Getting Sick up the Mountain – Livingstonia, Malawi
Facebook has all the photos for this part of the trip – click here to have a look.
30th November – 2nd December 2013
Livingstonia is a town set high up on the Nyika Plateau, towering 900m above Lake Malawi and is just a few kilometres west of Chitimba – straight up. Not to be confused with Livingstone in Zambia, Livingstonia is an old mission station which has developed into a town. Cape Maclear had been the original site for the 1894 Scottish mission but on realising that their lakeside location was rife with malaria, the missionaries moved their calling 600km north, to the heights to escape the mosquitos who were killing all those they were trying to save. With it’s colonial stone buildings perched on the edge of this escapment and beautiful tree-lined streets, one might forgive you for thinking you’d gone back one hundred years in time. People walk the earthen streets in their Sunday best as if they’ve just been to church, and are proud of their University, school, museum, hospital and mission church that still serve as the central hub around which community life revolves. Getting up to Livingstonia is a tale in itself…
From Chitimba Camp you can approach Livingstonia in two ways. Walk or drive. Unfortunately neither of these is terribly pleasant. I had originally planned to drive up, but on discussing this with the owner of the bar, I suddenly had second thoughts. The “Gorode” (as it’s referred to by the locals) up the almost-vertical escarpment is a series of 21 switchbacks on a single gravel track. I’m talking about wheels-almost-over-the-edge type driving. The journey is said to take around an hour and some of the switchbacks involve a three point turn to get around the corner. If faced with a vehicle coming down while you’re going up, one of you needs to reverse until you find a switchback with a little room for you to manoeuvre around each other – and there aren’t that many about. You can’t drive if it’s been raining, as your vehicle will simply slide off the edge. I’m not the best when it comes to heights, sliding mud, crumbling road verges or reversing down cliff-dropping switchbacks and so I elected to walk up instead.
(Turns out the Beast would have managed the climb no problem, but without someone with me to spot I’m kind of glad I didn’t drive)
Chitimba Camp can arrange for a local guide to take you up to the top, and so at 5:00am I was ready for my pathfinder, Lawrence, at the gate. The distance from Chitimba to Livingstonia by road (via Lukwe) is around 18kms, and with a total elevation of around 900m this was bound to be a tough walk. The guides know ‘shortcuts’ straight up between the switchbacks which cuts the distance down somewhat but your’e climbing almost straight up. I had packed a backpack for one night’s stay at the top but with my camera equipment and two litres of water, I wasn’t travelling light. I’ve walked up Table Mountain in Cape Town before and, aside from the weight I was carrying, this was a fairly similar trek.
As I’ve mentioned before, Malawi is one of the poorest African countries so very few local people have vehicles. The only way up and down from Livingstonia is by walking, and for some, this happens every day, sometimes multiple times a day. On my way up I passed several groups of mostly women (and a few older children) walking down absolutely laden with produce balanced on their heads and carried in their arms. I asked Lawrence about this and he told me that the villagers bring fruit, vegetables, grain and other food stuff up and down the mountain daily. These women were mostly barefoot and I couldn’t help but be reminded how hard some people work to earn a meagre living.
After hours and hours of climbing, the punishing gradient tapered off and Lawrence took me down a side road to my place of rest for the night. Lukwe Eco Camp is perched precariously on the very edge of a sharp drop off and has views all the way to Lake Malawi in the East. The grass huts jut out over the edge and have the most fantastic views. The camp has been built from local resources and is run on solar power and wood fuel. Lukwe have their own organic gardens and compost toilets which require the scooping of ash and soil, from nice neat pots, into the tank below to cover your contribution.
Lukwe is around 4kms before the actual town of Livingstonia so I dumped most of my things in my grass hut, thanked Lawrence for getting me up to the top and discussed a meeting time for him to walk up and fetch me the next morning. I didn’t necessarily need a return service as the only way is down, but when you see how hard these people work for every penny, spending of $10 becomes a little more purposeful. Lawrence would see me at 7am the next morning.
I had heard about Manchewe Falls and thought I’d visit this site on my way up to Livingstonia. After walking past a few remote huts and farmland, I suddenly realised I was being followed. Every time I looked back, giggling boys would dart back into the bush to hide. I felt a little like the pied piper after a while and gestured for them to come and walk with me which they did. They lead me to the Manchewe Falls and we all had a bottle of Fanta together. The falls were a nice little attraction, dropping down in to the valley below and surrounded by lush forest.
