Thursday, August 25, 2016

Malawi: Stanley following in the Footsteps of Livingstone

Livingstone, Zambia, August 25th

Once again I have tarried a month since leaving a country before writing the blog post; I should do better, but I always say that and then always end up late the next time.  Now that we’re resting up and working a bit on Terri’s educational project here in Livingstone, the Olive Tree Learning Centre, I am trying to catch up on my delayed writing projects.

On the way uphill on the Skyline Trail, Mt. Mulanje

My previous post, about our Zimbabwe travels, ended with us leaving Zimbabwe on Monday, July 4th and being shaken down by the customs officials in a combined Zimbabwean-Zambian operation.  It took hours and was very unpleasant (and fairly costly, with $40 in bribes, $27 in fees to touts, $73 in customs fees/carbon tax/third party insurance/road tolls and $160 for two double-entry visas).  We finally drove into Zambia late in the afternoon and scrounged around in the dismal little town of Chirundu for food, phone credit and beer before driving 8 km along a rough dirt track to the campsite at the Gwabi River Camp.  I’m sure that most of the time this is a wonderful place to stay, right on the Kafue River, with nice sunsets, good birds and some peace and quiet.  Unfortunately, it was a four-day weekend in Zambia and half of the white population of Lusaka had descended on Gwabi to party.  The campsite was full to overflowing with huge groups of drunk whites racing around in powerboats, shouting and playing music at full blast on their massive sound systems.  It was a terrible shock to the system after the perfect peace of Mana Pools.  We slept poorly as 1980s pop duelled with Bollywood film scores in the night air.

The next morning saw us have a quiet morning while the campground emptied of yobbos in various states of hangover.  Once everyone had left, it was a pretty place and I went for a long run and did some yoga before we packed up Stanley and drove to Lusaka.  Aside from some construction near Chirundu, the road was in good shape, fairly empty of traffic and running through some pretty hills.  We climbed back up from the Zambezi at 500 metres above sea level to the plateau at 1300 metres that makes up much of the country, passing through pretty savannah and scrub forest and the occasional town.  We entered the sprawl of Lusaka and were pleasantly surprised at the wealthy suburbs and newly-built malls that line the southern approaches to the city. We were staying at the house of my friend and former fellow LAS teacher Nathalie; she is now teaching in Lusaka, and we had to meet one of her relatives to pick up the house keys as Nathalie was already away on summer holidays.  We picked up the keys at a very fancy shopping mall from Fran, her cousin’s girlfriend, and had a good discussion over Italian gelato about life in Zambia as one of the small white community.  Unlike in Zimbabwe, the Zambian government has not been evicting white farmers from their land, and has in fact been recruiting Zimbabwean and South African farmers to come establish new commercial farms in the country.  The mall was full of white faces, most of them long-time (or life-long) Zambian residents, and it felt not unlike South Africa or Zimbabwe.  We did some grocery shopping and then headed back into the city centre to Nathalie’s place, where she lives in a pleasant compound with other teachers from her school.  Her neighbour Vicky, whom we had met in Livingstone back in March, was home and we had dinner with her that evening.

We spent three days in Lusaka, running errands, using Nathalie’s wi-fi and getting some repairs done to Stanley:  replacing the battery clamp that had broken on the Mana Pools road, changing oil and air filters, getting our cruise control fixed and trying (unsuccessfully) to get our reverse lights working again.  We also tried unsuccessfully to buy a COMESA yellow card insurance policy (good for all the COMESA countries, from Zambia to the Sudan) so that we didn’t have to buy new third-party car insurance at every border we crossed.  We were told that it is impossible to get a yellow card these days unless your car is registered in one of the COMESA countries; I don’t know if this is true, but we gave up trying.  We also got some decals printed and put onto Stanley’s back hatches and along the roofline, trying to personalize the car.  The decals didn’t get installed until 8 pm on the night before we left town, but they were worth waiting for, as they really changed Stanley’s look.

