Chapter 1 – Itchy Paddles

The little town of Nkhota Bay on the northern shores of Lake Malawi has a reputation for being a paradise. That makes sense, since it’s a little hellish to get there, riding the usual concoction of iffy Malawi public transportation vehicles that in most countries would long have been assigned to the scrap heap or perhaps donated to some third world country like, well, Malawi I guess.

Anyway, after our hiking trip in Nyika National Park, Janine and I arrived at Nkhota ready for idyllic laziness next to warm waters at some cozy resort, plied with drinks and good food.

We found all that. But somehow it didn’t seem quite right. Perhaps the quiet, beauty and solitude of our recent travel is what did it. Whether it simply primed us for more exposure to Malawi’s natural charms or made us overly-sensitive to the noisy bustle of the standard tourist track which runs right through Nkhota Bay, after a day at our lake side resort we were itching to hit the road. Or, as the case turned out, the water.

And so it was that we found ourselves chatting over breakfast to King David (“like in the bible”, he introduced himself proudly), a soft-spoken, amiable young man sporting a rastafarian hat, Che Guevera tee-shirt and the red rimmed eyes of a devoted weed smoker. His Majesty is the proprietor of the invitingly named Canadian Canoeing Company, which runs trips of varying lengths up and down the lake. Gently hung-over as he is, he’s also articulate and knowledgeable of both the lake and all of our travel options afterwards. Between the three of us and a map, we work out a plan that will see us paddle north from Nkhota for 3 days, 60 km to the small town of Usisya. Along the way, we expect to snorkel, see a slice of rural lakeside life and enjoy a part of the lake that most of the backpacking crowd rarely experiences.

We didn’t expect anything about the drugs, the kids, the exploding catfish and the worst road in Malawi. Those were just bonuses.

***

Chapter 2 – Receiving Gift

“So, there is a small change in plans,” King David says at the dock, a little too guiltily for my liking.

“Is this a change in plan as in ‘the plan whereby you gave me a one third deposit in exchange for the delivery of a three day canoe trip has changed’ kind of change in plan?” I asked suspiciously.

“No, no,” David assured us quickly. “But I can no longer come with you.”

It seems that King David’s uncle (a duke or marquis of some kind, I imagine) is seriously ill. As David is the oldest and most successful in the family, he is expected to remain near home and provide extra help where needed. From what we’ve learned about Malawi family life, the story rings true. But it doesn’t stifle my disappointment. Getting a good guide is not easy. Last minute changes of personnel are rarely a good thing. This time is no exception.

David’s replacement is his cousin, Gift. But we quickly conclude that the only thing this boy enjoys receiving is a giant spliff. He shows up for departure 2 hours late, shirt buttoned askew, slack-jawed, eyes like Bloody Mary’s and as hung over as we’ve ever seen anyone. When he makes a quick stop for last-minute supplies before final departure, Gift returns to the group reeking of fresh dope and stoned out of his mind. For much of the morning, he keeps trying to play his paddle like a flute.

Luckily, Gift is more than counter-balanced by our second guide, Isaac, a quiet, fluent English speaker with a bright, alert face and good knowledge of the lake. I come to trust him quickly and figure philosophically that at least if the guides’ canoe overturns we’ll only need to worry about rescuing one of them.

It’s raining off and on as we push out onto the waters of Lake Malawi, a 356 mile long part of that great rending in the Africa’s surface known as the Rift Valley. In the northern portion that we’ll be traversing, the lake is bordered by steep mountains that reach the water’s edge and reaches depths of up to 700 meters. On the far bank, 56 miles away, a hazy, jagged line of hills marks the borders of Tanzania and Mozambique.

It could almost be one of Canada’s Great Lakes. But there are a few differences. Thatched-roof huts instead of pine and cedar cottages. Dug out canoes instead of power boats. Blue, yellow and red tropical cichlids instead of trout and pike. Monkeys prowling the dense vines and trees instead of squirrels and blue jays. Water that turns a Mediterranean shade of aqua marine in the sun instead of the diamond studded royal blue.