It took about another hour of walking uphill to get to Livingstonia where I bumped into a group of travellers from Chitimba Camp along the way. This incredible town is built along a one kilometre tree-lined dirt road. We decided to explore together as a group and stopped in at the market for a bit of fresh produce. We popped into the barber’s shop to see about a hair cut for one of the boys, but the barber had a queue and looked to be fairly busy (I’m not sure the styles on offer were what he was hoping for either) so we tried to visit the museum in Stone House instead, but it was closed. Near the end of town we dropped into the Craft Coffee Shop and met the shop keeper, Isaac. I was parched and so we stayed for a drink. Isaac speaks perfect English and was well versed in African history. Taking time out to listen to his stories was well worth the stop! Since the mission establishment in Livingstonia over a hundred years ago, the town has been visited constantly by missionaries who continue to educate the local children and adults. Livingstonian folk speak the best English of all the African people I have ever met.
At the far end of town the impressive church stands proudly between the trees. We couldn’t help but notice the enormous stained glass window depicting David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer after whom the town is named. Obed, the enthusiastic caretaker, lead us on an extended tour through the church halls, past the choir and up onto the roof, through the rafters and out onto the open air bell tower from where we could see all the way out over the edge of the escarpment and down to Lake Malawi.
Livingstonia Church Choir in rehearsal for a special event – amazing!!
My group of merry travellers decided to stop for a bit of lunch, but by this time I wasn’t feeling good and simply ordered a plate of rice. I’m not one to get ill and hadn’t been sick once since the trip began. In fact, it’s rare if I even get a cold once a year. I attribute my incredible immune system to my many teaching years, being exposed to just about every strain of germ and virus going around, so it’s very unlike me to feel unwell.
We all walked together back down the hill to our camps. The rest of the travellers were staying at Mushroom Farm, a kilometre further than Lukwe and so we’d arranged for Lawrence and myself to meet them on the way down – giving Lawrence an extra bit of cash for the group of us. After walking the 16kms almost straight up to Livingstonia and a further 4kms back to Lukwe, I was not in a good place. A recent loss of appetite over the past two weeks had meant that I hadn’t been eating much and with quite a strenuous trek up the mountain that day, my resources were depleted and I crashed in my hut and slept for a few hours.
At small camps in these remote places, you tend have to put your dinner orders in at around lunch time so that the cooks can acquire exactly what they need for their guests during the day. On arriving earlier that afternoon I had optimistically chosen the steak, mash and vegetables off the Lukwe menu. There were only two other guests at Lukwe that night and so I sat down with them for dinner. The food came out, I stared at it, poked at the rice but couldn’t touch a thing. You’re always at risk offending people by sending their lovely home cooked meals back to the kitchen but I asked that someone explain that I wasn’t well and that the staff were welcome to have my dinner. I also though it wise to tell someone that I wasn’t well and the lovely African lady who runs the place, went to speak to the European owner about what to do. He mentioned that he was driving down the mountain the next morning at 11am and I could get a lift with him to Chitimba. With slight relief and with no dinner, I staggered back to my hut and called Lawrence on his cell phone. In my best simple English tried to explain the situation to him. I didn’t want him walking up in the morning if I was getting a lift down in a car. He seemed to understand eventually but, as with most lovely African, when they find out someone is sick, they are always hugely concerned and want to help. I explained that I would be fine for the night, and as I was getting a lift, I’d be back in Chitimba without further problems in the morning. I had no way of informing the other travellers, who I knew would be waiting for me at 7am down the road, but figured they would head down by themselves after my no-show.
Things progressed from bad to worse – back in my hut I got progressively more ill. I was lethargic, clammy, was cramping badly and had dire nausea. Without any immediate (I mean “in my hut” immediate) access to fresh water, food or medication I felt completely useless. I managed to get hold of Boris by text and he told me to get to a hospital as he was worried it may be malaria. I had one of the worst nights of my life, fighting nausea, cramping, and in my exhausted state, had to trek up the pathway every time I needed to use the compost toilet… I should have just slept sitting down on it.
I must have fallen asleep in the early hours of the morning, and at 7am dragged myself to the bar to ask if the owner could take me to Livingstone hospital but he wasn’t around. I went back to bed, waiting for him to leave a little later, and was eventually woken by the cleaning lady at 11am who told me I needed to be out of the hut so she could clean. I explained that I wasn’t well and was waiting to catch a lift down the mountain with the owner. She looked puzzled and said that she didn’t think he was going that way today. My first hope was that she didn’t know what she was talking about, but I got up and stumbled down the pathway to the bar area in search of the owner. I couldn’t find him, but his African assistant confirmed the worst – he had decided not to go down that day after all.
