Monday, 18 May 2009

Alex learns to dive on Likoma

i really should have tried scuba diving before. my mum comes from the south of france and my holidays there were very nautical - swimming, snorkelling, sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing etc. my grandfather and uncle are unbelievably experienced aquanauts, having run their own boats (including a 40ft yacht), free-dived to extraordinary depths and fished for england. well, france.

so when i found out that Likoma was one of the cheapest places to learn it didn't take too much convincing. i loved Likoma, by the way, not just because of the diving, but because the hills are covered in what i can only describe as alpine meadow, which i found really bizarre on a tropical island in southern africa. apparently it's because the island was completely deforested (for firewood) by refugees years ago. there is some regeneration going on at the north of the island now. but i found it really surreal to wander over the island through long grass, with little blue and purple flowers and tons of butterflies. my two favourite environments - alpine and water - rolled into one.

it's a completely safe place - crime does NOT EXIST here. in africa you get used to people telling you not to wander around at night pretty much everywhere you go (whether it's entirely justified or not), so it was very refreshing to be completely free to do as we chose on Likoma. people are very friendly and will always stop for a polite chat. adults will hardly ever beg here, although the kids chance it now and again. depending on the time of day and the route you choose, you can be mobbed by little kids, desperate to hold of your hand and accompany you for just a short way.

the island's infrastructure is pretty damn good, considering how cut off the place is. nearly everywhere has access to electricity (till 10pm anyway) and running water - although these are fairly recent developments, admittedly - and the village houses are bigger and better built than on the mainland. people seem to have it good on Likoma. conditions aren't ideal for agriculture however (due to the sandy soil and lack of manure), so some stuff has to be shipped from the mainland, making certain things expensive or hard to find. there is a plentiful supply of fish in the lake, although that too can be hard to find sometimes (go figure). during mango season it must really be like paradise on Likoma but.

the island is about 12 miles by 5 miles, so pretty tiny. from the highest point (about 700m, - the water level is at 490m altitude anyway) you can see all over the island. Likoma is only 7km from the Mozambique coast - which looks awesome by the way, hills adorned by thick forest, hardly any habitation at all. a couple of groups from our backpackers, Mango Drift, made the trip to Cobue in Mozambique by kayak. without visas i might add.

Mango Drift and its staff are completely lovely. it's a remote, half-km beach in a bay on the south west corner of the island. loads of mango and baobab ("upside-down") trees. you can hardly see the bar and the cabins from the water, because of the way it's been built. Josh and Becky, a young British couple, have just taken over the place and it suits them down to the ground, even though they are far more experienced divers than guest house managers. they are naturals, doing a great job and we wish them every success. T and I were living on about 11 UK pounds a day each, and eating (and boozing) well. blazing hot most days, it was, and only rained once during the night. it's a really, really chilled place - hammocks, games of Bao, swimming ... and diving!

the first time i breathed (brothe?) underwater it was ok - just like snorkelling really. but then my mask started leaking and the exercises we had to do complicated matters somewhat. clear my mask, by breathing out through my nose, you say? i've just got used to breathing in and out through my mouth exclusively, and now you want me to breathe out of my nose and then go back to sucking air through my mouth? i had a bit of a spack attack, i don't mind telling you. i wasn't sure i was going to be able to do my first real dive, i was really quite nervous. but about half way through the first 34 min dive i relaxed - and Josh said he saw my posture and buoyancy improve suddenly - and that was it. completely hooked.

i did 11 dives in two and a half weeks (we kept deciding to stay on), and passed my PADI Advanced. it cost me about 360 quid and now i can dive to 30m anywhere in the world. i did a night dive and a deep dive and i definitely wanna go deeper than 30m. it's VERY cool down there. the visibility in the lake is excellent and it's fresh water, which means it's easier on your eyes and your gear. the lake is full of cichlids, the fastest evolving genera of fish in the world. they're generally quite small and very colourful and there are loads of different types. some are mouth-breeders, meaning the mum rears and protects her young in her mouth - i saw it, it's mad. tiny little mini-mums, dozens of them, shooting into her mouth when we came near. the only bigger stuff (apart from crocs, which we didn't see) are the kampango (catfish). Becky was really quite shocked by a massive one that jumped out from between some rocks on a dive once - i have to admit i laughed - it was over a metre long and she almost made the 'shark' sign.

there are also impressive rock formations round the islands we dived (dove?), 30m walls and drop-offs to 80m depth. i loved it, loved it, loved it. thanks to Josh and Becky for giving me a great start in diving. i can highly recommend it. right now, i feel like i want to do it a lot more, maybe become a Divemaster or instructor one day. seems like a pretty good way of life to me.

Alive in Malawi - Mzuzu, Nkhata and the Ilala ferry

hello world, sorry for the lack of communication recently. another tropical island happened to us, you know how it is. thought i would give you a brief update on what's been happening the last 5 weeks or so. T has some cracking pics which will take a while to get up here, but will be well worth the wait, as usual.

so we stayed with an old uni friend of mine, Niall Dorey, in Mzuzu. Niall has done really well for himself, living in Malawi for about 8 years now. a teacher, he has started up his own school - Beehive School, Mzuzu - from scratch, and now has 210 kids studying and a heck of a long waiting list. we were lucky enough to help out at the school during the last week of term and i can honestly say it was some of the most fun i have had on this trip. the kids are LOVELY, so well behaved and friendly. big ups to Niall for doing such a good job with the whole thing and for making such a mark in the community in such a humble and understated way. we hope the football/rounders hybrid game we took part in becomes part of the curriculum; and massive congrats on becoming a Cambridge-accredited school!

we stayed at Niall's place for about 3 weeks and were very well looked after. GREAT family and GREAT food. thanks to Constance, Ali, Tirumbe and Chimwemwe for taking us into their home and treating us so nicely, we miss you all. sorry for taking your daddy to the pub so much, we are bad english people! (i did have a falling-over experience with the local moonshine, but you don't want to know the gory details, i'm sure).

after Mzuzu, we headed down to Nkhata Bay, the nearest town on the massive Lake Malawi and somewhere that backpackers tend to frequent. we were therefore slightly wary of it - we had stayed at Jim's Nkwazi Lodge (also on the lake, about 40km south) briefly a couple of weeks earlier, which we had all to ourselves and it was gorgeous - but actually Mayoka Village at Nkhata was really, really beautiful. lovely place to swim, nice chalets and staff, and an especially alluring compost toilet. we were just there for one night though, before getting on the legendary Ilala ferry, the best-known form of transport around the lake and the only way to get to certain remote places. it's working cargo vessel that has been going for years and although it's something of an experience, i wouldn't do it again. too bloody slow!

we left at 8 in the evening and got to Likoma Island at 6 in the morning. as usual, i didn't sleep and kept an eye on our bags - which was a good thing, as some unlucky south africans we met had their money nicked, and they had gone to the trouble of pitching a tent on the top ("first class") deck! anyway, i officially have a new favourite tropical island and it is called ... LIKOMA.