A Weekend on Senga Hills Of Salima

The Hill Climbing Club Open Invitation

Two weeks ago, my bosom friend Chikondi Kachinjika or CK in short sent me an open invitation from the Hill Climbing Club for a weekend hike on the famous Senga Hills of Salima. The date for the event was 26 May 2018, the last Saturday of the month. Later on, another friend Alick Bwanali alias Onyamata AKB sent me the detailed program for the day.

I quickly marked the date on my calendar. This was not an opportunity to miss, for I had been trying for the last two years to find myself there. Senga Hills rise up from Senga Bay, a beautiful corner of Lake Malawi as it transverses the lakeshore district of Salima.

The program for the day promised some goodies. Admission was free. The rendezvous was the Parachute Battalion of the Malawi Defence Force. The main trail would be the same one that soldiers use for training.

Invitation from HCC to Senga Hills Hike
Invitation from HCC to Senga Hills Hike

My Preparations for the Day

I took two runs of about 7 km each in the week of the hike. I had plenty of rest, and were properly hydrated the day before the event. My supplies were simple – bottled water, one apple and some dried dates.

Unfortunately, I also picked a slight injury. What started as muscle cramps on the second run persisted for two days. I got advice from one of my trainers on how to speed track the recovery. It was very important for me not to miss the hike.

On Friday, just after lunch, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to stock up on calories the native way. I asked Cathy, my beloved wife, to prepare roasted local maize. It has never been my favourite but I thought I’d get a kick from it. Big mistake! The flinty grains destroyed my jaws and smashed my digestion. That evening was spent hunting for anti-acids in a few pharmacies in town. So much for beefing up on energy reserves the native way.

Idyllic Drive to Salima

For some reason, I could not go to bed and sustain a long sleep. I kept waking up due to excitement. At four in the morning, I got out of bed. I decided to skip my morning shower. I convinced myself that my evening bath was adequate. Ah! This was a weak line of reasoning. I gave up on it and took my hot bath – by the way, which I find relaxes the muscles much better than cold water.

I packed my essentials and started for Salima just after five in the morning. This is usually a one hour ride in a good car, but having destroyed the engine firing sequence with my recent adventure in Mangochi, I needed to take it easy. It was still dark when I left home, it was cold and as I was leaving the city boundary, it got foggy. I switched on my faulty air conditioning unit and settled in for the ride. The road was virtually empty except for very few cyclist and a lonely pedestrian here and there. At one point, a local dog, which was busy twisting its tail for the owner, lost focus and took the dance to the road. Fortunately, my speed was slow and it managed to get off the lane with a soft honk.

After a while, the fog cleared, and a soft light appeared towards the east. There was a single blueish-white star directly ahead of me. A few more stars were to my right, towards the south. Salima is a hilly district, and the road follows the contour of the area. Going up and down, curving to the left then right, the ride was getting sweet.

About half way from my destination, I could make out a flat line on the horizon. This is where the lake was located. A thin line of clouds had formed above it. It was flat at the bottom, with cotton puffs at the top. I could see a faint sky blue sipping around the clouds, with hints of light purple towards the far end on my right side.

Watching Sunrise on the way to Senga Hills
Watching Sunrise on the way to Senga Hills

Then as if on a cue, an infusion of orange started intensifying on my left side, and the cloud started getting bigger at the top. The bottom remained relatively flat. Then all at once a bright orange ball pierced through the clouds, and cast a diffused light into the morning atmosphere. I stopped the car to take it all in. This was beyond gorgeous. This was a special gift to those that were awake at that hour. It was so serene.

By the time I hit Salima Boma (the local district government centre) the rest of neighbourhood was awake. There was a concentration of bikes, people and cars. I asked for directions once or twice and finally found myself at the Parachute Battalion. I was the first to arrive, and not surprisingly, having left Lilongwe rather too early.

The long awaited hike on Senga Hills

Bit by bit, hikers arrived from all corners of the country. Some arrived from Nkhotakota, some from Lilongwe and others from within Salima. It was a good mix of seasoned hikers and rookies. We had both civilian and military officers.

We got a briefing from Captain Soko, who is second in command at the Battalion. The Chief Special Forces Instructor, Corporal Joseph Lipande, towering above everyone, and packing muscle everywhere on his super chiselled body, was introduced. Cpl Lipande gave us a detailed plan for the day. Senga hills is a collection of 12 to 15 hills. And the day’s hike would focus on the three main hills, culminating at the trig station on the highest hill. We would then descend down to the beach.

We were then introduced to the team of medics. We had an ambulance on standby that would be following us on the road parallel to the hills. And the military hospital was on alert to handle any cases of injury and exhaustion. We were immediately put at ease that we were in good hands.

Major Chimbayo, who is the Commanding Officer for the Battalion, gave us a battle cry for the Airborne Division and led us into battle – a battle with the rolling hills.

We trekked out from the Senior Officers Mess, which was our hosting station, to the starting point. The little walk warmed up our muscles as anticipation grew in the air. When we got there, ladies were asked to join the leading guides and then men came next. The medics were spread across the group, and the rear was brought up with medics and those doing Admin. Whistles were blown and then we took off.

