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An Insider’s Guide to Blantyre, Malawi

Blantyre – An Expat’s Guide to the City

I love our adopted city of Blantyre – it’s a beautiful, green city full of charm and history and is the perfect size.  Before moving here, I couldn’t find much on life here and how to settle in, so as we prepare to leave, I thought it might be helpful to provide a few notes for anyone lucky enough to come live here.

Please keep in mind that (1) I’m no expert – just enthusiastic and (2) as in most developing countries, things change quickly – roads appear or disappear, restaurants open and close, bars become en vogue or desolate, shops and lodges close down or open.  The problem with writing a blog post like this is that it will probably be out of date by the time it’s published!

So this post will probably bore 98% of you, but I hope it’s helpful to someone!

Facts about Blantyre:

Blantyre is one of the oldest cities in East and Southern Africa.  Predating Harare, Nairobi, and Johannesburg, the city was first established by Scottish Missionaries following David Livingstone’s trail blazing.  In fact, Blantyre is named after Blantyre, Scotland, Livingstone’s birthplace.  Soon after, the Missionaries started building the Church of St. Michael and All Angels (a magnificent brick cathedral constructed without an engineer or architect), the African Lakes Corporation established a trading post in the city, and built Malawi’s oldest building, the Mandala House.  Now a cafe, gallery, and archival library, the two story house has beautiful wrap-around porches, large windows, and is surrounded by massive trees.  Legend has it that when it was first built, people who had never seen a two story structure came from miles away to see the “house on top of a house.”

Down on Victoria Avenue, one of the main streets in town, are the original colonial administrative buildings.  While they are not in the best shape, they were built in the quintessential colonial style with thick brick walls and green corrugated tin roofs.

While Blantyre and Limbe are close together, Limbe has a distinct commercial feel, with a tightly packed ‘downtown’ area full of small shops and mosques.  Blantyre’s commercial district feels more laid back.

Blantyre is surrounded by three mountains, Ndirande, Mchiru, and Soche.  In addition to being beautiful, they are also helpful focal points when learning your way around town.  The streets of Blantyre feel like they were laid out by a hyper-active rabbit.  Every year, there is a three-peaks challenge, where fabulously fit people get up really early and climb each peak in one day.

I’m not sure the population – Blantyre was the biggest city in Malawi until two years ago and now Lilongwe has narrowly overtaken it.  While the townships surrounding the town are high density, the actual city itself feels quite manageable and intimate.  There is a constant influx of expats (mostly British, although there are also always Canadians, Dutch, Irish, and a few Americans scattered in as well).  The major hospitals, Queen Elizabeth (or Queens) and Beit Cure welcome expat doctors and while there aren’t as many NGO’s as before (they’ve all moved to be closer to the donors in Lilongwe) there are still a few expat NGO workers.

Blantyre has several neighborhoods and when people ask where you stay, they are generally asking which neighborhood you live in.  Sunnyside is a beautiful, posh neighborhood on the south west side of town, full of large old houses with sprawling gardens.  Mandala, more in the center of town, is also quite posh, although I hear they have more power cuts than in Sunnyside.  We live on the edge of Nyambadwe, on the north side of town, which is also famous for powercuts, but being on the same line as the ex-President’s brother’s house has made things easy on us.  Namiwawa is east of the city center and has some lovely houses, which are generally smaller than Sunnyside.  Kabula is one of the older neighborhoods and has some beautiful houses – and two of Blantyre’s best restaurants.  All of these neighborhoods are safe, but most homes are surrounded by large brick walls, sturdy gates, and have guards.

Most of the year, the weather in Blantyre is perfect – not to hot, not too cold.  Even in the rainy season, it rains for a few hours and then the sparkling sun is back.  October and November, however, can be torture.  I’ve never been so hot as I was last November.  On the flip side, June and July can be really cold – probably not cold to people coming from the UK, but cold to me.  I tell people to bring warm clothes because I was shocked my first June.  I had packed all light clothes, because hey, I was going to Africa.  I also thought I’d naturally loose lots of weight and be perfectly tan – oh well.

Moving to Blantyre

You must get on Carole Vardell’s email list – it’s the main source of information in Blantyre.  In an old fashioned way, Blantyre is a word-of-mouth town.  She sends out ads for homes for rent, cars for sale, deals on vacations, and a weekly summary of events.  Send her an email and she will add you to her list.  (varndell@broadbandmw.com)

The Blantyre Chat Google Group is also a great resource – people often put up ads for cars, household goods, etc.