On Saturday, July 9th we bid farewell to the creature comforts of Lusaka and drove a long day down the Great East Road all the way to the major eastern town of Chipata.  The pavement was exceptionally smooth, except for a short section of horrible gravel road right after I put Terri into the driver’s seat; it really was a coincidence!  As we neared Chipata, the countryside became more densely settled, with lots of cotton and tobacco being grown, and trucks piled high with bags of cotton.  We arrived at sundown and had difficulty finding Dean’s Hill Lodge, as our GPS sent us to a vacant lot about 200 metres from the right place.  When we got there, we found a cheerful, pleasant place to stay run by Andrea, the young French-Italian who has managed the place ever since the tragic murder of Dean, the previous owner.  There were lots of interesting people to talk to:  a South African couple just back from camping in Malawi in their 1974 Land Rover; Andrea himself; Luca, a young Italian cycle tourist; Mike, a young coffee enthusiast from Chicago; a couple of older Italians who had just built a new pizza oven for the kitchen; and a group of young American missionaries who were living and working near Livingstone but were scouting out possibilities for working in Chipata.

We set off the next morning fairly early and got to the Malawi border sooner than expected.  It was a mercifully easy and quick process to get stamped out of Zambia and into Malawi, although the US$ 75 visa fee that Malawi started charging recently was a rude surprise, as the visas were free a couple of years ago when our Lonely Planet was written.  In less than an hour we were driving down the road into Malawi, my 128th country, with our Temporary Import Permit and our third-party insurance policy in hand.  Malawi is noticeably more densely populated than Zambia, with lots of slow going through villages and towns.  It’s also noticeably poorer than southern Zambia, with almost no vehicular traffic (except for vehicles driven by white NGO workers, of which there were quite a few).  Everyone seemed to be on bicycles, although we soon realized that most of the bicycles were used as taxis, with taxi license plates and padded seats on top of the luggage carriers.  It was good to see bicycles used so extensively, even if it is more because of lack of means to buy cars than because of a love of cycling. 

We drove along a well-paved road into the outskirts of Lilongwe, where we stopped to buy groceries before continuing south towards Mt. Mulanje, our first major destination in the country.  It was a very pretty drive, across a plain lit up starkly by the late afternoon light with a backdrop of high, isolated mountain massifs.  We didn’t have enough daylight left to get there in one day, so we looked up a place to stay on our GPS and ended up at the Dedza Pottery Village, a big community project set up by an American woman that employs over 100 people at a small lodge and restaurant, a big pottery workshop and gift store and a tour guiding outfit.  There are San hunter-gatherer rock art sites in the hills behind Dedza, but we were too late to see them that afternoon, and we had heard that they weren’t as impressive as what we had just seen in Zimbabwe, so we elected to give them a miss the next morning despite their UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Mulanje is an absolute riot of colourful flowers
It was a pleasant place to spend the night, although we awoke in the morning to cold drizzle.  Over breakfast we chatted with the only other guests, a British couple (Anna and Joe) who had been living in Malawi for several months while Anna did a stint working as a doctor in a hospital in Blantyre.  They gave us good tips about Mulanje as we shivered in the cold morning drizzle.  We bought a couple of new wine goblets and whisky shot glasses (if something made of pottery can be called a glass) to replace ones that we had broken over the previous few weeks, and then headed off down the road towards Mulanje.  Again the views across the plateau were stunning, and we caught our first glimpses of Lake Malawi far below.  The road ran right along the Mozambique border, and we could see the difference between the sparsely populated Mozambican side and the wall-to-wall cultivation on the Malawian side.  We stopped in Blantyre for groceries and upon returning to the car, we found that one of Stanley’s windshield wipers had stopped turning.  I tried to tighten the nut attaching the wiper arm but was put off by the sound that it made, so I gave up and we drove in search of a garage.  A service station attendant solved the problem for us in about 30 seconds with a wrench (I had been too gentle with my attempts earlier) and we paid him 1000 Malawian kwacha, about US$ 1.40, perhaps the best repair bargain of the trip.  
Mulanje massif overview
It was just as well that we got the wipers fixed, as it started raining hard as we approached Mulanje and we drove the last 10 km along a dirt track in dense fog and rain, barely able to see, before camping at the foot of the mountain near the forestry office.  It was a cold, wet night and we were glad that Stanley is as rainproof as he is.  Unfortunately the waterproofness didn’t extend to the back door, as it doesn’t seal very tightly and allowed rain to run down the inside of the door, soaking some groceries and most of Terri’s clothing.

