The lake of stars

Our destination, Likomo Island, looked like it belonged in the South Pacific, except with baobabs. Silhouettes of distant islands sat serenely on the horizon, a zephyr ruffled the clear waters into a sparkling dance, and the distant shoreline of Malawi was sometimes visible through the haze, sometimes not.

A nearby village sat behind racks on the beach filled with tiny silver mbuna, drying in the sun. Fisherman and their sons repaired nets on the beach, women ambled on the shore with patterned dresses and orange and blue bandanas. Their rhythmic gate was set to a chronometer; a slow African chronometer. Firewood, fish and fruit; sack, tray and bowl. All balanced on the head, all swayed to the chronometer.

The next day at the reception I met a young German girl, Sabrina, we had met back in Cape Town.

‘Hey James, you know, I think Sam is talking so much better.’

‘You think?’

‘Oh yes. You can really tell the difference.’

I felt like doing a jig. I had thought so myself, but couldn’t convince myself I was seeing past my inherent observer bias. I suppose Sabrina may have had observer bias herself. You see what you want to see, and everyone wants what we are doing to work. Still, it was uplifting to hear her impressions.

The next day we had a failed walk to a cathedral. Likomo apparently has an impressive and disproportionally grand cathedral, which was ‘just over the hill.’ Forty five minutes after starting out, stupidly on my part in the heat of the day and carrying no water, we struggled up and over the sharp edges of the quartz lined trail, getting overheated and overwrought.

I realised half-way up the hill Sam was wearing his long pants. Great parenting James. Sweating profusely, he plonked down on the hot rock and sand and refused to go any further. I pushed, harassed, cajoled, bribed and threatened. He had had enough. I sat ten yards away and took a few big slow breaths. What is more important; seeing some stupid cathedral, or avoiding getting cranky again?

‘Stuff this. Let’s head back, find some shade and have a cold drink.’

‘Yay! Thanks Dad.’

The next day we headed off with Andy, Margaret and Malee to visit the preschool in the village next to Mango Drift. Sam didn’t want to get too close to the small children; I think he was sensibly worried about their snotty noses and wet coughs. Sitting on the verandah of the school in their apple green uniforms, eating their morning porridge, chickens flicked between the smallest of them, trying to steal a beak full of porridge. The preschoolers in turn shooed them away.

Sam took umbrage at this; he was on his anti-animal cruelty crusade again. He started to run around the village trying to protect the chickens. The children were fascinated by this lanky teenager running around their school and thought it was a game. Next thing you know, Sam was the Pied Piper, with a slipstream of squealing three- and four-year-olds running after him.

‘I don’t like African children, Dad!’

‘Well, they seem to like you.’

Sometime after midnight, I awoke with a startle to silence. Where were the waves? Apart from the careful footsteps of a chicken pressing through the leaves surrounding the hut and the distant faint static of crickets, there was no sound.

I crunched across the coarse sand forty metres to the lake’s edge. The water was eerily still, a vast looking glass for the galaxy to gaze upon herself. Livingstone had described Lake Malawi as ‘the lake of stars’. Perfect.

I stepped into the lake up to my ankles and had a bit of a God moment. Brushing the surface with my hand, a few seconds, a few metres, and the ripples vanished, absorbed again into the deep dark stillness.

Sometime before dawn, I awoke with a startle to a mosquito buzzing near my ear. My slap gave me a minute or two of unilateral tinnitus. Now I lay awake; intermittently a rooster would crow, setting off his competitors across the villages.

Ruminating, ruminating, round and round, like the roosters my thoughts competed for attention. Sam, activities, missing home, progress, writing, filming, where are we going next? I imagined ourselves deep down in the lake, swimming in the darkness.

During the day I tried to get Sam to go snorkelling. Lake Malawi is filled with nearly a thousand species of cichlids, small brightly coloured fish, the majority of which are endemic to the lake. Sam didn’t like the idea of swimming with fish. I didn’t mention to him the remote risk of hippos and crocs; I mean, it was a remote risk.

‘I don’t want to go near the fish.’

‘Sam, they will be scared of you. You are much bigger than them. They will swim away from you.’

‘I still don’t want to.’

I managed to get him to the water’s edge in flippers and goggles and sat down in the water, but that was it. Still, it was an improvement. I gave him a ‘pass’, which Sam was happy with.

I went off for a snorkel myself, trying to not think about crocodiles. Cracks and cavities between the muddy moss covered rocks were home to finger-sized cichlids; blacks, browns, greens, blues, black and white striped, gold and lime striped. My favourite: an ink blue with a strip of amethyst along its spine. A scatter of colour ducking for shadows.

The late afternoon saw the fishermen from the village once again taking their boats out to lay the nets. This time they were trawling from the beach, and all the males, young and old, heaved on long net lines, dragging in the catch. After dozens of them had toiled for an hour, the booty was a bucket of mbuna.

They weren’t finished, however. Two long dugout canoes, four men in each, headed out again before sunset. Using nets and noise and amazing skill they corralled the catch. They landed a sixty centimetre kampango, a predatory catfish, which was to be the backpackers’ dinner that night. The fisherman in the canoes hollered and hooped and splashed their oars on the water, delighted with their valuable catch. Villagers on the beach echoed the celebration and sang and danced.

And so the rhythm continued, the sunset, the lake, the stars.