Okay. I guess it’s pretty damn different from the lakes back home. But it still felt good to be paddling again and within a few minutes of turning the headland of Nkhota Bay, we feel like we are once again off the beaten path (of the Paddle?) and travelling through “real Africa”.

As rugged as Lake Malawi’s shoreline may be, it is also stubbornly pastoral. Wherever the mountains recede to permit a tiny scrap of beach, there gather small collections of thatched roof mud brick homes surrounded by the dug out canoes. When the mountains resume behind and after such settlements, no matter how unapproachable they may seem, they are carefully terraced and planted with the root vegetable, cassava, that is so vital to life here. During the days, the women harvest the cassava, boil it, pound it by hand in 3 ft tall mortars with giant pistils, mould the dough into small hand sized lumps and then sun dry them by the hundreds on grass mats. The men mend nets and boats in preparation for the night’s fishing and the children help, if they’re old enough and play – riotously and continuously – if they are not.

Where the shore is too rugged for even the hardy Malawians to inhabit, thick stands of tropical vegetation grow down to the shoreline, muffling everything but the calls of monkeys and strange birds that live within. Branches rustle as they scamper from our approach, but otherwise, you must take it on faith that these creatures actually exist and that it isn’t the forest itself hooting and chirping at you.

There is a sizeable chop on the water but our canoes (solid Mad River abs boats worthy of their Canadian moniker) handle it easily. After starting out grey and misty, the weather improves steadily over the course of the morning. By the time we stop for lunch, we sit in the shade to avoid the full wrath of fierce mid-day sun. Gift stumbles off to visit some ‘family’ members living up the beach and Isaac prepares a delicious lunch of fresh avocado and tomato salad, fruits and sandwiches.

The heat makes the water more inviting. Once lunch is finished, Janine and I stretch on fins and masks and start exploring the big rocks off the coast of a small island known for its cichlids. But the water is still too stirred from the earlier winds for a quality viewing. We enjoy a few sightings of large blue fish, some smaller yellows and one purplish specimen resembling a Frankenstein, sporting two blobby nodes on its forehead.

Back on the water, we pass a small island whose only inhabitant, a fish eagle, closely resembles the North American bald eagle (just whiter around the head and neck). A dug out canoe paddled by two young boys passes us as Issac explains why he likes cassava better than maize. “Better for money,” he says patting his tummy with a laugh. “With maize, I eat and eat, but… nothing!” It’s a standard refrain around here, though a flawed one. Cassava is actually quite low in nutritional value.

We pull into camp at a small village called Kajizinge. With no roads or electricity, this town is short on entertaining diversions. Basically, we’re it. Within seconds of hitting the beach, our canoes are surrounded by children ranging in age from 4 to 14. They find our arrival only marginally less interesting than an extra-terrestrial landing and study us with open and frank curiosity.

It’s not exactly my idea of a quiet lakeside camp. But I decide to “embrace the suck” and organize a game of soccer with the gang that soon has us kicking a home-made ball made of twine, rags and plastic bags around a dug-out littered beach with wild whoops of joy and recrimination. By the time the game is done, so am I. While Isaac prepares fresh fish stew over the camp fire, I dive into Malawi’s bath like waters to wash and enjoy the thousand coloured twilight hues on the water and hills.

***

Chapter 3 – Morning Lessons

The sun rose from behind a leviathan cloudbank on the eastern lakeshore the next morning. While parts of it dumped black sheets of rain on Tanzania, others just glowered ominously, and one piece dropped what looked disconcertingly like a tornado funnel down to the water. When struck by the dawn sun, the eerie dark tendril was monetarily and spectacularly transformed into a gold rimmed strand, before disappearing behind a curtain of mist.

