Clayton wanted to stay another day in Liwonde but I had ants in my pants and wanted to get to the lake. In hindsight, we should’ve probably just stayed there. One of the things that I’m starting to learn is that if you like a place, stay. The other thing is to not believe reviews.
Cape Maclear is one of the few places we’ve found that had an almost 100% good review record so it was a no-brainer to go there for a couple of days. It was also next to Monkey Bay where we had a mission to fulfill – getting a photo of the Monkey Bay Backpackers’ logo in Ballito at Monkey Bay, Malawi. Despite Ballito being the place where Bertus really lost it and almost got sent back home, it was also a special place for us because that was where we realized just how much we wanted to do the trip with Bertus. The guys at Monkey Bay (Michael, Mark and Lucky) had a very big influence in this, unbeknownst to them.
We left early-ish since it would be long day’s drive to get to there. The road starts off terrible, half built in some stages, being built in other areas and then potholed for the rest before it turns into a smooth tar road for the last 100km to Monkey Bay.
As we head more into central Malawi the poverty really hits home. Kids have clear malnutrition signs and the requests for money were becoming more demanding even forceful. I was prepared for kids shouting for sweets but the rude “Give me money” that we got really started to work on my nerves and I began feeling like a walking ATM – a defective one but still. Since you really cannot ignore them we began asking them what do they have to sell – willing to give them money but not for nothing in return. This is not because we are stingy or mean, I just do not believe in handing out money to every Tom, Dick and Harry that demands it from me and people who do give money should be banned from travelling (I can start a whole blog post on responsible tourism but I will spare you that. For now…).
Other than being the port for the Ilala Ferry that travels the length of the lake (and who we will become better acquainted with later) there is not much in Monkey Bay. We traveled a good couple of kilometers with the GPS showing the lake only about 150 – 200m away but the mountains, or hills rather, hid the lake. It felt almost like their own secret and you have to make your way through them to be let in on it.
Our first stop was Mufasa Backpackers… After a long day on a bad road you really just want to get to a place be shown to the camp grounds and set up so when we arrived and the manager/owner/staff member/random dude did not know what is going on in their own camp it really irked me. Luckily I was not the only one irritated by this. Clayton was also not impressed so we decided to head directly to Cape Maclear about 20km away – a 30min drive. We left M3 behind and set off, trusting our GPS to take us via the best road so when we saw boards a few kilometers down the road indicating that we should turn right, we ignored it and put our faith in Garmin.
Do not put your faith in a GPS (lesson number 3). 1 hour and a dry riverbed crossing later through small villages on a road that probably has not seen a car in weeks if not months, we arrived at Fat Monkeys in Cape Maclear. Luckily for us it is the dry season in Malawi otherwise the river crossing would have been problematic. At Fat Monkeys we were welcomed as if we were expected and after the manager gave us a discount just because he liked our car, we decided that this will be the place and we set up camp under the mango trees.
Clayton complained about a sore throat earlier that morning but I did not think anything of it and gave him a lozenge to suck on (thank you Simone!). That evening it sounded like he had full on bronchitis. I was not about to wait for it to get worse to see whether it was Malaria or not and immediately put him on a course of Coartem.
The next morning he was man-down and I was worried. We were a long way from civilization with hospitals and he was not looking good. To add to the problem – I struggle to reach the pedals in the Beetle (Clayton modified it so that he can fit in the car) so getting him to a hospital was going to be tricky to say the least and that is not even taking into consideration the unique steering of the Beetle (for example sometimes you have to turn the steering wheel a bit to the right to go around a sharp left corner). I kept a close eye on him the whole day and did not dare leave camp – not that there was much to see. By that evening he still did not look good but he had 3 doses left of the Coartem and we agreed we will make a plan in the morning if he was not better. I luckily had Marcia and Matt on standby should we need to take him to the hospital or clinic.
Morning came and he was able to get out of the tent and walk to the ablution block 50m without having to immediately use his asthma pump. It looked promising and after eating breakfast he was able to sit outside for an hour or so before heading back to the tent. Compared to the previous day this was more than just a mild improvement. When M3 came around later that day he was looking a100% better than the day before and I had a difficult time convincing them that Clayton was sick. He was sitting outside, managed to have a conversation and even walked around. We even made plans to join them on the catamaran the next day before he head back to the tent.
Safe to say our experience of Cape Maclear was nowhere close to the reviews I’ve read but it was not just because Clayton was sick, I just wanted to get away as soon as possible. The place smelt like fish so even though I could have gone for a walk while Clayton slept, I felt like gagging when I walked through the small roads in the village. Long tables everywhere filled with small fish in various stages of being dried out lined the beach and the roads. To give you an indication of how bad it smelt: Fat monkeys had those fly catcher bags hanging from the mango trees all over the camp and they usually smell rather bad – I think they hang it there not to just catch flies but also to mask the smell of dried fish.
We camped right on the beach, the lake not more than 50m away but I did not even put my feet in the water. The beach was filled with people washing themselves, their clothes and anything they feel is dirty from early morning till late afternoon – giving the lake a brown tint all along the edge of the beach. This is also where I learned lesson 4: the angle of a photo can be VERY deceiving!
I am not saying they should not do this, it is their lake after all and they have no other means. It was actually quite nice sitting on the bench watching everyone going about their business. The kids were super entertaining as was the little kingfisher that kept diving into the lake for little fish the entire day. (I have about 250 photos just of the kingfisher in various stages of him diving into the water.) Seeing what a big role the lake plays in the daily lives of those living around it was an eye opener for me and a good experience but swimming directly from shore and enjoying the lake – this is not the place.
Taking everything into consideration it would probably not be fair of me to say that Cape Maclear is a terrible place and can/should be avoided because we did not really do anything there. In the end we did not join M3 on the cruise but rather went to Lilongwe. The photos of the cruise and the snorkeling around the island looked amazing though but this cruise or day trip can be arranged from anywhere around the lake and not just at Cape Maclear.
We spent 3 nights there and on day 4 went to Lilongwe to stock up on some stuff as well as to get closer to a hospital should Clayton get worse. He fortunately did not and we were able to join M3 in Senga bay the next day.