I spent the morning hiking in the Mulanje Mountain Reserve – a UNESCO heritage site. The mountain range is stunning. Waterfalls pour off the peaks, plummeting into pools and running in gushing rivulets down the mountainside. Clouds crown the peaks, breaking only on occasion for a view of the verdant top.
From the trail, with a chorus of tree frogs singing, we spot samango monkeys above in the treetops. Actually, far before we spotted them, they’d seen the dogs we are hiking with. As they jump from tree to tree, they stay so high in the canopy you have to squint to see leaves moving to catch a glimpse of their tiny dark bodies.
It is their cries we can hear below, and the corresponding hungry howl of the dogs at our feet. In truth, the dogs cannot decide if they want to pounce into the jungle with bravado for the chase and a chance at an exotic snack, or head back to the car with their courage tucked with their tail between their legs.
As we hike, I listen to the Monkey Scout. In the US, he would have been an Eagle Scout, but as an African – this man is well versed in all things jungle.
“This plant has barbs. Be careful. This plant looks edible, but the flower will kill you. See that bird? That’s a hornbill. Big cry, small bird. See this tree? This tree is a hardwood. The poachers would have a hard time finding a saw strong enough to remove this beast. Bloody poachers… Wait! Listen? Hear those monkeys? Those monkeys have mustaches. If we stand here very still and can keep the dogs close, we’ll be able to see their long wiry mustaches.”
We climbed and climbed. At one point, I threw my hands above my head, stretched my spine and felt my heart thumping as my lungs sucked in as much of humid air as they could. With mushrooms and moss under my feet, I crunched down the path, wary of the dark trail ahead. The canopy – a twisting combination of vine, eucalyptus (gum) trees, African hardwoods and brush – is so dense in places, it closes out the tropical sun above. In my mind, I know there aren’t gorillas/lion/boogeymen in this part of the world. In my imagination, I’m on a remote, slippery lime green cloudy forest trail, in the middle of nowhere, listening to animals in the jungle. Anything is possible.
My heart races.
We reached a small hydroelectric dam built to provide energy to the estate. The water is crystal clear runoff from the rainfall above. A pounding stream feeds the damn. We’ve been able to hear this water bubbling along for more than a mile. We slide into the water holding our breath. Matt, without any fear, swims up one side and down the other, climbing on the dam wall and diving into the darkest part of the pool. I join him after a lot of coaxing, name-calling, and promises that there is no way possible that a croc could be on the bottom waiting for just such an American treat. Soon enough, I’m also standing on the dam wall, shaking from the cold water and dripping wet, jumping blindly into the same dark pool screaming “cowabunga!”
Jungle badge — earned.
Whenever I travel, I love to browse — snoop, really — bookshelves. You can tell so much but what people have read, what’s bookmarked, underlined, well-worn and what has obviously been abandoned mid-chapter. At the lake cottage, I found a tiny bookshelf with books left behind by previous visitors.
I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was to find the 1950s library rules glued to the inside cover of one novel, but I am. Worthy of sharing, but still very sad nonetheless. There are epic novels to be written about the “boys” and “natives” who were denied the pleasure of reading. Even more depressing, while the colonizers have long since been run out, there are few public libraries today in Malawi. The state of public education is so poor, most folk are illiterate.
The good news is, I’ve made several delightful new friends who are working in Malawi and Tanzania for international NGOs on a variety of projects, including literacy. So, let’s hope the label alone is a relic in this southern African nation. May the joy of libraries one day return to beautiful Malawi.
(Really, how can a country progress without access to quality education and books?)
I opened my eyes to the New Year on African soil; never has a year of my life begun with such potential, hope and happiness. There is something wild, simple, beautiful about this continent that I love unconditionally. The flights from Phoenix to Heathrow to Johannesburg to Blantyre were uneventful and easy; I slept, watched far too many movies, read 300 pages of a novel and dreamed of what the next three weeks of holiday could include.
I was greeted at the airport by Jimmy – a family friend. In one swoop, my handful of luggage and my exhausted frame were bundled into a truck, headed three hours north to Lake Malawi. My holiday coincided with their family holiday; I would join a gaggle at the cottage at Cape MacLear – one of the southern-most points on the lake.
Soon after arriving, I was hustled into a speed boat with Matty, his brother Shaun and a handful of their expat friends. We grazed across the lake with such speed, music blaring, green Carlsburg beer bottles tossed back with the sun setting. The tropical weather made my skin shine, my hair thick and my shoulders relax. It was the temperature and weather of perfect. Mary Poppins perfect. Not too warm. Not too cool. Simply right. Watching the first sun set of the new year, surrounded by old friend and new, on one of Africa’s largest lakes was true bliss. I said no fewer than a dozen times, “I cannot believe how lucky I am. This is my life!”
The cottage sleeps ten and sits a hundred feet from the beach. I was given a tour of the beach by Jimmy.
“Look at those stars, Kelli. Tell me you have stars like this in America.”
“They are hidden, but they are there.”
“I’ve never seen the Milky Way in Mesa, but I’m sure they are there.”
“I like your optimism.”
Long after he’d retreated to the dinner table, I remained with my neck craned, mouth wide open with awe, staring at the heavens. The planets, an off red. The sky, as black as the shade is made. The twinkle of millions of stars – spread out like diamonds thrown upon black velvet, shimmering on the opaque lake below. Truly glorious!
My room included a tidy bed with a white mosquito net, a large picture window with a view and a lake breeze that lulled me into a deep sleep after a festive African braai – steak, sausage, ribs, salad. I awoke 12 hours later miraculously with no jet lag; the same group of friends were on the patio where I’d left them after the braai, sitting in the shade of the giant cashew tree now enjoying a traditional English breakfast – eggs sunny side up, toast, sausage and grilled tomato. It hit the spot and certainly beats the lonely bagel with peanut butter I’m used to eating before hustling off to work.
Today, we spent hours on the lake snorkeling, fishing, reading, lounging and day-dreaming. Matty was the master of the fishing pole; his brother and friends were embarrassed by the mass of fish he caught. I summoned ever bit of courage I had to snorkel; there are crocodiles in this water, although more than likely not in our part of the lake. Still, my heart raced as I swam along in the deep water, bright blue and yellow fish swimming along with my bubbles. They call Lake Malawi the calendar lake; it is 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.
I am in love with Malawi and this holiday could not have come soon enough.