Nyika Plateau, Misuku Hills and Livingstonia

31 December 2017

[Above photo:  Women doing the heavy lifting—what’s new?— of transporting coffee seedlings at the Mzuzu Coffee Cooperative in the Misuku hills.]

After leaving Mzuzu, we drove to Rumphi and then on a pretty astoundingly bad flooded clay-slip track for 50km to the entrance to Nyika National Park. The park section of road was generally better; I was very proud of our little X-Trail as it crept up steep, deeply rutted, soaked clay hills without slippage and nearly no scraping bottom.

Nyika is a high (>6000feet) and huge (>3100 square kilometers) plateau in Northern Malawi, a protected area of brachystegia forest, higher rolling grassland hills and collections of pine forests, sometime surrounding small dammed lakes. We pitched our tent in the middle of a sloping field in the campground, cooked supper on a cast iron stove in the keeper’s hut, and slept like logs. The two days we hiked we were treated to herds of eland, of mountain zebra, and of roan antelope, as well as many springbok, reedbok, and the occasional bushbuck.  We didn’t see a leopard, although the prior week one killed a baby zebra near the upmarket Lodge and then was attacked by the adult zebras, running off to climb a tree immediately in front of the lodge dining room as the guests were arriving for breakfast. Talk about a front row seat for the drama!

We hiked long distances and were totally drenched by downpours each day. Linda forgot her slicker, I forgot I had an umbrella in my backpack, and I used my slicker to cover my backpack with cameras, passport, money, etc. We would try to wait out the worst in a copse of pines and then make a break for it. Thankfully, the Chelinda Camp office had limitless free hot tea and a roaring fire so we could dry off after we sloshed in.

We met two couples we liked in the campground. A young Italian learned from his father how to identify porcini mushrooms and found a number of them, teaching us the trick. The next day we found many walking through a pine forest and Linda made a lovely mushroom cream sauce over spaghetti for supper. Since Christmas dinner would have been $40 each and subsequent meals also costly (breakfast-$12, supper-$25), we figured we saved enough for our next adventure by cooking for ourselves.  Sleeping out is fun and we were warm and dry in the tent, despite nightly downpours.

Our last evening it felt like the campground had been invaded by the Huns and Vandals. Two obese and strange men placed their large stand-up tent close to and facing ours, although there were many distant and empty sites from which to choose. One of them, with breasts large enough to excite a teenage boy, silently walked through our camping site wielding a hatchet, stumbled over one of our tent lines, and, turning, said, ”Schram” in a guttural Afrikans.  I didn’t know if he was telling us to get lost or if that was his name.  He and his buddy had appropriated the campfire we’d been using for two days since they’d pitched their tent closer to it than ours was. But the main invasion force was 17 people in 3 truly immense vehicles with cans of petrol and roof tents and towing trailer tents and god knows what else. One of the vehicles was the largest camper I have ever seen; the size of a massive dump truck. The brand was MAN in huge chrome letters across the front. I won’t go on but it was clearly time for us to leave, which we did in the morning. Nyika is gorgeous and seemingly protected for now. The Lodge, which we explored, is a pricey but really lovely retreat with fabulous views of the plateau and a great bar.

We left, slipping on wet clay all the 110km to Rumphi. Then we began the descent to the lakeshore, Linda’s favorite view in Malawi. Although it was rainy and foggy, I could imagine how dramatic and beautiful it would be on a clear day when the lake was visible (When we returned it was clear and we could see everything.).  We spent the night in a rather cheesy but perfectly-situated lodge on the beach south of Karonga and explored the very classy museum in town. Along a time-line were displayed ancient fossils of dinosaurs, proto-humanoid remains, information about the waves of indigenous settlers, and concluded with the slavers and colonists.  There were lots of early artifacts—stone tools, iron spears, bows and arrows, baskets and ceramics. Most interesting in Karonga for me was visiting the house where Linda lived in 1979-81 when she was there in Peace Corps as a Public Health Nurse, riding a motorcycle to various district clinics.. It was a life pivotal experience for her, just out of nursing school, just married, then a new mother, and so forth. And so primitive. No electricity, phone, internet, refrigeration (for the first year). Being a frontier woman at heart, she of course thrived. She is painting a miniature, as I write.

Then off to the Misuku Hills and the Mzuzu Coffee Cooperative guesthouse. The road was a roller coaster, up impossibly high and steep hills, and down the same. After some struggles we drove up the WORST ROAD YET and arrived 5:30pm at the guest house to find it was locked and no one was around. Nor in the manager’s house next door. Walking down the road we asked some boys fixing a motorcycle if they knew where we might find someone associated with the Guesthouse. A sweet boy named Hope said, “Come talk with my mother—she’ll sort it out.” We walked to his home and met a diminutive woman, Mwawi, who spoke perfect English She invited us in and we proceeded to introduce ourselves. She trained as a nurse, then re-trained as a Clinical Officer, then went to Liverpool and did their International MPH program. She started and now runs a clinic, with a new operating theatre, for the farmers in the surrounding area.

