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All at sea on the shores of Lake Malawi

Women carrying wood, MalawiMalawi. Simple, small, dog-eared, friendly Malawi. The road had been potholed and repaired so often that it resembled the patchwork trouser knees of the smiling village children who lived along it. The southerly headwinds persisted as I joined the lakeside and followed it down through the country. Lake Malawi makes up a fifth of the country’s surface area and is the world’s ninth largest lake. It’s home to more species of freshwater fish than any other body of water in the world.

While tracing the lakeshore one morning, shoulders hunched, brow furrowed and eyes narrowed into the tedious wind, my left pedal snapped off. The sudden loss of the platform on which I’d been standing sent me plunging down a slope and into a bush. When I extracted myself I had to sit down and bite on my lower lip while pulling an acacia thorn out of my heel. It had entered the back of the sole of my foot, narrowly missed the heel bone, and embedded itself more than an inch deep in my flesh. Thankfully, less than a mile on I found a village and bought a new pedal.

The little-used road (despite being the country’s main transport artery) made a sudden steep climb away from the water and at each switchback I enjoyed a far-reaching view over my shoulder superior to the previous one. Traversing a fertile valley a little inland, I stopped under a rotting thatched structure to eat lunch. A late-teenage boy walking past spotted me and froze on the spot, startled. He stared in terror for several moments then ran a frantic few yards and scrambled out of sight up a tree. Ten minutes later he jumped down with a large green fruit that I didn’t recognise. He stood stock still, only a few yards from me, as if mid-stride, in the hot midday sun staring at me and clutching his fruit. He said nothing and remained there for half an hour until I left. I genuinely think he wasn’t sure if I was real or not.

Lakeside village, Malawi

I was overtaken that evening by Chris and Archie (the Scottish motorcyclists I’d last seen in Uganda) and joined them the following morning at Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay. We pitched tents in this idyllic tourist lodge set on a terraced hill over the lake and removed from the town. I’d stayed in this paradise back in 2006 and had looked forward to returning for months. Finally I unwound and let the exhaustion overtake. A month of toil caught up with me and rendered me legless for a couple of days. Lazing in the water, paddling canoes, meeting nice people, jumping off rocks and eating nice food. Holiday.

One day at the lake was lost simply to drugs. A couple of the other tourists staying in the lodge returned from town in the morning with “some cakes” that they’d “bought on the roadside”. After swallowing several mouthfuls of the stodgy, strangely familiar but unidentifiably tasting stuff we were informed that we’d just had more-than-sufficient portions of hash cake. Sufficient for what?

Sufficient to string me out for twelve hours of confused hilarity, running jokes that made no sense, a poor but endlessly repeated impersonation of a swinging monkey, merged events, frequent dips into the now-oddly textured water in the vain attempt to sober, several meals and a mouthful of chocolate that cloyed and clogged around my tongue and among my teeth with indescribably delicious taste. Dark fell unnoticed and finally I found my rational mind clawing it’s way almost to the surface again. It reached just high enough to tell me to sleep.

My last night in Mayoka Village somehow wasn’t the quiet rest I’d planned as the bar filled with people intent on revelry and they had their way, and mine with it. The Charlie that rode out into mid-morning heat with less than an hour’s sleep behind him was a shell, a still-drunk husk. I drove that shell a gruelling 85 miles through steamy rubber plantations and further along the lake; forcing it to ignore the frequent and enticing signs for touristic beach resorts. I was a day late starting for a rendezvous in Zambia.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

Boat on Lake Malawi

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