Tiyeni is a website with classified ads that should be really helpful once they get all the quirks worked out.

There is a Facebook group: BTXP+ with lots of good information – and a great place to ask questions of people in the know.

Once here, pick up a copy of The Eye, which is full of interesting articles, phone numbers, and important local information.

What to Bring

Again, bring a sweater if you’re going to be here in the winter months – it does get cold!

Also, I have a Kindle, which has been a lifesaver – books here are hard to find and expensive but with a kindle I can download new books really easily.

You can buy most toiletries here – they just tend to be expensive, so I would stock up on sunscreen!

Buying a Car

Cars in Africa are amazingly resilient.  The most popular Expat Model is a Rav-4.  We had one that was 18 years old and loved it.  We also had a bigger car, an Isuzu that was also 18 years old, but a tank – second hand cars are actually a great investment because they don’t really depreciate here.  We sold both for about what we bought them for.

It’s important to have a trusted mechanic check out the car before you purchase.  We’ve had some run ins with terrible mechanics, but are very loyal to our current one.  If you’re ever in a position where you need a good one, let me know and I’ll give you his information.

Until you get a car, or if you decide not to get a car, minibuses are the common form of public transportation.  Exciting, interesting, a cultural experience, yes, yes, yes, but make sure, if you can, that the driver is not drunk before you get in.

Going Shopping

Furniture

New furniture in Blantyre is expensive.  The best bet is to look for home sales or to buy locally made furniture.  There is great cane and wood furniture for sale around town – sometimes just on the side of the road.  We had great luck with Mr. White, who made us a beautiful cane table and chairs.  If you’re going to be here for a long time, or are moving back with a container, the store Habitat often has gorgeous wooden furniture – it’s expensive, but really beautiful.

Household Items

It’s tempting to stock-up at Game or Shoprite, but you can get much better deals at Sana or some of the smaller Chinese shops.

Groceries

There are three places in Blantyre that really cater to expats: Shoprite, Chipiku, and Saver’s Choice.  I’m ignoring Game (the mega-South African chain that’s actually owned by Walmart) because it’s SO incredibly expensive that no one really shops there and I’m sure it will go out of business soon.

Shoprite: Also a mega South African chain, but it’s got so many of the things you crave (taco shells, spaghetti sauce, cream cheese, etc.)  It’s not a pleasant shopping experience, as it’s often crowded, but you’re sure to see someone you know.  It’s expensive (butter is now something like 12$) but worth it when you want to cook something special.

Chipiku:  a Malawi chain that is smaller than Shoprite, but often cheaper and much more pleasant to shop in – they have lots of stuff for expats (pasta, chips ahoy cookies, snickers bars, etc) but not quite the range that Shoprite has.

Saver’s Choice: on the road to Limbe, it’s impossible to get to, but it’s worth a visit. They often have really hard to find things like Thai curries, chocolate instant coffee mixes, and cranberry sauce.  Their baked goods are amazing and they often have the best mozzarella cheese.

Fresh Produce

The Blantyre market is a great place for fresh produce.  There are stalls full of colorful fruit, vegetables, and grains.  It is daunting, however, as you park your car and it is immediately surrounded by 15 boys wanting the job of either guarding your car while you shop, or providing shopping bags and carrying your groceries.  My tactic is usually to try and pick the same guy to help with groceries and the car.  I know it sounds pretentious to have someone follow you around carrying things for you, but it is providing an income – however small.

The Limbe produce market is even better.  It’s a massive covered building that feels clean and bright.  The prices are usually lower than Blantyre and the selection is better.  It’s just kind of a pain to get out there.

Just know that as a mzungu, you’re going to pay a bit more than Malawians at the market.

If you need fresh vegetables but can’t be bothered with the hassle of the market, there is a small store run by local farmers.  The selection is limited and the prices are higher, but it’s much less fuss.  The store is in the Tea Planter’s Association parking lot in Kidney Crescent.

