Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Cape Maclear, paradice in a fishing village on Lake Malawi (March 16-18)

Current Location: Cape Maclear, Malawi.
Highlights: A fishing village where time must have stood still, spearfishing, and feeding fish eagles.
Upcoming: Eating insects and fish heads and heading north towards Tanzania and Kilimanjaro......
Current GPS Coordinates: LAT: S14 1 LONG: E34 49

Time must have stood still in this little fishing village on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. Houses are made from mud, straw and sometimes bricks made in kilns on the streets. Transport is by bike mostly, or dug out canoe on the Lake, and the local inhabitants live on fish caught daily from the lake, maize meal, and tomatoes. Fish eagles saw above in a blue sky and let loose shrills as they dive for fish in the deep blue fresh waters. Life is peaceful and all of the 10 000 inhabitants look happy in this tranquil place that is as far removed form the hustle and bustle of western life as you could imagine. Yet the effect of outside visitors is not invisible.

We stayed at Emanuels and had the place to ourselves, we parked the Landy in a perfect lake front spot about 20 meters form the waters edge on the sandy beach and camping cost 40 Kwacha a night (90 US cents) which was negotiable with the owners: we didn't negotiate!

It seamed natural to slip into a lifestyle that the locals lived, at least as close to it as we could being westerners. In the morning we bought fresh fish called Campango, which looks somewhat like a catfish, from a local fisherman for 120 Kwacha (US2.50), and a local called Patric showed us how to prepare and cook this aquatic delight. First the fish was gutted and then cut open and spread in half held open with a stick. Then it was salted and left to hang in the shade for the rest of the day. I watched the fish as it hung from the bamboo, grass covered roof using string from the polyester plys of old vehicle tires. In no time at all, ants had found the fish and soon covered the exposed insides. For the rest of the morning, the ants invaded our dinner. I started to brush them off, but stopped. Not only was this futile, but the locals don't brush off the ants, so why should I? By mid afternoon our dinner had started to dry out on the outside. The local people do not have electricity, let alone fridge's, they dry the fish as a way to keep it fresh for the evening. By mid afternoon , our dinner had started to attract flies, not small flies, but the large green ones. I counted more than 15 at one time running over every square millimeter. As the flies ran over the surface they started to lay eggs in just about every crease and fold of our dinner. For some reason I was not phased at all, maybe it's because I have spent the past 15 years studying insects and have an affection of these 6 legged arthropods, or maybe it's just because for countless years people here have been hanging up their fish which must also have attracted flies by the hundreds. By the evening, there must have been thousands of eggs on our dinner and so I asked Patric to wash the fish well before he cooked it. Patric obliged and took the fish to the lake and washed our dinner well before cooking it on an open fire just a few meters form the gentle lapping of the waves on the beach. That night we feasted on the one of the most delicious fish I have ever tasted.

In our few days at Cape Maclear, we had a chance to relax and lose ourselves. I needed this, I needed to become immersed in something different, something I had never experienced. It made me think, it made my mind wander far from the world in which I grew up, far away from mechanical things, far away from DNA sequencing and analysis of variance, far away from rules and structure and time. I wanted to share this experience with Gena, to lay out on the beach far away form people and look up at the stars and the moon just listening to the sound of the water. I wanted to share this with Rex (my baby (dog)), to play Frisbee with him on the beach, swim in the warm water, and watch him point at the small creatures that were all around us. Although they were not with me in body, I did experience this with them at some level in the reality created by my vivid imagination.

Each morning I got up early and walked along the beach to see the local people wash themselves in the Lake. Even this looked like fun. The kids would lather themselves up, them dive in and play to wash themselves off. The women would wash the pots and pans using sand as a scourer, and children would carry pals of water on their heads almost as big as they were. Fishermen would repair their nets and count the fish they had caught. We were lucky, there were few other "mazungus" (=white people) here and the local people just seemed to accept us as part of there usual surroundings.

Later in the day I had arranged with a local (as much as I hated to do so, I had to abbreviate his name to K-man as I couldn't pronounce his name properly) to paddle me out to the island just off the Cape so we could snorkel, go spear fishing using a "Malawi" speargun, and feeding the fish eagles. We paddled out in a wooden dugout and parked on another small deserted beach. I set up the Sealife underwater camera, we put on our snorkel gear, and K-man showed me how to use the speargun. The speargun was made from the tube of a broken snorkel with the rubber from an old tire inner tube across one end. The spear was a long piece of wire. The rubber is used like a catapult to fire the spear through the tube. Our goal was to shoot fish to feed the fish eagles or if we hit big ones, we would have them for dinner. Within 10 mins K-man had spotted a Campango, shot it, but it swam away too quickly for him to catch and we lost the spear. Luckily, we had a spare spear and within 30 mins K-man had shot two chambo fish. With the next shot, he lost the second spear! I snorkeled in the warm water for another 30 mins, then we got back in the canoe, flagged down a fisherman, bought some small fish from him (20 Kwacha for 4 fish), and headed round the Island to find some fish eagles. These magnificent birds look identical to the American Bald eagle, and literally line the high trees on the island perimeter. The locals find a bird in the tree top, and from the dugout, wave a fish in the air, whistle, then through the fish. The eagle then swoops down and scoops the fish form the surface. We used the two chambo and the four fish we bought and fed the eagles. They showed no fear of people and were very aquatinted with being fed in this way. I shot about 70 pictures of the birds as they swooped down and scooped the fish. It was really quite an incredible experience.

I went out the next day to the island again with K-man and Aaron joined us to shoot some video of the eagles. We went spear fishing again and this time I had a try. I hit three pathetically small fish, but at least I hit some! I decided to make an improvement to the spear gun and used a short length of string to tie the spear to the gun so we didn't lose the spear like the previous day. It was another fantastic day.

I said above that the effect of visitors in Cape Maclear was not invisible. Some of the youth have turned into "beach-boys" that resemble "rappers" in the USA. Their interaction with visitors varies from a casual "hello man, how ya doin" said as if they were from Jamaica, to continued pestering and harassment for you to give them money, buy things form them, or go on a trip with them. Their numbers and their presence appears to increase with the number of white people present. We were left relatively "beach-boy" free. As much as we might not like these changes, we have caused it just by being there. I guess one can debate the ethics of travel and the effects of westerns visiting these unspoiled places. Any comments?

We left Cape Maclear, reluctantly, and headed to Malawi's capitol: Lilongwe to change money, buy fuel, try and locate a new tire we could afford as one of the rear tires has had it, and then head on to Nkhata Bay north. Although I say reluctantly, each kilometer we drive north brings me closer with my rendezvous with Gena in Tanzania and our ascent of Kilimanjaro!

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