Soft Landings and Heavy Breathing in Malawi – Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Soft Landings and Heavy Breathing in Malawi
Nkhata Bay, Malawi

I once met a girl who claimed she was using 100% DEET to ward off mosquitoes in Africa. DEET is the active ingredient in insect repellents, and I’m no expert (motto being – don’t check a fact when you can guess a fact), but a normal insect repellent I think is about 50% DEET. If you’ve got your heart set on camping out in a mosquito infected swamp, in a known malaria area, for the next year or so, you might consider going up to 80% DEET.

Everyone present agreed, however, that using 100% DEET would probably burn your flesh back to the bone within a week. While you would certainly be mosquito-free, your face would also be a dripping molten mess resembling a flesh-eating zombie in a B-grade horror movie, and you really would have to weigh up the pros and cons.

Of course, I had this conversation while sitting in a hut in Malawi smoking Malawi Gold, so it is entirely possible that this girl never existed and the conversation never happened.

I am sure, however, that we had a conversation about British Airways 747 aeroplanes. Guy, whose hut we were sitting in, was certain he had caught a flight directly from Heathrow, London to Nkhata Bay, Malawi.

Now for those of you who have not been to Nkhata Bay let me tell you, it’s a small fishing village with maybe 500 permanent residents, located halfway down Malawi, which in turn is a land-locked country situated in East Africa. There is one road into and out of Nkhata Bay, and the only other form of regular transport is the ancient Ilala ferry that plies its way up and down Lake Malawi. So it was a bit hard to believe that hiding somewhere in this fishing village was a fully functioning International airport, and equally hard to believe that British Airways had decided to add tiny Nkhata Bay to its international flight network.

But Guy was sure he had flown here with about ‘300 other people’ from Heathrow. Which was also strange as Guy was an 18-year Californian who had arrived four days ago directly from the West Coast of America.

Ask him at any other time to name an airport in the UK and I have no doubt he wouldn’t be able to do it. But that night only, he was able to describe in vivid detail, what by all accounts, sounded like a very pleasant flight he had taken from Heathrow to Nkhata.

Guy’s cousin ran the backpacker’s where we were all staying and his parents had shipped him out here a few days ago to ‘take some time out’. While I was much too polite to delve, at a pinch I would suggest that Guy, being a typical 18 year old Californian, had been spending too much time sitting at home in his bedroom smoking joints with his mates rather that ‘knuckling down and getting a good education’. So his parents decided that a couple of months in the wilderness of Malawi with cousin Mallory would be just the thing to put him back on the straight and narrow.

Note to all parents. You do not send a chocolate addicted child with an eating disorder to the Cadbury’s chocolate factory for a holiday. And never, ever send an 18-year-old pot-smoking Californian to Malawi.

Every night Guy would invite everyone staying at the backpacker’s back to his hut to ‘have a smoke, dude’. Upon arrival in Malawi, Guy had immediately gone in search of the fabled Malawi Gold. For about $3 he had been given a carrier bag full of some of the strongest dope known to man. So every night Guy would invite us back to help him smoke it all and every night, about 10 minutes after we arrived, Guy would start to get worried about just how much dope he had and what it would do to his brain if he smoked it all, and start to beg us to take some of it away with us. But as we all had our own carrier bags full of dope that we couldn’t get rid of, every night we would decline. And between stories of 747’s landing in Nkhata Bay, Guy would look at his bag of never-diminishing dope, and fear would cross his face as he imagined the next few months.

On the night in question, Guy and I had agreed to meet a vague mutual acquaintance in the village and all go out to a night-club together. Where we were staying was a good 30 minutes walk from the village, so this would be quite an effort. Right now we were sitting on the balcony of the backpacker’s, looking at the lights of the fishermen’s boats bobbing up and down on the horizon of Lake Malawi. Very peaceful. A 30 minute hike into the village did not, quite frankly, appeal. Now before you think me a bad friend, a commitment to meet someone when you are travelling in Africa is not the same as a commitment to meet someone in, say, the UK. If I say I will meet you at 6:00 p.m. in a bar in London after work, I will be there. If I am 5 minutes late you will call me on my mobile to check where I am. If I am 10 minutes late you will call another friend to come and meet you instead, and if I’m 20 minutes late you will leave and never speak to me again.

In Africa a typical arrangement is ‘in 2 or 3 days time, if we’re both still around, what say I come over to your place some time during the day or night, and if you’re there we’ll potentially do something.’ And if I turn up and you’re there, great. If you’re not, no problem. And if I don’t turn up, well you probably weren’t there anyway and if you were, no doubt you’ve had a pleasant couple of days staring into the middle distance.

