Like so many places one ends up in without really meaning to, Blantyre threw up a spectacular surprise in a shining example of what I’m coming to think of as the Waddington Weed Principle – if you take care of your fellow travellers, it comes back to you many times over. When I was in Maputo, I gave my South Africa guidebook away to someone going in the other direction and refused to trade or take money for it despite both being offered. At the backpacker hostel in Blantyre I got talking to some medical students from London, who promptly offloaded their Lonely Planet East Africa onto me, which incorporates both Tanzania and Kenya. While I’m broadly travelling on word of mouth, guidebooks are useful and the only thing I could think was: Score!
After a brief tour of the curio markets (cue hard but friendly haggling) and a brilliant little paper recycling project (paper made out of post-consumer waste, elephant dung and tree bark), I was off to Mulanje. The park itself is quite a way off the main road, so I was introduced to another mainstay of African transport – the bicycle taxi! I leapt on the back of one bike while the cyclists lashed my pack and guitar to another, and we were off pedalling furiously through acres and acres of tea fields while Mount Mulanje loomed over us. It’s essentially a whopping great bit of granite, like Uluru (Ayer’s Rock for those of a more colonial bent). It’s compulsory to hire a guide, which saw me left in the forestry offices while an enormous row erupted outside as each guide fought for the honour (and the kwacha) of taking me up the mountain. The hike I was on was supposed to take three hours going up and five coming down – we did the whole thing in four.
After the imposing hills, I took a slightly more colonial trip out to Liwonde National Park and a (former) game lodge, complete with antelope skulls and tea on the verandah. We took a canoe trip out onto the lagoon to see a herd of elephant (Loxodonta sp.) at relatively close range, and spent quite a lot of the time dodging hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius), who kept surfacing nearby to take a look at us.
Today sees me in Lilongwe (as usual, the backpacker hostel doesn’t have a kitchen), where I’m going to resupply, do laundry and do my best to find a guitar tuner (admittedly unlikely). Then the plan is to head up to Nkhata Bay, though word of mouth may send me elsewhere.