The children are up bright and early to see us off. Since we set foot on the beach they’ve watched us like kids watch television – hands behind heads, leaning back against rocks or canoes, mouths slightly open, eyes vacant. Everything about us is a source of fascination for them. One boy creeps up to me as I write in my journal until he’s close enough to touch the page. This he does – a quick tap, almost as if curious to see whether the words stay put – then he runs off to a safe distance and gives me a shy wave.

But now they say nothing. Clustered in their little group, small children in front, big at the back, they stare at us with a blend of sadness and faint hope that the foreigners will produce one last little bout of magic for them before departure.

I’m not sure what to do, having played with them already and shown them my usual pitiful assortment of tricks and slight of hand. So I grab the little Times Atlas that we carry with us and show them a map of Africa. As I kneel and open the picture, a sea of little faces surrounds me, their eyes the size of dinner plates.

I point to the little country in the middle of the page. “Malawi,” I say.

“Malawi!” they repeat back happily, smiling and looking at each other.

I point to another country. “Tanzania,” I say.

“Tanzania!” come 20 little echoes.

“Canada” I point at another part of the book and then at me and Janine.

“Canada!”

“Yay Canada!” I say with a thumbs up sign.

“Yay Canada!” they repeat, with a forest of outstretched thumbs.

“Good!”

“Good!”

Clearly, the Malawi teaching by rote system is working well in this town. I have created a monster that I can’t resist playing with.

“Yippee!” I shout.

“Yippee,” comes the chorus of responses.

“Scoobie Doobie Doo!”

“Scoobie Doobie Doo!”

“Ya ka ka ka ka ka!”

“Ya ka ka ka ka ka!”

And so on. They repeat every inflexion and intonation pitch-perfect and when we finally pull out into the waters , they’re still flashing me thumbs up and shouting country names and making me feel like maybe a few kids on the beach at the end of a day aren’t such a big deal after all.

The hillsides that border the lake grow steeper and more jagged. If they were bare grey slate instead of being covered in verdant forest, Lake Malawi would be a very intimidating place. As it is, the massive boulders that rise from unfathomable depths to break the surface of the waters give an uncomfortable impression of gliding across a lake filled with monsters. But the greenness and the carefully tended gardens (even on slopes angled near 70 degrees), give a more comforting air than would otherwise exist.

The scenery is also a continuous and pleasurable distraction. At times, the water is startlingly clear and we can see bright cichlids cruising near the bottom 20 feet down.
At one village, the children gather at the shore to sing and clap an impromptu song for us (mainly revolving around the word ‘muzungu’, or ‘white man’, but points for effort and – what the hell – clapping) while the women spread fresh sardines on elevated straw mats to dry in the sun. At another, a group of elders, seated beneath a massive mango tree, stand and give a friendly wave as we cruise past.

At lunch, I snorkel again, much to the interest of the ever-present children. It suddenly occurs to me that these kids will probably spend most of their lives near and on these waters without ever knowing what lies beneath them. I hold out my mask and fins to the assembled boys. The younger ones demure, laughing shrieking and hiding their faces. But one older boy takes the challenge, shrugs on the equipment and plunges into the waters, his head splashing noisily as he looks this way and that. When he emerges, the look on his face is similar to the giddiness I imagine was plastered over the face of the Wright brothers or Armstrong when they returned from their first pioneering flights. Soon a bunch of kids are clamoring for the goggles and flippers and discovering that it’s one thing to look at the moon and whole other thing to walk on it.

It’s a school holiday, but many of the children living on these shores never see the inside of a school anyway. Their parents can’t or don’t want to pay even the minimal school fees. “I was lucky,” says Isaac. “My grandfather worked for a large company for many years. When he retired, they offered him a small pension. ‘No money,’ he said. ‘Just give me a fishing net.’ So they gave him a net. He put 9 of us, his grandchildren, through school with that net,” Isaac concludes proudly. “The family still fishes with it.”