So I didn’t feel too bad about blowing out my vague acquaintance. As we had just finished our post-dinner smoke, I was more concerned with every 5 minutes looking wildly around me and trying to remember where the hell I was, and who these people were sitting around me. But sitting with us were two Dutch blokes who were much too keen to go to a party at another backpacker’s that was half-way along the walk into the village.

So against my better judgement, Guy, the two Dutch blokes and I commenced our cross-country, degree of difficulty 8.6, night hike. Fifteen long, slow minutes later we arrived at the party and decided to ‘pop in for a quick one’ before we walked the final fifteen minutes into the village. Unfortunately, the party was not up to scratch and pretty soon we made our goodbyes (which did not, thankfully involve saying goodbye to anyone as we hadn’t said hello to anyone in the first place) and were about to re-commence walking when a pick-up truck came screeching to a halt in front of us.

Out jumped two locals from the back of the truck, and before we knew what was happening, one of them came up to us in a vaguely threatening way and yelled, ‘How much you pay?!’

Now there are times and places when this is the most natural greeting in the world. This was not one of those places. Not really knowing how to respond I replied ’20 Kwacha’. 20 Kwacha is worth about 6 cents, so no matter what he was selling, I figured we would be getting a good deal.

‘Not enough’ he yelled back.
‘Oh well, we’ll just be on our way then,’ I replied and we tried to walk around them.
‘How much for a lift to town?’ he asked again.

Oh. If the situation was to be believed, this pick-up truck which had come out of nowhere, had just dropped these two customers off at the party, and for some reason one of the customers was now negotiating a price for us to take the truck back into the village.

This was not as an appealing offer as you might expect. Catching any form of transport in Africa is taking a risk. Taking a lift at night from two unknown people who are quite probably drunk, is taking quite a big risk. But balanced against this was the fact that we had another good 15 minutes of walking ahead of us.

’20 Kwacha,’ I said again. Just because we now knew what we were buying didn’t seem like a good enough reason to change the price.

‘Not enough.’

‘Well we will just walk to town then. Thanks.’ And we really did try to walk around them and continue our journey. Except our price must have been accepted at the last moment because we were then manhandled into the back of the pick-up truck.

And then we started driving in the opposite direction to the village. At first this did not disturb me as much as perhaps it should. The track we had been picked up on became too small to drive a truck all the way to the village, so logically we would have to back-track some way to hit the main road that went into the village.

Except we kept driving in the opposite direction for much longer than we should have. And next thing we knew, we were pulling into a semi-deserted, semi-lit, unknown backpacker’s on the shores of Lake Malawi. This was not a fantastic development by any stretch of the imagination. I tried not to show any concern on my face as the pick-up truck came to a sudden stop when the track ended. After all, there were a couple of lights on in the backpacker’s, and the reception wasn’t too far away. Surely there would be someone in there if we had a problem.

I looked over at Guy trying not to show concern on my face but I needn’t have bothered. Guy was showing more than enough concern for both of us. As near as I can translate, the look on his face said, ‘Oh my God, I wish I was home in California. I also wish that I had not spent my entire time so far in Malawi stoned off my head because I am sure that if I hadn’t I would be more capable of dealing with this situation that I have suddenly and perhaps inevitably found myself in and which I am quite confident will involve knives in the very near future.’ Or something to that effect.

‘Do you think we’re safe?’ asked Guy, begging to be re-assured.

‘I’m sure we are. There’s a reception just over there. Let’s wait a second and see what happens. But yes, perhaps you should be ready to run for your life at little or no notice.’

And then we started driving again. The driver left the track, left the lights of the backpacker’s and started driving onto the beach straight towards the water. When we were, statistically speaking, at the darkest, most deserted section of the beach the truck again came to a stop. And we were all alone. Me and Guy sitting in the back of the truck wondering what went so wrong. And the two locals sitting in the front cab sharpening their favourite knives.

‘I think now would be a good time to start worrying. I also think that about now is the right time to jump out of this truck and start running.’

So jump out we did, and ran like the clapper’s back to the remarkably deserted reception area of the backpacker’s. The good news is that the other two didn’t immediately jump out of the truck and start running after us. The bad news is they did a quick U-turn in the sand and caught us up on the road in about ten seconds.

Down rolled the passenger window and incredibly a voice inside said that they were lost, and could we give them directions to the village?

So we got back in the truck. Now you may think that this was a stupid thing to do. You may think that we had got out of jail once, and we were idiots to risk it again. And you would be right. But in our defence I would like to point out that we had walked fifteen minutes to the village, and then been driven at least fifteen minutes back to where we had come from, which meant that after fifteen minutes of walking we were still thirty minutes away from our destination. Follow?

