Brought back to Earth

2009-12-19 00:00

WHEN it comes to adventure, I think it’s important to do something different and challenging. My friend, Chris Morrissey, and I had free return air tickets from Maputo to anywhere in Mozambique (courtesy of the airline that lost our bicycles during our last adventure).

Chris considered relaxing at Pemba. I thought it would be exciting to head to Lichinga in northern Mozambique and paddle a section of Lake Nyasa from the small town of Cobue to Likoma Island on the Malawi section of the lake and then south, to finish at Meponda.

Studying the map made us a bit uneasy. The 170 km journey would be tough and remote. There are no access roads between Cobue and our first possible exit point — the town of Metangula. First prize would be to reach Meponda and, if the weather turned, we would have to exit at Metangula. This would allow us to get back to Lichinga where we would board our plane for the 4 500 kilometre journey home.

The reality was that if one or both of us got into difficulty, there was no way out, other than by boat or chopper. Boats are available, choppers not. We decided that, sometimes in life, one needs to take chances.

On November 7, we landed in Lichinga, via Maputo and Nampula. Ryan and Jill Stainbank from Tenga estate drove us through the bush to Cobue on a 200 km road, the last half of which was dirt. They also supplied us with a kayak. An amazing African sunset greeted us when we arrived and we were blown away by the beauty of Lake Nyasa, the view over the Likoma and Chizumulu Islands, both of which are part of Malawi. We roosted on a spot of beach where we got some grub. The usual in this neck of the woods — chicken and chips.

The following morning, Ryan and Jill said their farewells and headed home, to await our call seven days later when they would take us back to the airport. Chris and I prepared the boat, packed our stuff and headed for customs.

At customs we explained, because they asked, that we were travelling to Likoma by kayak. The official told us that because the boat had no legal papers, we would be locked up in Malawi. When Chris asked if all the wooden boats around the lake had papers, the official smiled and said nothing.

We were hauled off to inspect our boat. Three officials took a look at the boat and shook their heads. Chris and I looked at each other and smiled. We all looked at each other and shook our heads. Then we did it again.

We were told that our journey to Likoma would have to be made on an arranged boat.

Not wanting to miss out, we agreed. On arrival at Likoma, we set off to find the customs official who was playing pool in the local pub. He hauled out his briefcase, stamped our passports and changed money for us — black-market rate.

Chris and I ambled around the friendly and beautiful island, admiring the amazing Anglican Cathedral of St Peter’s inside which a Sunday service was in full swing. The church was built by the British in 1906, is still very active and one of the largest churches in Africa.

At lunch time we were guided to the local restaurant called The Hunger Clinic.

Chris ordered fish. All he received was the head. When he asked where the rest of the fish was, he was told the head was “the special” part. I had chicken. Chris went hungry.

Back at Cobue, we were met by the customs officials who had come to fetch their engine off the boat. It turned out that the boat was theirs too. We paid the “boat man”, who then paid the customs officials. Welcome to Africa.

On our second night in Cobue, we were sitting in the dining room, waiting to order, when a young white woman shocked us by suddenly walking out of the dark bush. It turned out she had hiked from a lodge three hours away on the lake’s edge. We were astounded. She was from Australia, and we reckoned that explained it.

Our waiter arrived and asked for our order. Chris quickly asked for chicken. No more fish heads for him. The waiter causally leaned over and grabbed a black chicken roosting on the wall close by and ripped off its head.

The Australian woman shouted in shock and waffled on about being a vegetarian. The Mozambican waiter left and the woman disappeared, back into the darkness. Chris and I ate the chicken by the light of a paraffin lamp on the beach.

Early the next morning we headed south, into the unknown. The lake was flat and clear. We could see the lake bottom as we paddled. It was better than any package holiday in the world!

After two hours, we entered the beautiful and pristine Manda Reserve where we found Nkwichi lodge which, we later discovered, had been recognised in the 2009 World Travel Awards as Africa’s Leading Responsible Tourism Company. A young South African, Devon Concar, runs the lodge, and was chuffed to see us. We gave him biltong. He gave us food. We decided that we would stay the night in his luxury $300-a-night lodge. We paid only $30. Biltong does funny things to people!

Invited by the still lake, we headed out the next day at 5 am. Our progress was good and the scenery breathtaking.

We stopped for breakfast on a hidden beach fringed with indigenous trees and canopied by an enormous baobab. Taking time to enjoy the surroundings was what we had come to do. There was never talk of chasing time.

That would change in the hours to come.

We continued south and, within minutes, were paddling into a fierce headwind. The horizon looked dark and foreboding. It felt like our worst nightmare was about to unfold. Enormous waves started to pound us from the Malawi mainland, probably 100 km away. We entered a bay and headed for the point, 300 metres from the shore.

Chris was concerned that we were too far from shore. If we were to fall out, it could be fatal. But it was too late to change course. We paddled for our lives, but the bank never seemed to get closer. Was this the end, I wondered.

We finally reached the shore and pulled up our boat to think through our situation. If we stopped, we wouldn’t make it to Metangula in time for our flight. We decided to push on, dragging the boat in the shallow waters. Paddling was impossible. Three hours later we were still dragging it. Fishermen were also dragging their dhows, but in the opposite direction.

Four hours later we pulled the boat to the side and collapsed under fish-drying racks. Two nomad fishermen offered us shelter and a fish. We finished the fish in seconds. They gave us a second, which also vanished. We slept for an hour and decided to push on again before nightfall.

After an hour of dragging, Chris yelled for us to stop. He was exhausted. At 7 pm, after carrying our boat over a rocky section, we pitched our tents on a remote beach to sit the storm out. By 11 pm it was more violent. We cowered in our tents like small boys. Moments later, my tent was flattened. For two hours the rain stung my back through the thin tent on my back.

In the darkness, I searched for my tent zip. I was soaked. I went in search of a fishing shelter I had noticed earlier. There I found two sleeping fishermen taking refuge. I woke them and asked, with hand gestures, if I could squeeze in between them.

They agreed. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I left their warmth at 5 am to move on. I still wonder about those two fishermen, whether they have ever experienced something so bizarre.

The lake was still wild the next morning, but at least we could paddle. We moved quickly because we still needed to reach Metangula. We passed remote fishing villages and, once again, were able to enjoy the beautiful terrain. We surprised some kids washing dishes on the lake edge. They dropped everything and ran for cover. Whether it was because we were ugly-looking, or whether it was because, in these remote reaches, they had never seen whites, we weren’t quite sure.

By late morning, we were exhausted. But Metangula was now within our sights.

We considered our options. We had only had two days before our flight. If we pushed on to Meponda — still about 100km away — and encountered bad weather again, we might be stranded. We decided we had already experienced the highs and lows of Nyasa and settled for plan B.

That night we slept in the Metangula lodge and caught an overcrowded bus the following morning to Lichinga’s local market, where we found a five-ton flatbed truck. The locals were packed like sardines on the back. Chris wasn’t keen on accepting this ride, but I insisted. Eyes closed, we hoped like hell we would make it to Meponda, which we did, two hours later.

The journey may sound crazy, but for both of us, it had the effect of bringing us back to Earth. We may have wondered at times whether we would make it home, but we live for the extreme. It’s what makes the blood pump through our veins.

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