We took a roll call, and we were 63 strong. The military is unbelievably organised and efficient to the core. The medics at the rear broke into seedy military songs. We had frequent stops to allow people to catch a breath. Everyone was encouraged to be sipping water regularly but in small portions. Not that the instruction was heeded very well as some hikers who were by now feeling very hot wished they were carrying gallons of the cool, crystal stuff. The cruel twist however was that at this point, anything heavier than a shirt would feel like it was weighing a tonne.

When we took the first major break at the top of the first hill, and were told this was the easy part, admiration mixed with deep respect spread across the faces. These hills, though, not as tall as mountains, had a serious punch. The trail was somewhat steep and the military pace, though, slowed down a million times for us, was still significantly challenging. By the way, from the beginning of the trail, to the end, the best of the MDF officers are on record to have completed it under 30 minutes. On our part, we were planning to cover the same distance in 3 hours. As a result, the military officers with us hardly broke sweat.

We started the first hill, and got to the second major hill. The trail twisted up, went up rocks, threw in a cruel practical joke here and there. By the time we reached the top, it was clear this was an obstacle course. Our guides, made sure to mix and match the trail. We got some soft parts, with a few points that required all our strength. The group started breaking up into three parts. The super fit were upfront, the majority were in the middle, and some brought up the rear. But no one was left alone. Even the slowest among us, dictated the final pace of the group. Whenever we took a major stop, we would not start again until the last hiker had shown up, flanked by medics and other military officials.

The view at the top was amazing. On the first hill, we could see the lake on the southern part of Senga Bay. The waters were a calm blue, hardly disturbed on the surface. When we got to the second hill, we could see some parts of the farthest parts of the bay on the northern side. However, the front, in the eastern direction was still hidden by the hills we were yet to conquer. Being a forest reserve used for training military personnel, the hills were well covered in green canopy. The density of trees was impressive, and in some parts almost impassable.

The descent from the second hill was the steepest. This is called Khwekhwerere or Mchombo Lende in the vernacular, and loosely translates to slippery, sliding trail and topless (you are guaranteed to take off your shirt) respectively. The slope went all the way down almost to the same level as at the beginning of the trail. Brake pads on people’s legs were smoking, and a few here and there took a slide. We were told to be five metres apart so that a falling bundle of human flesh would not take down the entire team with it. Members were openly groaning, and the guides were busy whipping up morale, by running up and down the slope. I have never seen such a display of bravado!

When we got to the bottom, we were made to rest. We took our snacks, water and listened to some music. When we were all back together, we were told that this was the last way out point. Anyone going beyond this point would be expected to complete the hike. We lost 25 members, who opted to terminate the hike. I admired their tenacity. This was a difficult trail, and they had all done very well.

Towards the Trig Point, the highest of Senga Hills

The rest of us continued towards the third hill. But in between there was a small matter of dealing with the steepest incline in the hill collection. My heart popped into my mouth, and I felt like all my energy had been sucked out of me. And with my current no-sugar diet, the body was tested to the limit to dynamically generate sugars on request. The guides in the meantime were going up and down as if they were running on a plain ground.

I remember at one point, one of the soldiers offered to pull some of the ladies. How I wished I could be offered a hand too. But my male ego stood in the way, and I forced myself forward, inch by inch. Fortunately, the temperature was alright. It was just warm enough with a lot of cool breeze trying its best to prevent our bodies from overheating. The air was fresh, and we were surrounded by sounds of the wild. Of course, at this point the singing at the back had ebbed into a grinding silence, and the DJ had broken into Gospel tunes. The timing couldn’t have been better.

We had to take a major stop before reaching the summit of this small hill. This was perhaps the most difficult section of the entire trail. Water was dangerously running low. Fortunately, those that had carried theirs in camel bags generously offered the few drops they had. Coincidentally, it was only the military that still had water on them. The civilians had emptied theirs on the way up. I was a participating student on discipline and endurance here.

When we reached the top, there was a sense of accomplishment. Although, there was still one more hill to conquer, it was clear we had persevered a hard course, and the end was nigh. One military officer told me that a victory is not sweet unless the battle is long and hard. I got the meaning immediately. In order for us to enjoy conquering the Senga Hills, it was important for us to tackle the hard parts first. I couldn’t agree more, though I doubt if my feet saw the amusement in that small talk.

Soon it was time to aim for the trig point. When we got there, we were greeted by the best view in all of Salima. The entire Senga Bay below was in view. We could see where the islands were, a few kilometres from the sandy beaches. We could see where the rice paddies were. There was a beautiful tributary feeding into the lake. In contradiction, as always, we were told it had the highest number of crocodiles in that part of the lake. So it made sense to admire it from a safe distance up in the hills.

Our pains disappeared. All that effort to get here melted into folds of satisfaction, liberally mixed with waves of accomplishment. This was worth fighting for. This was worth the pushing, shoving, towing and everything in-between. This was a great moment. If there was a technology out there to freeze moments, this would be the one place to put it into action. We took photos. We smiled. We laughed. We cheered our guides. We thanked the medics, and the rest of the military officers. There was nothing to compare this moment with anything else.

Trig Point on Senga Hills
Trig Point on Senga Hills

But like all good things, it had to come to an end. We descended and finally connected to the road leading back to the base. Others immediately jumped into the cars that were following us. Some of us, hanged back a little bit, and squeezed in a little stroll before the next pick-up.