Our guide for Mt. Mulanje, Aubrey

We woke up on Tuesday, July 12th to no rain and clearing skies.  By the time we staggered out of bed, a would-be guide was waiting outside for us.  In fact, the night before another prospective guide had run along with Stanley for the last 2 km of the drive, offering his services, but he was nowhere to be seen this time around.  We cooked up breakfast, then decided to hire the young man, Aubrey, for the princely sum of 9000 Malawian kwacha a day (about US$ 13 a day).  After waiting for Terri’s clothes to dry, we locked up Stanley, engaged another young man to keep an eye on Stanley in our absence and set off uphill, ready for 3 days and 2 nights on the mountain.  The path led first through a huge clearcut at the base of the hill.  Commercial timber was being sawn by hand from big pine trees, while the offcuts were being carried downhill on the heads of hundreds of women, destined for cooking fires in the village.  It looked like desperately hard work, harder than hiking uphill in stout hiking boots with backpacks on our backs.  Above the clearcut the path headed fairly steeply upwards along the flank of a river valley, looking across at some impressive rock faces on the other bank.  We sweated uphill for 900 vertical metres along the Skyline Trail, most of the way under a disused cablecar that had been used to transport logs down from the Chambe Basin.
Mulanje's forest walking down the hill as firewood.

Once we reached the top of the climb, the landscape changed utterly.  The Chambe Basin had once been full of pine plantations, established at the cost of stands of native Mulanje cedars, but these plantations have been clearcut over the past few years, allegedly so that the cedars can be re-established.  Wandering through a clearcut along old logging roads and firebreaks was less scenic than I had anticipated, but luckily the high rock ramparts and sheer cliffs of Chambe Peak loomed on one side, while the rugged peaks of the centre of the massif dominated the skyline on the other side, so we had something prettier to look at.  Cape robin-chats, clouds of queleas, ravens and several species of sunbirds flew around the basin, while there was a wealth of pretty wildflowers to beautify the desolation of the clearcut.  By 3 o’clock, four hours after setting off, we were settling into the wonderfully situated Chambe Hut, watching the afternoon light play on the cliffs of Chambe Peak.  We were the only guests in the hut that evening, and the hut-keeper stoked up a roaring fire for us to cook up our steaks and potatoes.  We retired early, ready for a big summit day the following day.

Chambe Peak in the afternoon light

July 13th started early, with a 5:30 wakeup call and a 6:30 departure after a quick cereal breakfast.  We marched through more clearcuts in the cool of the morning, finally entering small stands of native hardwood as we toiled uphill to Chitepo Hut, which we reached by 9:00.  We paused for an hour for some instant noodles and tea while Terri dried some of her clothes, before heading for the summit of Sapitwa Peak at 10:00.  In retrospect this was a silly idea; as the highest point of land between South Africa’s Drakensberg and the mountains of northern Tanzania (It tops out at 3001 metres above sea level), Sapitwa collects clouds every afternoon, and this day was no exception.  Although skies were clear at 9 when we arrived at the hut, we departed under rapidly lowering clouds an hour later, and were inside their moist embrace by 11.  The climb was steep, and involved a fair bit of rockhopping, so the moist rocks made climbing treacherous.  Much of the path leads inclined slabs of rock that require a fair bit of grip to stay on, so at times we were reduced to climbing on hands and knees.  As we got closer to the summit, the weather really socked in and mist turned to actual rain.  
The soggy retreat from our summit bid
Eventually, at 12:50, we decided that the summit, only 100 vertical metres but apparently still 40 minutes away, wasn’t worth going to as visibility was nil.  We were also acutely aware of how miserable a descent in the dark would be, as we had met a party that had come down in the dark the day before, and so we wanted to be down before sunset. 

Morning clouds rolling in over the massif
The descent was a bit hair-raising, with long sections of scooting downhill on our backsides rather than risking falling from a standing position on slippery wet rocks.  Terri was unhappy with our situation, and was very relieved when we popped out at Chitembo Hut by 3:45.  We cooked up a pot of lentil curry over the fire and retired to bed early, legs tired from the long descent and mentally fatigued from having to think carefully about every step of the way.

