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An East African Journal: Part 2

Following on from Part 1 (found here), one of our guests shares her diary from a family holiday on safari in Zambia followed by time spent chilling on an island in the middle of Lake Malawi with three children aged 10, 9 and 8.

Sunday 13 April

We jump into the jeep for the last time with Obi, saying our fond farewells to Christabel, Lotti and Felix, to say nothing of Robin’s House.

We flash past the roadside huts with their fabulous signs “Las Vegas bar and grill” and men drying out Palm leaves to make more thatched roofs. The road is littered with wonderfully colourful family groups: all yellows greens and reds: no sombre colours here.

Across the runway the Cessna awaits, ready to fly us to Lilongwe in Malawi where we must stop for immigration and from there on to Likomo.

It seems quite a struggle to get airborne, but as we do we become aware of the African landscape below. Human endeavour always seems so trivial from above. The red ochre roads winding, or turning sharply at 90 degrees seemingly for no reason, except that presumably people have for generations wound around or turned sharply at those points, and the road simply apes their footfall. The overall effect is a set of disorderly arteries cut out of the green earth. Scrubby brush between roads and towns is like the fuzzy wiry green brushes on my dad’s old Hornby train set. The sun explodes off the ubiquitous tin roofs. The pathetically small subsistence fields are rough hewn from the land in crazy shapes: too unruly for a patchwork quilt, unless the work of a Picasso or Dali. Only the rows of crops within the fields are neat and orderly. The land is lost as we rise above the clouds to avoid turbulence. It can be glimpsed through voids in the stiff peaks of the clouds.

Our pilot tells us we will get a great view of our destination, Likomo Island (“Baobab Isle”) and particularly our resort Kaya Mawa (meaning “maybe tomorrow”). As we near the end of the flight we cross Lake Malawi, which seems littered with white shiny objects (apparently mica on the lake floor) which flash momentarily and then are consumed by the lake.

Suddenly, we get our first glimpse of Kaya Mawa. A rough cut jewel it seems: perched on the side of the island a couple of tasteful plantation umbrellas can be seen scattered about the cove, some thatched huts and plenty of trees; blissfully little else.

Likomo airport is a shack and an airstrip. We are greeted immediately by an effusive blond Irish lady who introduces herself as Michelle, wearing a tie dye beach dress and aviators, who whisks us and our baggage into another of the customised Toyota jeeps to which we are now so accustomed. Two little African boys insist on pushing us, though clearly it’s not necessary, and then they hang on for dear life as we pick up speed, convulsed in fits of giggles.

Graceful African women swish silently past bearing pots or tins on their heads, groups of boys run out from their yards to enthusiastically greet us. A diminutive boy in grubby purple shorts and a Chelsea shirt races towards us cheering and giving us a thumbs up.

The landscape is rugged, hilly, peppered with brightly flowering bushes and generally rather beautiful.

We round a corner and a crude wooden painted security bar tended by an old black man appears, shortly followed by a dog, Basil. Basil is immediately mobbed by the children, but, though a little confused, seems delighted.

A wonderfully exaggerated champagne flute filled with ice and fresh mango juice is thrust into the adults’ hands as we sprawl in the outdoor bar. Michelle introduces us to the bar man, Martin, and gives the most minimal of briefings. The children consume their tumblers of mango juice hastily and have soon created the perfect photo, as they are lined up on the beach with their backs to us looking out to sea, Basil in their midst, also sitting with his back to us. Michelle’s partner Rich (the chef) appears and asks what the kids like to eat. Still clutching our flutes, we are led by Michelle to the beach house.

Ulissa is a small shack huddled under a vast baobab tree, a small garden surrounds her and at her entrance is a wonderful covered terrace for lounging. Inside the first room are two picture-perfect twin beds bedecked in white with diaphanous mosquito nets, and covered in a pattern of fresh pink bougainvillea petals. A third bed is suspended by ropes from the ceiling, similarly decked out in white, and freshly petalled.

The floors are smooth, cool concrete, and apart from an upturned half-boat which serves as a shelf, the room is empty. Through a door is the bathroom, bare stone walls, a garden within it and part with no roof: a kind of courtyard. Beyond that is a further area with a wonderful stone bath.

Our room has the same wonderful white bed with a runner embroidered with shells at its foot, and opens onto another terrace.

We are introduced to Wilson, a waiter, and lunch begins with butternut hummus reminiscent of peanut butter, but without being cloying. Then comes seared chicken on a bed of fried vegetable rice with a delicious sweet chilli sauce on the side. Coffee is offered and gratefully accepted, as the kids’ race off for the beach. We wander back to the room to don swimsuits and we race into the lake as the light begins to fade. Enormous breakers knock us over, I swim out a little into the lake, revelling in the clear, warm, salt less water.

The sun is beginning to set so we take up position on the huge freestanding thatched hammock on the beach. Nick and I order Mojitos from Martin who teaches us to say “Zikomo Kuambiri” (“thanks very much”). It is a rich, rewarding sunset; big lengthways splodges of pink and pale yellow which intensify as the sun sinks and which are topped off with the African indigo sky.

Dinner is served on the beach; a delicious grilled haloumi salad with onion marmalade and powerful mint leaves, followed by beef on a bed of butternut mash and fingers of sesame roasted carrot around it. Dessert is a superb slim sticky toffee tart with ginger custard.

