Malawian water – beauty, bore holes, and bilharzia.

15 Feb

By fluke, my timing of arrival in Nkhotakota meant that I could take the famously old and battered Illala ferry down the lake to Monkey Bay. I decided to go for it, hoping to spend some time in Cape McClear – a lakeside fishing village popular with backpackers, before heading West to Lilongwe and leaving Lake Nyala behind.

The ferry stops way offshore all lit up in the dark at any time between 10pm and 4am, then blows its horn. Or sometimes it doesn’t blow it’s horn. Someone will probably wake you up when it arrives. Just don’t worry about it. You can’t get a ticket until you’re actually on the boat. And no, nobody knows the prices. When the you see/hear the ferry you head down to the darkness of the beach and start haggling at the same time as everyone else with 3 guys who will push you and your luggage in a small boat out to about 100m, until the water is above their shoulders (300KW / £1.20). They are then able to start shouting until another boat finds you with a torch, or by light of lightning flash. You then climb into the boat that finds you, which motors you up to the ferry, and you climb the ladder up onto the deck, push back the people crowding the top of the ladder, and haul your bags and bike up after you. Then you wait for a couple of hours, then you can try and buy a ticket.

While getting some kip in the 2nd class section, water suddenly poured through the roof in a single short lived waterfall over me and my bags. I moved across the room to another bench. Everyone else was dry. An hour later and another waterfall splashed down through the roof over me and my bags. Again, the only waterfall in the room.

A bit damp and slightly paranoid about mzungu-seeking waterfalls, I moved out to the lower deck. Looking out from the side, the big steel Illala disturbed the still blue lake hardly at all, making for a wierdness in the water, almost computerised in its bright blue colour, the glass sheet surface rolling around the Illala. There were hardly any other passengers. 2 English backpackers had been on the boat for 3 days and, similarly to me, had no cash. We were relying on the lone ATM at Monkey Bay being active. We arrived at about 4pm and quickly found out that the ATM was, you guessed it, inactive. Luckily for me, Chip was in Cape McClear and had offered to lend me $100. The backpackers had to get a return bus journey to the nearest big town.

I loaded up with water from the bore hole* and started quickly along the 20km corrugated mud path to Cape McClear until I came across a caricaturist’s idea of a few steep hills. I had to take a breather at each peak and on one speedy descent became involved in a motorbike accident.

2 motorbikes came round the corner leaning in and bouncing over the corrugated mud, one trying to overtake the other on the inside and coming straight for me, I hug the edge of the path and the overtaker slips out as he passes me and slides in a cloud of dust. The other motorist looks back briefly and carries on. Fab. So I ride over to see if the man on the ground needs to be put down or something. I ask him if he’s ok, and he says he is, I thought I ought to do something so I pat him on the back a bit. Then he can’t start his bike so I lend him my mechanical know-how – I point out that his chain has come off. We put it back on, I give him a push start and, like I haven’t been helpful enough, I also advise him to ‘take it easy’.

At Cape McClear I find Chip at Malambe camp, which has a great kitchen. I cook dinner for the next 3 nights with Chip and those 2 cash-poor backpackers (Leonora and Guy). We buy big chambo fish (about 350KW each) and tiger fish (150KW / 60p each) from Cape McClear’s fishermen on the beach. 1 tiger fish each is easily enough and chambo are much bigger. Amazing value. The prices change every day depending on the average catch. We haggle in the markets for tomatoes, garlic, onions, eggs, chilli peppers, bread, oil and pasta.

Leo and I go to Malawi’s premiere UNESCO World Heritage Site – a National Park called Water Point. We ask around and find that it’s easy enough to sneak in and avoid the entry fee. It’s a beautiful rocky area where the lake is full of unwary bright fish and deep crevices to jump into.

Bilharzia plagues certain areas in the lake. It’s a worm that digs into your skin and lives in your body before laying eggs and popping out of somewhere or other. You can treat it with well timed medication – you wait for 6 weeks, just long enough for them to develop, then you take a handfull of pills in one day. There’s also a lot of malaria along the lake and plenty of people I’ve met suffer from infected wounds.  I’ve got a couple of cuts that I had to disinfect every day for 3 weeks, because they don’t heal in this humidity. But what’s that got to do with the price of fish.

*Bore holes – water in Malawi is generally drinkable. Since week 1 I’ve been drinking water pumped up from bore holes found in small villages, spring water in Livingstonia and tap water in most places. The only place where the tap water looked bad was at Cape McClear’s clinic. I stopped by just for some water. A nurse showed me to a tap and the water was definitely brown. Very distinctly brown. I questioned her several times about the colour, and it’s drinkability. She reassured me and I decided to continue with my brown water. I drank about 2 litres of the stuff before pouring the rest out to refill at a borehole infront of an interested crowd (obviously) who gasped at the colour. Woops. I’m writing this 2 weeks later, so still alive.


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