Pirogue with a small captain. Image Title: Don Pinnock.
Almost every week for the past 70 years the good ship Ilala has sailed from Monkey Bay to the northern shores of Lake Malawi, the village up the lake and back. One scorching tropical morning, I jumped on board.
There were five cows in the lifeboats. They weren’t there the night before, so they had to be loaded from a lakeside village overnight. Probably Metangula. They didn’t seem happy to be swaying there, brown eyes wide with terror and noses wet with saliva and struggling.
Later in the morning the two boats were launched in Cóbué, the cows and all. On the bow of each boat was written MAXIMUM LOAD – 22 PEOPLE, so maybe it was okay to pack 11 goats, several hundred chickens, a puppy and a flying duck plus 11 bags of corn, two beds and a heaps of people above the cows, which then seemed to pass out in a state of torpor.
God knows how it all landed on the beach, with no pier and with a nasty little chop on the lake. All I can say is that the crew of the lifeboat from the He has the – The Malawian Floating Peasant Bus – are accomplished boatmen. They scream a lot and sometimes throw goods and people ashore or on the ship, but it never feels like they’re out of control. Their boats, like the He has the, are dented and scratched, but their engines still seem to start and they do wonderful things with ropes and hooks.
I had boarded the He has the, an old steamboat on the lake, interesting but undoubtedly durable, in Monkey Bay, in the south and had bagged a cabin with a bathroom and an armchair – by He has the standards, pure luxury. The lower deck was filled with peasants and small traders with their buns, bags, children, goats, ducks, chickens and – as I discovered in Cóbué – even cattle.
The He has the is old. It was built by Yarrow Shipbuilders for Nyasaland Railways in 1949 in Scotland and was named after the Ilala region in Zambia, where David Livingstone was first buried. Once built, it was dismantled and transported in pieces to Malawi, first by boat to Beira in Mozambique, then by rail and road to Chipoka, south of Lake Malawi. His first trip on the lake dates back to 1951 and he sails almost without interruption, except for maintenance periods.
For many riparian Malawians, the ship is pretty much their only connection to the outside world – a slightly faded white angel who appears out of the lake with unfailing regularity and seems to have no restrictions on who or what he is ready to go. transport between heaven and hell.
The names of the lakeside villages in the south on which the He has the bestow his blessings on your tongue like quicksilver: Chilinda, Chipoka, Makanjira, Nkhotakota, Metangula, Likoma. Each had its huts and crowds.
Likoma Island, however, also had its cathedral, a building as out of place as a whale in an aquarium. Likoma is a few kilometers from the Mozambican coast and is only 8 km long. Oddly, however, it was the seat of the Anglican Church of Malawi until the 1940s. The reason was Bishop Chauncy Maples who, along with his friend Reverend William Johnson, established a mission there in 1886 as part of the of a project of the University Mission in Central Africa – inspired and directed by David Livingstone. Maple trees are drowned in the bay of Nkhotakota on the way to his bishopric.
In 1903 work began on the huge cathedral dedicated to Saint-Pierre. It’s an extraordinary building for such a remote location – 100m long, 25m wide, with stained glass windows and elaborate stalls. It was built on the spot where Maples saw alleged witches being burned alive. The crucifix above the altar is one of the few made from the wood of a tree next to which Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia.
At Nkhata Bay, we gained more steerage passengers and lost most of the deck and cabin passengers. I was rather sorry. The passengers on the bridge were almost as colorful as those below; the adventurous travelers who pitch their tents on the deck or curl up on the hard benches to brave the night in the open.
North of Nkhata Bay, it really feels like you are in the Great Rift Valley. The lake is 585 km long and 80 at its widest point. While the coastline of the southern half is rather flat, north of Nkhata, the Kandoli mountains rise aggressively, backing onto the Nyika and Viphya plateaus. It is a country of high miombo forest with villages wedged between steep slopes and the water’s edge.
When we anchored off Usisya, the scene was so saturated with metaphors and historical allusions that it was hard to believe it was real – and that we were in the 21st century. If it was a film shoot, the clapperboard would say, “First Arrival on Wild, Foreign Shore. Mobilize 1,000 extras.
Livingstone had witnessed such a reception on the Lower Zambezi from the Ma-Robert, and Captain James Cook from the Effort as it made landfall in Tahiti. Albert Schweitzer described it with delight when he arrived in Lambaréné upstream from the Ogooué where he would build a hospital and capture the imagination of Europe. Joseph Conrad imbued a similar scene with a savage menace in Heart of darkness.
