Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Zomba Plateau and Cutting Wood

I have had enough of Blantyre and MANAD planning that I needed to get out for couple days to have a change of scenery. Saturday afternoon on March 7, Annie one of the med students at Kabula Lodge and I travelled via minibus to Zomba town. There is a very limited coach bus run between Blantyre and Zomba so Annie and I opted for the minibus – for a 67 kilometer ride, it took us a little over an hour to get there. The minibus sped on the road so fast that clutching my rucksack from slipping, I actually got a little carsick. The seats are not 100 percent secured to the floor so whenever the seats rocked from sharp turns and jarred from potholes I’d be lurching to and fro. On the return trip to Blantyre, I was by the window; my head occasionally bumped the window.

Zomba town is a quiet and leafy town, the former capital of Malawi until 1975 when Banda, Malawi’s post-independent President moved the seat to Lilongwe. The Parliament still has a seat there. I did not see much of the town since Annie and I were concentrated on gathering provisions needed and trying to shake peddlers and taxi drivers off our tail (we averaged at most three yapping and arguing access for poor Annie’s ear). They’re more persistent in Zomba, compared to Blantyre and Lilongwe. The beggars are the same as elsewhere. They often beg at entrances and exits of food stores and I’ve long become accustomed to their presence. When Annie and I left the store, a beggar woman was chatting to another beggar woman. Once she realized our presence – she seemed to shift her identity. One moment she looked like she was gossiping, and the next moment she gave us her best pitiful face and begging motions. Anyways, after going nowhere being tailed by the peddlers we enlisted assistance from a police officer who was kind enough to find a taxi driver and escorted us to our hostel on the Plateau.

The road from Zomba town to the plateau of the mountain took quite some time, navigating the winding road both tarred and dirt. It was nearing 4pm and we observed many people walking up or down the road with wood piled on their head or high on their bikes (our hiking guide later explained to us that wood chopped and carried into town on a person will earn K500 (around $7) and those using bikes, K1500 ---?). A number of women and children carried produce and few children were finishing school. After a while, we reached the Trout Farm, an up and coming eco-tourist type of lodge that depends on breeding trout and attract tourists. The cabins and room did not contain electricity (as advertised) so we depended on candle light and campfire. Sorta like camping. Our room was large with wooden floor, a sofa and a plush arm chair, one table with a candleholder, two beds with bednets, and a large freezer (huh??). The ceiling is made of mats and simply tailored curtains covered the windows (and plastic sheeting too).

Since there was some daylight left, we opted to check out a local waterfall with the guide. Soon as we set out the rain poured by the sky but we trooped on (our clothes would not dry properly overnight) and checked it out best as we could see through the downpour. We were properly soaked to the bone and our sneakers were squishy. As I write this a week and half later, my toenails are slowly recovering from two days of wearing soaked sneakers. After changing into dry and warmer clothes, we prepared our dinner by candlelight – avocado mixed in with tomatoes, onion, and canned tuna. We bought some wood for fire (a “camp-boy” from the UK asked to share with him so he paid us some kwachas) and cooked baked beans and canned sausage in a pan. We ate the tuna salad after. It’s actually pretty delicious once the taste of tuna with vegetables is acuired. I’d prepare the same for next camping trip back home.

At dusk when we began the fire, it was pretty eerie. We were high up on the Plateau that the fog and clouds were moving through the Trout Farm. The misty fog created a very ghostly presence. Later during the night all the light sapped by the mist, Annie and “camp-boy” were a little skittish. I then looked where they were looking and saw a strange light flickering on one of the lodge windows. Eventually we figured out it was the reflection of our fire. Some moments later, Annie and Camp-boy jumped in fright and trained their torches (flashlight) in the direction of the source of their fright. It was some reddish light and it moved to reflect our guide’s torch and his heaving laughter. He obviously made some creepy noise and followed it with some torch-playing to have some fun with the two.