Morning view from Chitepo Hut
We slept in until the late hour of 6:30 after a night of heavy rain; we were both very glad that we hadn’t been out on the mountain in that kind of downpour.  We had a leisurely breakfast of cereal and toast before donning our packs and heading back towards Chambe Hut at 8:30 under clearing skies (although fresh clouds were already wreathing Sapitwa behind us).  The descent was slow at first until we reached a four-way trail junction after an hour and a half.  From here it was finally possible to walk quickly and fluidly, and it was a very enjoyable walk across moorland until we reached the Chapaluka River and its pretty pools, waterfalls and rapids.  Finally, around noon, we got to the pretty swimming hole known as Old Men’s Falls, where I had a cold but welcome dip and leap off the cliffs; Terri elected to stay warm.  We were fairly close to our starting point, and a couple of parties of tourists arrived while we were there on short day trips up to the falls.  We strolled back to Stanley, paid off Aubrey (not without some attempts on his part to wheedle extra money out of us) and started driving towards the Zomba Plateau. 

Mulanje massif with waterfalls above and tea plantations below
The scenery, now that we were driving in sunshine, was very pretty.  A series of tea plantations encircle the base of the Mulanje Massif, carpeting the land in lush green bushes, while up above high waterfalls cascade down the steep rock faces below the peaks.  The land (as everywhere in Malawi) is densely settled, and the roads were busy with bicycles transporting firewood or paying passengers, along with hundreds of women carrying huge loads of firewood on their heads.  We both commented on the fact that few women seemed to own bicycles; men transported loads of wood on their bicycles, while women were left to lug almost equally huge quantities of firewood on their heads.  It didn’t seem fair.  We stopped off in Mulanje Town to eat a hard-earned and delicious pizza at Mulanje Pepper, the restaurant that seems to be the centrepiece of expat life in Mulanje, before heading north towards Zomba.  Overall I was very pleased with our hiking on Mt. Mulanje, even if the summit try was several hours of soggy misery.  I love overnight hiking trips, and spending so much time in a vehicle on this overland trip makes liberation from internal combustion engines all the more welcome.  The scenery is pretty, the views down across the lowlands are endless and the huts are excellent (and amazing value, at MK 1000 (US$ 1.40) per person per night!). 

More Mulanje flowers

It took much longer to get to Zomba than we had anticipated, and while it was nice to see Mulanje and other isolated mountains in the late afternoon light while driving, it was fully dark as we got to Zomba Town.  This made finding our campsite up high on the Zomba Plateau challenging, especially as our GPS was hallucinating and had no clue what the road layout actually was.  Our destination, the Ku Chawe Trout Farm, was unsignposted and looked abandoned, but was actually in operation as a campsite, even if the trout had all died.  It was a wonderful place to camp under the trees, and we chatted with the only other guests, a party of British sixth-form students on a humanitarian service trip under the auspices of an outfit called Inspire Worldwide.  Terri was intrigued by Inspire and we exchanged contact details with the trip leaders, hoping perhaps to get a British school to come out and do a trip to Olive Tree Learning Centre, the school that Terri has been nurturing for the past decade in Livingstone, Zambia.  Between our late arrival, our tiredness and chatting, it was 10:30 before we got to bed, glad to snuggle into our down sleeping bags in the damp chill of the air up at 1500 metres.

Somehow, despite getting up at 7 am, we didn’t get moving until nearly noon the next day, putting paid to our idea to go hiking around the forests of the Zomba Plateau.  Instead we ate pancakes, cleaned and packed and showered and suddenly looked at our watches in alarm before setting off for Cape Maclear.  We stopped off in Zomba town for perhaps the most dismal supermarket shopping of the entire trip at a Shoprite U-Save that was utterly bereft of anything that didn’t come in a packet or a can.  We tanked up on diesel, took out another couple of instalments of MK 40,000 from the ATM (only about US$ 57, the maximum that the ATMs can dispense at one time, given that the biggest denomination bill is only 1000 kwacha) and headed off north.  It was frustratingly slow going through the endless succession of densely-populated villages that make up rural Malawi.  Eventually we turned off the main highway towards the southern end of Lake Malawi.  The villages in this area show much more Muslim influence, with mosques and Islamic charities replacing churches and Christian NGOs.  This is apparently a legacy of the slave trade that played such a big role in the 19th century during the time that David Livingstone was undertaking his epic voyages. 

