Wednesday 12th to Friday 14th September 2012.
Wednesday morning we were up early to meet Blessings at Kaya Papaya. We left our bags at the office whilst we wandered around town collecting a few small presents to take to the village. There wasn’t much around in the way of breakfast so we did our best with some fried yam and potatoes sprinkled with chilli salt. At about 8.40am Blessings walked us down to the boat, introduced us to Jack the captain and sailor Friday, then deposited us on board. The boat was already crowded with bodies, sacks stuffed to the gills, crates of drinks, and luggage. A crude flat roof covered us, providing some welcome shade from the already hot sun. We sat in the boat at the shore for almost an hour, sometimes accepting a new passenger or bag, but mostly just sitting and waiting. Nothing was said and no complaints were made; everyone just seemed to accept the lateness as par for the course. A stereo had been rigged up to give us a soundtrack for our journey and the same four songs played on rotation. We amused ourselves watching the hustle and bustle of market stalls on the shore. The morning was sunny and the water crystal clear. We could see sandy coloured fish grazing on the lake bottom under the boat, their shadows tailing them lazily amongst the golden web of reflections within the water. Eventually, Friday hauled up the anchor and Jack revved the engine into life. We glided several metres before the engine conked out and the men crowded the engine to try and coax it awake again. After one more stall and a quick repair we were on our way towards the deep blue of the open water.
Our journey followed the shore north. Green mountains trimmed the lake with the occasional cluster of huts around a sandy cove breaking up the boulders and overhanging trees. Baobabs stood giant hulking grey figures lording over life on the beach. Raised racks stood in rows drying thousands of silvery fish. The lake here is the source and centre of village life. Clusters of shiny brown bodies bathed themselves, their clothes, and their dishes on the lake’s edge. The villagers waved warmly as we docked; children shrieked with delight when we caught their eyes and waved back. Some dived and ducked in the water, showing off their swimming prowess. How we longed to join them in the cool! We wiled away the hours chatting to the other passengers. Among others we met Nation, the Ruarwe shop keeper and pastor who knows my folks well. He agreed to pass the message of our arrival on to the village chief Palombe. We had expected the trip to take seven hours, but by nightfall we were still slowly putting our way north.
After ten hours on the boat we were so relieved to dock at Zulunkhuni River Lodge in Ruarwe. Welcoming hands reached out of the darkness to help us clamour off the boat. We followed their torches up a steep rock staircase to a surprisingly crowded bar. Flames from paraffin lamps danced in the warm night as we gradually got to know the wonderful people staying and working in the lodge. The owners, Charlie, Francis and Matt, helped us settle in. They kindly offered us a chalet they had available in place of setting our tent up in the dark. We of course, gratefully jumped at the chance. Not having to set up camp, we wasted no time enjoying a cold ‘green’ and getting to know the group of British volunteers working on a project with the charity Charlie helped to found. We learned how one group of engineering students were building a hydro-electricity plant to power the village clinic. Another group of business students were working with locals to set up a clever sustainable battery business. They charge the batteries with solar panels and then rent them out to locals to power light bulbs or mobile phones. They had costed the rental so it was affordable and they’d have enough money to replace the batteries at the end of their life-span. When we were there they were in the process of recruiting the villagers who would take over the day to day management of the business. It seemed a brilliant way to provide power to the village as well as create valuable job opportunities.
We enjoyed the Zulunkhuni communal dinner before Charlie showed us to our chalet. It was made of stone and perched high over the lake. Inside funky carvings and wooden furniture surrounded a four poster bed. Two home-made deck chairs were positioned on the balcony, overlooking the water. It was lush!
The next morning we glimpsed the sun rising in pink and orange stripes over the great lake. We joined a couple of the other guests for breakfast in the relaxed wooden bar. We really enjoyed the chance getting to know Philipa, a passionate vibrant nurse, and Holly, and vivacious doctor in training, who were both volunteering at Ruarwe’s little clinic. We enjoyed Zulunkhuni’s filtered coffee and the best breakfast of our trip: an Israeli dish of eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce and perched on two slices of buttery toast. In ones and twos the volunteers gradually drifted off to their days work.
With happy tummies, we joined the lovely German volunteer Julianne on the rocky path to the village. It was already hot on our walk and by the time we reached the first buildings we were sweating buckets. We took a backpack full of small gifts of sugar, rice, beans, etc. for Palombe, the village chief. We also carried a natural latex ball we’d collected near the rubber plantation on the way to Nkhata Bay. This was for little Gazza, Palombe’s grandson who was named after my Dad. We drew lots of attention with the ball. Small children stared longingly at it, some even coming over to pat it. It seemed that Gazza would have a lot of friends to help him play with it.
