Chitimba to the Nyika Plateau; Bad roads; Lunch with an audience; Jesus rises from the dead; Bad food and cold nights; Hyenas as campsite pests; Near-death experience in a thunderstorm

We set out mid-morning from Chitimba, en route to the Nyika Plateau. It’s a high part of central Malawi and we were told it looked “just like Scotland”. It took ages to get there over potholed dirt roads, lurching back and forth and left and right all over the place. The villages got smaller and poorer the farther we went. We stopped for lunch just inside the boundary of Nyika National Park. Food was beginning to be an issue - we were running out of staples and vegetables, and we hadn’t been able to find any ice for the coolers so a lot of the meat had gone bad. We cooked the last of the beef for lunch, watched with utterly absorbed fascination by what must have been the entire local village population. A few of the others are starting to get disturbed by being stared at all the time, but I’ve been stared at all my life and I’m more or less used to it. I will say, though, that they do a good stare here in East Africa. An entire street full of people will stop walking, or talking, and will put down whatever they’re doing or carrying, turn to face you, and stare deadpan and flat-faced at you, moving nothing except their heads, which turn in unison to follow you wherever you go. They’ll watch you until you’re completely out of sight. It’s remarkably creepy.

Nyika National Park is famous for looking like Scotland, but it’s also famous for being full of hyenas. This last point became much more important to us when the truck (which, by the way, is named Jesus - don’t ask my why) broke down an hour into the park (and an hour from our destination campsite). The horribly bumpy roads had jarred something loose. It turned out that one of the hoses for the power-steering had burst. Adam and Elton (the driver and the guide) tried a repair but the fix didn’t take. We were all stuck waiting for the truck for more than an hour, in a place crawling with hyenas, as evening was falling. I wasn’t worried - hyenas always take the smallest first, so I’d be perfectly safe until they finished eating Sheryl. She, not impressed by this logic, was somewhat interested in getting the truck running as quickly as possible.

Eventually the guys gave up on trying to fix the power-steering and we went on our way with Adam manfully wrenching the wheel around the twists of the road by main force. It was fine - we only nearly tipped over once. It’s a huge truck, so that’s some impressive driving. I’d have preferred not to tip over, to be honest. The truck is so big that nothing short of a crane would get it bck upright again, and there was no mobile phone reception in the park, so some of us would have had to walk out and find a phone. In the end, though, we made it to the campground with only a few bruises and sprains among us. It was very cold that high up, though. The campground was basic - only a couple of patchy shelters, a shed for firewood and a toilet and shower block with a water tank you can build a fire under to get hot water. Besides hot water, we needed fires to keep ourselves warm and to keep the hyenas away. We saw them out there every now and again - black humped shapes with reflective yellow eyes. They never came close while the fire was lit, though. We cooked dinner and put everything away immediately afterwards. We couldn’t even leave the camp chairs out overnight or the hyenas would have chewed them to pieces for the food spilled on them. Hyenas eat anything. I suggested rubbing chicken all over the hammers and leaving them out overnight for the hyenas to break their teeth on, but nobody went for it. I was a very cold night. Sheryl and I wore all the clothes we had and toques besides, and we still kept waking up freezing all night long.

The next day was supposed to be given over to hiking in the park. Sheryl and I were both in foul moods in the morning, though, and Sheryl was feeling poorly besides, so we didn’t get moving until around noon when she was feeling better. That turned out to have been a mistake. Big black storm clouds had been looming on the horizon all morning, and we’d only been walking for an hour when it started to rain hard. We were soaked through and cold after not very long at all, and turned back for camp along the paths, through meadows and gullies and stands of reforested pine trees, of all things. There were also huge patches of blacked burnt land - great swathes of it. We’d been wondering why - I know fields need to be burned, and sometimes we’d seeen Maasai in Tanzania burning to clear land, but it seemed a strange thing to do here.

Back at camp we made the unpleasant discovery that our tent was flooded and all my bedding was dripping wet. That’s pretty much the only way the coming cold night could be any worse, I thought to myself, and wondered how I’d make it through. There was another, bigger problem caused by the rain, though. All the roads in the park were dirt - or clay, more accurately. The rain would have turned them into a swamp of mud. The truck would have had a hard time getting through this at the best of times, but Adam and Elton had failed again to fix the power-steering, so slippery muddy roads would be impossible. We’d have had to wait until the roads were dry again (with no food) or have the park rangers radio out for 4×4s or something. It was with all this on our minds that we greeted the end of the rain with hysterical relief. A couple of hours later we got an explanation of the strange burned swathes of ground. Five of the others had hiked the 14km out to the hightest point of the plateau earlier that day. They’d gotten caught out there in the big storm with no warm clothing and no rain-gear, soaked through and frozen, and pelted with stinging hailstones. And they’d nearly been hit by a lightning strike - ten meters away, they said. Caught out on the highest land around with no cover and lightning striking, they ran for their lives, thinking they were about to die every second. Jamie was still white-eyed and shaking hours later, telling me about it. They were all fine, but freezing cold - close to hypothermia by the time they got back. I’d built a big fire to dry out my bedding, and between that and lots of hot tea and blankets, they recovered. At least it gave me a clue about the burnt ground. I felt a little stupid for not guessing - we were on a plateau, after all.

It was my night to cook, and nothing went right. The stove ran out of gas and the wind was so strong that the burners kept blowing out. The water wouldn’t boil - maybe because of the altitude. I’d made a cream sauce for the spaghetti and some fried vegetables to mix in, and used some of the spices we’d brought from Morocco. It could have been a good meal, but waiting for the water to boil made the vegetables mushy and blackened, and the sauce far too thick and sticky. The water never did boil - we just had to toss the pasta in the hot water and wait for it to finally soften enough to be edible. Needless to say, after that treatment there was

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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