Articles tagged with "africa"

Roques de García

Roques de García

I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. A small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there were busloads of tourists. I wandered around the huge rocks trying to avoid the crowds.

Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Just a few hours after standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa, I was back in London, getting a night bus home.

Across the caldera

Across the caldera

I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.

Teide

Teide

But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain.

In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road to high altitude, and across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited so I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned out in any case that the trails were all closed due to ice.

So I was limited to the upper cable car station only. I breathed the cool thin air, and looked out over the caldera. Far below, a convoy of Hell’s Angels was going along the road.

Puerto de la Cruz

Puerto de la Cruz

By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava had been. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu.

As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back to La Orotava. In the evening, rain battered down, the gutters filled with rushing streams, and the streets of La Orotava were empty.

La Orotava

La Orotava

On another grey misty morning in La Laguna, I walked to the bus station to go to warmer parts. I headed for La Orotava, on the west side of the island. The bus didn’t take long, and as we headed down the motorway the weather got a bit better. La Orotava is a hilly town, and the place I was staying was at the top of a very steep road. Once I’d recovered, I headed back down to have a look around. The views over the town to the sea were nicer than the views of La Laguna in the drizzle had been.

La Laguna

La Laguna

I’d passed through Tenerife a couple of times on my way to and from La Palma, and I’d seen the peak of Teide from 90 miles away at the Roque. I finally got to stay on the island when there was a scientific meeting there that I needed to attend. I made my way to La Laguna, in the north of the island, and spent three days there. Most of the time it was misty and cold. It had been 23°C in the south but La Laguna was uphill and inland.

Boat back to Tenerife

Boat back to Tenerife

Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. Sunbeams lit the town as we approached.

At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.

Up to the top

Up to the top

We drove up to the Roque de los Muchachos. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia. We walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera, and I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them.

We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who drove astronomers to the top for many years, knew the roads far too well and raced around forest curves in a way guaranteed to induce extreme car sickness. One time after a ride to the top, I felt sick for five days. So I drove down at a sedate pace and got to the bottom feeling great.

Wild road

Wild road

We drove north. Our plans were vague but involved following the coast road around the north end of the island, so we were quite surprised when the road swung far inland. We presumed we were still on the main road so we carried on, but it got narrower and narrower, and higher and higher. When we started to pass through tunnels which were just hewn from the bare rock, we decided we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.

We guessed that if we carried on, we’d get back to the main road. After an hour or so we began descending again, and eventually we did reach the right road. As we rounded a turn to look south, we could suddenly see the Isaac Newton Telescope perched on the mountain top high above us. We decided to head up there.

Los Tilos

Los Tilos

As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, which is claimed to be a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike.

La Cumbrecita

La Cumbrecita

From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.

West coast

West coast

We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater.

Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.

The volcanoes

The volcanoes

A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which I mostly disagreed with, but which was nevertheless useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could make sure we covered the points he raised, and avoid a referee asking the same things.

Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio.

Boat to La Palma

Boat to La Palma

Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife. We watched the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera and El Hierro to the left. I stood on deck listening to Hand Across the Ocean by the Mission and it was a great soundtrack.

Respect to the Mulanje Massif

Respect to the Mulanje Massif

Progress was quite slow on the way down: it seemed much harder to see the red marks in many places. Whenever I had to stop and look around for the next mark I was startled by the absolute stillness and quiet all around. But I made it to the bottom with (I thought) plenty of time to get back to Chambe, and walked quickly to where I had left Stern. There was no sign of him or anyone else, and I shouted his name a couple of times, but heard no reply. I thought perhaps he’d moved down the path to somewhere with more shelter, and walked on, occasionally shouting, but never hearing any reply. After a while I decided he must have abandoned me, and I began walking as fast as I could for the hut.

For a while I thought I was making good progress, and though I sometimes didn’t know if I was on the right path or not, I kept coming to familiar places. I walked on, and I could see Chambe peak getting closer and closer. The sun set, but I thought I was near enough to make it back to the hut in the last of the daylight. As the stars were coming out I was still optimistic. In a fit of well-preparedness I had actually brought a torch along with me, though I had thought I couldn’t possible need it, so I picked my way on by torchlight.