Meat

You can tell if it’s a good day to buy meat at Shoprite based on the smell of the meat section.  Often it’s fine, but there are days when it’s best to just stay away.  I also buy meat at Superior Halal, on the highway b/w Blantyre and Shoprite or Meat Connection – across from Hotel Victoria – while it’s all frozen, the quality is excellent.  They also sometimes have nice splurges like frozen calamari.

Wine

Shopping for wine at Shoprite or Game can give you a heart attack – the prices are shocking.  But luckily, there are a few local places with better selection and much more reasonable prices.  Chipiku has a good alcohol section near their grocery store.  My favorite, though, is ASAP.  Located in a warehouse on Kidney Crescent, it usually has pretty good stock – they will also call you if they get a new shipment in.  It’s located behind Tiyeni and across from Blue Elephant.

Clothes

Personally, I love to go market shopping for second hand clothes.  All those clothes you donate to GoodWill or Oxfam end up here, and after a good wash, they are almost like new!  I’ve found some amazing dresses – Zara, Banana Republic, J Crew, etc.  Limbe is better than Blantyre and again, you have to be patient, but it can be really fun and really cheap.  The market is also the perfect place to find costumes.

I really regret not having more clothes made.  Just as I’m leaving, I’ve found the most amazing seamstress named Clara – I have her information if anyone needs it – she’s so talented, her English is perfect, and her prices are amazing.

Curios and Decorative Items

The Curio market in town is well-stocked, but a nightmare.  It’s generally pretty empty, so when someone comes up to shop, all the vendors surround them.  It can be stressful.  You can get great deals there if you’re willing to be firm and to bargain well.  The vendors are pretty adept at sizing you up – have you been here awhile or are you fresh off the boat.  A general rule of thumb is that with curios, you should pay 1/3 of the original asking price.  For me, though, I try and figure out what something is worth to me and as long as I’m happy and the vendor is happy, everyone wins.

The Lilongwe curio market is better than Blantyre – it’s more spread out and I think they hassle you less.

The BEST place to shop for curios is on the Zomba road in between Zomba and Liwonde.  At the bottom of the big hill (going towards Liwonde) there is a row of shed son the right, mostly selling Chief Chairs.  The chairs are Gorgeous – beautifully and intricately carved.  Even if you’re the only one there, the vendors don’t pressure you – they let you look and decide on your own.  The prices are incredible.  We bought several large chief chairs for 3500 MK when in town it would be 13,500.

If you visit the lake, often vendors will come to the lodge or cottage where you’re staying – I like shopping this way too – it’s often low stress and cheaper prices.

While Malawi is known for its beautiful wooden carvings, the country also has a devastating deforestation issue – so if you’re like me, you’ll wrestle between trying to provide some income for the carvers and vendors and wanting to protect the natural resources.  I don’t really have an answer.

La Caverna

Situated in the first floor of Mandala House, the gallery has a beautiful selection of artwork, carvings, books, textiles, and jewelry.  Their prices are much higher than the market, but it’s a pleasant place to shop and the quality of art is always high.

Habitat

A little more jumbled than La Caverna, Habitat also has some beautiful things.  The prices are pretty good and the selection is more varied than La Caverna.

Central Africana

A nice, but expensive bookstore.  A great place to find old maps or prints, and it has an amazing collection of antique books pertaining to Africa.

Kwa Haraba

Locally owned, it’s located on Glyn Jones across from Metro.  It’s a small shop and a little crowded with items, but the owner’s mission is to promote and preserve Malawian cultural heritage.  It has a great selection of artwork and carvings and has some unique items (like a hand painted sign illustrating the Chichewa word Umandigiligisha – or ‘you tickle me silly.’)

Ishq

Ishq should really be its own category – it’s very upscale and expensive, but has some lovely things.  Located next to Wilderness Safaris in Ryalls, it has nice imports (such as paper and leather goods from Italy) but I really go there for the jewelry.

Lambats

Located on Haile Salassie, this store has almost everything you need in terms of textiles.  You can buy kikois, zitenje, and fabric for making clothes.  They also copy keys.

Sports

There are SO many things to do if you’re sporty.  I remember meeting the legendary Maggie O’Toole when I first arrived and was so excited “do you bike? mountain bike? hike? play tennis? play squash? run up mountains? run on flat surfaces for miles and miles? play volleyball? do aerobics? play golf?”  I had to hem and ha and say that no, I really don’t do any of that, but the point was that all of that is on offer in Blantyre.

