Friday, 21 December 2012

Happy Christmas

Yet  another Christmas away from home and I want to say a huge

-Merry Christmas
-Nollaig Shona (Irish)
-Christmas iweme (Tumbuka)
-Christmas yamampha (Tonga)
-Joyeux Noel (French)
-Maligayang Pasko (Phillipines)
- Feliz Navidad (Spanish)

Remember Christmas is not easy for everyone
- Smile at a stranger
-Say Happy Christmas to a shop assistant
-Think of those less fortunate
-Treasure your family and friends

but most of all have fun.

See you all in the New Year.

12 pubs of Mzuzu

Whenever I find myself away from home at Christmas, there are certain things that help me through the festive season. Certain traditions I bring from home. Surrounding myself with good people, eating way too much food, having a tree and listening to Christmas songs and of course, the ever traditional "12 pubs of Christmas".

Pub one!
Ah the 12 pubs. A tradition that involves groups of people dressing up in the tackiest Christmas jumpers they can find and having an alcoholic beverage at 12 different establishments over the course of the day. Few will make all 12 venues without faltering. With this in mind, the 12 pubs of Mzuzu was born. As Elaine's second last weekend in Malawi and the weekend after my birthday it was really a triple celebration. And so, the facebook event was set up, a route was drawn up, and our very own "12 days of Christmas" song was composed. And so the countdown began!

We had Ciara and her friends travelling up from Lilongwe for the 12 pubs, Jay travelling down from Karonga, Ross and Cam coming from near Nkhata Bay, Melissa from Chinteche and Josh from Mzimba.

Malawians getting on board
I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the day but some of the highlights include: an epic water fight with two French Canadian children, slap shots in the forecourt of a filling station, carol singing while walking the streets, people bedecked in tinsel, Malawians looking VERY confused and then wanting to be part of our group and dancing in the Zoo to Mmmmmbop at 3am. As Ross put it, "It was the best day I've ever had in this country", and he's been here for 16 months!

 Needless to say the following day involved very little: lounging on Elaine's lawn while Jay made breakfast, watching "The Dark Knight Rises" at Sara's and falling asleep to Skyfall! Monday also got off to a slow start with Sara, Elaine and I all showing up at least an hour late for work. A great weekend by all accounts and one that will become an annual event!

Quote of the  day: "The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends." Shirley MacLaine

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Livingstonia trip

As one of her last weekends in Malawi Elaine wanted to visit Livingstonia. It was also somewhere I wanted to go and on Friday the 23rd of November we headed off.

So what is Livingstonia and why did we want to visit? Livingstonia was the third site of Dr Robert Laws’ mission which was set up in memory of Dr Livingstone. The first two sites were on the lake shore and they were plagued by malaria so they decided to move to Livingstonia which is 900m higher than the lake. Some of the original stone buildings, built in 1894, are still in use. Why would we want to visit what seems, for all intents and purposes, to be a living museum. From what we had heard Livingstonia is set in possibly one of the most scenic areas of Malawi. There is also a trek from the lakeshore to Livingstonia, 15km, rising 900m in altitude, consisting of 20 bends in a very windy road and some very “interesting” shortcuts. Challenge accepted!

Add in a 100l drum and another 5 people
 and a goat and then we left!
Our trip started by getting a minibus to Chitimba (MK1,600). This in itself was an adventure. We sat in the minibus for an hour and a half in the bus station, being offered everything from questionable meat on a stick, incense, live mice, pots and toothpaste. After the bus was full to the brim we started to leave the bus station, but of course we packed on another 3 people who ran alongside the bus! Chitimba is about 3 hours north of Mzuzu on the lakeshore. En route we saw lots of wild baboons and the views are amazing. Once you reach the bottom of the escarpment, you can smell the lake in the air. The air is warmer but full of moisture. Unfortunately due to our delay at the bus station and the bus driver deciding to stop every 5km, we didn’t reach Chitimba until nearly 8pm. Chitimba beach camp was recommended, it lies 1km outside of Chitimba, 5mins walk down a dirt track. Similarly to Kande, it’s very popular with overlanders due to it’s huge shaded campsites. Elaine and I were famished and our first thought turned to food. You can imagine our disappointment when we were told that the cook had left for the night. Despite our pleadings for some bread and eggs (that we would cook ourselves) the owner was not in the helping mood. A helpful guy from one of the overlanders asked what we needed and we said “bread, eggs, anything”. 5mins later he returned with his friend and 2 plates of lasagne and salad. Needless to say he was our favourite person of the day. And so we had a few beers with them before retiring to our dorm for the night. Next morning was to be an early start.