We linger over lunch, enjoying the antics of the snorkeling beach kids. By the time we’ve finished our afternoon paddle, the lake is calm and is bathed, together with the emerald corrugated hills in gorgeous late day yellow sunshine. Our paddle strokes are slow and languid, complementing our reluctance to end the day. Even Gift gets a little sentimental, singing Tonga love songs in a deep and pleasing baritone as we drift towards camp.

***

Chapter 4 – We Think the Journey Ends

The only way to deal with Malawi children’s discomforting habit of staring at foreigners is to embrace it and to realize and accept that when you decide to really get off the tourist track, you can very easily become the tourist attraction. Enjoy it. Give the kids a memory. It doesn’t even have to be pleasant. As a cluster of a dozen children watch me prepare for my morning bath from the rough bench seat that is their dug out canoe the next morning, I lather my face in blue soap, my hair in white shampoo, turn suddenly on the assembly and shout ‘booogaboooo!!!!’ sending them flying into the hills (literally) in a shrieking mob while I run the opposite direction into the water.

Janine watches me with a bemused head shake. “You know that mothers around here tell their kids that if they’re bad, the muzungus will get them, don’t you?”

“Of course,” I say, hurt that she’d think I’d forget. “That’s what makes the booogaboo trick so effective in the first place.”

A stiff tailwind begins to blow shortly after we set out. Taking full advantage, our bow paddlers open the giant patio umbrellas we’ve been carrying up till now for shade and hold them horizontally to use as sails. Soon we’re whipping along at a pace that even has Gift shouting for joy (probably because under this system he has to do even less paddling than usual).

Within 3 hours, we cover the 20 kilometers to our final camp at a cozy cove just beside the town of Usisya. Here, the tailwind suddenly becomes an opportunity for drama as 4 foot rollers pound the steep beach that is our landing point. We time a quick landing between the cresting waves and nail it just in time to avoid a complete soaking or worse.

We emerge from our canoes into a secure little “resort” of half a dozen basic but pleasant thatched-roof huts surrounded by carefully tended gardens. A small bar stands only feet from the water, stocked with drinks, cozy hammocks and even a great little library. It’s quiet and, for a change of pace, not crawling with children. It looks like heaven. Unfazed by the new surroundings or the exciting landing, Isaac immediately begins to unpack the boats and make preparations for lunch. Fazed, Gift heads for the nearest hammock.

After a relaxing afternoon, we dine again on fresh fish, though the resort’s resident dogs snatch 2 of the 3 fresh fillets procured by Isaac from the local fishermen. I vote for killing the dogs upon hearing this news, but commute the sentence upon being told that one of the culprits is old (I have a weakness for old dogs) and the other is feeding 7 new pups (I have a weakness for young dogs).

What’s left of the fish is cooked perfectly by Isaac and we enjoy our dinner along with the company of the lodge’s two other new arrivals – a couple of Peace Corp volunteer teachers enjoying a beach hike on their week’s leave. Ben is perfectly named with the characteristics of a basketball playing sasquatch. He’s a stout 6’7, with big blue eyes and a long blonde ponytail framing an open and friendly face. His colleague, Tom, seems to be made out of all the opposite matter of his friend. Short, dark haired and finely featured, sporting a well-groomed mustache and goatee. Together, they look like some kind of superhero duo or a Viking and a musketeer.

Both men are bushed after walking to Usisya from Ruarwe, 20km further north. Ben is eager to engage us in talk despite his fatigue, but Tom can barely keep his eyes open (in his defence, the guy has probably had to take twice as many steps as Ben to cover the same distance). Over dinner we chat about the standard issues of foreign aid, culture challenges and the first meal they’re going to eat when they get back home. Before the night is through, we’re joined by Matthew, a dry and funny Brit who is living at the camp while building a headquarters in Usisya for a grass-roots ngo.

Nursing drinks, we raise a toast to the lake and the end of our journey. Tomorrow, Janine, Isaac and I will catch a flat bed truck at 5 a.m. to travel up through the precipitous mountains bordering the lake to the town of Mzuzu. Gift will wait in Usisya with the canoes and presumably smoke a lot of marijuana until the south bound lake ferry shows up in a few days to take him and the boats back to Nkhota Bay.

