First, I have to say that the lake and the area around the lake are gorgeous! The lake is probably half the size of Lake Michigan in width and around the same length north and south. It’s big. Surrounding the lake are giant, steep, craggy, very green (at least in the rainy season) hills that come right down to the water. The water in most places is very clear. I am so glad that we were able to go.
I went to pick up the rental car Friday morning, and was a tad disappointed to find that it was automatic transmission instead of manual. We were told that all the cars had manual transmission, but I think they must have meant the reverse. I think it was probably good – one less thing to focus on (besides dodging goats, cows, kids, pedestrians, potholes, bicycles, other cars, etc) – but my left hand and foot were a little bored with nothing to do (yes, the gear change is on the left when you sit on the right). I got in the car and immediately felt comfortable. It felt totally normal to be driving on the left side of the road because I was in the middle of the road and cars coming the other direction were on the other side. It just felt like the rest of the car was on the wrong side of me. I took advantage of an hour with a car and went to the supermarket to pick up a few heavy things and stock up on some others when it would be easy to get it home.
The drive to the lake was about 5 hours, and very nice. The road was great up until the end and there wasn’t too much traffic. I’ve actually been very impressed with the roads in Malawi so far. The main roads are TONS better than the main roads in Kenya, but I do recognize that they see a lot less heavy traffic than Kenya. I think I read that the main road from Nairobi to western Kenya had something like over 4000 cars, buses and big trucks passing over it every day. That’s enough to wear out your roads pretty quickly.
Anyway, I had a blast driving! We felt so free knowing that we could go as fast or as slow (usually as slow!) as we wanted, could stay on our own side of the road and could stop whenever and wherever we wanted. The only downside for me was that I didn’t see as much of the countryside as I have on other trips because I was focused on the road and the miscellaneous things to avoid mentioned above.
We had been told that the last 20km to Cape Maclear were on an awful dirt road and that you could make it in a small car but that it was much better on a 4 wheel drive. When we got to the road, we thought they had to be kidding! It wasn’t any worse (and I think it was probably better) than the road in the village in Kenya. We were a bit concerned because we had a Toyota Corolla, but it was totally fine. We could have used a little higher clearance in a few spots, but it really wasn’t bad at all.
When we were getting into the village, I stopped to let a bicycle go by and he (Frank) stopped to tell us where we should stay and that if we wanted to go out on a boat to snorkel, he had one and could take us out. He said he’d let us get settled and then he’d discuss it with us. In the end, we followed him on his bike criss-crossing the village until we finally found the place where we were going to stay (the first one was closed.) We did go out with Frank on the boat the next morning and went snorkeling at a nearby island. I hadn’t been snorkeling since I was in Zanzibar in 2002 and did much better this time remembering to breath through my mouth. Dave hadn’t been since he was 5 or 6 and he had a blast. It was like swimming through a tropical aquarium. I think we’ll try to go again in Zanzibar when we’re there.
Both Saturday and Sunday morning we had “banana pancakes” on the beach (made by Justin), which were somewhere between a pancake and a crepe. You squeeze lemon juice on them, sprinkle them with sugar (good thing we got the lemon and sugar pancake things down with our British housemates already – we would have been a bit surprised) and then roll it up around the banana. They were quite good. On Saturday, we met up with some other students from Iceland that Dave had worked with at the hospital and had a barbecue with them on the beach (this time a la Steven).
Some of the other MSU students had also gone to the lake for the weekend and went on a kayaking trip to a nearby island. We decided just to stay at the Cape, and I’m so glad we did. First, we probably spent ¼ of what they did. Second, the island was much closer than we thought – it was almost an extension of the cape, and we kayaked partway around it Sunday morning. Third, we had a lot of interaction with the Malawians in the village. Besides Frank, Justin and Steven, we bought keychains carved by Isaac and his brother, didn’t buy anything from Lameck or Shakespeare but talked with them quite a bit, and wandered through the village with at least one child on each hand all the way.
One afternoon I was out walking in the village and came upon a lot of kids playing while their mothers played a local ball game. I picked up the toddler that walked up to me, then the older kids kept bringing more of them to me. So I held each one (some two at a time) until the big kids started picking each other up and trying to hand each other to me to hold. Then one asked for a hug, so I ended up hugging all 20 kids, most several times. Then one started playing a hand clapping game with me, so of course I did that with all 20 some kids as well, again most of them several times. Then I took a picture and they all yelled and screamed when they saw it on the camera screen. One of the women invited me to sit with them to watch the game, which I did for a bit before the sun started to set and I figured I should probably get back since Dave didn’t actually know where I was.
Before we left on Sunday, there were a few Australian guys who had been stuck at the lodge/camp for several days. When we found out that they were headed to Blantyre, we offered them our backseat and ended up giving them a ride all the way home. They are on a 6 month London to South Africa tour, which sounded like quite an adventure – maybe something to try some day! We had an interesting conversation with them all the way home. We also stopped 4 times on the side of the road – first for lunch (a very yummy but very slow chicken curry!), then for mushrooms, then for mangoes, then for pineapple. I didn’t stop for the tomatoes, but I should have because when we went to the market on Monday, they were twice the usual price! We had hoped to drive up onto the Zomba plateau, which was gorgeous from the bottom, but after our long lunch break, we didn’t have enough time to do it and still get home before dark. Maybe on our overland trip someday!
When we got home on Sunday evening, Dave’s parents were here, which was fun. I hadn’t seen them since June. Since we had a car and not much in the fridge, we went to the Italian restaurant for dinner. Cheryl joked over dinner that the arrived in Malawi and the first thing they had to eat was Italian food! I grudgingly took the car back Monday morning. I so didn't want to give it up!
So we had a great weekend, loved the lake and would recommend it to anyone else traveling in Malawi or Southern Africa.