could hear people hitting their pots and pans to scare away the elephants and hippos. An easy solution would be for the Malawian government to pay to re-electrify the fence, but that’s not going to be done because they’re broke!

From Vwaza I cycled up to the Nyika plateau, a huge national park 2,000m above sea level where juniper and eucalyptus trees grow among pine and endless grasses. It’s full of zebras, warthog and every type of antelope around. I had the hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads to myself for 3 days and it was the best cycling i’ve done in Africa. The first night I camped out in the middle of a vast plain of grass overlooking kilometres of rolling hills and filled up my water cans from a dam beside a herd of bushbuck. The roads endlessly rose and fell over the grasslands, leading to viewpoints where I could spot lake Malawi on one side and Zambia on the other. I camped in the national park campsite, beside a big logging camp where I shopped for rice and beans and a friendly lady cooked me a dozen scones. Then it was off to Uledi.

I had heard of Uledi in Livingstonia. It’s a ranger’s outpost at the northernmost point of the park and a path from there leads up to a twin-peaked mountain called ‘Mpanda’ where Doctor Laws (Scottish missionary and founder of Livingstonia) had started building a house on top of a mountain. Details were a bit sketchy so I decided to try and find it. It was a long day’s cycle from the Nyika plateau down into the hot, dry farmlands bordering Zambia and along a 40km path past gobsmacked kids and chuckling grannies. I spent a great evening with the three rangers of Uledi, who earn $75 per month to patrol a huge area of wilderness against poachers while also educating the local people about the benefits the national park can bring them. They told me stories of epic chases and capturing of poachers, who often start wildfires to chase the animals into their traps. One chief in particular called ‘Dia Dia’ was causing a lot of trouble, as he sees the northern part of the Nyika as his ancestors and therefore his rightful hunting ground.

The next day we walked up to Doctor Laws’ house, set on a ridge with stupendous views of the Nyika plateau, Lake Malawi, Mount Mpanda and the valley leading to the Luangwa, one of the last remaining big ‘real wilderness’ areas in Southern Africa. Why he started building here is a mystery – he probably just wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of Livingstonia. But he was in the middle of building a big 4 room bungalow complete with fireplaces and outhouses when he mysteriously stopped. Or perhaps died, not sure of the history there! We couldn’t even find a water source, and had to follow some baboons down a deep gully to a small stream where we drank our first water in 4 hours of pounding heat. It was a good trip though; well worth it.

The next day I had planned to cycle halfway back to Mzuzu along the lake but the sun was so strong and it was so hot that I threw in the towel after lunch. The landscape north of the Nyika isn’t as beautiful anyway, somewhat marred by the presence of a massive Australian/Chinese uranium mine that the road loops around. It was so hot that as I was coming into Karonga the surface of the road was melting, slowing down my tyres and almost ruining my chain. I had a chicken and chips, threw my bike in the back of the minibus and we drove to Mzuzu.

Mzuzu is the largest town in Northern Malawi, 1,000m above the lake and therefore much cooler. I remember it from 2006 as a good place to go for a fun weekend and nothing has changed there – I spent a couple of days relaxing, eating good food and meeting up with former students. To meet these guys who have grown up from the kids I remember teaching biology and physics to six years ago was brilliant, and we sat talking for hours. It was great to hear that of the 50-odd kids I taught, 49 passed the Junior Certificate exams the following year, and the majority of them passed their Senior Certificate. Around 20 of them are in higher education, which really surprised me. Of these, 3 are in the nation’s top university. I met up with Morton (trainee nurse), Brave (working for Airtel, the biggest mobile phone company) and Funsani (entering university to study business admin).

[Unfinished… see other post. This was a draft]


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