Before bed, Matthew relays the information that one of the two trucks that makes the run to Mzuzu may be broken down. “Could be a bit of adventure getting out of here!’ we all agree cheerfully.

We had no frickin’ idea.

***

Chapter 5 – The End is Only the Beginning

The green glow of beeping timex indiglo watches illuminates our tent at 4 a.m.. Once the chimes of our watches are silenced, the only sound is the pounding surf.

“Jesus,” I say. I actually don’t feel as bad as I worried I might. But if you have to get up at 4 a.m. on any morning to sit on a flatbed truck for 3 hours on what an experienced aid worker calls, “the worst road in Malawi,” you ought to mutter at least one expletive since you’re about to do penance anyway.

We scramble and have our tent down, bags stuffed, mattresses rolled and packs cinched in a commendable ½ hour. Nearby, Isaac also rises from some mattresses he’s taken from a couch and thrown on the ground. While he moves around packing his kit, Gift waves to us languidly from the comfortable hammock he has commandeered.

At 4:40 we are ready to go, but there’s no sign of Ben and Tom, who hoped to catch the truck with us. We wait around in the dark for them for a few minutes, pushing down that slow sinking feeling that they might know something we don’t. We retrieve the night watchman who confirms our fears. “No truck today,” he says. Then in classic Malawi fashion, he continues, ‘But maybe a truck later today.’

“Jesus,” I say.

This time I mean it.

The volunteers show up a minute later, Ben’s headlamp emerging out of the treetops, Tom’s bobbing behind and much further down.

Ben takes the no-truck news gracefully. “It’s okay. We’ve got a backup plan,” he says cheerfully, his big grin illuminated in the LED lights.

“What’s that?” we ask hopefully.

“We’re going to hike to Mzuzu.”

“How far is that?”

“About 50 km,” he says, still grinning.

“Jesus,” I say, also meaning it.

While the boys fill their water bottles, I talk to Isaac and the night watchman from whom he’s getting the full truck story. Apparently, it broke down on the way here from Mzuzu and never got fixed. The current hope is that the truck drivers in Mzuzu will notice the absence of vehicles coming from Usisya, see the opportunity for customers, and send down another truck.

Waiting for that sounds like a far better plan than hiking 50 km. We send the boys off with heart felt “good lucks”, casting wary glances on their behalf at the high mountains that guard the approach to Mzuzu.

“Better go before we change our minds,” says Ben chipperly. Tom, who looks like his mind was never that firmly made up in the first place, grunts non-commitally. “C’mon Tom! Breakfast of champions!” Ben chuckles and strides off, his head lamp brushing through the low hanging boughs of a mango tree, before disappearing altogether. Tom lopes after his friend, soon leaving us alone in the glow of our headlamps, the surf still drubbing the beach in the background.

“Well,” Janine’s voice comes out of the glare of her light, “this sucks.”

***

Chapter 6 – In Which we are Told Some Stories About Trucks to Mzuzu that are all Lies

Chizeze Hide Out Leisure Entertainment and Shopping Centre is a small, rusty tin-roofed shack that looks like a place with limited opportunities for either of its titular diversions. It’s main competition seems to be Third World Entertainment, which serves the dual role of bar and bus stop for the two trucks to Mzuzu. Here we walk from our camp to get information about getting out of town.

Literally everyone has a different story about the trucks. Sometimes people even change their own story. But, without exception, each story contradicts the last. Which is a polite way of saying they’re either guesses or bullshit.

The night watchman said last night that a truck had broken down but might be back in the morning to leave at 5 a.m. Then at ten minutes to five, he kindly showed up again to advise that there were no trucks today as both were broken down. The maid mosied by at breakfast to tell us that a truck had come back and left at 6 a.m. At Third World, as if to drive home that we truly were in the Third World, an elderly man advised us that both trucks had left this morning at 4 a.m.