In total, we had covered approximately 10 km of rolling hills, in about 3 hours of active walking. The rest was spent on well-deserved breaks, and view watching.

Interview with the Commanding Officer Major Mabvuto Chimbayo

I later caught up with the Commanding Officer Major Mabvuto Chimbayo. He is the officer in charge of the Parachute Battalion and leader of the Airborne Division.  I wanted to get his view of the hiking expedition. Here is an excerpt of our chat:

Please, sir, tell me about your role in the hike today.

Well, today, I was your host and facilitator for the hike. We had to provide access to the training arena for our military officers, and provide health personnel and facilities for all the members that came to participate in the hike. We had to arrange for guides, medics, ambulances and put our military hospital on alert.

We also had to make sure you had a comfortable station to start from, that is why we opened the Senior Officers’ Mess to the HCC members. This was for your refreshments, braai and relaxation.

More importantly, I also had to coordinate on the request from the Hill Climbing Club to the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for permission to access our military base.

Lastly, for the hike to be successful, we had to provide a brief about the difficulty of the terrain, and take charge of the walks so that it would be enjoyable to the club members as you have seen for yourself.

That took a lot of arrangement and coordination. Thanks very much for that. Now tell me a bit about the trail we took today.

The trail we took today was a mixed route. Some parts were difficult, and some parts were easy. We have three main trails, and today, we sampled from each one of those. As you could see, there were moments where you had to challenge yourself. You had to push yourself. I believe this is better than going to the gym.

The most difficult routine is a hill run. We did not do this one today as it requires you to be very fit. Our officers are able to complete the trail we took today in about 25 minutes.

We also had to pick a trail that would allow you to enjoy the scenic view of Senga Bay. You can see islands to the south, and the rice paddies to the north. The trail allowed you to see the best of Salima.

What is your message to the public?

As you know, non-communicable diseases (NCD) are ravaging our communities. NCDs can be prevented or managed if one is to adopt an active lifestyle. Lack of exercises contributes to the development of these diseases like types of diabetes and blood hypertension. So we advise the public to adopt exercises. It can be fun as you saw today.

Our training facilities are open to the public upon making proper arrangements. And we are there to help support the nation to get fit, lead a healthy lifestyle and contribute to the wellness of all the citizens of our country, Malawi.

Thank you, sir.

Thank you.

A Bit About the Hill Climbing Club

Then I caught up with organising members of the Hill Climbing Club to learn more about its origin, the hike, and about planned events in the year. I had a chat with Mr M’theto Lungu and Major Lameck Kalenga.

Thanks for inviting me to participate in the hike today. It was awesome.

Thank you for coming to be with us today.

Tell me about the club. Who started it and when was it started?

Well, before we start with the history of the club, let me first of all thank the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for granting permission to our request to come today to the Parachute Battalion with members of the club for a hiking day on Senga Hills.

This is part of Civil Military Relations, which the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri is promoting to enhance the relationship between the military and the public. As you might be aware, Malawi Defence Force(MDF) has been promoting public health by encouraging the citizens of the Malawi nation to adopt an active lifestyle.

We cannot thank the General enough for such a great consideration. We are looking forward to building a special relationship with the military, and will continue to engage MDF for support in granting access to training facilities for our club members.

Now, to go back to your question, this started as a discussion between Captain Bright Chanika and I (M’theto Lungu). We wanted to encourage people to adopt an active lifestyle. This was back in December 2017. We arranged for people to take walks on weekends in Lilongwe between Kaunda Filling Station and Bunda Turn Off. We also encouraged people to share on social media details of any physical activities that they had undertaken.

The original plan was to attempt a hill monthly. Unfortunately, weather and other factors got in a way.

Do you have a club president?

No, not at the moment. We have an organising committee. At the moment the members for the commitee are as follows:

Organising/ Coordinating Team are:
1. Major Lameck Kalenga – Technical Coordinator/ Advisor
Vice: Francis Muwalo
2. Capt. Kelvin Ezron Soko – Strategic Coordinator/ Advisor
Vice: Mimi
3. Major Bright Chakanika – Fitness Advisor
Vice: Capt. Henry Tembwe
4. M’theto Lungu – PR Coordinator
Vice: Fatsani Menyani
4. Lipenga – Associate Coordinator (Salima Fitness Club)
Vice: Andrew
5. Lt. Tiya – Gender Affairs
6. Major Gilbert Mittawa – Legal Instructor

But in the future, we will need to elect members to various positions. Especially since we are planning on involving companies to sponsor our activities. As you heard, today’s hike was sponsored by various companies. We are thanking them profusely. Such sponsorship has to be accounted for in a transparent manner. Hence the need to have elected members to take up leadership positions in the club.

Tell me about the membership.

The club has an open membership. The current members come from Malawi Defence Force and also from the public. We have members across the world. The majority are in Malawi, but we have some members across Africa and beyond.

At the moment, membership is free. And anyone can join our group on WhatsApp and on Facebook. If a member has a question on fitness, others will come in and assist. It is a dynamic group meant at encouraging one another to adopt an active lifestyle and remain fit.

