If I was blind, I would think that it was summer. The sunlight is warm on my forearm and the shy breeze is perfectly tepid, but looking out from our tour bus, I can clearly see that it is winter. The world outside is dry and yellow like a thirsty pot plant. Only two hours ago I was in wintery Johannesburg now I am in Blantyre, the largest city in Malawi and the commercial capital of the country.
Named after the Scottish town that David Livingstone was born in, Blantyre is one of the oldest urban centres in central, east and southern Africa. Our tour guide has already repeated the word “marathon” several times as we drive 70km to Majete Wildlife Reserve. Over the next four days we will attempt to see a third of this small, landlocked country. As we travel, it will become clear that distance is not an appropriate marker for how long it will take to arrive at a destination. With hardly any traffic, but so-called “dirty roads” and several abrupt diversions, travelling through Malawi is much like the country itself: slow and peaceful.
Majete Wildlife Reserve
Our first stop, Majete, is known as a success story in the war against poaching. Once severely depleted of game like much of the country, Majete Wildlife Reserve is now home to the Big Five and other wildlife as well as hundreds of species of birds including the majestic African Fish Eagle. Almost ridiculously remote, a long drive followed by a quick walk across a shaky bridge reveals the lodge. The sound of insects pierce the silence and the darkness beyond the lodge is opaque. I am captivated. The rooms are large and the meaning of “open plan” is stretched to its extreme with a stark, but beautiful absence of a river-facing wall. I smile gleefully as I take a selfie with nothing but the impenetrable blackness of the sky as my background. Coming from Joburg, it is not often that I experience night as the total absence of light. Although Joburgers often complain about the lack of working streetlights, Joburg is a carnival of light compared to this darkness. Staying only one night at Majete, I am sad to leave this reclusive hideout but as Kerouac put it “we had a longer way to go but no matter, the road is life”.
From Majete we trace our route all the way back to Blantyre. We are to spend the afternoon at Huntington House. Built in 1920, this grand home on an estate of a tea and coffee plantation is the bricks and mortar manifestation of old-world charm. We all coo at the undeniably romantic surrounds and begrudge our decidedly unromantic company. Earlier when driving towards the entrance of the estate, the greenery was dense and enveloping, it felt like the tour bus would be swallowed. Besides the stinging noise of insects, there was not a sound – frankly, it gave me the creeps. Once or twice we drove past someone staring at our tour bus with no apparent curiosity. Now sitting in the serene garden, it is unquestionable that Huntington House is luxurious. Still owned by the original family, the stately house that now serves as the hotel and restaurant was once the family’s home. It is difficult for me to imagine what it would be like growing up in such a grand environment. The thought of calling so much space “mine” is foreign to me. To grow up knowing that the expanse further than your eye can see is yours to claim must do something for your idea of dreams and ambitions. Watching a young family play croquette, I pretend that this is all mine: the rolling greenery, the ancient trees and the sense of peace that comes from being surrounded by nature.
There are rare moments that if I had the power to change – I wouldn’t, I would leave them, perfect as they were. Of all my life there are only a handful of these moments that I can remember, more that I have lived and forgotten. One such moment that I will remember is my first and only night on Mumbo Island… After taking a ferry across Lake Malawi we arrive late in the afternoon, the sky and the water are the same colour: inky blue. Unique for being an electricity-free island, the tiny island feels like a refuge for the weary. My room seemingly balances upon a Jenga-like stack of high rocks on the extreme edge of the island. Looking out from my balcony I feel like a captain of a slow-moving ship, my only view is the water and the sky. Best described as a furnished tent, there is a hammock, two single beds, a mosquito net and not much else. I am not exactly a low-maintenance kind of girl, however, the beds, hammock and almost everything else on the island are rendered superfluous when standing on the balcony with only the star-pocked darkness for company. The clarity of the stars is uncanny and I try to urge myself to stay awake, but with the darkness as thick as a blanket, I float into sleep that feels like going home.
When I wake up in the early hours of the morning, I find myself smiling. I feel like a princess in a Disney movie, three little birds are lining the balcony staring at me, their heads all tilting to the side as if asking me “how did you sleep, princess?” I notice that the staff have left a wooden tray with tea, coffee and cookies at the entrance, I promptly conclude that I never want to leave even though I know that I have to. Once again the water curls around the ferry as we leave the island. Not even a dot bigger than my thumb on the map, experiencing this island feels like I’ve been let in on a secret. In my life up until now, I had not thought much about Malawi. Of late, the news channels that I sometimes watched had featured brief reports on Malawi’s former president, Joyce Banda and her subsequent fall from grace, but other than that I was ignorant. Now as I type this, I acknowledge that although I am still very much ignorant, I have been thinking a lot about Malawi. I now think about the kind people that I encountered, even briefly. I think about the ubiquitous Baobab trees robbed of their lustre by winter. I think about the emptiness, the clarity of the stars and the pristine beaches of Lake Malawi. Surprisingly, I also think about the food, both delicious and fresh, in my short stay I had some of the best meals of my life. I think about the children screaming “botto-botto” hoping for our water bottles. I think about the men cycling late at night, their dynamo lights flashing like Morse code for a language that I wish I understood. I think about the steamy nightclub where lovers made like sandwiches and swayed together as close as possible. But most of all, I think about that night on Mumbo Island when I didn’t feel like I was in Malawi or anywhere that I could imagine, I was simply a citizen of earth enjoying the show. It was just me, the whole world and nothing else.