While we sat in her house, one of her children, a boy of about 3, came into the living room, dripping wet from his bath, wrapped in a towel. He was very curious about us and wanted to approach us but she firmly told him to get dressed first. As we were leaving, he silently held his thumb outstretched—I reached back with mine and touched his as our eyes met. A transcultural moment of sweetness and trust.

She heard our plight and we all got into her huge, beat-up red Toyota minibus/ambulance, she slid the seat as far forward as she could (She is all of 4’10”!) and drove back down the terrifying road into town to roust out the guesthouse keeper.  I was totally white-knuckling and Linda was speechless as Mwawi drove down and up and down, calling out to friends, neighbors, and patients as we passed their huts.  She made a few enquiries—“He’s not home. I don’t know where he is.”–and drove us back up to the guesthouse. We weren’t sure if we’d cry or wet ourselves, it was so terrifying. Meanwhile the van was making very loud complaints. I thought it was dropping the transmission, which it didn’t.  She wouldn’t accept my offer of money for gasoline. When we returned to the guesthouse, a keeper was there to greet us, opening the guest house and starting a fire for the hot water boiler.

The guesthouse had seen better days but served us well. Early the first morning we heard all sorts of calling and rustling of wings. Looking out the window we saw 15 immense hornbills in the fruit tree behind us, eating, talking, and flying to the next tree and back, no doubt the avian equivalent of the Canadian Air Force Exercises which Harold and I used to do every morning in medical school, listening to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”.  The birds were black with a white breast, a white band on the end of their large tail feathers, and a white casque—a sort of bony crown. My field guide suggests it is a trumpeter hornbill, although I didn’t see the “red face”.

We cooked in the kitchen, including a fabulous penne dish of Linda’s (who else?) creation—wild mushrooms from the keeper, Nali (Malawian hot sauce), powdered milk, red wine, and biltong my niece Deirdre put in my stocking last Christmas in Cape Town. Biltong is basically S. African jerky. The result was delicious and we gobbled it down, hunger being a wonderful seasoning.

During the day we hiked on dirt paths over hill and dale with our keeper, visiting a mission school, traipsing through hillside fields and coffee plantations, and even venturing into the higher elevation rain forest reserve. It was drizzly and slippery but all was new and fun. This is the season when large, fat- and protein-filled winged ants come up from below ground. Ant traps are constructed with ingenuity—on a slope a 10’x5’ sort of earthen tub is fashioned, covered with sticks and banana leaves to shut out the light, and a small opening is made at the bottom end, letting in light to which the ants are attracted. A large plastic bucket is sunk in the dirt below the opening and the ants fall into it and cannot escape. They are fried and dried and used as condiments by the locals. And, no, they don’t taste like chicken.  They taste like bacon. I’m dying to try some and shall.

After these adventures, we set off for the lakeshore, heading south, before climbing up the very steep escarpment to Livingstonia, the 3rd and final site of the African Presbyterian Church David Livingston founded. The first two sites were lakeside and everyone died of malaria. This road was, also, a GREAT CHALLENGE, ascending 2200 feet very quickly with 20 extremely tight hairpin turns and large rocks and deep ruts and angled shelves everywhere. I was astounded the car made it—at one point one wheel was in the air, spinning, until I backed up and took a different line. It was worth it, as Lukwe Lodge was tiny, exquisitely designed, off the grid, and the restaurant and our tiny chalet were perched on the cliff, facing across the lake to the mountains of Tanzania. The chalet cost $28/night and the meals were delicious: home-baked bread, vegetables from their garden, etc. Our descent the next morning was easier, though hair-raising.

We spent the final night in our tent on the beach at a backpacker’s lodge in Nkhotakota with one of the couples we met at Nyika (We’ll visit them in Zambia as we cross to Namibia) and drove home in the morning.

There were, of course, many more details.  We were good co-travelers and thoroughly enjoyed each other, even during the drenchings or the hair-raising galimoto (Chichewa for auto) exploits. It was an excellent shake-down for our lengthy foray next summer.

We realized that we are each safe, thoughtful drivers; we each like to be in control and get anxious with the other’s calculus and decisions: a massive 22 wheeler is travelling north at 85km/hour and we are travelling south at 60km/hour. We want to pass the car in front. How many feet do we need to safely pass and avoid becoming roadkill, factoring in the rate of acceleration of our car, etc. You get the point. We’re taking turns driving, is what we’re doing. And trusting in the other.

We both returned feeling refreshed but also liking the freedom of not working. We have 5 months of work left and I know it will pass very quickly once we meet the students and dive into it. I am looking forward to heading to the US next September. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade this for anything!

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