So we hopped in the back of the pick-up truck again, and attempted to give directions through the window to the driver. As there was only one serviceable road in and out, we were handing out directions just to play along with the pretence that we had been driven to a deserted beach because we really were lost.

Having decided that they weren’t going to kill us through gruesome stabbing, they had obviously decided that they would kill us with their driving instead. Not only did they commence to drive at a truly terrifying speed, they did it with two wheels on the road, and two wheels in the four-foot ditch that ran parallel with the road. We were in very real danger of toppling out sideways of the pick-up at any moment. Finally, common-sense paid a quick visit, we got the driver to stop at a junction under the pretext of working out which way to go and jumped out of the truck and ran, ran, ran.

A short 30 minutes later and we were in the village and at the backpacker’s. By now it must have been around midnight and the chances of our friend still being there were slim and none. But in fact he was there, sitting on his own at the bar. Was he impressed to see us? Did he realise what we had been through to get here, and what great friends we were to keep this appointment against all odds?

Not really. What he said was ‘Oh yeah, I forgot we were going to meet up.’

‘Then why are you still sitting here at the bar at midnight if you’re not waiting for us?’

‘I’ve been sitting here all day, and it just keeps getting better!’

So off we went to Nkhata Bay’s only night-club with Greg, who assured us it was a ‘great laugh’.

If he meant the type of laughing you do just before you start crying then he was right. Throw out every conception you have of what a night-club is. Replace it with the following:

  • 1 bare, grey concrete floor
  • 4 bare grey concrete walls
  • 1 sound system, rated for let’s say 100 decibels, being played at let’s say 4,000 decibels with resultant distortion, feedback and general pain to the ear and head region
  • 100 locals drinking beers and picking fights with each other
  • 3 prostitutes standing in a corner
  • East Africa’s only transvestite

Welcome to the clubbing scene of Nkhata Bay. Greg was loving it, Guy and I were in mild shock. Then, being perhaps the only three white men to turn up to this club in the last 100 years, East Africa’s only transvestite decided to come over and chat us up.

Now all credit to him. In most East African countries homosexuality is banned by law. Even where it is not legislated against, it is certainly taboo in African society. But here he was, dressed in an ambiguous ensemble of jeans and baggy sweater, but with an unmistakable touch of lip gloss on the lips, nail polish on the nails, and a decidedly effeminate hairdo.

First off our man decided to have a chat with me (flattering, I know). Having decided much earlier in the night that no, I wouldn’t get off with an African transvestite tonight even if the opportunity did present itself, I must admit that I was not the most scintillating conversation partner. So next off he decided to have a good old natter with Guy. And obviously Guy had not had the same chat with himself about dating African transvestites, because he took up the conversation.

And together they chatted for a good 10 minutes or so, and really it seemed to be going swimmingly, to the point where our visitor was breathing a lot more heavily and lightly brushing his hand against Guy’s arm during the conversation. But while Guy kept up his side of the conversation, his face was getting more and more concerned (in fact, I hadn’t seen him look that concerned for over an hour, back when we were in line for a quick stabbing) and when there was a moment’s break in the conversation, Guy leaned over and asked if we could perhaps leave as soon as possible.

So we left. Around 40 minutes to get there. Another 30 minutes to get home and all for 20 minutes in the world’s worst night-club. And as we trudged home, Guy was silent, alone with his thoughts. Eventually he broke his silence.

‘Sorry about asking you to leave the club so soon.’
‘No problem, there wasn’t much going on.’
‘Yeah, I just felt a bit uncomfortable there you know?’
‘No sweat.’


‘Yeah, that girl I was speaking to was really strange.’

I stopped. I turned around. I looked him straight in the eye. ‘That was a bloke, you know.’

Guy looked back at me. You could see him processing that information.

‘You know something? That would really explain quite a lot.’

And somehow, that summed up what staying in Nkhata Bay was like. A lot of confusing moments coupled with slightly un-settling answers. And really, all that was left to do now was to get home and get to sleep. And you know what? As luck would have it, at that very moment a British Airways 747 landed and the pilot gave us a lift the rest of the way home. Which was nice.

About the Author
Aaron O’Sullivan is a 30 year old Australian who has been travelling through North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa on and off for the last 7 years. Almost every adventure he has ever had, from $50 dollar haircuts in Luxor, Egypt to acid burns in Turkey can be attributed to a total lack of pre-planning and foresight. As he has not yet been killed, maimed or kidnapped, Aaron heartily recommends this style of travelling for young and old.

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