I started to think at this point, that they were growing more than just maize in this town.

The old man at Third World told us of a boat that made a run to Nkhota Bay at 9 p.m. most nights from a hotel further down the beach. But when we stopped in there, the proprietor told us that the boat had a hole in it and hadn’t made the run in weeks. When we pointed hopefully at the flat bed truck in his driveway, he said that it was the mysterious second truck and was awaiting the attentions of the mechanic from Mzuzu before it would be road worthy again. The mechanic, of course, would hopefully be showing up on the first truck, which had supposedly broken down on its way back from its last Mzuzu run. Our best bet, he said frankly, was to try and catch that truck the next morning.

“And when should we be here to catch that?” Janine asked.

The owner thought for a second. “About 3 a.m.,” he said.

“Jesus,” Janine said.

“Jesus,” I agreed. “Let’s go back to the lodge and have a drink.”

***

Chapter 7 (though more of an aside really) – Why the Trucks Leave So Early

Apparently, much of the trouble with the trucks to Mzuzu stems from competition. Originally, there was one truck a day from Usisya, which made the difficult, bumpy run to Mzuzu. It was owned by the pre-eminent local businessman, who naturally used his monopoly position to put the screws to his fellow citizens with outrageous fares.

Inevitably, a competitor arose and prices dropped, literally, overnight. However, it’s a small town and the general rule is that the first truck to leave is the fullest. This has created a profoundly stupid system where each day each truck tries to leave a little earlier than the other left the day before, leaving Usisyans bleary eyed and walking the streets of Mzuzu at God-awful hours of the very early morning.

***

Chapter 8 – Usisya

So we’re stuck in Usisya for an extra day. But in its defence, it’s a pretty nice little prison. Unlike many of the little villages we have passed on this trip that cling to the steep green sides of the lakeshore, Usisya is situated on a long broad peninsula jutting out into lake Malawi in a shape rather like a chess pawn. The head of the peninsula terminates in a pyramid like dome rising 70-80 feet high. But the rest of the peninsula is flat and perfect for larger scale cassava cultivation, which is confined to the steeply terraced gardens in so many other communities. The streets are neat and the houses are well kept. Women work in the yards of most, turning the cassava roots into flour.

We sleep and laze away most of the morning, feeling entitled to after its onerously useless start. In the afternoon, we stroll back into town to see the house Matthew and his colleague Johnny are building for an ngo called Temwa (“Love” in the local Tembuka language). It’s a house for the project manager of Temwa, which does everything from teaching skills, to building community centers, to running HIV/AIDS programs.

The main building is a standard looking brick and timber structure. But the real draw for us is the kitchen building (kitchens are usually separate from the main residence in Malawi). It’s being constructed entirely out of maize seed bags, filled to their 20 pound capacity with termite mound clay. When the soft, wet clay hardens, it becomes brick like in its solidity. When a new layer of bags is added (wet), a track of barbed wire is laid on the previous level to bind the new and old layer together. Each layer dips a little further in than the last, eventually creating a dome. The whole thing is eco-friendly and carbon neutral. Johnny explains that these sandbag homes are gaining in popularity in the US, the Middle East and even amongst eco-lodge builders world wide.

It’s a neat little project and Temwe hopes that the skills learned by the local Malawians assisting with it will lead to further job opportunities down the road. But there’s a problem – maize bags, while almost worthless in most of the world, are expensive in Malawi (45 kwacha, or 30 cents, per bag) not to mention barbed wire. Compared to the cheap, locally made mud brick, Johnny privately concedes that these igloos don’t have a chance of replacing the traditional buildings.

We leave the African igloo in Isaac’s company. Gift was also supposed to accompany us but never showed after his last trip into town to get ‘supplies’. We stop into the truck stop for one last check on our transport’s status. It’s still up in the air – truck 2 is still busted and truck 1 is still not back from Mzuzu. But we will arise at 0’dark stupid again tomorrow to try and catch it anyway.

