“I feel embarrassed at how I was shouting, swearing and hitting my canoe that day. I thought about it a lot the following days. If I had just communicated my difficulties with my two friends earlier, asked for help a little earlier, then the situation would not have become so dire. I would have known that they too were finding it difficult. All the frustration could have been avoided simply by communicating and working together, by changing our course and focusing on enjoying where we were rather than fighting a lost battle.”
After the physically and mentally demanding last few days in Tanzania I decided to rest my tired ‘wings’ at Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay, Malawi. Little was I to know that my plans would change overnight and that I’d be setting off on yet another extraordinary adventure, this time by canoe rather than bicycle.
Hector, a seasoned traveler from Australia whom lives somewhere between the realms of really good and really bad ideas but on this day was camping right opposite me, said that he has an idea for an extraordinary adventure. It was to buy a traditional dug-out canoe, locally also referred to as a mocorro, and paddle northwards from Nkhata Bay to Chilumba on Lake Malawi.
The road that connects Nkhata Bay to Chiweta and then Chilumba runs far away and high up behind the shore-line mountains. Many of the small fishing villages and homesteads along this rugged section of the lake are thus only accessible by boat and possibly using the trails that link scattered homesteads. Few visitors frequent this area and this made Hector’s idea quite extraordinary.
The possibility of joining Hector and loading my bicycle and gear onto a dug-out canoe to continue my cycling adventure from Chilumba quickly germinated in my mind. By the next day it had sprouted and I too was in search of a canoe. Isaac, a New Zealander, jumped onboard just as quickly.
That next day MacDonald, a shopkeeper at the market, came over to admire my bicycle while I was picking up some veggies. He wanted to buy it from me. I told him I won’t sell it for any amount of money in this world, but that my two new friends and I were in need of some ‘lake-worthy’ canoes for our planned adventure. A discussion followed, where after I went to fetch Hector and by that afternoon we found ourselves looking at some secondhand canoes.
The canoes needed quite a bit of patching up. So MacDonald included a carpenter in the deal and, after some more back and forth negotiations between us and MacDonald and MacDonald and the canoe owners about the final price, we shook hands. The deal was bartered in a raised, very run-down wooden platform beneath a big old tree outside a local bar on the beach. Hector and I both wished that we had a camera on hand to film the location, negotiation and final handshake.
After the carpenter knocked out the rotten pieces and patched up our canoes Isaac organized a local craftsman to engrave our canoes with deserving names. Hector captained ‘Neverlost’, Isaac the “Land of the Long White Cloud” and I “MyOwnWay”.
Each one of our canoes were truly unique. Land of the Long White Cloud was huge like a ship and instead of sitting on top of the side walls Isaac was able to sit inside, making it more stable. For that reason he also carried most of the food supplies and some additional things. Neverlost was small yet fierce, but very leaky still from all the old battle scars and had to be emptied quite frequently, slowing her overall pace down. MyOwnWay severely listed portside (left), making it difficult to balance and steer. My right leg was always dangling over the side to provide counterbalance. I invented MyOwnWay of canoeing 😀
Because MyOwnWay was quite difficult to balance I decided not to take my bicycle and all my gear with me. On a lake with an average depth of 500 m and often with unpredictable weather the risk of losing my stuff was far too great. Instead I left it for safekeeping at Butterfly Space.
MacDonald encouraged us to use a transport boat to take us the first 20 km to Toto. The lake was supposedly very rough and deep in the area immediately north of Nkhata Bay. So on departure day we loaded our canoes, food and camping gear onto the boat and set off northwards. But just 7 km north of Nkhata Bay the Captain of the Sacramento stopped the boat some distance of the shore but with a small beach in view and demanded another 40,000 Kwachas on top of the 19,000 or so we already paid and agreed upon. He basically held us at ransom and a heated argument ensued. We threatened to tell the police, but he did not care. Not tolerating his demand we decided to just start paddling from there. This guy, not worthy of being called a Captain, and his crew were the first dishonest people I have met on my travels so far.
As the sun started to near the horizon at the end of each day we found a nice protected little beach and asked the village headman or chief if we could make camp there for the night. We were never refused. They were always very welcoming and accommodating, though very confused. So too were the village onlookers. There were three Mzungus camping on their beach and they got there with dug-out canoes! “Not even the fisherman travel that far on canoes” they said. There was also a crazy New Zealander that ran around after all the little kids like he was trying to herd sheep, or scare sheep….I never knew which. We certainly did provide them with entertainment, even if it was just us falling off the canoes when coming in to land on a “big” wave.
We never made it all the way to Chilumba. We paddled 6 days, mostly managing less than 20 km per day and made the 96 km straight-line distance to Chiweta with blistered hands but still in good spirit. Apart from the last day and a half the weather was generally not in our favour. The winds were quite strong in the afternoons and sometimes the swells were so high we could not see each other between them. Not really the place to be for novices on dug-out canoes, but then it would not have been such an extraordinary adventure 😀
The strong winds made for one of the most frustrating days I had ever experienced in my life. Not physically difficult or mentally draining like that last week in Tanzania, just overwhelmingly frustrating. We were trying to cross a big bay on the “open water”. Even though the wind was from the rear, I was not making any meaningful forward progress, no matter how much effort I was putting in. The wind kept on turning me around portside, i.e. to the side which was listing. To make matters worse I was also taking on more and more water, which caused the canoe to list even more until I could no longer balance it. I fell in the water, repeatedly. Each time I tried to get back on I brought more water with me into the canoe, thereby quickly aggravating the situation.
Eventually I shouted for Hector and Isaac to come help me out. They held the canoe stable while I emptied out the excess water. With their help I was able to get back on and together we decided to paddle to shore against the wind. It was easier than paddling with the wind.
While waiting on the beach for the wind to die down we had a great time playing with the kids, teaching them the words and dance to “We will rock you”. Isaac ran around like a madman on ‘shrooms, hilariously scaring the kids into laughter.
I feel embarrassed at how I was shouting, swearing and hitting my canoe that day. I thought about it a lot the following days. If I had just communicated my difficulties with my two friends earlier, asked for help a little earlier, then the situation would not have become so dire. I would have known that they too were finding it difficult. All the frustration could have been avoided simply by communicating and working together, by changing our course and focusing on enjoying where we were rather than fighting a lost battle.
I also started wondering whether this is how people here in Malawi feel. Malawi is supposed to be the ‘heart of Africa’ but behind that smile I see frustration and desperation. No matter how hard they are working, how much effort they are putting in, they are not making forward progress. They must be screaming and shouting just as loudly inside themselves. The option to change course is there. They just need to stop, re-evaluate and work together. Easier said than done, I know. I’ll write more about my thoughts on this in a later post.
Now I am off to Zambia. Actually I’ve already left Malawi and entered Zambia, but on paper I never left Malawi. Then I came back to Malawi and now on paper I have left Malawi but, in reality, I am still in Malawi. Confused? Yeah I know! Stay tuned for more.
Until next time
p.s. While I am having great fun with these extraordinary adventures I am doing it to raise awareness in support of AntibioticAction, a campaign group working towards better #AntibioticStewardship, and also to highlight some of the great science that is being done here in eastern and southern Africa on the topic. And I could not do without the help of my fabulous sponsors, Global Academy Jobs.