The Blantyre Sports Club

An old school colonial institution, it has a nice golf course but a tendency to be snooty.  If you’re looking for a place to play sports and exercise, the College of Medicine sports complex is nicer (especially the squash courts) and cheaper.

The Mountain Club of Malawi

A great way to meet people, the club hosts events, socials, and organizes regular trips up Mt. Mulanje (and other mountains too!)

Other

Check Carole Varndell’s weekly email updates for more sporty activities – there is a golf tournament every Wednesday, Circuit training Tuesday/Thursday, Zumba classes, volleyball, etc.

Vocabulary

Here are some words that I was unfamiliar with that are now firmly imbedded in my lexicon:

Braii – Africaans word for bar-b-q

Khonde – Africaans word for porch

Iwe – Chichewa for ‘you’ but is used informally for children

Mzungu/Azungu (Sg and pl) – word used for white person

Green – A Carlsberg beer

Bo – an informal way of saying ‘hi how are you’ – great for speaking with little kids

Sharpe – (pronounced shap) is usually said with a thumbs up – it can mean great, yes, thanks, you look amazing, you’re snazzily dressed, or I’ve run out of the four Chichewa words I know.

Bodza – (pronounced bode-za) Chichewa for ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ – kind of like accusing the speaker of exaggerating (especially handy if you’re in the market and they quote an absurd price)

Most of all, Enjoy your new Home!  Hope you love it as much as we did!

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Around the World and Up Mt. Mulanje

Image

In the 1913 photograph taken of Gertrude Benham in Nyasaland (present day Malawi), she stands next to a safari tent wearing a pith helmet, starched collar and long khaki skirt.  She gazes off to her left, perhaps looking forward to the next stage of her walk across Africa.

Benham, perhaps most often cited as the first woman to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, was an avid traveler, explorer and mountaineer.  She circled the world six times, visiting virtually every corner of the expansive British Empire, walked over 10,000 miles and climbed over 300 peaks with an elevation of 10,000 feet or more.  One of the most remarkable aspects of her life is that she often traveled alone. At a time when women were expected to stay home and raise families, she spent her life traveling to some of the most remote, wild and exotic places in the world.

Born in 1867 in London, the youngest of six children, Benham often traveled to the Alps with her father and developed an early passion for climbing.  By her early 20’s she had already made over 130 ascents. After her parents passed away, she received an inheritance that allowed her to travel modestly, on about £250 per year, for the rest of her life.  She began her adventure in Canada, hoping to climb as many of the Rocky Mountain peaks as possible.  It was there that she beat Professor Charles Fay to the summit of Mt. Fay.  Professor Fay was less than pleased not to be the first to reach the peak named after him.  Her mountaineering then led her to the Himalayas, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and to various peaks in South America, and Africa, including Mt. Mulanje. 

Perhaps even more impressive than her mountain climbing was her ability to walk thousands of miles. In 1909, at the age of 42, she walked 900 kilometers from Broken Hill (in present day Zambia) to the edge of Lake Tanganyika, before exploring Uganda, Kenya, and then climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  In 1913, Benham returned to Africa, arriving at the Niger Delta and began an epic trek across the African continent to Mozambique, over 5000 kilometers away.  Deep within the Nigerian wilderness, she came upon a British military station where a young officer who, in the middle of writing a letter to his mother, was startled by an English lady arriving alone. He wrote in his letter that the journey she had outlined through German territory, the Congo and then eventually to Nyasaland “sounds perfectly mad.”

She made her way through Cameroon, the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, sailed down Lake Tanganyika,  traveled south and finally reached Karonga, in present day Malawi.  From there she took a steamer to the southern end of Lake Malawi and traveled to Zomba and Blantyre.  After an excursion to Mt. Mulanje, she took a train to Nsanje and then a ship down the Shire and the Zambezi where she eventually reached the coast of Mozambique.