Yup, we're going up there!
Sunrise over the lake
Everyone who has done the hike to Livingstonia has said “Start early to avoid the heat” and as such, alarm went off at 5:30 and out the door by 5:50. We walked the 1km to Chitimba road block where we bought some essentials for the trip (water and custard creams) and started up the dirt road to Livingstonia. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not an easy hike. It’s quite steep but there are a lt of shortcuts. Lots of the guidebooks recommend avoiding the shortcuts, as they are steep, but to be honest there was only a couple of occasions that necessitated scrambling on hands and knees. The short cuts dramatically reduce the hike length. With multiple pauses to admire the view, one pause to buy some mangos from some kids and a biscuit pause, we stopped for a break after about an hour. Over the course of the hike we met numerous villagers en route to Chitimba to sell their produce (mangoes and tomatoes mostly). These people I have respect for. They were doing the hike downhill with HUGE baskets full of fruit on their heads. If that isn’t an incentive to sell all your produce, I don’t know what is.
View from 3/4 of the way up
We continued on, thanking our lucky stars that it was overcast, while at the same time hoping that the sun would break through when we got to Lukwe so we could appreciate the famed view. Another hour and a half and another 6 or 7 shortcuts, we reached a relatively flat road and knew there was another 3-5km left. After about 1.5km we came across the sign for The Mushroom Farm. Approximately 1km later, including a mango stop, we reached Lukwe and started down the dirt road into the lodge. Here I apologised to Elaine for my constant bitching on the hike and we clapped ourselves on the back for completing this epic hike in just under 3 hours. At this stage there was no doubt in our minds that we deserved the “full English” breakfast. As we walked into Lukwe’s restaurant/bar are discussing this, the first thing we heard was “Dia dhuit”. We met Luke, a guy from Donegal, who had been cycling from Ethopia and was in Malawi for a month before returning to Ireland for Christmas. Us Irish really do get everywhere! As we were eating breakfast, the clouds rolled off and the true view revealed itself. I would not be exaggerating when I say we were speechless. No words or photos can do it justice. Luckwe is situated on the edge of a V-shaped valley covered in forest with a view all the way down to the lake. With Lake Malawi shimmering in the distance, we could really appreciate the distance we had come.

View from the top of the waterfall
Elaine and I admiring the view
Look at the size of the mushroom!
Boosted by our feed and several cups of Lukwe’s home grown coffee we (the Irish contingent) set off to explore the waterfalls. The Manteche waterfall falls for 125m into the valley below Livingstonia. The trail to the waterfalls is pretty easy to find, just continue walking towards Livingstonia and there is a booth that says “Waterfalls”. Convenient eh? So after a MK300 payment we were accosted by some local kids who offered to guide us. Along the way the picked up what is, to date, the largest mushroom I have ever seen which of course they proceeded to pose with. They took us to the top of the waterfall, behind the waterfall and to a ledge that looked over the valley all the way to the lake! Our last stop was a little pool where we could get in and swim. Bliss as the clouds has cleared and the temperature was rising!
Elaine looks happy, I look like I'm
being killed!

Church in Livingstonia
Not content with our hiking that morning we decided to continue on to the town of Livingstonia, further up the mountain. En route we stopped for a drink and proceeded to, all three of us, be beaten at bao by some locals! Another shortcut through some people's back yards and we were in Livingstonia town. First thing on our minds was food. We found a lovely little cafe in the main square near the University but the only food they could offer was scones. After scones and tea, and me buying the cutest earrings ever (proceeds of the cafe went to an orphanage so it was a good investment), and a discussion as to how there are no restaurants in town(!) we set off to see the sights. The buildings in the town are very pretty, It really reminded me of a British colonial town (which, essentially, it is). The Stone House was the only place in town where we "might" get food. It also hosts the museum and has accommodation. Here we had a mountain of beef stew, read a book about bee keeping and decided to climb the bell tower of the church. Views from the church are amazing. You can see up to Nyika plateau, down to the lake and all around the Valley. Highly recommended.
Stained glass depicting Dr Robert Laws' arrival

I mean really?
We set off back to Lukwe and ended up having a conversation with some local school teachers about how the women do all the hard work in Malawi. After Elaine saying "If you were in Ireland, you would carry the heavy baskets and work the fields", they laughed, a lot. The women here carry HUGE baskets full of food on their head, while carrying children. I see them working the fields AND they are responsible for the house. What do the men do we asked? "They make the money"- apparently! After arriving back at Lukwe, a beer was well earned, after all Elaine and I had been walking for the best part of 12 hours! By about 10pm we were WRECKED and retired to our little chalet. A lovely wooden chalet perched on the edge overlooking the valley. Surrounded by trees and we drifted off to sleep to the sound of birds and monkeys. We woke the next morning and found that an opportunistic monkey had eaten one of Elaine's mangos. However as we stepped outside to follow the trail of peel, the view took over. I could have sat there all day on the terrace.

I'm not really sure how
I thought pineapples grew
but this wasn't it!
Before we left we paid a visit to Lukwe's permaculture garden with the owner Ock. Listening to him talking about how he started and his plans for the future was refreshing. He has a real passion for his garden. The lodge is already run on solar power and he plans to introduce hydroelectricity to allow more power in the evenings. The gardens grow everything from coffee, to pineapples, to chillis. Their aim to be self sustainable is well underway. It really is an inspiration.

 It then became time to leave this haven. Luckily we got a life back to Mzuzu with some friends who drove up. Could not have faced the downhill hike and then hitching back to Mzuzu. Livingstonia, I will be back!

Quote of the day: "I think it's my adventure, my trip, my journey, and I guess my attitude is, let the chips fall where they may" Leonard Nimoy.