Sorry to ask an obvious question. What is the club about?

No problem.

As you might already be aware, NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are killing more people in Malawi than even AIDS. This is a shocking state of affairs for the country. We want to encourage people to adopt regular exercising as part of their lifestyle to help prevent conditions such as heart attacks, types of diabetes, fatigue, obesity and so on.

Living a healthy lifestyle allows one to live longer. And it involves three aspects: exercising, nutrition, good health habits. All these depend on personal choices. We are here to encourage people to make those good choices in order to allow them live long happy lives. We strongly recommend that people should start exercising before doctor’s orders. Do it while it is still your choice, that way it will be fun, and cost effective. When you have to do the same as remedial, you will have to deal with heavy medical bills.

We also want to promote bonding with family members. Our activities involve all family members including children. If people had brought children today, we would have kept them entertained outside the Senior Officers’ Mess.

Finally, we want to promote local tourism. Why should it take only foreigners to come from the end of the world to appreciate the beauty around us? It should start with us. When we take hiking to different parts of the country, it will allow members to appreciate the many beautiful sceneries and views. We are going to achieve this by partnering with various companies.

We are asking companies to come forward and support us. Just like we have received the support from the companies that made the event today possible. We received support from Zambezia Health Drinks, McWise Prints, Skyline International, NaMEDIA and AutoBoiz of Kemstc Group of Companies.

We also partnered with different clubs including Salima Fitness Club, Nkhotakota Gym Centre, and Makawa Fitness Centre. Such is the partnership we are looking for, and are open to all fitness groups across the country.

What have been the activities so far this year and do you have any plans for the rest of the year?

This was the biggest event so far this year. We had over 60 hikers who participated today. Men and women. But this was our second trip to Senga Hills. The first one was in February.

We are planning to have quarterly events. The next big event will be a walk and run on the Khwekhwelere section of the Lakeshore Golomoti Road in Ntcheu. It will be in two categories – one will be 10 km and the other 20 km. We will start from the bottom of the road and climb up the famous Khwekhwerere escarpment. We will announce the dates, and we ask companies to come forward and support us.

In the meantime, we will continue having weekend walks and runs in Lilongwe, and members are asked to continue participating in physical activities wherever they may be in the world, and share the moments with fellow members on our social media groups.

Any last words?

Yes. We are a non-partisan group. We don’t have political or religious affiliations. We are inviting all members of the public to pick up an active health lifestyle regardless of age, profession or social status.

Not only will this be beneficial to individuals, but this will help the nation to reduce its national budget on health on remedial interventions and instead use the resources for national development.

Remember, exercise is difficult to start and exercise is difficult to stop. So get started. Lastly, once again, we are very grateful to the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for granting us the opportunity to have the hike today on Senga Hills. This was a very successful event.

Thank you.

Thanks. [End of interview]

So what do you think?

So dear reader, what do you think? Has your appetite for outdoors been whetted up? Nature is ours to enjoy, and when we undertake such an outing, we get to enjoy, relax and praise the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ for all the good things He has given us.

I thank the Hill Climbing Club for organising such a great event.

See you at the next HCC major event.

Rolling Senga Hills
Rolling Senga Hills

Next Weekend in Salima

Senga Hill Hike

I got an invitation from my brother CK on WhatsApp about the Senga hill hike. The hill is in Salima, the lakeshore district next to the Capital City of Malawi.

I’m trying to get more details, but in the meantime take out your hiking boots and get them ready.

According to the poster above, the hike will take place on Saturday, 26 May 2018.

Captivating!

The Three Peaks and other extreme sports in Malawi

We may not have an ultra marathon yet but as far as extreme sports is concerned Malawi is not far behind. We have the Yacht Race on Lake Malawi, we have the Porters’ Race on Mulanje Mountain, we have the Be More Race in Lilongwe. And we also have the Three Peaks walk in Blantyre. These are all annual events.

I have been covering the Be More Race, and I’m planning on attempting the 21 km race. I expect nothing but fireworks and fun. I’m not so sure about the Porters’ Race. Perhaps that could be sampled next year. But I’m having an irresistible temptation to try the Three Peaks walk this year as well.

The Three Peaks walk covers 48 km in a day and that includes hiking three mountains in Blantyre and reaching each summit. The mountains involved are Michiru, Ndirande and finally Soche, in that order. To say this is very challenging would be making an understatement.

One family friend of ours gave it a try last year. Esnat Chilije completed all the three mountains. It’s no wonder that this year she attempted the City Race in Blantyre organized by Standard Bank as a runner up to the Be More Race. It took place on 14 April. We were inspired by her accomplishments and are planning to follow suit.

In the meantime, I’m reaching for the straws and trying desperately to assure myself I can do this. The only comfort is that I did several long walks in Cape Town back in 2012. I could take almost the whole day to walk 34 km from the end of the train line in Simon’s Town to Mowbray.

And in 2016 (I’m not so sure about 2015) in Lilongwe I walked several times from Bunda Hill to Area 47 covering a distance between 34 and 36 km. That included reaching the summit of Bunda Hill. Besides that I have also done Three Peaks in Lilongwe, but drove in-between instead of walking.