She traveled lightly with only a few carriers and brought calico and needles to barter for food.  For entertainment, she carried the Bible, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Kipling’s Kim, and her knitting.  She stated in an interview, “I have been quite close to lions and leopards in the bush but they have never harmed me or my carriers.  I always go unharmed and I think wild animals in the forest know by instinct that I have no desire to kill.  I just wear an ordinary khaki skirt, puttees, strong shoes, and a pith helmet.  In addition I have a sunshade and an umbrella – not very war-like weapons.”  Later in life she was interviewed by the Daily Mail, remarking that “women have often said they would like to travel but were afraid of the risk.  Well, years of experience have brought me to one conclusion.  I am convinced there is little risk if plenty of exercise is taken, no alcohol drunk, and the native food of the country is exclusively eaten.”

On her last journey in 1938, she set off from present day Sri Lanka for South Africa.  She passed away at the age of 71 off the coast of East Africa and was buried at sea.  While the Plymouth City Museum has archived much of Benham’s collection of jewelry, drawings, costumes, and artwork, many of her photographs and sketches are missing.  Her journeys have been compiled by going through ship manifests and letters. While Gertrude Benham is relatively unknown considering her great feats, historians and fans continue to try and piece together her life’s travel and accomplishments. The photo of Gertrude in Nyasaland is one of the few that exist and gives us valuable insight into such an adventurous woman.

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Andrew Jackson in Zimbabwe

Bread worth millions (google images)

One of the most interesting aspects of our visit to Zimbabwe was that not only could we get diesel (!) but also American dollars – right out of the ATM!

Today, Zimbabwe uses the US dollar as its currency after the complete and total collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.

The rate of inflation shot up so much that Zimbabwean dollars became worthless.  At the height of the crisis, a man was pushing a wheel barrow chock full of millions of Zimbabwean dollars when he was attacked.  The thieves dumped all the money on the ground and stole the wheelbarrow.  Inflation happened so quickly that you would sit down at a restaurant and by the time you finished your meal and were ready to pay, the prices had already inflated.

To stabilize the economy, Zimbabwe switched to American dollars in 2009.  So there we were, in the middle of Zimbabwe, handing over bills with Andrew Jackson’s face on them.  This made our trip even more fun!  No challenging exchange rates to calculate in my head – well, actually, no turning to Sandy and asking how much something costs…  Even though I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t translate kwacha into dollars anymore, it was so refreshing to have everything in a familiar and relatable currency.  “What? That stone carving only costs one dollar?  Give me ten of ’em.”

Switching to US dollars seems to be working  and while the economy has stabilized, it’s not without its quirks.  While dollar bills were plentiful, there were no American coins.  So when you buy something that costs $1.25, the store or vendor won’t have quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies to give you your change.

Instead, Zimbabweans have gotten creative.  Many stores will issue coupons worth different denominations that will total the amount you’re owed.

Others use South African Rand coins.

The grocery store gave us our change in candy.  $0.60 equals three hard fruity candies.  I like that exchange rate.

And finally, there was the vendor who gave his change in small stone hippo carvings.

Inflation (google images)

Our stone hippo carving vendors

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The Bvumba Mountains

sunset over Leopard Rock

On our recent amazing trip to Zimbabwe, we spent three nights in the Bvumba (or Vumba) mountains in the Eastern Highlands.  It was such a lovely trip that I’ve actually had the post-awesome-vacation blues all week.

A group of six of us met in Bvumba where three of them ran a half marathon (basically up a mountain) and where Sandy would play roughly 4,891 holes of golf on a championship course.

We left Blantyre at 5:15 am and drove all day – only stopping for coffee and pastries in Tete (those Mozambicans really make good pastries) and a quick drink in Catandica.  AND, we  stopped for diesel!  They have diesel in Mozambique!  We pulled up to the pump and even though I expected the attendant to say “ahhh no” as they have for the past 9 months in Malawi because we’re in the depths of a fuel crisis, we got a full tank and Pierce (the Isuzu) was happy…

The border crossings were relatively painless – one immigration official told Amanda, our only English traveler, that she would have to pay more for her visa – because she’s short.  He was kidding – she did have to pay more, but because she’s English, not because she’s 5’1″.

We made it to Mutare in Zimbabwe and then followed the signs to Leopard Rock high in the Bvumba mountains.  The drive was beautiful; my ears popped as we ascended through hills, mountains, and finally up into the Mountains of the Mist (Bvumba means mist in Shona).  It was really incredible – seriously…

We had been traveling for twelve hours, we had crossed two borders, spoken (eh hem… tried to speak) four different languages, driven through wide dusty plains and endless dry-season scenery.  Bvumba was another world – it was green, cool, and the air was so clear and clean it actually tasted good.  We passed through dense forests more lush than the Blue Ridge, roads with overhanging branches forming a canopy like in low country South Carolina, groves of eucalyptus that felt like a rain forest, tall green grass like the English countryside and endless fields of blooming proteas like in Cape Town.

