After Lilongwe, we headed south-east to the small town of Dedza, which sits in the foothills of its eponymous mountain. The hour journey took us through some beautiful, rolling countryside. We couldn’t believe how green it was – the emerald season indeed. Malawi is a small country with a large population and this showed in the land around us. Almost every square inch was cultivated. Most of the crops were maize but we also came across fields of tobacco. Alongside these were the drying ‘sheds’ – open thatched barns with rack upon rack of leaves hanging out to dry, with colours ranging from the fresh green of newly-picked leaves to the soft pale brown of the dried.
The population was also reflected in the number of people walking and cycling along the road. They certainly know how to load a bicycle in Malawi! Whether it’s the wife and kids, half a dozen 4m lengths of planking, a sheep, a pig, huge bags of charcoal, you name it, they stack up their bikes with it and peddle or push (depending on the weight of the load and the steepness of the slope) their way along the road, dodging the speeding mini-buses as they go. The latter are the main form of local transport between the towns, with bodies, luggage and the occasional chicken and/or goat wedged in way beyond the ancient, and probably unroadworthy, vehicle’s capacity. Small ‘fines’ allegedly change hands behind the bus at the police checkpoints to avoid the larger official fines for overloading. We’re told by some of the backpackers we’ve met that they’re great fun to travel in, although with our own transport we are unlikely to experience it.
As we climbed towards our destination we had an incredible view across the rift valley to the southern tip of Lake Malawi. This is part of the same Great Rift Valley that runs through Kenya and Tanzania and it was absolutely beautiful. Such a change from most of Zambia where the landscape we’d seen to date had been fairly flat.
Beautiful Malawian landscape
We stayed at the Dedza Pottery, which had camping and a nice restaurant. Fed up with using plastic mugs for our breakfast cuppa, we invested in some from the pottery which to us was remarkably cheap. We also hired their guide, Peter, to take us to see some of the rock art the area is well-known for. We’d read, correctly, that we wouldn’t find the better caves without a guide. The rock art was several km away up a forest track so we offloaded some of our gear, Angela clambered onto the water tank box in the back (we have no rear seats since we converted the car for the trip), Peter into the passenger seat, Gareth driving, and headed up over the rough and bouncy road. We crossed this rather unsafe-looking bridge which our guide assured us was “very strong”…
Over 2.5 tonnes of Land Rover, one small wooden bridge…
As we crossed we were watched by some mischievous-looking little tykes from an adjacent tree. They, and the other kids on our trip were fine and Peter obviously said something to them to get them to behave:
After an hour or so we left the car for the 15 minute walk up to the caves (more a large overhang) and a look at the rock art. We passed several kids on the way up. Rather than being at school they were tending their families sheep. Quite a few of the rural families do this rather than letting their kids go to school, which obviously isn’t ideal for their future growth. They followed us up and sat in silence watching as Peter talked us through the symbols.
Ancient red-oxide pigment rock art thought to depict rain. The sun is depicted by concentric circles
More recent rock art depicting animals or zoomorphic figures
The stunning view from the top
Peter proved to be a mine of information. Originally from Zimbabwe but in Malawi for the last 30 years, his English was excellent (unlike our Zimbabwean or Malawian!) and we asked him question after question about the history, culture and politics of Malawi. We discovered that the average wage for Malawians is MKW25,000/month. That’s less than £30. Nearly half of this goes on rent and power. Prices in the supermarkets do not reflect this and most local people get their day-to-day needs from local markets. We visited a couple, one with Peter, and bought some lovely fresh produce – cabbage, carrots, onions, tomatoes, aubergines – all for less than a pound. Crazy for us, essential for the locals. We also learnt that he got none of the money we’d paid to ‘hire’ him. That all went to the owners. Also that, despite the low prices we thought we’d paid for our mugs, the workers couldn’t afford to buy the products they were making. It left us feeling not a little uncomfortable.
We stayed at Dedza for 3 nights. It was a nice spot but, more importantly, Angela had been nursing a dodgy tummy since Lilongwe which had got into full flow (we were surprised we had gone this long without any kind of travellers trots). It could have been much worse and happily she’d managed not to redecorate the inside of the tent, but she was keen not to travel too far away from relative ‘safety’. But after 3 days and with the help of Imodium (other brands may be available) we headed off again to travel further south.