Somewhere along the way I managed to take a wrong turn. It was amazingly difficult to follow the path by torchlight, and at one place where the path split I took the wrong branch. This became clear when the path stopped in the middle of the forest. It was pitch black now, and my mood changed instantly from optimistic to grave concern. I thought about the options, which really came down to blindly walking about in the dark in the hope that I’d find the hut, or stopping where I was for the night. In the end I decided it would be better to stay still than wander hopelessly, and I decided to see what kind of shelter I could rig up. I found two large rocks with a narrow gap between them, and decided to make something of that. For an hour or so I ripped branches and leaves off the nearby trees, to sleep on and under, and then I spent some time photographing the stunningly clear skies. If I was going to have to spend a night out in the middle of absolutely nowhere I could at least get some good night photographs out of it. I’d run out of water now, and all I had to eat was about eight small chunks of chocolate. I ate four of them now, and saved the rest until the morning. Then I spent a while blowing my whistle and flashing my torch in case anyone was looking for me, but to no avail. After an hour or so I decided to try and get some sleep. I tried not to think about the possibility of leopards and hyenas being around.

For a while I was not too uncomfortable, squeezed into that little space between the rocks. I had a jumper and a coat, and the leaves and branches seemed to have some kind of insulating effect. As the night wore on, though, it got colder and colder, and for who knows how long I was awake, shivering, and only occasionally sleeping for very short moments. Animal noises in the forest frequently made me jump up and look around. The stars slowly turned across the sky, and I watched their progress. When Mars set I knew the dawn could not be too far away, and sure enough the sky began to lighten. I’ve never been so relieved to see the dawn. By the time the sun actually rose I had packed up my stuff, tried to get all the undergrowth out of my clothes, and set off walking back up the path. It was my last day in Malawi, I was currently lost on a mountain and I needed to be in Lilongwe by the evening, so I didn’t want to hang around.

After about twenty minutes I came to a small stream, from which I tried to fill up my water bottle. It was a tiny stream and probably not the best drinking water, but I was very thirsty, and a couple of sips made me feel an awful lot better. I ate my last chocolate and walked on. Briefly I wondered what would happen if I didn’t find anyone or get found that day; I didn’t want to think about another night out in the open. But after only about another 10 minutes, I heard a shout from behind me and turned to see Stern coming over a small rise. He’d abandoned me on the mountain and not sent anyone else to meet me, and he clearly had not been out looking for me when I failed to make it back to the hut, and really I think I should have had a proper go at him. But I was so relieved to see someone that I shook his hand. He said he had waited where I left him for a long while, but left before the sun set, because he ‘didn’t want to be alone on the mountain at night’. Neither did I, pal, neither did I.

We were about an hour’s walk from the hut, and I saw now what a stupid mistake I’d made. I’d had to climb over quite a large fallen tree to take the wrong path, and in the darkness I’d not seen the right path leading off unobstructed to the left. My feet were aching terribly, I was extremely hungry and thirsty, and I was pretty cold as well, so to say I was pleased when I saw the hut again is an understatement. When I arrived I found that all the people staying at the hut that night had heard there was someone lost on the mountain, and had all been very worried. They all showered me with sympathy, and gave me fruit, soup, tea, coffee, porridge and bread. I was overwhelmed with it all and I really thought I might cry. I restored myself with all the hot food and drinks I was offered, and drank the most satisfying water I’ve ever tasted.

Gradually everyone left for their hikes, and eventually I was the last one in the hut. I spent a while tending to my battered feet (when I took my boots off, they were actually steaming) before wearily setting off, still with a three hour hike to do to get down the mountain. I don’t really know how I made it but I did, and I felt another flood of relief when I got back to the Forestry Station. I got the best cold Coke I’ve ever tasted at a bottle shop, then started to make my way back to Blantyre. I got a truck to Chitakali, then a bus to Limbe, on which I fell absolutely fast asleep. I woke to find myself slumped embarrassingly against the woman next to me. Then it was just a quick minibus to Blantyre. Back at Doogle’s, where I was staying, I had a more refreshing hot shower than I’ve ever had before.