Our first night, we stayed at a cottage overlooking the mountains.  The travel agent had told us to go to the “Castle” to collect the keys.  I was excited, as I had heard from my former boss that deep in the Eastern Highlands is a castle hotel carved into the side of a mountain.

There was a sign at the end of the driveway twenty feet from Leopard Rock that read, “the Castle.”  We pulled into the long driveway around 5:30pm – my favorite time of day.  With dusk softly falling, the haze of the day melts away and the muted colors of the landscape become all the more beautiful.  The driveway took a slight turn and there we were, staring up at an actual Castle.  It’s not a huge castle, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in enchanting charm.  Perched high on the mountain, it blends in with the surroundings and offers spectacular views of the valley down below.

Driving up to the Castle

We wandered around, looking for Alex, who had our keys to the cottage and were directed to a room at the bottom of the stairs.  As we opened the door, it was like being transported to a medieval castle deep in the English countryside.  The room was a large square with thirty foot ceilings and a fire roaring in the giant fireplace.  Alex, the owner and operator of the castle, welcomed us, offered us a seat and then a small glass of port.  We sat, sipping our port and listening to our host spin stories of Zimbabwean history and gossip about diplomats in Harare.

The Castle exterior

We asked the history of this Castle that looked as if it had been standing sentinel over the valley for centuries.  We learned that the Castle and Leopard Rock hotel had been built during World War II by Italian prisoners.

A wee dram of sherry

The Castle’s charm is enhanced by the fact that it is a relatively well kept secret.  Alex not only refuses to advertise his lodge, but seems picky about who can stay in the four guest rooms.  We were excited that we seemed to pass some kind of test and he gave us his business card, saying we would be welcome the next time we were in Bvumba.  We made it to the cottage in time for sundowners and had a lovely night sitting by the fire.

The next morning, three of the boys got up early early and casually ran a half marathon – because they’re amazing.  Sandy, Amanda, and I didn’t run, but we worked very hard waiting for them at the finish line at Leopard Rock and cheering when they crossed it.

Leopard Rock is a grand old hotel, complete with large fire places, crystal chandeliers, wide terraces, championship golf, horseback riding, and photos of Princess Diana from her visit.  It has a feel of luxury and history that adds to the hotel’s spectacular setting.  During our stay, I enjoyed talking with Zimbabweans who were all well versed in Malawian politics – they wanted to know what was happening after the big protests in July.  Each person we met was extremely warm, friendly, and interested.

In celebration of the Bvumba Run, the hotel had a disco (yep, they really called it a disco – like we were 13 year olds on a cruise ship) which ended up being really great – very much like an awkward wedding that you decide to make fun with your awkward dance moves.  The disco entertainment was enhanced by the DJ, a 68ish year old woman who went by the name DJ Spectrum and took her job very seriously.

So I spent the weekend enjoying the excellent hotel; Sandy spent the weekend enjoying the excellent fairways.

We walked with the boys as they played 18 holes, which was entertaining, both because Kevin (who doesn’t have a driver’s license) was driving the golf cart and because the course is so beautiful.  We got caught in a sudden thunderstorm – which of course did not deter Sandy – “should we play though? yeah, I think we should – the rain is letting up…”  he said as we stood drenched in a downpour.

All in all, it was such an amazing weekend and I loved everything: the friends we were with, the setting, the golf, the food, the hotel itself, and the people… and I can’t wait to go back!

at Pine Cone cottage

Mike's decided to write his memoirs here

Leopard Rock

Lobby of Leopard Rock

Golf course

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An Easy, Pleasant Stroll

 

As mentioned before, Mount Mulanje is the third tallest mountain in Africa.  It is not a mountain for the faint of heart; hikers come from all over the world to climb its peaks and some have even died trying.  The tallest peak is called Sapitwa, loosely translated as “place from which you do not return.”  During his time in Mulanje, Sandy hiked for two days and spent the night on one of the peaks (not Sapitwa).  This past weekend, however, neither of us were up for such an intense hike.  Instead, Sandy suggested a leisurely hour long hike to the waterfalls – a “nice, easy stroll,” he said.

