Clarissa Hughes

Backtracking Africa

Runner-up in the 2009 Bradt Travel Writing Competition.

Anonymous arms handled large woven bags over the heads of the throng – an elevated baggage carousel.  The crowd surged as we stepped off the ferry.  “Bananas, bananas,” one vendor shouted as he thrust a bunch of squat, green fruit into our faces.


 Tradeswomen sat straight-legged on grass mats, displaying small mounds of groundnuts, tomatoes and onions.  “To make babies grow,” said one, as she held out a piece of pale clay.  Two ragged boys ran past kicking a homemade soccer ball of old plastic bags lashed with string.

Suddenly the crowd hummed and parted around a wild-skinned man handling a bright green snake.  Holding the audience in fearful transfixion he fed it into his mouth and out as proof of his doctoring powers.

Clanging and grinding the rusty ferry departed and the crowd dispersed.

“OK, what now?”

“We’ll have to hitch-hike, there’s no other way to get to the north shore of the lake.”

“Where do you think the main road is?”

Just then a young Malawian walked over.  “You look like you need assistance,” he said in perfect English, with a dazzling smile. His name was Peter and he insisted on carrying our packs to the road.   We looked around.  The track was overgrown, hardly used. Where had all those people gone?   “Don’t worry,” said Peter, “I will stay with you until a lift comes.”

Several hours later a tractor came chugging down the trail.  Peter stepped out into its path holding up his palm officiously.  The tractor sputtered to a halt while Peter and the driver conversed.  Returning to us Peter said that the driver would gladly help but as the tractor wasn’t licenced for this national road (national road?) he would have to use the back roads.  Would that be all right?   With no other sign of impending transport we climbed onto the flatbed trailer.

And held on for dear life. No suspension and no load made it an endurance test that jarred the bones and loosened the teeth.  Turning off the road onto a wide footpath we headed up into the tea plantations of the Malawi uplands.  Conversation was impossible, as we hung onto the only upright on the trailer, the frontpiece.  The lake came into view, a turquoise cat’s eye, stretching to north and south.

The path twisted and turned between verdant hills covered with tea bushes, while a crisp, cerulean sky arched over us.  More turnoffs were taken cutting ever deeper into the red-earth hinterland.  Where were we?  A roll of thunder drummed ominously as pavlova clouds whipped up tropical steam.  A creeping sense of foreboding crawled into our chests as we realised we could never find our own way back to the “national road.” Utterly at the mercy of a man we didn’t know, and with whom we hadn’t exchanged two words, we were well and truly lost.  There was no sign of human habitation anywhere, just endless green hills.

And then at the top of a rise the tractor came to a halt.  Muscles tensed in preparation to leap and run for our lives.  Our driver turned in the cup-seat and looked at us.

“Would you ladies like to urinate?”

In deflated and dumbstruck relief we shook our heads – our imagined abductor was a considerate guide.

Understanding we weren’t going to be kidnapped and sold into slavery we started to enjoy the scenery bouncing past.  Tea plantations gave way to bush and tropical forest.  Monkeys chattered in the overhead canopy as a duiker daintily picked its way across a glade.  The sweet warm smell of fecundity assailed our nostrils.

Through a village where children danced and yelled “Muzungu, muzungu,” while women wrapped in colourful chitenges, bent over washing or pounded mortars, stopped what they were doing and waved, flashing broad unselfconscious white smiles.

The track turned east and started its descent back towards the lake which glowed in subtle shades of  purple as the sun began its own decline.  The rush hour was in full throttle.  Returning dugouts streamed towards the  shore filled with the catch of the day.  People appeared, walking home after toiling in the fields, each one waving and greeting us as we bounded along.

The trail levelled out and the tractor stopped.  Before us ran the national road looking much the same as it had hours before.

“I may not go further,” our guide said.

We thanked him profusely and heaved our packs off the trailer as he chugged back up into the hills.

“OK what now?”

Just then a young Malawian walked over. “You look like you need assistance,”  he said in perfect English, with a dazzling smile.  His name was Ernest.

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