After a while, I hit the sack and Annie soon followed. Oh - before I went to bed, with the heavy fog, I basically had to feel my way to the bathroom – the flashlight was useless in the mist and I had the visibility of maybe two or three feet front of me. One time I nearly walked into one of the water farms. I made it to the bathroom and back without incident. Early the next day, after a breakfast of very powdery and sweet orange juice, crumbly bread (squashed from Annie’s rucksack) with peanut butter, we two and the guide set off to cover the highlights of the Plateau; the two viewing points, one of the lakes from dams, a waterfall, and through the woods. It did not rain this time, thank goodness.

The walk to the viewing point on the road and through the forest was a long one. But interesting. Many people who lived nearby and at the base of the mountain were up there, cutting down and stacking wood to take into town and sell them. With the increased rolling blackouts in Malawi more and more residents are turning to firewood and charcoal for cooking and cleaning purposes. Since I’ve read so much in my graduate courses in development about cutting down wood not because of environment destruction ignorance, but for survival, I *had* to take pictures of men and women cutting and tying strands of wood to take to town. They were friendly with the guide engaging him in chitchat. The Trout Farm also grows and plants new trees to replace the cut down trees. It is a matter of how much the Farm can keep up with the deforestation.

The waterfall we visited, a man was sitting near the top watching women across the waterfall cutting and gathering wood. One of the women, possibly in her late teens was attempting to cross the stream (flowing through and over boulders) between two points where the water fell and the next falling water, with a strand of ten foot long wood balanced on her head. One hand held the wood on her head and another hand shielded her eyes to give her a better look at where the bottom of the stream to place her foot in (barefoot I must add). The man remained up there, watching. The woman looked very unsteady. The guide approached her closely as possible and talked her way through the water. As the woman stepped into the rushing water she nearly lost her footing (the water went up almost to middle of her shins) and in my mind’s eye I could see her abdomen core muscles working to maintain her balance. We thought she would actually fall over, be crushed and pinned down by the wood strand or be washed away downstream. After some tense moments, she fought to maintain her posture and righted herself. The ten-foot batch of woods balanced on her head did not fall or shift. Impressive. When the woman reached closer to us through the stream, the guide grabbed and held the end of the wood to help her out of the water. When it brushed by me it felt so heavy. The man waved at us as to thank us. Asshole. Another woman came by with the wood and the guide was able to talk her out of it and find another way.

That young woman the guide helped earlier could’ve been a typical causality of hard life. She could have had a fatal blow to her head from falling down or break many bones in her body if the rushing water carried her through another waterfall below us. In disability studies of developing countries some women became disabled or confined to wheelchair as a result from this type of work.

On the lighter side, we reached the two view points, the King Haile Strasse View (named after an Ethiopian King who visited and viewed at this very spot) and a smaller view point called Queen Elizabeth (no, not HER)view named after a famed mistress of President Banda’s who enjoyed the view from that viewing point. We were on the same level with the clouds – and Zomba sprawled below us and we could see as far as Mulanje Mountain (close to Mozambique border). Sometimes the clouds would pass through us and we’d see nothing but each other, the ground and the whiteness of the cloud. We were standing at an elevation much higher than Michuri (find out height). Then we walked around a small lake created by a dam and greeted hello to a young man fishing. Some of the trout bred by the Trout Farm is stacked there. We walked through the woods and passed men and boys cutting wood and stacking them in bundles or tied to bikes. Some men were all muscle, bone and tendon. Chopping and shaving wood with axes and machetes, sometimes using their bare feet (no I am not dramatizing the scene) to hold the wood as they chopped or shaved the bark off.

It was a very enlightening walk and good exertion of our bodies. The dirt road was slippery from the rains so we mostly kept our eyes down making sure we walked on grass, crumbly rocks for traction. There were several times when I slipped and danced to keep my balance. Annie – once, all 5’10 of her slipped, and all I saw was her arms pinwheeling as she danced to the side of the road. I was doubled over, my mouth covered by my hands – I was afraid that if I laughed, I’d fall down.


Anonymous Lisa said...

Absolutely awesome adventure! I'm deadly jealous!!! You and I MUST and i mean MUST go on a hiking/camping adventure some day. Maybe the Appalachian Trail??? :)

also, GREAT picture!!! :)

3/21/2009 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kate, Really enjoying reading your tales. You write so colorfully. Charles Reilly

4/01/2009 12:42 AM  

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