We drove down the long, dusty, pot-holed road to the foot of the mountain.  As we slowed down, the car was besieged by helpful locals offering to be our guide or to watch the car for us.  We chose Lawrence, who sold us with his friendliness, enthusiastic insistence, and his official guide ID.  He selected his half brother to be the official car guard. 

Our car safely guarded, we grabbed our water and cameras and set off for the falls.

We passed through a forest of tall pines and then wound our way up a steep muddy path.  The peaks rose up around us and through the trees we could see the green countryside stretch out for miles in the distance.

Lawrence was chatty and considerate.  He taught us words in Chichewa and would stop and wait for me if I lagged behind.  He walked along as if it was an easy, pleasant stroll.  Meanwhile, I staggered along, red-faced, huffing and puffing, trying to keep up the pace and keep my footing.  “Nice easy stroll,” Sandy had said.  Luckily, I now know that my husband and I have very different definitions of the words “nice,”  “easy” and “stroll.”

We passed several young women who were gathering firewood.  They would collect a small mountain of sticks and limbs, tie them in a bundle and gracefully head down the mountain with it balanced on their heads.  Later in the day, when we were on our way down an even steeper path than the one we climbed, we were passed by young men who had large cedar planks balanced on their heads.  Yes –they passed us going down the mountain.  Needless to say, once I saw how effortlessly they were able to handle the mountain, their own bodyweight, and pounds of wood piled on their heads, I shut up and stopped complaining.

After an hour, we made it to the falls.  It was one of those scenes that just kept getting better.  Our first sight of the major fall was beautiful, and then we went down a little further and it was really beautiful, and then we crossed to the other side of the river and it was just breathtaking.  Again, the pictures don’t do it justice.  I need to start carting a professional photographer around with me.  Maybe I can carry him on my head.

We relaxed on the huge boulders; several other hikers and guides swam in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.  One hiker lost her sunglasses and two guides, including Lawrence, spent thirty minutes diving until they found them. 

The water was cold, fresh, and inviting.  Next time, we’ll take our bathing suits and a picnic lunch. 

In the end, it was definitely worth the exertion and we will have to go back soon, although, it might take awhile, and some serious circuit training, before I’m ready to do much more than this “nice, easy stroll.”

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57 Monkeys – not even kidding

This weekend, Sandy and I decided to belatedly celebrate our three year wedding anniversary by taking a mini-vacation to Mulanje, where Sandy spent three months in 2005.  The hour and a half drive was beautiful, as we wound through lush green tea estates, and it’s incredible how Mulanje mountain just rises out of nothing.  The third largest mountain in Africa, it’s sheer height is breathtaking.

 We slowly made our way through the town of Mulanje as Sandy pointed out places he had known during his time there.  We made it up a steep hill on the slopes of the mountain to Kara O’Mula lodge (http://www.karaomula.com/)  The lodge is gorgeous – it blends right into the mountain side with tall trees, a “tree house” and luxurious rooms.  The beautiful veranda off the 100 year old building looks out over the Mozambique mountains.

We checked in, got settled and had a beer on the porch.  As we were sitting there, a troupe of seven baboons strolled up the driveway in a line. 

A little later, we decided to have a beer by the pool.  We were just talking and relaxing – Sandy said he wondered how many hectares the lodge had… and then he wondered how big a hectare is.  It was such a pleasant evening, with cold beer, a pretty setting, and  … at least fifty monkeys. 

About ten minutes after we sat down, two baboons darted across the path, up one tree, and into another one directly in front of us.   And they just kept coming.  There were small ones, large ones (I mean seriously big – like seventy pound baboons) , monkeys with babies, loud ones, hungry ones, curious ones… it was amazing.  There were way more than we could count, scattered in the three trees.  We had a perfect view as they were literally jumping around on limbs right above us.  Everywhere we looked, on almost every branch, there was a monkey or a baboon.  It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!

Unfortunately, I had my second rate camera with me and as it was getting dark, none of the pictures came out.   Still, it was an incredible way to spend our anniversary.

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The best way to travel.

Thank you for all of the great ideas for the car name.  Maybe we will go with the Red Cabernet Uncle Mike-anator.

