October 29, 2004
Ever since we got to Malawi, people have been asking us, “have you been up to the Lake yet?”Well, the girls had a week off school this week for half-term, and Dan hasn’t had two days off in a row since March, so we decided it was time to go to the Lake.
Resorts anywhere can be expensive, so I made reservations for three nights at a campsite at Nkopola Beach Resort on the Southern end of Lake Malawi.
We took Gordon and Catherine Neilson with us. They are an older couple, the only other Americans at Blantyre Synod, and are serving here for six months with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. They do not have a car, and wanted to see the Lake too.
We have camped at some absolutely breathtaking places in the past –Algonquin Park in Canada, where moose roam freely, Bryce Canyon in Utah, where the sunset lights up the hoodoos, Mt. Snow in New Zealand, where you can see the Franz Joseph glacier cascading down the mountains –but Lake Malawi now ranks #1 in exotic campsites.
Our green vinyl tents were situated about 50 yards from the Lake under straw roofs. Each tent had two beds and a light in it. We paid about $10 a night for using each one. They were surrounded by trees that were in full bloom, laden with brilliant orange blossoms. Huge rock formations rising hundreds of feet high and covered with tropical flora lined the driveway. We could hear all kinds of birds flitting about. We watched the national bird of Malawi, the African fish eagle swoop down over the Lake and catch fish, saw green coucals, the pretty yellow and black lesser masked weavers, pied kingfishers and a colony of white-breasted cormorants nesting just offshore. Herds of goats freely roamed through the campground, as did monkeys, which I will talk about later, and much to Brooke’s chagrin, a number of blue tailed lizards. We saw one that was over three feet long. We didn’t point it out to Brooke.
Lake Malawi is the 11th largest lake in the world. It has more than 600 species of endemic fish, more than any other inland lake. The most famous of these are the cichlids and usipa or whitebait, which travel in large schools. Snorkeling is very popular because of the brilliantly colored fish. The Merrys had a long debate about whether to snorkel or swim in Lake Malawi. Although the guidebooks say that the Nkopola region is mostly safe, people swimming in Lake Malawi have contracted bilharzias, or schistosomiasis. This disease is transmitted by minute worms that enter your skin and infect your intestines and bladder. If untreated it can be very serious. After consulting several doctors, and numerous missionaries (all of whom swim in the lake) we decided to literally “take the plunge.”We will take medication to make sure that we are clear of the disease. As a result of this decision we spent some wonderful hours snorkeling and paddling kayak like boats up and down the shores near the resort in the crystal clear water. We also spent a lot of time beside the beautiful pool, reading, swimming and relaxing. It was a much needed respite!
We decided to eat breakfast and dinners at the resort, and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Breakfasts were very British, with beef sausages and cooked tomatoes, as well as eggs and fresh fruit. For dinner we feasted on chambo, (fish) fresh from the lake.
One morning after breakfast we were sitting with the Neilsons enjoying the sunshine and soft breeze, when a gibbon (type of monkey) jumped up on the table next to ours (which was empty) and grabbed several packets of sugar from a bowl in the center of the table, and dashed off. He went to a secluded spot nearby and began ripping open the packets and dumping them in his mouth. We were amazed at its intelligence and had quite a laugh. There were families of these animals all over the campgrounds. They played on our truck each morning, (they especially liked the antenna) collected nuts from trees, and at the pool, while we were standing close by, one of them reached into my bag and stole a banana! As we were getting ready to leave, Dan had our cooler perched on the back of the truck. When he turned to get something in the cab, a gibbon scampered over, lifted the lid of the cooler, and grabbed out the only remaining item, a Cadbury chocolate bar that I had been saving for the long ride back to Blantyre. Brooke and I watched in amazement from a distance of about 10 feet. The monkey scampered quickly up a tree and proceeded to unwrap and eat my candy!
Besides the monkeys, lizards and goats, there were also donkeys roaming around. The biggest surprise, however, came on our last evening at camp when Dan and I took a walk down to the sandy beach as sunset approached. As our eyes scanned the water, we noticed a pair of beady eyes and small ears above the surface about 50 yards from shore. I ran and told the girls, “There is a hippo in the water!”It swam around and yawned a few times, so we could see its teeth. At night the hippos come ashore and eat marsh grasses. We suddenly figured out what the low grunting noises we had been hearing during the night were. Hippos are not animals to mess with. They kill more human beings than any other wild animal in Africa. So we were glad to observe its moves from a distance. Still, it is not everyday that you see a hippo near your tent.
The thing that I liked best about the campsite though was not the wildlife. It was the fact that we were right next to a village and could watch the people of the village throughout the day. We watched in the mornings and evenings as the women came to draw water at the well and then carried it back to their mud and straw huts on their heads. We watched as the young men pulled in hundreds of yards of rope and fishing nets. We observed the older men go out in dilapidated row boats to gather in the fish.
We saw children scampering over the beaches and women doing wash. When the fishing boats came in, laden with the catch of the day, everyone helped. The men did the heavy work of hauling, women sorted fish, and children cleaned out the boats and untied the knots in the nets. Young and old, big and small, everyone contributed (except for one young man who was laying in the sand reading a book while everyone else worked –we dubbed him the village scholar). It was really amazing to see how everyone worked together for the survival and success of the village.
We now know why people go to Lake Malawi. You can rest, relax, and enjoy the water, you can also observe animals “close up and personal.”But the best part was definitely being able to observe the Malawian people doing what they have been doing for centuries.