Replete, we saunter back under the African stars to the softly glowing outdoor lights of Ulissa. The children are snuggled into their mosquito net cocoons, asleep. Initially I think the loud crashing of the breakers seemingly only feet from our door will prevent sleep, but minutes later I am gone too.

 Monday 14th April

 I am vaguely aware that the others are up and see my brood heading into the lake, so I stick on a bikini and join in.

We begin to feel hungry and head off for breakfast. Darrington introduces himself, and tumblers of fresh banana and other fruit are produced along with yoghurt and miniature jars of granola. There are homemade muffins too.

We wander to the “office” which is an office in name only: a wonderful big lounging sofa, highly polished sections of tree trunks serve as coffee tables and an upturned half boat full of books. We use the internet to check emails, and check out the adjoining shop.

At 3pm I ambled over to the pagoda for my complimentary treatment which turned out to be a foot massage with heavenly peppermint oil. I left the pagoda walking on air with lovely silky soft feet. I took the girls to get their finger and toe nails painted and bought myself a gorgeous but simple beach bag studded with shell like buttons for $14. A bargain!

We ordered sun downers at the house today and they arrive bang on 5.30pm; a weak one for me and strong for Nick and some warm roasted peanuts still in their brown husks.We feed the kids and bundle them into bed.

As we stroll off, the night watchman who has been perched on a nearby upturned boat on the beach approaches noiselessly and sits under our Baobab. How fabulously reassuring that is. We have a table for two right by the sea, Chicken liver pâté on soda bread is followed by pork with I have no idea what, but it tasted unbelievably good. Topped off by the simple but delicious choc mousse.

 Tuesday 15 April

The children wake at 5am. Decidedly unhappy face.

We kayak and snorkel with the kids, and I feel I have earned some time with a book on the lounger. I dip into the Malawi guide and read about its shockingly violent history, riven apart by the many competing slave traders, mostly Middle Eastern. As I look up from these horrendous tales, a cheery young African woman swishes past in a green sari skirt and yellow t-shirt. We exchange hellos. Shortly she returns and says: “Hello! I want best friend you”. As no one has spoken to me in this way since I was at primary school (especially as we are not even introduced) I’m uncharacteristically lost for words. “Oh” I say. ” Yes, or no?” she replies, smiling. I don’t directly answer but ask whether she works here and says she has caught lots of fish (she’s clutching a clear plastic bag full of fish clearly fresh from the lake). She smiles and half turns; “see you soon”. I guess we are friends then.

The beach is empty apart from a small African boy practising backflips and two others strolling past the old grey and blue boat which lies in the middle of the beach, as if waiting to slip down into the lapping water.

Nick joins on the loungers to await the Mojitos. Life is tough.

Wednesday 16 April

 Strange tapping sounds and low incomprehensible voices in the night, probably just before dawn. I think it is the fishermen tapping the side of their boats to attract fish.

Mid-morning we jump into the old wooden speedboat and head for Suzie’s Katunda textiles workshop some 10 minutes away by boat. A three storey, chaotic colonial style house can be seen beyond the simple rickety jetty. We amble through the bougainvillea and other exotic bushes around the side of the rambling house and come to an open sided shack: it’s nothing more than a tin roof on wooden posts. It is heaving with people bustling about, squatting on the floor making sisal mats, or beading and threading the tumbled glass which they use to make fabulous trailing diaphanous “curtains”, or chandeliers. The children (Oliver included) make beaded necklaces and bracelets for me.

Thursday 17 April

 A beautiful soft day, hordes of local children swimming and playing in the waves creating the most unique and idyllic backdrop.

At 10.30, as planned we board the little wooden speedboat for our tour of the island, the lake isn’t at its smoothest, but it’s perfectly fine. Shortly we stop to snorkel at a protected cove, its cacti clad sides and basin formed by huge rocks, seemingly tossed there by some giant hand. The whole lake appears volcanic with its up thrust islands. The waters are warm and shallow yet teeming with African lake fish.

The children climb on the vast monolithic rocks, and eventually we haul ourselves back into the boat. At the next cove we stop for lunch, apart from an apparently abandoned old wooden boat, the cove is ours. We settle down uninterrupted to our wraps and vegetable fried rice, topped off with bananas and muffins. We are strangely hungry, with no excuse.

Our third stop is in an open bay, with signs of habitation. Two tiny half naked locals are standing on the shore, not much interested in us, but fascinated by our boat as soon as we leave it. We turn off the beach and reach a road. The squalor of the street and the dingy stalls bordering it is depressing. The brightly painted images on the restaurant and a couple of shops do not diminish this feeling.

A church, called “St. Peter’s Cathedral” suddenly looms over us. It is much like a European monastery in construction: reached by wandering through a leafy courtyard but the roofs are corrugated iron which gives a strangely temporary feel to this structure which has stood in this form since 1903. Apparently it’s about the same size as Westminster cathedral.

There is a thronging welcoming party in the waters round our boat. They are shouting something which we cannot understand at first, but gradually it dawns on us they are chanting ” picture! picture!”. I need no second bidding and am thrilled to have such willing, joyful subjects frolicking in the water, picking each other up and laughing uncontrollably.

We tear ourselves away and head home.

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