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From highlands to islands

Wednesday, July 11th 2001

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.

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