The Rift Valley floor, at 500 metres above sea level, was noticeably warmer than our surroundings for most of the past week.  The driving was flat and fairly quick until we reached the Cape Maclear turnoff, where a few kilometres of rough dirt suddenly gave rise to perfect new asphalt halfway to Cape Maclear (right at the boundary marker for Lake Malawi National Park; perhaps the UNESCO World Heritage money has been spent on the road?).  We watched sunset as we drove, and drove into town in the gloaming.  We had heard good things about a backpackers called the Funky Cichlid, so we parked Stanley in their parking lot and settled in for the night.  We ate freshly-caught cichlid fish for dinner and then retired to Stanley for a restful night’s sleep. 

Stanley camped at the old Golden Sands Hotel in Cape Maclear
This didn’t work out quite as planned.  It was Friday night, and the backpackers of Cape Maclear arrived en masse at the Funky Cichlid to party.  The music levels got louder and louder and festivities raged on until 2 am.  We slept very, very poorly, and decided that we had needed to find new digs the next morning.  We pulled out our folding bikes and went exploring, finally settling on the abandoned Golden Sands resort up the beach inside the Lake Malawi National Park, where we negotiated a deal for camping and park admission for three nights for MK 35,000.  It was an idyllic spot, away from the main village, and we settled in for three days of rest and recreation. 

Cape Maclear sunset
Lake Malawi is famous for its profusion of fish species, particularly colourful cichlids, and we went snorkelling that afternoon around the corner from our campsite.  The water level in the lake was low, as we could see from marks on the boulders lining the shore; the El Nino-fuelled drought has hit Malawi particularly hard.  The snorkelling was lovely, comparable in terms of colour and variety to a reef in the tropical ocean, although distinctly chillier.  We had a spectacular sunset over the waters of the lake and ate a ridiculously tasty beef stew that Terri had concocted.

The next day found us renting a sea kayak at the Cape Maclear Eco Lodge to explore the offshore island that lurked invitingly just off the mainland.  We paddled out to the nearest point, hauled the kayak out and had another excellent snorkel around the rocks through a rainbow of fish before exploring further along the coastline.  It felt really good to be under our own power and away from the bustle of the village, out in quite a pretty landscape, with azure lake waters and an island full of small baobab trees.  Pied kingfishers, fish eagles and hamerkops circled in the air, and we enjoyed the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere.  We returned to shore, ate some delicious French fries whipped up by a roadside vendor calling himself McDonalds and returned to the Golden Sands for another beautiful sunset and some fried fillets of freshly caught chambo fish that we bought from a local fisherman.

Chambo fish being filleted on the beach
On our third day we got up earlier than usual and cycled back to the Eco Lodge to go diving.  It was just the two of us and the dive instructor, Addie, an interesting young American aspiring marine biologist.  The dive was pleasant, with lots of cichlids, but we weren’t lucky enough to spot any of the large kalambo catfish that lurk in the depths.  We all got cold, so we surfaced after 40 minutes with lots of air left and all had a brisk shivering session to warm up.  It was only my second dive (out of a total of about 280) that I’ve ever done in fresh water, and while it was fun, it was cold enough that we didn’t feel the need to do a second dive.  We had a delicious lunch back at the Eco Lodge while talking to Addie’s family who had just arrived for a visit from the US.  I found her brother interesting; he is a “budding” entrepreneur in selling grow-your-own hydroponic systems to potheads in the newly decriminalized cannabis states such as Colorado.  That afternoon I went for a long, slightly meandering run up into the hills behind the lake before supper and a bit of blog post writing that didn’t get very far before I had to turn in, tired.