Not much compared to what is to come, but somehow that should count a little bit. No? Cathy my sweet wife is eager to participate in the Three Peaks walk and I can only reflect the enthusiasm. Ahem!

So keep June clear and start preparing for the Three Peaks in Blantyre and/or the Porters Race in Mulanje. The City Race for Lilongwe will be on 12 May at 6:00 am at Standard City Centre and the one for Mzuzu already took place on 21 April and the main Be More Race, again in Lilongwe, will be on 9th June.

I haven’t had time to research about the Yacht Race in Mangochi, but keep an eye on it too. (I only hope it hasn’t taken place yet! 🙈)

To all those that love outdoors, extreme sports and nature, now is the time to get active. Get started!

One Summer Break at Lake Malawi National Park

Lately, sweet memories from the past have been engulfing my mind. Vivid moments spent in the wild are making a strong recall. Whatever may be happening to me, I’m enjoying the recollections with silent pleasure.

The year is 1992 or maybe 1993. I’m inclined to think it is the former. A young supple mind is at its zenith absorbing everything wildlife. There’s so much to learn; there’s even much more to do. Whales, sharks, bears, lions, elephants, antelopes, giraffes, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, crocodiles, birds, snakes, fish, worms, beetles, ants and much, much more.

The Wildlife Club at our school – Mulunguzi Secondary School in Zomba district – has been invited to join other clubs from across the country for a holiday trip at the world famous Lake Malawi National Park. It’s one of the few places in the world where a conservation site is established over a fresh water body.

Lake Malawi National Park is one of the five national parks in Malawi, after Nyika in the North, Kasungu in the Central Region, Liwonde and Lengwe in the South. It is home to mbuna, cichlids endemic to Lake Malawi. These colorful guys are one of the most gorgeous ornamental fish from a fresh water body. They come in red, yellow, blue brown and other fantastic colours. The shapes are equally incredible.

Our young minds were swept away by carefully choreographed presentations that were fun, informative and interactive. I wanted to catch all the poachers and destroyers of nature and cast them into the Lake of Fire. Every story of extinction or critical threat on a species left me teary. Nothing has changed much since then.

In fact, I’m only able to handle the story of extinction with dignity, though very painful, simply because I believe in the afterlife. The knowledge that the world will one day be restored to its former glory is a balm to the heart. So I’m comforted that one glorious day in the future I will see the dodo, the mammoth and other ancient animals that disappeared on the face of the earth long time ago.

Then came snorkeling sessions. We spent hours in the water staring down into the magical world of the mbuna. The fish were friendly and were not scared of our presence. We were told that they are territorial and will spend their entire life around an underground rock or reef. No visiting cousins, no time to play an aquatic tourist.

We had a boat ride and went to Bird Island off the coast of Monkey Bay. This is where the waters are crystal clear, and the stars sparkle on the gentle lake. The calming effect was beyond what words could describe.

It was during this trip that I made a life long friendship with Tikhala Njolomole. She’s like a big sister to me. I can remember a few more names though I have not met any of them since that time. I doubt very much if they could even remember our meeting. Today Tikhala is a Bwana (boss) at one of the energy companies in Malawi. I last saw her last year and next time we meet I’ll ask her if she remembers of this summer trip.

Lake Malawi National Park offers aquatic beauty unparalleled anywhere else in Malawi, and it is world famous for its cichlids and crystal clear waters. Pay it a visit one day and you will fall in love with it, just like I did.

The Breathtaking Lake Chilwa Basin

Did you know that Malawi has a salt water lake? It is situated in Zomba and it is called Lake Chilwa. That’s a strange name and I’m clueless of its origin. The lake is part of a basin that goes as far as Phalombe, a district that is adjacent to Zomba towards the rising of the sun. As a basin, there’s a marshland that is home to wild ducks and many more species of birds, some of which have become protected by the country’s laws.

I first visited the lake when I was very young. I could have been 12 years old or younger. There was one dirty road that led straight to the only jetty. The rest of the area was covered in reeds. It was very hot and the air tasted salty. Or that could have been my imagination playing tricks on me. I was told the water was not suitable for drinking, but added a special flavour to the fish caught from the lake.

The fishermen were still using primitive fishing methods. I found it colorful. One would take a circular net and flash it in the air before it landed in the water. Or so I think. (This fragment of flashback has to be checked with facts on the ground – and there’s your trip to this circular shaped lake.) The lake was not deep, as a result people were using canoes to cross it to the biggest island some kilometers away. The canoes had two large holes on their side. One was near the front, and the other near the rear. Instead of paddles, they were using long bamboos for propelling the canoes forward.

The boatman would sink the bamboo until it touched the seabed and then heave it backwards. Then he would proceed to pull it out of the water and cast it in front of him and repeat the process. The canoes would move forward very slowly. Everything was in a slow motion. Then someone would take a bucket and empty the water that was sipping into the canoe through the two holes.

No one could explain the function of the two holes. And no one seemed particularly concerned that the water was deliberately let into the canoe in the first place. This was a game of neither efficiency nor speed. Fortunately, it looked idyllic and artistic. There was no need to rush – the lake was not going anywhere. Incidentally, this is the only lake in Malawi without an outlet, so truly it was not going anywhere.

