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A Visit to Lake Malawi

I am writing a memoir of my experiences growing up overseas in the early post-Colonial era. This is an excerpt.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is a huge freshwater lake in the Rift Valley of Africa with lakeshores in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. It is over 500 kilometres long and 75 kilometres at its widest point. It feeds the Shire River – a vital source of water for agriculture in the fertile Shire Highlands area of Malawi and was once used for shipping to and from Malawi. For many years, Lake Malawi has been the holiday destination for Westerners living in Malawi and the surrounding countries.

Steam Engine: Malawi

Steam Engine: Malawi

So, one fine morning in 1969 we made our way to the local railway station to board a train which would take us to Lake Malawi for a holiday. Malawi’s rail infrastructure is limited now and was even more so at that time. Constructing tracks was costly and there were numerous geographical challenges to be overcome in the uneven terrain. Coal had to be imported to power the locomotives which were steam operated, and this was extremely expensive.

Three essential rail routes had been developed at the time Malawi gained independence in 1964. One ran from Nsanje in the south, through Limbe (where we lived) and Blantyre and on to Salima on the shores of Lake Malawi. A second line ran from Nsanje to Villa Fontes (now Caia) in Portuguese Mozambique. The third line operated between Caia to Beira, both of which were in Portuguese Mozambique. All the lines were narrow gauge, developed to support trade, and incapable of carrying heavy loads.

Train Freight

Train Freight

The train we were to board had been bought by colonists from either Britain or Scotland. It was a steam locomotive, hissing and puffing loudly as it prepared for departure. I was delighted. After a loud blow of the whistle, we chugged out of the station, heading through the outskirts of Limbe and through Blantyre. The interior of the train, once decked proudly with leather seating, was a little tired and dusty. Although the upholstery was intact, it was dull and worn, and the floor bare. Most of our fellow passengers were Africans, the women wearing brightly coloured chirundus, some accompanied by babies strapped to their backs, or young children. They carried a remarkable assortment of items – live chickens with their feet tied together to prevent escape, bags, or baskets of fresh produce. The male passengers were clothed in old and dirt-stained clothing and carried and equally unusual variety of objects.

Soon we were in the country with dusty plains on either side of the track. It was the dry season and there was little vegetation in sight. I saw Africans walking along beside the track carrying loads of firewood or water balanced on their heads. They walked with the slow easy pace of those who know they have a long road to travel, and that the time of arrival is not important. Only to reach the destination matters. They chattered and laughed amongst themselves.

African woman and children

African woman and children

There was a building at our stop, and I needed to go to the toilet, so ventured in to find the amenities. The toilet was of the squatting variety, a hollow in the middle of a concrete floor. I was unfamiliar with this set up and concerned about how sanitary it could be, but used it, feeling a little uncomfortable and awkward.

By the time I emerged from my visit, we were alone, surrounded by an African plain with a single line of tracks dissecting it. On the other side of the track was a dirt road, and we crossed the railway line and headed toward this. We struggled with our luggage as we walked beside the road, and the wheels of my younger sister’s pram became constantly bogged in the loose soil slowing our progress further. Fortunately, it was not long before a car drove up, in the guise of a taxi, although not marked as such. We abandoned our walk thankfully and piled ourselves and our luggage into the car and were driven the remainder of the way to our lakeside accommodation.

Dugout  Canoes

Dugout Canoes

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More accustomed to the ocean, and the white sandy shores of Australia, the lakeside beach initially seemed alien to me. There was little water movement, and swimming in fresh water rather than salty is different in terms of buoyancy. But water to swim in is water after all and I soon adapted. The beach was sandy – possibly the sand had been carted in.

Beyond the beach was the hotel with a central dining area and huts distributed throughout the grounds. Ours contained beds and bathroom facilities. We ate our meals in the central dining room, spent most of the days on the beach, and retired to our quarters, weary in the evening. Mum left us in our room at night sometimes to dine a little later in the evening and enjoy some adult company.

One day we went for a ride in a traditional dug out canoe. The African who owned the canoe and propelled and navigated it for us would not go beyond a rocky outcrop in the water because there were known to be crocodiles beyond this point. Africans have good reason to fear crocodiles – they do take humans. Like the saltwater crocodiles of northern Australia, they lie submerged in the water and are almost invisible until they lunge quickly to seize their prey. Hippopotamuses are also dangerous – they are territorial and prone to attack anyone or thing which invades their domain.

There were a group of South Africans staying at the hotel, complete with a boat and water-skis. They ventured much further beyond the shore than we were game to do and did not seem fearful of either crocodiles or hippos. No one seemed concerned about the possibility of bilharzia or schistosomiasis – a water borne parasitic which can be contracted through the skin when swimming or paddling in contaminated water. Such is life in Africa I suppose, although we were wary, as ever, of mosquitos.

Ebony Mortar & Pestle

Ebony Mortar & Pestle

While staying at Lake Malawi, Mum heard of a man who hand crafted items using ebony and sometimes ivory. We set out on a venture to visit his home and workshop walking along the dirt road from the hotel. Ebony is an extremely hard, dark coloured African wood. Ivory of course is sourced from the tusks of elephants – in those days it was not prohibited to hunt them. The man was indeed an artist and we carried our various purchases back to the hotel.

I bought (or received) a small model of a dug-out canoe made from ebony, with an ivory paddle which has been misplaced in the intervening years. I now own the ebony mortar and pestle Mum bought for grinding spices. More than 50 years later it is still in perfect working order and I use it when making curries.

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Today, Lake Malawi’s shores are dotted with holiday accommodation and a section of the lake has been turned into a National Park. Native species of cichlids (brightly coloured fish) from Lake Malawi are highly sought after for freshwater aquariums. Trains still run in Malawi, although now they are powered by diesel motors. The rail link to Beira was destroyed in 1979 by RENAMO forces during the civil war in Mozambique. An alternative route to Nakala, Mozambique was built in the late 1990s and early 2000s and is the main transport route to a seaport for trade. Many of the dirt roads have been bituminized although some remain. There are few photos remaining from our time there, but I have the indelible memory of travelling through Malawi by steam train and standing awestruck in the African landscape.

© 2021 Nan Hewitt

Comments

Nan Hewitt (author) from Albany, Western Australia on April 04, 2021:

Thank you for reading. It was indeed an experience, and one I feel very fortunate to have had.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 04, 2021:

Thanks for sharing our amazing experiences of traveling in that part of the world.

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