Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Malawi and the Long Way Down

(Ewan and me (and BMW bike). Another first for the bigtrip with a celebrity encounter. Surprisingly, he didn't ask about the dummy...)

After Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar, the next country on the list was Malawi. There have been a few ‘favourite’ countries on the BigTrip – Belize, Australia, Cambodia – and Malawi so far looks certain to be another. As with the other countries the people here are amazing – friendly and real fun. This despite the fact that Malawi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. One strange revelation at the border - and I’m not sure if this is related to the income level (what do you think I am, an economist?) - was that the largest bank note available in Malawi is equivalent to just over three dollars. So when you change $400 at the border, you get a fistful of notes big enough to thatch a small cottage with.

The first night was spent at a camping site/resort a few hours after the border. After that, we moved to a beautiful little place further down the lake. We are staying here for four nights/three days and I had hoped to do an advanced diving course. Unfortunately the weather went all Pete Tong and the course was cancelled for the first two days. I did eventually get a dive in on the last day – this was my first freshwater and first altitude dive. The fish were interesting and different – nothing big and nothing outrageously colourful, though there were a few pretty fish.

(Right: we were able to visit the village school and health centre where we stayed. Great to meet some of the adorable kids.)

The dive was memorable more for the fact that Becca and I dived with hangovers – Becca was particularly nauseous and was looking for Huey before she got back to dry land! Plus she had terrible earache at first and also dropped a fin that I had to dive down to retrieve. I got a bad cramp in my leg getting back in the boat and the guy that took us out forgot his boots and got really cold feet! What a bunch of numpties!

(Hyena - above - and lioness below in the Ngorongoro crater)

‘Numpty’ was recently voted Scotland’s favourite word, something that I thought was hilarious, especially as England had voted for ‘love’ and Wales for ‘friends’. Numpty is also a well used word on the truck. We have a daily ‘numpty award’ where the person that has done the dimmest thing in the last 24 hours (as nominated by the group and judged by the incumbent ‘numpty’) is given ‘numpty’ (a kids' dummy on a string) and has to wear it round their neck in full view for the next day.

I’ve now received the award twice. Firstly for exposing myself by lying on the truck in my boxer shorts (I thought I’d managed to be quite discreet, but clearly not!) and secondly yesterday for (a) the amount of things I’ve lost on the trip – my ‘losing’ streak is continuing and the list is getting longer (though I think everyone else is a numpty for leaving me in charge of the main, and irreplaceable, key for the truck safe), (b) having an unhealthy obsession with my thermarest, including taking it to the beach and using it on top of my mattress even after I’ve upgraded from a tent to a dorm and (c) falling unassisted out of a hammock (while nearly sober) in a quite spectacular 360, whilst trying to reach for a beer.

The group continues to party, party hard. I’ve made a good few drinking buddies and will be sorry to lose people in Lilongwe this week and Harare next. The Welsh contingent will be particularly missed, especially Rod, who has had numpty three times in two weeks (we are, sadly, part of a small sub-group dominating in the dimness stakes).

(Karin and Kate horse-riding in the waves.)

The latest party was for ‘National Malawian Pig Spit Roasting Day’. The crew had us believing this was a real national holiday. But in fact, it is exclusive to the tour trucks. The event involves the crew buying a huge (recently deceased) pig, gutting it and roasting it on a spit for eight hours, while we all sit around drinking beer, larking around and occasionally turning the pig. And in I'm-A-Celebrity-Get-Me-Out-Of-Here stylee, I ended up eating part of the snout, ear and tongue. The evening was a big one and memories while very pleasurable were slightly hazy.

On waking up the next morning I could remember some rumour about Ewan McGregor, something called 'The Long Way Down', and a great excitement amongst the truck crew, passengers and the locals. Sure enough, at about 10am, two large BMW motorcycles pulled up and Ewan and his traveling companion Charlie Boorman jumped off the bikes. Turns out they are doing a follow-up to the Wrong Way Round, called the Long Way Down and are biking from John O Groats to Capetown.

They have just arrived in Malawi and the production crew were in the bar last night – hence the rumours. A few of us were bold enough to ask for photos. He was about as nice as you can imagine a star being - happy to pose for all our photos. The Wrong Way Round was a top book and the TV series was also really watchable. I’m sure this one will be the same. They are now following a similar route to us, though at a slower pace. Another great photo for the blog, but why did it have to happen when I was wearing the Numpty dummy…???
(Beautiful Malawi.)

After ten days at the beach (Indian Ocean and Lake Malawi) its gonna be tough to leave. I am really relaxing into beach life now. But at least we have another two days in Malawi next. We are going to spend these in Lilongwe, the capital, where we need to sort out visas and other admin for the next two countries - Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

It's early days but it seems possible that this trip could top the South American one in just about every way...

(Herding cows on the shores of Lake Malawi. As surreal at the time as it looks in the pic.)