We bought bags of sun dried fish and headed back to Blantyre where my mum cut it open in the middle, opened it up, cleaned it, dipped it in a dough and fried it in cooking oil. This was a favorite snack, a fish finger of sorts, for those with melancholic attachment to village life. I ate my fill especially the one that was spiced with the hot peri-peri pepper powder. That was my romantic connection to the lake of salty waters.

But like many good things that must come to an end, the bags slowly disappeared and with it my crunchy snack. By the way, this was the only time my mum let me near this snack. Buying it elsewhere was a no, no! “Dirty, dingy kitchens and unhygienic preparation process”, she’d constantly warn me. My great uncle Mr Gwembere, an adventurer with fishing boats on Lake Malawi, who taught me fly fishing from our front lawn, broke the rules once and bought me a massive local fish finger under strict instructions not to share the secret with mum. I ate it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, waiting at any moment to break into sweat, my tummy churning into a storm. It’s a good thing it never happened, and after some time the secret bubbled into a confession to mum.

I never returned to Lake Chilwa until after college. I was with a friend looking for rice paddies where an aromatic rice variety is grown in the rice schemes dotted around the lake. But that is a story for another day.

The Lake Chilwa basin is now under threat from low rainfall, invensive farming methods, siltation and effects of climate change. With a history of drying up during acute drought spells, one only prays that conservation efforts from various players will be able to mitigate against the destructive forces bent on decimating this precious ecosystem.

Weekend at Fort Mangochi

Mangochi Forest Reserve
Mangochi Forest Reserve

Mountain Club of Malawi (MCM) recently sent out an invitation to its membership for a weekend of hiking in the Mangochi Forest Reserve and camping at Fort Mangochi. This is one area rich in colonial history about trade, migration, battles and slave routes.

So at midnight on Friday last week, I sneaked out of bed and headed out of town. Coming from Lilongwe I took the Salima Road, which would later join the road to Mangochi and then towards Namwera. My rendezvous was Skull Rock Estate in Majuni. I got there very early and found out that Maggie O’toole, the president of MCM, and Poly Boynton, another hardcore MCM member, had already arrived the night before having cycled all the way from Blantyre, covering a distance of 140 km.

Our guide was Jailos Sinto, who has local knowledge about this area. We were expecting over 20 members. We were all set by 10 on Saturday morning and ventured into the bush. Normally, by this time of the year the trail would have been maintained by a team of locals. But this year, the project got derailed somewhat. As such there was tall grass everywhere. Parts of the path was so overgrown the leading guide had to clear it with a slasher.

The traffic jam that would follow gave a chance to armies of red ants to have a go at us. I was the first victim and this continued for a good part of the day. Just when we were about to theorize that the ants preferred local flesh, the barrier was breached and everyone became a candidate of the merciless stinging bites.

These red ants were much bigger and more vicious than the ones I had encountered on Easter Monday on Dedza Mountain. These ones were after causing maximum damage and inflicting intense pain. I politely tried to disengage them but when it became obvious this was a war, a few heads rolled.

On the way to the fort, we skirted past the Skull Rock hill, a rocky affair with three huge boulders for a summit. One of these has a profile of a skull. Going round the hill reveals a much dramatic view. The skull boasts of two asymmetrical sockets fiercely staring down into the valley below. Professor Eric Borgstein, a prominent surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, joked that dinosaurs in the prehistoric era gorged out the sockets off the rocky face. Now, we know how this outstanding feature was formed. Brian Lewis, husband to Maggie, and a crusader for managing dairy cows for over 7000 smallholder farmers, suggested that the block of stone was probably soft, and got sculpted by forces of nature. I’m inclined to go for Eric’s theory, after all he’s the master of sculpting of the human body!

Some of us had been worried that it might rain on this day, given the trend of recent rainfall in the country. Instead, it was very hot and very humid. Others minded the heat and others the humidity. I belonged to the latter group. With an aerial assault from the skull’s stare, red ants on the ground and the humidity wrapping an invisible steaming blanket around our struggling bodies, the situation invoked a deep respect for nature from everyone. This was a challenge worth undertaking.

Mangochi Forest Reserve miraculously stands intact. It was refreshing to walk for miles on end in a thick forest, surrounded by nothing else but forest sounds, wild blossoms and supreme greenery. The rolling hills gave an illusion of an endless pleasure ground like one could be lost forever wandering from one spot to the next oblivious of the passage of time. The natural beauty far outweighed the challenges we were encountering on the way.

Fort Mangochi

We reached the ruins of Fort Mangochi just after midday. It was such a welcome sight after walking in the endless bush. The ruins still have an intact thick perimeter wall made from masonry stones and mortar. The wall is one meter thick and has rectangular openings from outside, which widen away as a recessing wedge in the inside of the wall. This was designed to allow two soldiers to man the hole and fire at the enemy with a much wider horizontal scope without being exposed to the opposing fire.

Inside the square compound are the remains of buildings made from burnt red bricks standing in neat rows. The ground, though covered in grass, is even and firm as if it is a modern construction site. The walls are perfectly aligned to the four cardinal points – with the main entrance facing East. Outside the perimeter wall were remnants of what are houses for officers. These were added to the fort much later in its evolution.