As the ship dropped anchor, hundreds of villagers emerged from the grass huts and lined the shore in a colorful, babbling crowd. Canoes were dragged through the water and directed towards us, their paddlers screaming. On the shore, the crowd rose and swelled like one living being.
Behind the human throng lining the beach, huge baobabs and mango trees eclipsed rough grass huts. Beyond them, a thick forest obscured the slopes of the muscular mountains, plunging into the valleys under the snakes of the morning mist and reappearing on distant peaks topped with thunderstorms.
I watched the scene for a while, then hitchhiked on one of the lifeboats to see what Archangel Ilala looked like from the shore. As I jumped into the waves, a wave threw me to the ground in the arms of a screaming hubbub of mostly naked children who sang a resounding song: “Photo, photo …” Which of course made the photography impossible.
The He has the certainly looked gorgeous, huge in the foreground of the coarse and surprisingly white huts in a world of blues and greens. The shore of the lake smelled all its own. It was drenched in the heavy softness of the linden of flowering trees, mixed with the ancient and dusty smells of bats, wood smoke and wet earth.
It was also pulsing with a strange rhythm. The haunting sounds of countless human voices rose and fell to the rhythm of the eternal beating of drums and the thud of pestles pounding corn in wooden mortars. To this was added the incessant contrapuntal zing of amorous cicadas. The effect was trance-inducing. Joseph Conrad had described such an experience as “being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams”.
The ship’s horn sounded, shaking me from my reverie, and I scampered into the waiting lifeboat. Being stranded there, it occurred to me as the boat pulled away, would not be a big ordeal.
North of Usisya, everything happens under the Spectacular heading. The subtitles are impressive, exotic and romantic. It was the rainy season and as we weighed anchor in Nkhata Bay, a storm hit the rising sun. A straight line of pinkish clouds appeared on the horizon about 1000 m above the lake. Below, streaks of rain rippled like the legs of a centipede. Above rose a huge thunderstorm, piled in layers of variegated gray to its bulbous anvil haloed in golden light. We sailed right into the storm but before reaching it, rays of sunlight seemed to have destroyed it to death, leaving some tattered memories of the dawn performance.
Those who sail Lake Malawi know that it is a singularly alien and exotic, elemental and unruly thing, a sleeping giant susceptible at any moment to rage with aboriginal fury. From the bridges of He has the the brash landscape of the Eocene disaster quivered through the heat haze, reminding us of the scorching world that had shaped the rift.
Uncontrollable storms are known to suddenly sweep from a clear sky across its waters and when some clouds descend, a battalion of waterspouts dancing dervishes leap hundreds of feet into the air to meet them, as if trying. to escape a demon from the lake below.
As we made our way towards Ruarwe and Tcharo, clouds of lake flies in their mating flight seemed determined to mimic waterspouts, looking exactly like the smoke of a lowered-hulled steamboat.
It is a lake of moods, which sometimes overflows for no apparent reason; at other times, backing up, beaching boats and piers. There is no tide to mix its deep waters, and sometimes the lighter oxygenated surface water slips through the useless, stagnant layer below, as if the lake is shaking like a gargantuan bathtub.
We turned to Chilumba, just north of Mount Waller, and headed back to Monkey Bay. Being the rainy season, the lake was shy with its colors, but near Likoma Island the clouds receded for the big night that Malawi is rightly famous for.
As the sun set westward, the waters became an enchanted mirror, tilted to reflect the languid art of a painted sky. In the eerie silence of the dying day, the waters glistened a deep crimson, then almost reluctantly transformed into a silky cyclamen purple as they waited for the evening breeze to caress their magical texture and draw rippling lines. amber swimming slowly towards the more distant shore. This signaled all the colors on the water to fade like courtiers in a courtroom, until finally there was only an Imperial presence of molten gold left.
The beauty of the mountains was hardly less convincing. Their hues were pastel: on one side the pale lavender blending imperceptibly into the pearly gray and on the other in a luminous Madonna blue.
Suddenly it was dark. A layer of lunar silver spread over the mountains and the sky quivered with myriads of African stars. The placid water reflected every shining point of light and as I turned to descend it seemed as if we were moving through a watery universe, separated from space and time. It was a sublime farewell.
The next morning the lifeboats were full of goats. DM / ML