Sunday Morning ~ Domwe Island
January 14, 2018
This is a long holiday weekend for Malawi; John Chilembwe shares this day with Martin Luther King. It’s is the anniversary of the initial uprising against British colonial rule led by Reverend Chilembwe, the American-educated, Malawian Baptist missionary. He led a failed attempt at overthrowing the British and was killed for his efforts. When we lived here before, this holiday didn’t exist, probably because the then president (for life), His Excellency, Dr. H Kamuzu Banda, acted like he was the sole leader of the march for independence. Turns out, Chilmbwe died for that cause long before Banda cut his chops. So now it is a national holiday and Chilembwe has his picture on the 2,000 kwacha note. And it’s a three day weekend.
Last year we did not plan ahead and take advantage of all the long weekends. Part of our new burnout treatment plan is to get away as often as we can. It’s much easier with a car. So even though we just got back from a two week vacation, we were determined to find someplace to go this weekend. A couple of resorts have been recommended to us within reasonable driving distance, but one of them was closed for renovations and one was fully booked, so Thursday afternoon George left it in my hands and I finally got word back from another place on our list of places to visit, Domwe Island. They had availability and we grabbed it. It meant driving all the way back to Cape Maclear, a place we’d just been to a few weeks ago, but only to drop the car and get a boat out to this exotic, uninhabited island where there is an eco-friendly camp. It’s so cool. It is impossible to see any structures from the water. In fact, you can hardly see the structures when you are standing right in front of them, that’s how beautifully they are set into the landscape. They are all built of natural local materials and wedged in between the rocks. There are four thatched wooden platforms, two with large canvas tents on them. These are furnished with grass mats, beds with crisp white cotton sheets and duvets, wooden bedside tables and two rattan chairs. The other two are bare and people can bring their own tent to place there. They each have views that peek out between the trees to the lake. Ours has a view of Thumbe Island and the sand beach below. There is a hammock hung just outside the tent door where I am sitting now, writing this. I charged the laptop before leaving home, so the blog will end when the battery dies. There are two small solar panels down on the beach where the staff of Richard, Dennis, and Ash charge the little mason jar lights that they place at our tent at nightfall. There is a dining room–––a wooden platform with thatched roof set on huge boulders barely visible until you are practically in it. It has a long painted wooden table with canvas chairs surrounding it. The “bar” is a big metal cooler, 1960’s era, filled with soft drinks, beer, and bottles of water. It’s the honor system. If you take a drink, you record it on the ledger and pay for it all at the end. There are woven mats hung from the beams to roll down if it rains. There’s a Bao board (a game played with small stones or seeds) and a checkerboard with bottle caps for checker pieces: Cokes and Greens.
You have to bring your own food when you stay here, but there is a “fully equipped kitchen” as it says in the guidebook. This kitchen is not what I envisioned from that short description, though it is technically correct. “Fully equipped” conjures up some Williams and Sonoma image, which, could not be further from this reality. First of all, it is situated way up the hill via a root laden, steep, narrow path. Really cool, mind you, but a little inconvenient for carrying ingredients for a meal. It’s also a thatched structure on a wooden platform, but has a gas cooker in it, a wooden table with a sundry of old kitchen tools (the home made knives are sharp!), some tin plates, and a cement sink with a hose. Like I said, it’s technically all there, but definitely campy. And a long walk. Hike, is actually more accurate. The dining area is accessed from there via a different steep descent. You can also get to the dining area from the beach, a shorter, less steep trek, but over some boulders. George burned his hands this morning carrying tea back to our tent over these trails.
There is a hiking trail which takes you to the top of the hill or mountain, depending on if you want to call it big or small. It’s a huge hill or a small mountain. It was a two hour hike to get to the top yesterday, so let’s say mountain. The views from the top are spectacular. A tropical paradise vista: aqua water dotted with dugout canoes between small islands covered with indigenous forests. Since these lake islands are uninhabited, they still have their trees. They are also protected by the National Park, so that helps.
Water is solar pumped up from the lake to a holding tank, so in the toilet structure there is a sink for hand washing. There is a sweet shower that is a metal bucket suspended from a rope with a shower head coming out the bottom. Richard told us during our orientation that if we wanted warm showers they would boil some water for us and put it in the bucket. The walls surrounding the shower and the composting toilet are all bamboo. The toilet has a thatched roof but the shower is open to the branches above. None of these structures are visible from each other. In fact, I have to keep following the paths to find them, saying, “Wait, was that boulder on the way to the shower or kitchen?” The whole place has a Gilligan’s Island feel to it.