We camped inside the stone wall perimeter. Everyone was expected to find themselves a spot. Some opted to stay close to where the camp fire would be. Others went to the suburbs where the grass was receding. And others chose to be buried in thick grass. One adventurous member even found time to beat a path from his tent to the campfire.

A Walk to the Rainforest

We pitched our tents, ate our individual lunches, rested a while and then set off for the rainforest. I had forgotten to bring along a cup. So instead I took my midday tea in a breakfast bowl. No sweat there as that is exactly the spirit of camping. Anything can be turned into a versatile instrument. My lunch consisted of shredded tuna and a cookie. The creativity failed to make an impression on the team but it got the job done anyway.

On the northern side of the camp, there’s a next ridge with a rainforest. We were aiming to summit it before sunset and return in time for a communal dinner around the campfire. Once we cleared our top flat ridge we came across an overgrown path full of protruding roots, vines and nettles. I lost count of yelps, ows, and ouches from young and old, lady or gentleman. Red ants couldn’t resist joining in the torture spree. The guide tried his best to hack a passage through the thick grass as fast as he could but he couldn’t stop a jam from building up and grinding the team to a halt.

And when things couldn’t get any better, the terrain started rising up sharply. I tanked. I sat down to catch a breath, and someone joked that I looked like one of the ancient wise ones – a sage. I brought up the rear and matched on into the rainforest. This section looks dark and ominous. It just feels like its a place a leopard would be comfortable to wander around. But once inside the canopy that blocks out the sun, the ambience is totally different. It’s an air conditioned chamber with humid control. It was totally refreshing, and the air divine. I don’t recall being attacked by a single red ant inside this forest cove, if there’s ever such a thing.

Our next stop was where people camp within the rainforest, and we decided to end it there. We were not going to proceed to the summit in the interest of time. Well, mostly that. But there was also the small matter that most of us by this time were totally thrashed. So instead we branched off to this ledge that stands above the cover of the rainforest. And talk about view. We could see the eastern leg of Lake Malawi glistening in the sun like a precious piece of glass. And then Shire River, the only outlet of this magnificent water body, snaked across the land like a ribbon before emptying itself in Lake Malombe, before proceeding its journey to Zambezi River, and then eventually hitting Indian Ocean. Shire River, being the longest and biggest river in Malawi is around 402 meters long. From where we were standing, we only saw a small chunk as it came out of the lake.

We returned to our camp inside Fort Mangochi and started our campfire.

Sumptuous Dinner and A Rousing Talk by the Campfire

As the open flames crackled above the burning firewood, a group of self-made chefs gathered around the fire and started preparing dinner. Yaseen Mukadam, our treasurer and also a long time member of MCM, was the rice grandmaster. He was cooking up a big dish from our famous Kilombero rice, the most aromatic long grain rice in Malawi. Carl Bruessow, an avid hiker, author, historian and champion of the replanting effort for Mulanje Cedar, was preparing mushroom entree. Others were making an assorted dish, and a special platter for vegetarians. When it was time to serve, it was so difficult not to put a small hill on one’s plate. Vegetarians were served first. The rest come after them, and wiped out whatever was being served.

Afterwards, some washed down the meal with a glass of wine. Some of us, a glass of water did the trick. Then came a surprise. Brownies, served with whipped cream! Aahh! Such good times.

We had an AGM – Annual General Meeting, led by Maggie, the president. She kept it succinct and informative. We received two reports and then we elected new leaders. Maggie and the rest of the officers were unanimously re-elected into office without being opposed. This committee is truly dedicated and strives to bring out the best for the club. We wish them another successful tenure in office.

Then it was time to settle down and have a talk from Carl Bruessow, who also happens to be the current president of Malawi Society, the custodians of colonial history artifacts and knowledge, which happily assists in the preservation of this rich heritage. After being taunted for a power presentation, Carl held out slides of photos and maps in his hand and delivered a moving oration. He told us about how the Yaos migrated from the coastal regions of Mozambique to this very spot. The Yaos loved mountains, and were attracted by the rolling hills in the area, and its plenty sources of water. The Yaos were tradesmen who had been dealing with Arabs, trading in the precious commodity, salt, in exchange for honey and other goodies from the interior of Africa.

Unfortunately, the trade turned its ugly head and stooped as low as in the sale of human souls and ivory. Slavery, in this region, started as a way to get rid of unwanted characters in the society. But soon became a huge human trafficking undertaking. At its zenith, the trade route passing through this area could have more than 20,000 souls per month. Until authorities in Britain said enough was enough, and started a campaign to abolish slave trade.

This led to three major battles that took place in different campaigns, led by different British officers. It involved British soldiers, Indian Sikhs, irregulars from the Ngonis, regulars from Zanzibar and more Ngonis. Irregulars would be the equivalent of modern day mercenaries, who came from the Dedza area. If I heard the narration very well, I think there was also a presence of some Yaos from Zomba, especially during the last battle that flushed out the Yao chief together with most of his 25,000 subjects. The headquarters of the chieftaincy was then later turned into Fort Mangochi, comprising of the thick stone perimeter wall and the structures inside it.

We learnt a lot about the local tribes, their historical behaviour and influence. And personally, I have never seen such delivery, with flair and decorum. This will be a night to remember for a long, long time.

