Sandwiched between Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, Malawi looks fairly small on the map of Africa, and we thought we'd be able to get through it quickly... but somehow it still took about seven hours on a bus every time we wanted to go anywhere. Seven hours from Blantyre (biggest city) to Lilongwe (capital). Seven hours from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (lakeside town). Seven hours from Nkhata Bay to Tanzania border. Sigh.
Luckily, Malawians are pretty friendly, the food is pretty good, and traveling is pretty cheap, so spending a little more time in the country than we'd originally planned wasn't a hardship.
The main attraction of Malawi is Lake Malawi, an enormous freshwater lake. It's third in size to Victoria and Tanganyika (the two other big lakes in East Africa--they're all connected) but it has, I believe, the most pristine ecological environment for its weird fishy inhabitants, the cichlids (more on them later).
OK, so, because of our route coming in from Mozambique, our first stop was Blantyre, Malawi's biggest city. With a whopping 600,000 inhabitants, it's not really much of a city. We wandered around and ate some baked goods and saw this church, which was apparently built by Scottish missionaries with no architectural training in the late 1800s.
Then we hopped on a bus to Lilongwe. Lilongwe is the capital and second-biggest city, with a whopping 400-something thousand people. We couldn't believe it, but it was possibly even less interesting than Blantyre. We arrived at night and did get this nice shot of the main mosque towers lit up. (You may remember from our Morocco posts that green is the color for a public building in Islam!)
That's it for Lilongwe, seriously. We stayed at a church guesthouse, bought some takeaway curry, and planned our escape to Zambia (aka Zombia).
When we got back, it was finally time to head to the shores of Lake Malawi! There are many towns you can visit on its coast, but we chose Nkhata Bay because it was about halfway up to the border with Tanzania. We stayed in the main part of town, but there is a more exclusive, touristy section called Chikale which had this nice beach.
Another reason we chose Nkhata Bay was because it has a good range of activities on offer, including kayaking trips. We sought out the guys from Monkey Business (which we recommend!) and they put together an amazing overnight kayak trip up the coast. But we couldn't leave until the next day, so Andy and I were forced to hang out around town, enjoying bay views and learning a marble game called Bao from some locals (it's like Mancala on steroids). I know, I know, our lives are hard.
OK, so, we took off the next morning--me and Andy in one double kayak and our guides, tents, food, and who knows what else in another. The lake was a little choppy at first and it took us a while to get our rhythm, but soon we were rowing like pros.
Here is a shot from our first day lunch stop at a little fishing village beach. That is not our kayak, but the types of wooden canoes the locals use to row out and fish on the lake.
We camped for the night on a different beach, where our guides built a fire and made us a fantastic dinner (they had cockily promised us the best chicken we had ever tasted, and, well, they came pretty close to delivering that!).
Meanwhile, hoards of curious kids from the village came out to see the whities. They were really tentative and definitely a little scared of us at first, but before long they were teaching us songs and slappy-hand games and running around tag with us. Then someone produced a couple of balls (i.e. plastic bag bunches tied up with twine into rough ball shapes) and a huge game of catch and basketball was on!
I snuck off and grabbed the camera at one point to catch Andy and the kids in action. The bucket Andy is holding was our basket.
And here I am for a group shot with the kids. Unlike in so many other places, not a single child ever asked us for money, sweets, or even a pen, and they were psyched just to be in a picture and see it. They spoke almost no English, by the way--kids don't start learning it in school until about age 14 in Malawi.
Bonding with all those kids was one of the more fun (and exhausting!) experiences we've had in a while. Later that night, a few older kids came out and we taught them to play hangman in the sand. Considering they only had a year or two of English under their belts, they did really well!
At night, it looks like there's a city (or maybe a suspension bridge?) out there on the lake. That's because fishermen paddle out with big lights on their boats--the fish are attracted to the light and swim to the surface. When the moon comes out, the fishermen come home (they can't stand the light-competition!). As a result, EVERYONE in these little fishing villages knows the moonrise schedule.
Here we are with our kayaking gear on our way home the next day. Our favorite items were surely the skirts, which keep the water out when you're in the kayak, but just look silly when you're wearing them on land. Especially if you're Andy.
The following day we went SCUBA diving in the lake, which was also a good experience. We'd never been lake diving before, and what's nice is that when water leaks into your mask or your mouth, it's not salty! Also, you don't have to worry about kicking precious coral on the floor of the lake, it's all just rocks! And there are basically no surface waves.
As for fish life, we saw many varieties of cichlid. If you're up on your Planet Earth (the cichlid segment was actually filmed right near where we dove), you may know that cichlids descended from one ancestor fish that got into the lake millions of years ago, and now there are are 850 different varieties of many colors and sizes! The best were the mouth-breeders, which protect their baby fish by sucking them into their mouths whenever they feel the need. We got to watch one or two mamas quickly round up and suck in 20 or so tiny baby fish. Cool! We also saw a predatory dolphin-fish in its daytime lair, and a catfish or two. Not the most exciting dive ever, but definitely different from ocean diving and worth doing.
No pics from the diving, unfortunately, since we don't have a diving camera.
And that's pretty much it for Malawi. If you go there, just head straight for the lake!