Then I walked into town to buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe and some food. I spent lavishly on the bus but when I saw it I couldn’t have been more pleased. I think it was the most comfortable bus I’ve been on anywhere in the world. In my wrecked state I took a taxi from Doogle’s to the bus depot, got on board and fell asleep. I slept right through until Lilongwe four hours later, and got a cab to a hostel, where in a hopelessly vague arrangement me and John had said we’d probably try and end up at. As I paid the taxi driver I heard a familiar voice behind me and remarkably enough it turned out we had both made it there. There was one bed spare at the hostel and once again greatly relieved I checked in.

And that was all the adventure over, really. I spent the evening explaining my wild and dishevelled appearance to John and Jessica, who I had met on Likoma Island and was now here, and raging at John because he’d flown here from Mzuzu, before passing out. In the morning we made our way to the airport for the weekly flight back to London. Ten hours later we arrived at Gatwick and headed off into the night.

The highest man in Central Africa

The highest man in Central Africa

The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. ‘My stomach has opened!’ he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I’d be able to find my way to the peak OK.

After about half an hour’s more walking, he said he’d stop here and wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn’t see the path ahead I shouldn’t try and go on. We agreed that he’d either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we’d been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.

For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I’d need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I’d reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who’d made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.

The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I’d find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.

Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I’d yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn’t given up that I ran the rest of the way.

Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.

The deep south

The deep south

The following morning I got up at 6.30am, intending to travel to Blantyre, some 500 miles away to the south. There were two ways to go about this – inland via Mzuzu along a fast road, or along the coast, slower but more scenic. I decided to go the coast way, and found a bus heading that way. There were just two problems. First was that this was a country bus, and therefore stopped about every two minutes to pick people up and drop them off, making the journey painfully slow. Second was that the coast road had been washed away some time before about two hours south of Nkhata Bay, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere by the remnants of a bridge. There was a makeshift footbridge over the river, and on the other side there were pick-ups waiting to ferry people to Dwanga, the nearest town on the other side, from where we could get onward buses.

From Dwangwa I got a bus to Salima, and from there I got straight on a bus for Balaka. This leg was right up there in the most absurdly overcrowded journeys I’ve ever made, and once I’d squeezed myself, my backpack and my day pack into my seat, I could only move my forearms. I spent the journey trying to eat fruit without dropping it and trying to manoevre my walkman into place so I could listen to some music. I managed it, and even had time to listen to a couple of tunes before we arrived in Balaka. Once more my luck held, and I waited in the layby at Balaka for no more than a couple of minutes before I found a minibus going to Blantyre. The driver said he’d drop me off right at the door of where I was going to stay, and at 8.30pm after eleven hours on the road, five journeys and a total cost of about 7 pounds, I arrived in Blantyre.

Sadly I’d chosen to stay in a place next to the bus station, and at about 5am the next morning, the insanely loud tannoy began blaring out the day’s arrivals and departures. My intention in this part of the country was to go hiking on Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest mountain, topping out at 3002m, so I set off into town to gather some information. Blantyre was really a very pleasant city, with all the facilities a traveller needs. I managed to catch up on my e-mail, did some food shopping in the well-stocked supermarkets, bought a guidebook to Mount Mulanje, bought and sent some postcards, spent a while drinking real, real coffee in a nice little cafe, and generally enjoyed the ambience. I spent the evening relaxing and reading about the mountain, in preparation for the three day hike I planned.

So early the next morning I headed for Mount Mulanje. A quick bus journey to Limbe got me in the right places for buses to Mulanje town, and before too long I was on my way. I slept for a while along the way, and when I woke I had my first view of the mountain, rising dramatically, blue in the distance, from the endless flat tea-growing fields. I slept for a while more, then woke again to find us right next to the mountain. It’s more of a plateau than a mountain, and it rises almost sheer from the flat surroundings to about 2000m. Much of the top is gently rolling hills, but there are about 20 peaks, the highest of which, Sapitwa, was my target. From Mulanje town I got a truck to Likhubula, the starting point for the climb. At the forestry station I found a guide, called Stern, and at 11am we set off for Chambe hut, on the plateau.

