Two years ago, not long before this Covid pandemic ravaged the world, I had one of my most memorable holidays ever in Malawi. Malawi is an amazing country which I highly recommend you to visit if you would like to get off the beaten track. Although it is one of the poorest countries in Africa, it has a distinctive charm about it which is accurately summed up by its reputation as the “Warm heart of Africa.” What Malawi lacks in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) it makes up for in Gross National Happiness (GNH) since the people wear warm smiles and offer friendly greetings wherever you go.
My five-day trip, with a buddy of mine, let’s call him ‘Ramon,’ was unforgettable from start to finish. Each day was a crazy, unpredictable adventure from morning till night. From trekking in the forest in search of elephants to getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere just as nightfall was setting in. Yet, there was one day that stood out amongst all of them as the most memorable of our trip to Malawi. A day that we had the most dramatic and unbelievable experience – one which I will recount in this two-part blogpost.
Ramon and I had spent the night at a backpacking lodge on Lake Malawi, called Monkey Bay Beach Lodge. It is located near Cape McClear which is a scenic spot on the southern shores of the lake not far from a Malawian Naval Base. We woke up that day bright and early, and were indulged with a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and omelet outdoors under a canopy with a breathtaking view of the lake. It was sunny, with a clear blue sky and a gentle breeze blowing. The lake was calm and inviting, so we figured that we would go out for a boat expedition to explore the surrounding area, which is full of intriguing islets, coves and bays. We had read on the website of the lodge that there were kayaks for rent. So we quickly made arrangements with the manager, an affable and easy going South African, who had many interesting stories about the area surrounding Monkey Bay.
Before heading out we packed some water and snacks into my backpack along with my smartphone. I must confess Ramon warned me that it was perhaps not a good idea to take my phone along, but I was itching to taking photos of the amazingly beautiful scenery. So I ignored his advice and instead just placed my cellphone in a sealed Ziploc bag which I was confident would be sufficient since we had no plans of getting wet that day. Swimming in Lake Malawi is in fact not recommended since you risk contracting parasitic flatworms called schistosomes which cause a disease called bilharzia or snail fever. It is not pleasant stuff so under no circumstances we were planning to get into the water.
The last words of the hotel manager before we departed were to “stay away from the naval base” since this would lead to a swift arrest and a fat fine (Tip: You are not allowed to take photos of or go near the base, otherwise it could lead to serious trouble with the Malawian authorities!). Naturally, we nodded our heads in affirmation and promised that we’d be back after a few hours of adventure on the lake. As we got underway the wind began to pick up and the lake became less calm. However, we hardly paid any attention to this since it remained warm and sunny.
Thirty minutes into our odyssey we noticed that a strong current coupled with a tail-wind was pushing us along in the water at a healthy click. In fact, we hardly needed to paddle, except to occasionally steer the kayak, to ensure that we stayed on course (away from the naval base). At the time we did not contemplate our return trip to the lodge, which would have been quite a struggle given the strong current and winds. Being eager for adventure we pushed on further, until we entered a wide-mouthed bay where we spied two fishing villages, which we later learned are called Chizale and Gonza. We made for Gonza, the farther of the two, where we decided to make a brief pitstop. We were about an hour underway and figured it would be good to give our arms a rest. By then the current was really starting to push us forcefully, so we were paddling quite feverishly just to hold course. Nevertheless, we attained the shore without too much effort and beached our kayak onto the sandy shore.
Our arrival in Gonza did not go unnonticed by local villagers. No sooner had we beached our kayak were we accosted by several fisherman and children. They greeted us warmly and made small talk with us in broken English mixed with Chichewa. As Ramon and I traipsed around the village for the better part of half an hour, we had a small entourage following us, as if we were rockstars. At various points we were invited into villager’s homes and were offered beautiful hand-made trinkets for sale.
Yet in spite of this warm reception, Ramon and I decided not to stick around for very long. The weather had suddenly taken a dramatic and unsettling turn for the worse. Menacing dark grey clouds had begun to roll in along with a strong westerly gale, accompanied by light rain. This was clearly a bad omen for our return trip, yet we ignored it naively. We dragged our kayak back to the water’s edge and prepared to jump in. But the surface of the lake had become rough like the ocean, with large waves coming in to shore at a furious rate. Our first attempt at pushing off failed utterly, with the kayak tipping over and taking on water. After draining the kayak, we tried again. This time we walked out further into the water, so that the kayak was well supported, before shoving off.
On our second attempt, I held the boat steady as Ramon climbed in before I managed to clamour aboard narrowly avoiding capsizing us. We then paddled fiercely against the stiff winds and current, to propel us away from the shore in the direction of the lodge. Slowly, but surely we pulled away from the shore, despite the steady pounding of the waves against the kayak. At some point I recall Ramon, looking back at me and saying, “I think we’re sinking.” At the time I did not comprehend what he meant since it still seemed as if we were afloat and steadily moving away from the shore. Moments later, a huge wave crashed over the kayak flipping us over like a piece of flotsam. Instantly, Ramon and I were both violently flung into the water, with our heads going under for several seconds. We were in deep, turbulent water, with huge waves crashing over our heads relentlessly, a few hundred metres from the safety of the shore. It seemed certain at that moment that our end was near.
For the conclusion please check out Part 2.