Graves of early missionaries at Cape Maclear
On our way out of Cape Maclear the next day (July 19th), we stopped in briefly to visit the graves of two early Scottish missionaries who had followed hard on the heels of David Livingstone in establishing Livingstonia Mission at Cape Maclear in 1875.  One had died in 1877 and the other in 1880, both in the late rainy season, both of malaria.  The mission was soon relocated up the lake twice, ending up eventually in the current town of Livingstonia, much further north and perched 500 metres above the lake in a much less malarial area.  I saw a sign from PSI, a big international NGO for which two friends of mine have worked over the years, stating that they were supplying antimalarial mosquito nets to the area today, so I hope that it’s less malarial today than it was in the past.

PSI at work at Cape Maclear
We mused on the lives of these early missionaries as we drove north along an excellent road, distracted by our GPS trying to send us down non-existent roads and by Stanley’s engine losing power occasionally for a few seconds at a time.  Our destination for the day was Senga Bay, only 200 km down the road, where we were camped by noon in the genteel surroundings of the Steps Campground, attached to the poshest hotel in town.  It was a wonderfully relaxing place to spend the afternoon reading, cooking, swimming, running and playing guitar before another lovely sunset and a delicious dinner of baked pasta.  I finally finished up the Zimbabwe blog post sitting outside in the perfect evening temperatures under the stars.  Senga was just an overnight stop for us, but I could easily have spent a few more relaxing days there, although I imagine (given its proximity to Lilongwe) that it fills up on weekends and school holidays.

From Senga we put in a 300 km day to get to Nkhata Bay, our most northerly stop on the lakeshore.  It took longer than expected as the previous day’s power cuts in Stanley’s engine continued with greater frequency.  We finally diagnosed an electrical fault and discovered that the battery had come loose from its new clamp and that the clamp was in contact with one of the battery terminals when we went over bumps, setting up a short circuit.  An assortment of gas station attendants helped us repair the problem in a small roadside town, where we also met a distinctly dodgy South African guy living there whom everyone seemed to distrust and dislike. 

We rolled into Nkhata Bay in the mid-afternoon.  This place is a major stop on the overlander circuit and its lodges are pretty expensive by Malawi standards.  As well, for campers such as ourselves the hilly topography of the lakeshore makes it difficult to park a vehicle somewhere both scenic and flat.  We looked at a few places before settling on Butterfly Space, the cheapest and friendliest accommodation in town.  We camped at the top of the sprawling complex, under shady trees, and spent the next three nights there.  Butterfly Space is an interesting concept, with many of the guests volunteering on various community projects around Nkhata Bay. Daniel, an Irish guy helping to run the place, was great to talk to, full of information and stories about local goings-on.  Daniel told me that when he told a friend of his, a former Africa correspondent for the Guardian, that he was coming to Malawi, the friend told him that “there are more white elephants than grey elephants in Malawi”, alluding to Malawi’s status as a darling of the NGO and foreign ODA community and the lack of major results in improving people’s lives despite the billions spent over the past few decades.

Bicycle taxi man in Mzuzu
Nkhata Bay is pretty, and we had fun for a couple of days, swimming and running and paddling around in canoes and kayaks and even a stand-up paddleboard.  Because the lakeshore is hilly and heavily indented, it somehow feels a bit like a corner of the Mediterranean dropped into Central Africa.  There is a bit of an edge of locals trying out various scams on foreigners, and the town itself is rather unprepossessing, but I liked Butterfly Space and the various travellers I met there, including a Spanish couple cycling from South Africa to Rwanda, Daniel and a couple of Belgian mathematicians-turned-vagabonds.  The sunsets were pretty, while the moonrises over the lake (it was full moon when we arrived) were stunning.  For reasons that I can’t quite make out now, I didn’t take a single photograph during our stay at Nkhata Bay.

Malawi taxi service

I made up for that lack of photographic effort at our next and final stop in Malawi, the Nyika Plateau.  We drove up to the plateau on Saturday, July 23rd, through the up-and-coming town of Mzuzu and its well-stocked Shoprite supermarket.  While there we talked to a bicycle taxi man about his business model.  While he owns his own bicycle, he is in a distinct minority; he only moonlights on weekends to supplement his regular job and has enough money to buy his own bike.  Most bicycle taxi drivers don’t have the US$ 100 or so needed to buy their own bike and instead rent one for MK 1000 (US$ 1.40) a day from a wealthy businessmen who owns an entire fleet of bicycles.  Rides are priced depending on distance, with MK 150 (about US$ 0.20) a good average price.  Drivers can usually earn MK 2000 a day (about US$ 3), but if they are renting, that gets cut in half to MK 1000.  Not a horrible wage in a country like Malawi, but not enough to ever save up much money. 

