I THE SPIRIT OF DIS­COV­ERY The track less trav­elled

One mem­o­rable night in deep­est Malawi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MA­RINA LEWYCKA

IT is easy to get off the beaten track in Malawi. In fact, it can be dif­fi­cult to stay on it, as we found early one evening in July three years ago, when we were driv­ing up the lake road from Sal­ima to­wards Nkhata Bay for a week’s hol­i­day, in my daugh­ter’s old low-slung Nis­san Blue­bird, her boyfriend at the wheel.

It was that dan­ger­ous twi­light time when the roads are swarm­ing with vil­lagers, their chil­dren, chick­ens, run­away piglets, way­ward goats, work-shy dogs, all dash­ing to get home be­fore night­fall. For twi­light is short in Malawi, and when night comes, the dark­ness is ab­so­lute.

By now it was ob­vi­ous we weren’t go­ing to get to Nkhata Bay and we’d have to stop some­where overnight. Sud­denly, out of the dusk, a crooked hand­painted wooden sign flick­ered across our head­lights: Maia Beach Cafe Ac­com­modashon (sic). We let out a cheer, ex­e­cuted a U-turn and set out down the sandy track sign­posted to­wards the beach.

Af­ter a kilo­me­tre or so, the track di­vided into a num­ber of less dis­tinct tracks. There was no light ahead; in fact, there was no light any­where, apart from the stars, which hung so close and bright you felt you could al­most reach up and pick them out of the sky.

Sud­denly, our wheels hit a patch of soft sand, skid­ded, and sank in. The tyres were spin­ning, but not grip­ping. We were stuck. Be­yond the nar­row beam of our head­lights, it was pitch black. All around us were prickly bushes, their vague, men­ac­ing shapes block­ing out the lie of the land. Swarms of mos­qui­toes smelled our fear, and swooped.

From some­where far away there was a sound of drum­ming, and we could smell wood smoke. There must be a vil­lage — but where? Then we heard voices, coming from some­where be­yond the bushes.

Two boys ap­peared, fol­lowed by an older man. They greeted us, grin­ning. In fact, they might have been laugh­ing at us. We didn’t care. Greet­ings were ex­changed. Peo­ple are very po­lite in Malawi. My daugh­ter had been liv­ing in Malawi for six years, and speaks Chichewa, though the di­alect is dif­fer­ent along the lakeshore; still, it didn’t take many words to ex­plain what had hap­pened. The three of them and the boyfriend all got be­hind the car and started to shove, and slowly, slowly, the car inched on to firmer ground. We gave them some money and asked for di­rec­tions to the Maia Beach re­sort. It had closed down last year, they said. But some­one in a nearby vil­lage had a key.

We left the car on safe ground and fol­lowed them down a se­ries of dark, wind­ing tracks. I felt al­ter­nat­ing waves of panic and res­ig­na­tion. At last we came to a small ham­let, half a dozen thatched mud-wall houses, all closed up for the night. They called and a man emerged from one of the houses; he was tall and blind in one eye. We asked whether we could stay at the Maia Beach ac­com­mo­da­tion. ‘‘You are wel­comed,’’ he smiled, ap­par­ently un­sur­prised by th­ese three pale strangers who’d turned up on his doorstep in the mid­dle of the night. He fetched a bunch of keys and we fol­lowed him as he set off again down a wind­ing track through the bushes.

Af­ter a while the bushes thinned out and I could see the soft star­lit glim­mer of Lake Malawi spread be­fore us like a wide swath of grey silk. And there, along the shore, was a clus­ter of small bam­boo huts. One was opened up for us. A torch was found. A price was agreed. Bed­ding was brought — three thin, stained pieces of foam and an­cient and musty sheets that smelled as though they hadn’t been washed since the last vis­i­tors, who­ever they had been. The mos­quito nets were full of holes, but I had a sewing kit, and the kind­ness of our hosts more than made up for any dis­com­forts. Af­ter they had gone, we spread out our mal­odor­ous bed­ding, stitched up the big­gest holes in the mos­quito nets and fell into a deep sleep.

Bright sun­light woke us, needling through the cracks in the bam­boo wall, and the sound of chil­dren’s voices. I pushed open the door of our hut and gasped at the sheer beauty of our sur­round­ings. Af­ter all the trauma, we’d landed in par­adise. There, just a few me­tres away, was a cres­cent of sil­ver sand lapped by the crys­tal water of the lake. A cou­ple of palm trees waved lazy branches against the sun. And, as in par­adise, there were an­gels: a gag­gle of ragged, smil­ing chil­dren had gath­ered at our door, chat­ter­ing ex­cit­edly. As I stepped out into the sun­shine, they fell silent for a moment, then burst into a cho­rus: ‘‘Good af­ter­noon. Good morn­ing. How are you? Do you speak English? What is your name? Manch­ester United! Give me money!’’

I smiled back and chat­ted for a while. Grad­u­ally more and more chil­dren ar­rived. There must have been at least 20, star­ing cu­ri­ously as I tried to wash and clean my teeth (the elec­tric tooth­brush drew squeals of de­light) and fol­low­ing me to the hut which served as wash­room and toi­let. ‘‘Please, that’s enough. Go away now,’’ I pleaded. ‘‘Gowayno,’’ they echoed, smil­ing an­gel­i­cally. In the end, we sur­ren­dered. We emerged from the hut in our swim­ming gear, ran down to the beach and into the water. Some lit­tle boys who could swim fol­lowed; oth­ers hung around the hut, peer­ing cu­ri­ously in­side. We played splash­ing games and beach foot­ball with them. They did som­er­sault dives from the rocks, and brought us man­goes.

Later, fish­er­men came by with fish to sell, which we cooked on an open fire, thank­ing the good luck that had brought us to this place; oth­ers ap­peared with veg­eta­bles and fruit. Our good luck was also theirs — a few ex­tra kwachas to boost the lo­cal econ­omy.

The next day was ex­actly the same: sun­light, sand, water, heat, shade, fruit and fish, night­fall, starlight, sleep. And the day af­ter. We gave up our other plans and de­cided to stay. With­out elec­tric­ity, the bat­ter­ies on my tooth­brush, phone and lap­top grad­u­ally ran down, and I let the slow rhythm of the sun re­or­gan­ise my worka­day brain.

At last our money, our anti-malar­i­als and drink­ing water were run­ning out, and it was time to go. When we packed up our things in the car, I found my dog-eared copy of Mid­dle­march by Ge­orge Eliot and the elec­tric tooth­brush were miss­ing. Maybe some of the an­gels were not so an­gelic af­ter all, but given the unimag­in­ably huge dis­par­i­ties in in­come be­tween them and us, it was a small price to pay. And I think Ge­orge Eliot would have been rather pleased.

Re­cently I vis­ited my daugh­ter in Malawi again and we took our camp­ing gear and drove up the lake road, think­ing to spend a few nights at Maia Beach. We stopped some pass­ing lo­cals to get di­rec­tions and asked at a cou­ple of stores near where we’d first spot­ted the sign. ‘‘Maia Beach?’’ They shook their heads. ‘‘There is no such place around here.’’

Had we imag­ined the whole thing? I re­mem­bered the pre­vi­ous visit and my heart pound­ing with fear that the vil­lagers would kid­nap or rob us. That’s when it oc­curred to me that maybe, in their own gen­tle way, they ac­tu­ally had. Ma­rina Lewycka’s most re­cent nov­els are We Are All Made of Glue and Var­i­ous Pets Alive and Dead. This is an edited ex­tract from Bet­ter Than Fic­tion, edited by Don Ge­orge (Lonely Planet, $24.99).

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