It was quite a hike. For two hours it was relentlessly steep, and very hot. The views on the way kept me going, though, and we made a good pace. With just a couple of short breaks, we made it to the edge of the plateau in just under two hours. From there it was a gentle walk to Chambe hut, about an hour away. The hut was in a beautiful place, facing the dramatic Chambe peak, surrounded by woodland, and with a stream running in front of it. There was a fire inside, very welcome because it was much cooler up here than it had been at ground level. When I arrived I was the only person there, but as the day wore on more hikers arrived, and we socialised as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a magnificently clear night, and we were all looking forward to the hikes we had planned for the next day. After a fantastic instant pasta meal (these things are always more tasty in the wilderness) I turned in, ready to climb the next day

In the middle of the lake

In the middle of the lake

But we had made it to shore, and we spent a little while standing around and chatting before we set off to look for accommodation, and we found ourselves as so often the source of amusement for the local kids. We left the beach for what proved to be a long walk to where we stayed, and soon discovered an endearing Likoma habit: the kids, on seeing white people, would shout ‘HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!’ repeatedly and at the top of their voice, even if they were standing only inches away from us. Then as soon as we had passed them they’d shout ‘GOODBYE! GOODBYE! GOODBYE!’ with undimmed enthusiasm until we had disappeared over the horizon. We had many of these enjoyable encounters along the way.

We walked to the main settlement on the island, which contains a huge stone cathedral. It looked wildly incongruous among the thatched huts and baobab trees, and really quite impressive. It was built by Scottish missionaries, whose presence was really the reason these islands just off the coast of Mozambique ended up in Malawi’s hands. We wandered around it for a little while before setting off on our trek once more.

This final leg was most impressive. Baobab trees are an instantly recognisable symbol of Southern Africa, with their massive trunk and tiny branches. Especially now in the middle of winter, they were an arresting sight. These islands are known for their large numbers of baobab, and I’d seen a few on Chizumulu, but here there were lots, with almost no other vegetation around except for grass. Under the deep blue skies it was a remarkable sight. We crossed this field and found on the other side the steep walk down to the beach where we were going to stay.

Here, more relaxation was the order of the day. There really was nothing to do except make occasional forays up the steep hill to look around the island. I had to spend two days here before the steamer arrived for the return leg to the mainland, and saw quite a lot of Likoma island. I took possibly too many photos of the remarkable field of baobab trees. I plucked up enough courage to brave the crocodiles and go for a swim in the lake. I saw stunning sunsets every night. After three days I was ready to move on, and on the morning the boat was supposed to be coming I (and almost everyone else there) packed up my bags and hiked up the hill to head for the dock.

The boat was supposed to be leaving at 10am, but was seen still crossing the straits at 9.30am. I knew that the unloading and loading was going to be a protracted procedure: when we arrived at Chizumulu at 3am four days previously, the boat had not left for Likoma until 9am. So I visited the market near the dock, bought some deep-fried doughballs and peanut butter, and settled in for a long wait. I slept for a while, then had a drink at the fantastic ‘Hot Coconut Bar’, then had a long conversation with a beggar, who left me an address and a demand for size 9 shoes.

The boat is in dock for a long time mainly because there’s no proper harbour on either of the islands. The boat has to wait out in the deep water while its lifeboat is used to ferry people, livestock, sacks of maize and everything else between boat and shore. It took about 10 return journeys just to get the people on board, which made me wonder how useful the lifeboat would actually be in an emergency. Eventually everything was on board except the last boatful of people, so we got in the lifeboat and motored across to the MV Nkhwazi.

Once we were on board we had a little bit more waiting around before finally, at 4.30pm, some six and a half hours late, we set off for Nkhata Bay. For the first hour and a half we were in the choppy seas between Likoma and Chizumulu, and even in the relative comfort of ‘first class’ at the back of the boat things were quite lively. I dreaded to think what it was like for those at the front. At 6pm we docked at Chizumulu, but because the boat had only come from there that morning there was not a lot of stuff to transfer between boat and shore. We were there for a couple of hours, during which time the sun set and the stars came out, and then we were off to Nkhata Bay.

The lake was calm away from the islands and the run back to the mainland was again a good one. I slept for much of the way, waking to find the strings of fishing boat lights approaching, and shortly after we arrived at Nkhata Bay. It was 1.30am but thankfully I found a place to stay that was open.