I collapsed into my tent for an early night and drifted into a peaceful sleep. I stopped feeling the clods from the collapsed grass, and after a while the tiny thin polythene sheet for a mattress got comfy. I woke up fresh the following morning. Lost interest in having a cereal, and took instead a bowl of hot soup and got ready for the hike back to Skull Rock Estate.

This was one wonderful weekend, and I hope to return one day. Next time, I will want to reach the summit of the ridge where the rainforest resides.

 

PARTICIPANTS’ DETAILS:

Maggie O’Toole

Brian Lewis

Yaseen Mukadam

Carl Bruessow

Gill Knox

Chinga Miteche

Ngamise Gumbo

Pedram Kaya

Polly Boynton

Lloyd Archer

Adrian Thomas

Eric Borgstein

Sophie Borgstein

Marc Henrion

Nisha Schumann

Stephanie Darling

Kate Gooding

Kristina Cuisinier

Olivia Butters

Olivia’s friend

Rob Stewart

Sarah (friend of Rob)

Kondaine Kaliwo (me)

 

Joined for the day:

Cameron Caswell

Stefan Witek-MacManus

Stella

 

Of A Shredded Suit, A Croc and A Hippo

A Taste of Lake Malawi
A Taste of Lake Malawi

 

Lake Malawi is the biggest and most famous lake in Malawi. It has two big islands – Likoma and Chizumulu. Those that have been to Likoma say it is an island paradise.

Malawi is a slender wedge sandwiched by three giants – Tanzania to the North, Zambia to the West and Mozambique to the East, South and West. The lake follows the same lentil shape from the tip of the country up north to the eastern region, tightly hugging the eastern boundary with Mozambique.

The lake is the most known tourist attraction in the country, with restorts dotted across its many sandy beaches. However, few establishments have resorted to perch on rocks for those that don’t feel comfortable standing on sandy foundations.

We have five lakeshore districts, Mangochi, once part of the southern region, but now apportioned to the eastern region; Salima and Nkhotakota in the central region; Nkhata Bay, Karonga in the northern region. I also understand that parts of Rumphi have access to the lake. As a tourist, both local and international, you are spoiled of choice.

My earliest trip to the lake was a family affair with the Makwitis’ – lifelong family friends. We visited the Kilekwas, a cousin to my mum, who had a lovely cottage by the beach in Mangochi. This was in the 80s. I was far from a floater let alone a swimmer, but that did not stop me or my cousins from splashing water among the gentle waves on the shore of this magnificent lake.

Stories of crocs and hippos added to the thrill. Any shifting shadow in the shallows would be followed by a yelp and a mad dash to the safety of the dry ground. My dad, in order to avoid our aquatic melee-like, preferred to swim a bit further from the shore towards where some soft reeds were flourishing. Despite getting a caution from my aunt, he continued showcasing his floating and swimming skills. After sometime he got bored and approached the shore. He had barely reached his beach chair when a hippo surfaced right on the spot he was minutes before.

We were told that it was most likely that the beast was busy foraging in the water, on the lakebed, while he was swimming above it. I wonder if he still remembers the story. Considering how savage hippos can be, this could only be a miracle. That night we heard the fellow locals clapping hands and singing songs to invite the hippos to come ashore and dance. Once the hippo approached the land, the group would give it a wide berth until it returned into the water. And the hand clapping and singing would continue, way into the night.  I have never heard that since my many returns to various parts of the lake.

In the morning, one could see tracks of a giant crocodile on the beach leading to the back of the cottage. It had grown a taste for local chickens and it had successfully managed to break into my aunt’s chicken roost few weeks before our visit. Like any thief, it could not walk away from its pattern of victory. The number one rule was to steer clear of any reeds, and stick to the sandy beaches. How this was not seen as a leaking advice is beyond me. Anyway, crocs or not, it was a nice time at the lake. After all, this one was after fat chickens and not our tiny, scrawny bodies.

On the last day of our stay, my mum decided to get me into a three piece suit. Yap! Right at the lake. I obliged. Somehow I wanted to stand on the beach again. I had to negotiate vertical stairs off the wall that separated the veranda of the cottage from the rest of the beach. There was a wire fence nearby. When I returned from the beach, there was a big tear in the pants of the suit. All the grown ups insisted that I had caught it again the wire, as I was negotiating the vertical stair.

Of course, I didn’t catch any wire but I had no plausible explanation either. We said our goodbyes and got into our car. I now had a second slash from the top to the bottom. More rents appeared as we drove away. By the time we reached Liwonde, a tourist stopover on Shire River just after Mangochi, where we stopped to have lunch at Liwonde Discovery Lodge, my pair of trousers was in tatters. I had to change into a fresh pair of casual trousers. Up to this day, I have no idea what caused this systemic wardrobe failure.

Lake Malawi, a fresh water body collected over a depression in the African Great Rift Valley many millions of years ago is a natural wonder. A place of crocs and hippos, it is also a place of unparalleled beauty and tranquility. For some reason this Lake of Stars, as it is popularly known, shredded my suit, and hosted a pacifist dancing hippo and a croc with a taste for chickens. Despite its twisted sense of humour we have been bonded together since.

Plan to pay it a visit this year.