It’s possible to kayak out from Cape Maclear but we arrived there late on Friday afternoon so paid to have them motor us out. Plus with all the food, etc, it would have been a difficult packing job for kayaks. With the motor boat it took us a half hour to go the two miles to get here, but it was worth it. At reception on the mainland they made sure we had enough food for three days. There are no supplies out here, not even a mango tree. I suppose we could kill a monkey of we were desperate, but I’d have to be pretty desperate for that. (One of my students wrote about her family dying when they ate bad monkey meat when the village was starving from drought.) I, of course, had brought plenty of food and drink, no worries there. So once we got oriented (which meant hiking about a mile through these wooded trails) we made gin and tonics and sat outside our tent overlooking the lake to watch the sunset. Although that was romantic and relaxing, it was also a bit dangerous since we then had to stumble in the dark up these steep trails carrying pasta, wild mushrooms, chard, and a few other ingredients, with headlamps, to the kitchen and figure out how to put a meal together with the staff watching us. I found that a little awkward. We looked foolish and incompetent, in my opinion, as they sat on rocks observing our activity. At one point they took our scraps of garbage and fed it to some wild pigs standing just up the hill from them. It’s optional to pay for a chef to come out and cook for you and I was starting to think that might have been a good idea, just because cooking with an audience is…awkward. It would be like showing up and cooking your meal in someone else’s kitchen while they watched. And when you can’t find a knife, or a colander you have to ask and they immediately hand it to you. We put together a mediocre meal and stumbled in the dark down the path, got lost, decided to just keep going down since we could find the place from the beach and finally saw the solar light hanging over the table. It was so dark we couldn’t even see the lake just below us. Then the night fishermen started lighting their lanterns and the stars came out on the lake. It’s just magical. I would’ve liked to have a glass of wine with supper, but really, I thought it was way too risky to have another drink, then have to hike back up that trail to bring the dishes back. It was way more dangerous than driving. The staff does, very conveniently, do all the washing up. You only need to survive getting back to your tent in one piece. I thought once we were back at the tent safely we could have a glass of wine, but then realized we had no glasses and hiking back up to the kitchen was just out of the question. We brushed our teeth with our water bottles and crawled under the sheets to read. But then the lights from the kindle, while convenient when there is no power, attracted too many bugs, so those were put away. There is no mosquito net over the bed and the tent looks like the remnant from some M*A*S*H episode. It’s old and mended and there are a few openings for bugs. Yesterday morning as we were having tea on the balcony, a bird flew into the tent as well. We had the flaps unzipped and pulled up to the sides so it made a beautiful big entryway overlooking the lake and a malachite kingfisher swooped in, flew around and flew out. When we were leaving for the hike George asked if we should leave the flaps open. I said, “Sure, why not?” He said, “Baboons?” I said, “Right. Let’s zip it up.” (I can tell my urban friend Ruth just can’t wait to stay here.)
After our hike yesterday we had lunch and a coke from the “bar” and read and relaxed before going out to snorkel. This whole weekend seems incredibly exotic to me. I am not a water person, as I’ve said before, and haven’t snorkeled since we lived in Samoa almost thirty years ago. And there I would only do it if I could stand up. In fact, I used to just walk through the water with my face in it. I don’t think I ever floated or swam. I have many friends who scuba dive and love to snorkel, but I’m uneasy, afraid I will meet something that will bite or sting me or I’ll get something squishy against my foot. It’s so funny because I don’t see myself as a coward most of the time, except when it comes to the water. I just feel so out of my element there. I always feel like something is lurking, if not to eat me, then just to frighten me, then laugh about it. Then I started thinking, ewww, who had this mask and snorkel before me? Was their nose running into this little compartment where my nose is going? And whose mouth was this thing in? Do they soak these in alcohol or whatever the dentist uses for their instruments between rentals? I hoped so, but I covered mine in hand sanitizer before walking down the path to the water, just to be sure. George didn’t seem to care a whit about that. Just popped his in his mouth like no one else had ever used it before. Ewww. Mine had teeth marks in the mouth piece! Didn’t stop him for a second. We had life jackets on even though the lake is calm and I wasn’t even going over my head, but I’ve got to say, it was quite pleasant floating with the life jacket. The flippers (which I have never worn before) made it sorta fun too. I definitely wasn’t a mermaid in my former life. Nothing has ever seemed more unnatural, but I followed George’s flippers in front of me and got a little more relaxed as we went along. I freaked when the strap from my life vest brushed my arm and then when a lock of my hair floated in front of my mask, but recovered fairly well. Then I couldn’t stop laughing when I recalled the Far Side comic of sharks watching a slide show of human feet dangling in the water and the caption read, “Harry, was this Hawaii or Bermuda?” We floated through schools of cichlids that didn’t seem to mind us at all. I had this realization that aquariums are trying to simulate this! Wow, they do a good job! ( Fun fact: Lake Malawi is the biggest exporter of fresh water aquarium fish in the world.) There was very little trash, only one Chibuku bottle, so I was very pleased about that. The big boulders under there look incredibly different than they do above the water, almost alive. I get scared that I’ll get caught in between them and when the water around them drops to great depths it’s more than I can bear. I have to raise my head out of the water as if I’ll be pulled down if I don’t. After an hour or so we got a little chilled as the wind came up so swam back to the camp and I took a kayak out for a little spin. I just went up and down our side of the island, maybe a mile total, but saw a fish eagle and some pied kingfishers as the sun got lower. I felt quite content.
Richard lit a fire for us on the beach last evening as we watched a fabulous sunset behind bee eaters flitting in the trees. Neither of us had our cameras with us but knew we’d never capture that sunset anyway, and would always be saying, “This doesn’t do it justice.” and I thought of Richard sitting behind us on a rock and wondered if he was moved by how beautiful it was. He sees this every night and I always chuckle at how Malawians are so amused by our fascination with the sunset. Then we cooked our filet and eggplant on the fire and walked the short path to the dining area to eat.
Later, the night was full of jungle noises. I could not identify the screeches, but they were close enough to the tent that my pulse took a while to return to normal. Those Tarzan movies were spot on. I asked George if he heard the screeching. “Yes” he said nonchalantly, “probably a civet cat killing a dassie.”
Today we will snorkel again. I’ll paint and read and be glad we can’t get news so I don’t feel more embarrassed about our shameful, ignorant president. Disgraceful. I will thank our kind, welcoming, and generous hosts, grateful to share a little of their beautiful country.
Love to all,