Between the islands

Between the islands

It was a half hour walk to the bay the boat was going from. When we arrived we found a ramshackle looking vessel, from which copious amounts of water were being bailed. Huge buckets were filled with water and poured over the side. But it was the only means of getting between the islands so along with three other travellers and two locals I jumped in. The boat was not a huge thing and once we were out of the sheltered cove the swell moved us up and down a quite unpleasant amount. Rapidly I began to feel that it was just a matter of time before I threw up, and for half an hour I concentrated intently on the mast and breathed deeply. Then suddenly proceedings were livened up when the sail ripped. The skipper gave it a weary glance and decided it didn’t look to bad, so we carried on. All the way buckets and buckets of water were being bailed out, and if I hadn’t felt so ill I think I’d have been quite worried.

But the next hour passed uneventfully – the boat stayed intact and I held on to my stomach contents. I was very glad to be approaching a beach on Likoma Island, firstly because I thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and secondly because the mast at this point snapped in two. We were close enough to coast the rest of the way onto the beach, but as I got off I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of us if that had happened out at sea.

From highlands to islands

From highlands to islands

The next day I decided to go across the lake to Chizumulu and Likoma Islands, close to the Mozambican shore and actually an enclave of Malawi surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters. Tom was heading to Mzuzu, the main town in the north of Malawi, from where I could travel on to Nkhata Bay, the port for the lake ferry. The drive to Mzuzu was pretty incredible, up and down dramatic hillsides with the deep blue lake on the left and forested mountains to the right. After a couple of hours hanging around in Mzuzu I got a minibus down to Nkhata Bay.

Everything I’d heard before I arrived in southern Africa suggested that bus journeys would invariably involve considerable terror and fear for one’s life. Up until now, I’d really not found that, perhaps partly because the roads were often so bad that speeds above about 40mph were impossible. But here the road was smooth tarmac, downhill and had lots of sharp bends, and I did indeed think it was all over several times as we careered around the corners at speeds that just weren’t sensible. All the while a very friendly guy called John was chatting to me about various things, smiling and laughing, apparently oblivious to the fearsome danger we were in. Between gasps and whimpers I tried to chat back.

We made it alive to Nkhata Bay. I didn’t have any idea when the boat was actually leaving for Chizumulu Island, but it turned out to be going in just an hour’s time. Having just put my bags down at a hotel I grabbed them and set off for the dock. I bought my ticket and some fruit from some dockside vendors and got on board. To my amazement the boat left exactly on time, and the run across the lake was one of the most memorable journeys I’ve made. The lake was as smooth as glass and the air was warm for the duration of the five hour crossing. I lay flat out on the upper deck, under an inky black sky split from horizon to horizon with the Milky Way. The lights of fishing boats were strung out in a line extending many miles from Nkhata Bay, but once we were clear of them the only man made things in sight were the boat and the occasional light on the distant shore. It was sad to have to disembark when we arrived at Chizumulu Island at three in the morning.

On Chizumulu island I sat back and relaxed; there really wasn’t any other choice. The island is small enough that you can walk around it in about three hours, and once you’ve done that you’ve seen it all. Because of the steamer schedule I had five days to kill between here and Likoma Island, and I killed them very slowly. This first day on Chizumulu I got up at 11am to find the day cloudy. For some hours I sat around and read, in the hope that things would look better later on, but nothing changed. In the mid-afternoon I roused myself from my hammock and set off to walk around the island, which was very pleasant. There were no roads, no cars and no electricity on the island, just a beautifully made footpath around the edge, which I followed until I was on roughly the other side of the island from where I started.

From there I decided to make a detour inland over the two low hills which dominate the island. It looked like a simple job to walk up to the top, but actually I was soon picking my way slowly and carefully through cassava plantations, taking a surprisingly long time to make any headway. And at the top there was dense woodland, so I actually didn’t get any good views at all. Disappointed, I walked down the other side back to my tent, and once again took up my position in the hammock. After it got dark the insect nightlife got going in a big way, so at 8pm I went to bed.

The next morning, appalled by my sloth-like activity the day before, I got up at 5am, and set off anticlockwise around the main path. The sky was clear and blue and the sun was about to rise. I set a blistering pace and got to the easternmost point of the island just in time for the sunrise, which was glorious. Then as the red morning light turned into yellow daytime light I circuited the island completely, stopping to sit and watch the sea at deserted beaches, chatting to local people and enjoying the scenery. When I got back to where I was staying I found a couple of other travellers about to set off to get a boat to Likoma Island, and feeling that I’d seen all there was to see on Chizumulu, I decided to go with them.