We walk back to our camp via the Usisya beach. Massive baobob trees line the shore. Graves, most cement topped and bearing only a simple first name and date of death, look out over the sparkling waters. Goats ensure the cemetery is mostly weed free. Women wash clothes in the surf. Children kick around home-made soccer balls. Men recline amongst the idle dugout canoes, playing boa on boards traced in the sand, using seeds as playing pieces.

We hit the sack early under grey skies. Matthew advises us strongly not to take the truck if there’s even a light rain. “It probably won’t leave in the rain anyway,” he says with a good-natured shrug. ” But if it does, I wouldn’t go with it. Last time I did, it took 8 hours to get to Mzuzu and most that was spent pushing the truck up hill.”

“Jesus,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says.

***

Chapter 9 – Three Paddlers and a Funeral

“Good news,” says Matthew, returning to camp with a smile. “There’s a funeral.”

It’s early afternoon on day 3 in Usisya and we are having a somewhat dejected lunch after missing the truck again. This time, we’d gotten up at 3:30 a.m., trudged into town a short time later and taken up a watch on the porch of a darkened house next to the only road out of town, our only companion a solitary woman, also waiting for the truck by the light of a paraffin lantern.

Over the next ½ hour, more faces appeared out of the gloom, carrying heavy bundles, wood, baskets. Bats flitted amongst the mango trees and a solitary cock crowed intermittently. The wind on the lake was cool and uncharitable. I made a pillow out of my fleece, wrapped myself in my Maasai shuka and curled up on the ground while Janine read a book in the light of her headlamp and kept a watch on the sandy road.

I woke up 45 minutes later to the sight of our fellow would-be passengers returning to their homes. “There is no truck today,” said Isaac, returning from conversing with them and looking disappointed. “It never made it back last night from Mzuzu. It must have gotten stuck on the road in the mountains.”

I made a mental note to strangle our camp’s night watchman, who’d told us just before bed that the truck had returned from Mzuzu safe and sound. Janine looked grim. I made a mental to make sure she didn’t actually throttle the night watchman.

So we trudged back to the camp to sleep, drink tea and cry tears of frustration. Isaac volunteered to stay in town in case a vehicle showed up later in the morning. Gift volunteered to see us back to our beds, conveniently located near his bed.

And so Matthew found us munching – for the first time a little dejectedly – on a lunch whipped up by Isaac using the last of our food supplies. We at first greeted his news with skepticism. But he’d been into town personally to verify the story. A truck had been hired to bring in a group of mourners from the Mzuzu area to attend a local funeral. It was heading back up to Mzuzu once respects were paid.

That was good enough for us. We hurriedly finished our meal and walked to the village house where, sure enough, the bereaved milled about a 3-ton flatbed. The women were brightly attired in showy katangas, heads covered with colourful turbans, jewelry hanging from ears and necks. They sat in a beachside maize field speaking quietly, sometimes sharing a low laugh. The men were dressed in jackets, suits and sometimes a tie. Several wore red turbans denoting them as village headmen.

After the obligatory post-funeral luncheon (it’s comforting to know that some things are the same no matter where you go), everyone took up positions in the flatbed. The last local passenger was a large black catfish, ungutted and judging by its distended stomach, obviously not caught today. This was strung through its gills to the driver-side mirror with little fanfare and off we went.

We jumped in with no sideways looks from the mourners, who were happy to give us a lift. Janine, Isaac and Matthew (who was also taking advantage of the lift to head for Lilongwe for building supplies) sat opposite me near the back. I plunked myself down on my backpack, hoping that 6 inches of packed tent and clothing beneath my bony arse would be enough to protect it from too bad a bruising on the worst road in the country.