Bushbuck, Nyika Plateau

From Mzuzu the road up to the Nyika Plateau rapidly deteriorated from excellent asphalt to heavily corrugated and potholed dirt, and it was a long, slow slog up to the park gate and then on to the campsite at Chelinda.  The road climbs steadily from Mzuzu, eventually reaching an altitude of 2300 metres above sea level.  The last 15 km or so the scenery opens up to a huge rolling grassland plateau that stretches out to the horizon.  We got to the campsite just in time for a lovely sunset and settled in for three nights’ stay. 
Nyika plateau zebras

I loved the Nyika Plateau.  The scenery is quite unlike anywhere else I have been in Africa, sort of “Serengeti meets Mongolia”, with lots of open grassland full of interesting herbivore species.  There are lots of roan antelope, one of the prettiest species around with their bold facial markings, along with plenty of zebra, common reedbuck and even a few eland.  We took a lot of photos of roan and eland, and peered into the patches of bush in the hope of seeing one of the local leopards.  We went for a long bicycle ride on our folding bikes one day, and a long walk the next day along a slightly ill-chosen path around a pine plantation that is said to harbour leopards, but which offers next to nothing in terms of birds or scenery.  My favourite spot, though, was the campsite.  On the first night we had the whole place to ourselves, while on the next two nights we shared with three other groups.  The sunsets over the plateau were magical, as were the morning views of zebra and bushbuck wandering right past our camper.  It was distinctly chilly as soon as the sun went down, but the campsite attendant busied himself keeping our campfires going and heating water for hot showers.  Sitting at our campfire staring up at the stars, or watching eland passing in the late afternoon golden light, I felt as though I was in some sort of hunter-gatherer idyll.
Roan antelope 
Eland, Nyika Plateau

Sadly all good things must come to an end, so on Tuesday, July 26th we bid a sad farewell to the wonderful atmosphere of Nyika and retraced our steps to the park headquarters, stopping in a vain attempt to spot the bar-tailed trogon in a patch of forest just over the Zambian side of the border; we did spot Livingstone’s turaco and several species of sunbird.  It was when we turned off towards the Zambian border that the track really began to deteriorate.  We could barely find the right track to get to the border, and at times I felt we were driving along a footpath, but eventually we got to the Malawian immigration post where a startled part-time employee had to phone Mzuzu for instructions on how to stamp us out of the country.  It was one of the most informal border crossings I have ever done, a feeling augmented by the fact that there is no Zambian border post; we just drove into the country with a vague instruction from the Malawian official in Mzuzu to do our immigration and customs formalities in Isoka, 200 km away.
Roan antelope, Nyika Plateau

We had been in Malawi for 16 days and covered 1850 km.  I rather liked Malawi, although I found the high population density and obvious rural poverty a bit sad, especially given the number of white expats driving around in fancy NGO Land Cruisers.  The landscape is lovely, with the Rift Valley escarpment and the isolated massifs of the south a real highlight.  Lake Malawi is very pretty, with the feeling of the ocean about it, and I enjoyed snorkelling and swimming and diving there.  From the point of view of outdoor activities, Malawi was perhaps our most active destination so far, with cycling, running, hiking and various watersports in the mix.  The flip side of its poverty is that it is by far the least expensive country in the region in terms of food and accommodation, which may explain part of its appeal to backpackers.  Although I enjoyed our time there, I don’t think I would go out of my way to visit the country again, especially given its awkward positioning for overland travel now that accessing it through Mozambique is problematic.  However it should certainly feature on any backpacker's or overlander's travels through southern Africa.
Common reedbuck, Nyika Plateau

My next post will be about our adventures in the wonderful north of Zambia, and with any luck (or tenacity on my part), it will be posted within a week.  Stay tuned, and I hope you enjoyed reading this!

Terri and I at Old Man's Falls on Mt. Mulanje