Monday, Sandy set off for Lilongwe on a seven day trip for his work.  I survived a few days on my own in Blantyre, but by Wednesday, I decided to risk a reputation as a helicopter wife and take the coach bus up to Lilongwe.  I wasn’t apprehensive at all about traveling across Malawi all alone – I was taking a really nice inter-city bus and I heard that it was even more comfortable that most American coach buses.  Besides, I’d get on in one city, get off in the next – what was there to be anxious about?

I got to the coach office early – I can’t seem to shake my American obsession with punctuality – but being typically Malawian, the bus left an hour late. 

A typical village by the road.

The bus was very luxurious – even more so because there were only twelve people on board.  By my calculation, I had 4.67 seats to myself.  The bus attendant passed out snacks and cold drinks and as we settled in for the four hour drive, we were entertained by early-’90s music videos.  I had forgotten just how many times Celine Dion has changed her hairstyle. 

After an hour or so of driving, the attendant got on the PA system and mumbled an announcement.  The only word I understood was “police.”  The bus passed through a police barricade and pulled over to the side of the road.  While I didn’t have anything to worry about  – I wasn’t smuggling anything and I’m not (to my knowledge) wanted by the Malawian police, my heart rate was still slightly up.  We all silently disembarked.

I don’t have my passport, I realized.  I don’t have much cash for a bribe either.  I’m totally screwed.  I’m going to be left here at this police stop by the side of the road.  Oh no.  Ok – I’ll put on my metro mean face and act like this happens to me all the time.  I’ll fade into the crowd – it doesn’t matter that I’m the only mzungu anywhere around. 

By the time all of these ridiculous thoughts had passed through my head, we were casually waved back on board.  That was it – just off and then right back on.  I was pretty proud of myself for keeping my cool – outwardly anyway – or maybe I’m totally kidding myself.

So, we were on our way again, only this time, no more music videos.  Instead, we watched the American TV show Prison Break… dubbed in French… with Japanese subtitles.  I kid you not.  A whole two hours where NOBODY could understand a single word.

The scenery was breathtaking.  I muted my camera and took pictures out the window during the drive.  It was so pretty that I somehow had to limit myself – now, is this mountain just beautiful, or is it really spectacular?  I only took ‘spectacular’ pictures and still ended up with 91 photos in the four hour trip. A few are posted here but none of them do it justice.

With about one more hour to Lilongwe, we pulled to a stop at a second police barricade.  This time, we didn’t have to disembark.  Instead, the bus BROKE DOWN.  Right there on the side of the road. 

Our driver put it in neutral and we rolled past the barricade and to a stop beside some grazing cows.  The men on the bus all got off and stood around the engine with their hands on their hips.  Thirty minutes passed – it would be dark soon and there was no sign that the bus was feeling any better.  One woman passenger abandoned us by flagging down another ride.

Talk about organic.

I got down and one point, just to see if my car-fixing expertise would be of any use (please note, they are limited to “turn it off and turn it back on” and are remarkably similar to my computer-fixing skills).  Instead of being helpful, I terrified a small child who had probably never seen a white person before.  She screamed at the top of her lungs and didn’t stop until I got back on the bus.

Setting Sun

Almost an hour later, our driver poured enough water in the radiator for the bus to slowly crank up after several shudders.  We were off.  An hour later (and two hours after our scheduled arrival) we made it to Lilongwe.

I had spoken to Sandy and he said he would meet me at the bus’ last stop, the Pacific Hotel.  We pulled into the Coach office and everyone got off.  Supposing this to be the only stop, I got down too.  I was mobbed by aggressive taxi drivers, but I again put on my metro mean face and they left me alone.  I asked our bus attendant if the bus makes any other stops.  When I told her where I wanted to go, she said to get back on the bus.  So there I was, the only one sitting on the bus.  The driver got in and started it up.  Sitting right behind him, I said “Thank you!”  He spun around, not realizing I was there.  He didn’t speak English, but I kept saying the name of the hotel.  He nodded and turned around to drive.  We left the parking lot, me in my privately chauffeured coach bus, not sure at all that we were going to the right place. 

After fifteen minutes, we pulled up to the hotel where Sandy was waiting.  After all this, I have to say that having a 56-seat coach bus all to oneself is definitely the way to travel.

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