Before we could get out of town we met our first obstacle. The local policeman had not been invited to the funeral or the luncheon and was lying in wait for the truck not far from the house. There, he subjected us to a 5 minute harangue on how the truck was not a licensed passenger carrying vehicle (never mind that none of the trucks that drive this road are) and how the headmen had failed to register with him upon entering the village as per local regulations. His authority demonstrated, he then made a joke, which everyone laughed at politely, and then disappeared for a moment with the chief mourner to discuss the appropriate bribe.

“All that because he didn’t get to eat some little sandwiches,” Matthew smiled mildly.

***

Chapter 10 – End of the Road and the Catfish

I had my first indication of how bad the Usisya road was when we encountered a small rockslide that had covered it.

“Ooh,” said Matthew appreciatively, pointing to some soil packed down between a few of the boulders. “They’ve been working on this part. It used to be quite bad.”

Our flatbed backed up a little selected a course, and drove at the rock pile with gusto. At one boulder, I flew high enough in the air to get a better view of the rugged valley along whose lip the road edged. There below us, cradled in a copse of trees, was the wreck of another truck. “Don’t worry,” called Matthew, also being flung a good 2 feet into the air and saw my look of panic, “that one’s more than a year old. See? It’s been stripped already.”

We rattled onwards up the brown track, barely wide enough for one vehicle, around blind turns where I could see nothing but air over the side of the truck and through muddy ruts that were deep enough for soldiers to make last stands in. I spent most of my time alternating between admiring the view of sapphire lake and green mountain and calculating which way I’d leap from the vehicle when it inevitably slid from the road into one of the steep valleys below.

Meanwhile, the Malawians took each spine-cracking bump and pothole with good nature and the occasional communal grunt as the wind was simultaneously knocked out of all their bodies. But this was always followed by a laugh and a head shake.

“What amazes me are all the old people that do this trip,” said Matthew after one particularly nasty patch, nodding towards two greybeards chatting near the front of the flatbed.

“Yeah,” I said laughing, ” They’re probably saying, ‘Hey, remember when this road was a real piece of shit?'”

We came to another hairpin bend in the track and were surprised to see rough interlocking stone laid at the apex of the curve. I turned to Matthew for an explanation of this luxury. “Yeah, there’s a few of these as we climb,” he said, “they put them in at a few of the really tough curves a few years ago cause there were too many people going off the road and down into the valleys.”

Then his face brightened. “They call them death corners!”

Chugging up a 60-degree slope, we were just reaching a good speed when we hit a particularly ugly pothole in the deep red dirt. This was too much for our friend the catfish. It explodeds (that really is the right word), head and body slipping off the driver side mirror and falling beneath the tires of the truck. Pulverized, it slid messily down the hill to a final resting place at a death corner.

The truck erupted in yells and thumping on its side as the passengers tried to get the driver’s attention. We ground to a stop near the hill top and watched as the passengers pointed arms and gesticulated fiercely towards the ground up ex-passenger now decorating the road bottom. Then something truly remarkable happened. After some discussion, one lucky young man was assigned from the mourners to retrieve the catch of the day. He jogged to the bottom and trudged back up the hill with the head in one hand and the rest of the dripping carcass in the other. Catfish are not the prettiest of marine life at the best of times, but this one was having a particularly shitty day. Nevertheless, the clay-covered halves were carefully placed in a large plastic bag and tied with care securely to the roof before the truck re-started and moved on.

“Ah! That reminds me,” I said, turning to Janine, who was still watching these proceedings with a slack jaw. “Could you remind me to never eat fish in this country again?”

One muddy pushing session, 5 death curves and 2 hours later, we hopped down from the truck at the outskirts of Mzuzu. The remaining mourners, most having been dropped off at another town along the way, waved and shouted good wishes before driving off into the night, bound another 3 hours north to Rumphi. No one would take a single penny for the ride.

“That went really well,” said Matthew genuinely, as we walked in the darkness towards the Mzuzu bus station to inquire about onward travel to southern Malawi. “That road really can be quite terrible.”

Jason

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