We made our way up to Palombe’s green and white concrete home. It was named ‘Australia House’ after my parents and a troupe of volunteers rebuilt it for him when they visited in 2008. He stood arms outstretched on his verandah to receive us, together with his youngest son Typing and little Gazza. Despite the almost 16 years that had passed, Palombe remembered the time we spent together when I first visited. He had of course aged considerably, no doubt helped by a stroke he suffered three years back. Still, he seemed healthy considering he is almost 90 and the average life expectancy for Malawians is a dismal 43 years. We spent the day with him, chatting and eating. We learned more about his life and how before becoming chief he had worked in South Africa as a “medical man”. Though very poor, we were touched by his generosity to us. First Typing bustled about us bringing sweet black tea and a plate of locally made bread for us to share. Later he pulled a goat by a rope leash past us on the verandah. Palombe asked if we liked to eat goat and we realised this was to be our lunch! We stressed how honoured and grateful we were and politely refused, not willing to take the precious meat from the village. With much discussion Palombe accepted our refusal, to Typing’s great bewilderment. Instead we feasted on a great pile of tsima (a gloopy white starch staple made from maize flour) and eggs scrambled in fresh tomato sauce. We ate following Palombe’s lead, taking a small piece of tsima with our hands, rolling it into a ball, then dipping it into the eggy sauce. After lunch he walked us down to the beach and showed us the land he’s set aside for Dad as thanks for all his help. Typing and another villager, Samson, walked us up the hill to show off the community centre and library that the charity have founded here. On the way there and back we were waylaid by children, eager to pose for photos. By about 4pm it was time for us to head back to Zulunkhuni. It was sad saying goodbye to Palombe and his family. Samson insisted on escorting us back along the rocky path, “to make sure you get back safely”.
By the time we reached the lodge the day was still very hot. We wasted no time stripping off and climbing down the rocks below our chalet to cool off in the lake. We relaxed on the balcony whilst dusk turned to dark, and then joined the crew in the bar. It was a fantastic night with a tasty communal curry dinner, cold “special brew” beers, and some rather hilarious topics of conversation.
We really didn’t want to leave the beauty and friendliness of Ruarwe or Zulunkhuni River Lodge. It is a real slice of paradise here and possibly the nicest place we’ve stayed on our trip. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait til the next boat on Monday so we had to tear ourselves away. The sun rose immense and pink over our balcony as we gathered our possessions. A few silhouetted dugout canoes bobbed silently in the blushing water. When we heard the roar of the passenger boat’s engine we hurried out of our chalet and over to the bar; the boat would have been some two hours early. It turned out to be a false alarm. Charlie was up and explained that the boat first goes north to the next village, then will make its way back to Ruarwe to collect us before continuing south. It was fortunate as that left us time for one last delicious Zulunkhuni breakfast and to say a proper goodbye to some of the lovely new friends we had made in our short time here.
Holly and Charlie joined us on the flimsy roof of the boat with boxes of donated medical supplies they were taking to the village clinic. Philipa helped us all on the boat and waved goodbye as we putted out of the bay. We stopped for a time in Ruarwe, swapping boxes and passengers for more passengers and luggage. Nation was on the beach with little Gazza, waving warm goodbyes with the crowd of children who had assembled to watch the loading of the boat. Soon Palombe came to the shore. He stretched his arms over his head and waved vigorously until we disappeared as tiny specks around the headland. It was heart-warming and made us want to stay even more.
We were in for another lengthy boat journey. It was more comfortable on the roof than down below, but the sun was unimpeded by clouds and the day was hot. Though we lathered our skin with sun-screen and draped ourselves with wet towels to cover up and cool off, we sizzled like sausages on a grill. How we longed to join the villagers we passed cooling off in the lake. Our progress was slow, with stop after stop. Sometimes we stopped several times along the one bay to pick up a new pile of people and belongings. We wiled much of the latter half of the journey talking to Massa, a bright and funny 22 year old journalism student. He held strong values and a positive outlook on life. It was interesting chatting to him about life in England and Malawi, politics, and football. As the journey progressed the rickety rooftop filled with a tangle of bodies. It was fascinating to learn Massa thought that because the Bible said man was created first, he should be the leader. Soon all were involved in discussing the new female prime minister and whether a woman should take a leadership role.
Ten hours had passed before we arrived in Nkhata Bay. We were exhausted from the journey and the heat, but grateful that, unlike many of the passengers, we aren’t forced to take the trip regularly. We took a taxi back to Bluebelle at Njaya Lodge and caught up with Gilbert, the super helpful manager. After watching the last of the sun’s rays disappear from the lake we slowly wandered over to Mayoka Village. Angel, Njaya’s night watchman, kindly accompanied us pointing out landmarks so we could find our way back afterwards. Mayoka was lively with a funky bar heaving with tourists. We managed to squeeze in to the BBQ Buffet being served that evening and found ourselves some cosy corner cushions and a couple of cold ‘greens’. The BBQ didn’t disappoint. The staff lined huge bowls of food along the bar: cashew-veggie sausages, fried chilli bites, sticky chicken pieces, marinated beef kebabs, creamy potato salad, the tastiest carrot and cumin salad, and so much more. We met the down to earth owner Catherine and had a great chat with two bubbly Israeli travellers, Noah and Assah. Noah kindly gave us a 5 kwatcha coin and said we must keep it as a souvenir of our time here. Another place we wished we could stay longer. Still, we were exhausted from the journey and not up for a late night so we wandered back to the quiet of Njaya.