Well that was just about the moment all my hopes came crashing down around me. I could try to walk up to the Livingstonia hospital, but that was 4kms away, uphill, and would take well over and hour. It also meant that I was walking in the opposite direction to where my car and my medicine was, and without those two lifelines, I felt hopeless. It was too late to phone Lawrence to come and get me as it would take him an hour and a half at least to get up to me. What a calamity of events, I’d cancelled my guide, I’d missed the cool early morning start and now I’d be hours behind the rest of the group from Mushroom Farm. I decided to head down and hope for the best
The next three hours are a bit of a blur, anticipating malaria, I knew I needed to get myself to help fairly quickly but with the delay and miscommunication, I was setting off in the midday sun. I had a few snack bars to chew on and a two litre bottle, so that’s all the water I could carry. In the days leading up to this, I had been surviving on nuts and fruit and had not had a proper meal in ages. Coming down the steep descent was torture on the legs which had turned to a shaking mess. I found a stick to use for balance and would change course just to walk in shade, even if it meant a longer path. I started counting my steps to take my mind off things but with the sun beating down on me, I was absolutely exhausted and was losing what little energy I had left, fast.
At one point, I spotted a vehicle heading down but as I was on the steep decent in-between the switchbacks I wasn’t on the road to flag it down. I tried to pick up pace but it had passed the road beneath me before I could get down. It was slow going but all I could think about was getting back down in one piece. My vision was hazy, the weight of my bag wasn’t helping and I had long since finished my water when I heard someone call out from behind me.
It turns out, Green (yes, I checked a number of times – that is his name), a 20 year old local man had been visiting his grandfather up in Livingstonia and was now on his way back down the mountain. He offered to help and guide me down. For fear of seeming like a feeble tourist who can’t handle something these locals do everyday, I didn’t want to tell him how I was feeling and tried to keep up with his blistering pace. Eventually I asked him to slow down as I was starting to lose my footing regularly on the steeper parts. I wanted to throw up but I’m as stubborn as an old mule and couldn’t believe my body was shutting down on me like this. We made it out of the steepest section of the walk, where the land gradually slopes though the town of Khondowe and down to Chitimba Camp on the lake – another 5kms away. Leaving the wooded slopes behind us, we were walking under the harshest sun and my water had long since gone.
I took my mind off how blady awful I felt by talking to Green about his schooling, his family and about life on the lake. We went back and forth together with my simple words and his broken English. As with most Africans I spoke to along my journey, he was incredibly resilient, happy with very little and saw the world through content and hopeful eyes. We parted ways in Khondowe at the foot of the mountain and I thanked him with the money I had intended on giving Lawrence. Another forty minutes of sun slogging, I stumbled past the carving stalls near the entrance to Chitimba Camp when Lawrence appeared, completely unaware of day’s events and now completely ashamed of himself for not guiding me down. He had been busy carving my name into a wooden keyring to thank me for giving him work the day before. It didn’t help how many times I tried to explain the situation in my simplest English, he just couldn’t understand why I hadn’t phoned him to ask him to help me. That’s African benevolence for you right there.
Getting back to the cruiser, I consumed all my purified water in one downing before standing under a cold shower for almost half an hour, too tired, too weak to move. The thought of drying myself seemed a chore… I got myself to the bar area and got some electrolyte mix, coke and more water into my system before collapsing on a chair where I sat and stared, completely drained, out over the lake until fell asleep. I’d started to feel better that evening and figured that this had probably been a case of heat exhaustion and lack of sustenance than malaria and so the urgency of getting to hospital soon abated.
I needed to press on the following day and decided against heading up to the Nyika Plateau in favour of finding some more wonderful camping spots on the lake further south. Nyika Plateau is higher up than Livingstonia and the only way to get there is by going around the plateau, 100kms south to come back almost 100kms north, something I didn’t have time for. So I turned the Beast south towards Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay.
Not five kilometres into my day’s journey and just outside the town of Khondowe where I had walked the day previously, a robust and very official looking lady stepped into the road ahead with her left arm high indicating that I should stop. Road blocks of this type are common; where are you going? where have you been? can I see your drivers licence and insurance (that’s not a question, that’s a command). She sauntered over to me, her voluminous bust had the shirt buttons at bursting point and her skirt stretched to capacity round her rear end. Leaning on my open window she peered into the cruiser, spying my recently washed pants and bras hanging from the washing line over my back seat.
“Where are you going?” – here we go…
“I’m going to Mzuzu and then to Nkhata Bay, Mayi” I respond in the respectful tone, addressing her as madam in Chichewa.
“Very good” she says “I’m requesting transportation to Rumphi. Let’s go.”
Well what choice did I have but to oblige? I had just become the official escort for the Malawian traffic police.