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#all in malawi

  • Mélissa Le Nevé and Ben Rueck on a Boulder Trip through Malawi

Staring into the inky blackness, the darkness became hypnotic. I sat in a little Suzuki driver’s side, speeding along towards Lake Malawi with Mélissa Le Nevé in the passenger seat beside me. It took a little while to get used to driving on the other side of the road, but by this point I became used to it. It had been a long day of travel; and I was looking at another few hours. The African plains were much larger than I previously had thought. I was reflecting about this when out of the corner of my eye something appeared.
At first I thought it was a seat belt light, but upon closer inspection it was actually an indicator that told me I was about to be out of fuel. My stomach dropped. We were still over an hour away from our destination, in the middle of Africa, and I had not seen a petrol station for the last few 100 kilometres. I glanced over to the passenger seat and saw Mélissa sleeping. We had been driving almost twelve hours and two choices came to mind: Do I wake her up? Or: Do I jump out of the car and run because she is just going to kill me anyway? This became a dilemma for a few minutes; but I decided to let her sleep while I thought of what to do. After the panic settled, I began to laugh. We had been in Africa for almost two weeks to this point, and many things had gone wrong – so many that this was just another drop in the bucket. I remembered a perfect saying: “This is Africa – or T.I.A.”

Almost two weeks previously…
I always dreamed of Africa and finding myself placing foot onto the soil a sense of excitement and content washed over me. Life was happening. I was here; and I was here to climb! I knew I was going to have an adventure, but Africa had a lot of learning in store for me; and she does not pull her punches. My first lesson came within the first ten minutes. As I stood at the luggage claim I heard an awful sound that no one wants to hear... a whirling click of the conveyor belt stopping with no sign of my luggage. I may have arrived, but my bags had not. Not so good for a three week climbing trip. After an hour long conversation with the lost luggage claim attendant – I watched as he made a record of my missing items in a notebook that was similar to what I used in university. I mention this because it did not inspire much confidence in this system. But we needed to pick up Mélissa at the airport the next day, so I didn’t panic yet. I met the rest of the group, ran some errands in Lilongwe and headed back to our rooms for the night.


The next day we met Mel at the airport where I was told my luggage had not come in and to check in later. This was not an option, it was time to go climbing and I was not interested in holding everyone up! Luckily, I had learned long ago to pack climbing shoes and other knick-knacks in my carry-on bag; and with no other options the group went to our first climbing destination six hours south of Lilongwe. A little village south of Blantyre called Mulanje.
Mulanje is a special place. The mountain range juts out from the flat plains, creating a picturesque environment to explore. Our destination lay at the base of one of the largest peaks. Massive granite boulders surrounded the base of Chambe Peak, a 2,500 metre big wall. The peak itself holds the longest climbing route in Africa, which after exploring the base of this gentle giant I wanted to climb—but ropes would be for another time. We settled into our huts down the road from where our entry point would be and began to explore our new surroundings.
Mélissa, Scott, and I wanted to get in an afternoon session of bouldering, to see what the rock quality would be like. Luckily next to our lodgings there were boulders that had potential. This is the fun part of being on trips like this: the unknown. There is no guarantee that the rock will be climbable or good. This makes the puzzle-solving and adventure more satisfying even if the problems are simple. We found some really fun lines and a difficult problem that we were all excited to finish, but unfortunately our time exploring the rocks came to a quick end because we encountered what I liked to call the “fire bean”. It is a nasty little plant that makes you feel like your skin is on fire with itching and shooting nerves when you brush up against it. We were surrounded and oblivious to this demon plant’s existence, so we were covered from the neck down within no time. We had to stop for a shower, changing clothes (well, I washed my one set of clothes) and preparing for the next day more wary of where we were.
Our time in Mulanje was short with hilarious antics by the locals who viewed us as entertainment. The population of Mulanje is small and in poverty, but the people are friendly and incredibly curious. Children would watch from adjacent boulders, or join you on scouting missions, sing songs and dance, all the while asking for either money or water bottles for their amusement. We hired porters out of custom and manners and they would laugh and tell jokes, share sugar cane, and local customs with all of us. Each morning my friends would make fun of me, because I had to continuously wash my T-shirt every evening or daybreak with a bucket of water heated from a fire to get rid of any of the demon plants, but I would smile and whisper:
The time had come for us to move onto our next destination, a unique location of boulders situated behind a monastery. The township close by was called Mangochi. However, before I could go, there was the little matter of me finding my luggage or something – the one shirt was not going to hold up for much longer. I was nearing two weeks and still had no word of anything. Fortunately, I have incredible support from adidas who sent me a care package, which after numerous phone calls we discovered was stuck in Lilongwe, six hours north of where we were heading. With no options, I packed the little Suzuki and prepared for a long solo-haul, twelve hours of continuous driving, when something unexpected happened. Mélissa grabbed the keys and hopped into the driver seat, smiled, and started the car. So we drove, and after dealing with customs in Lilongwe, I had some new clothes and we were heading back to the rest of the group. Which brings us back to the beginning of my story, running out of gas, in the middle of the plains, with no clue where we were, and no clue of what to do.
Figuring this situation out was an adventure. Mel woke up surprised and not entirely happy with my planning skills – I don’t blame her. After a fearful few minutes, we saw a sign for a town and after an interesting encounter with an inebriated gentleman wanting my money and sunglasses, a kind police officer, and greater respect for life in general, Mélissa and I survived and arrived where the rest of the group was. As we relaxed after the journey, we became excited for the next few days in Mangochi. We were at the Seminary Boulders unharmed and ready for stress-free fun! Yet Africa had more to teach me about her wily ways.
We awoke the next morning, made our coffee and breakfast; I said hello to Shiva (our residential baby tarantula who lived in our bathroom sink) and packed the cars to go explore. This was another unbelievable zone. It was limitless. Several hills were littered with gigantic granite rock. Scott, Mélissa, Haroun, Julie, and I began to run around checking interesting features and rock quality; and in my excitement I forgot my environment. It happened really quickly, I felt a searing pain in my left index finger and a warm sensation as blood began to flow. Somehow, a long piece of dried grass acted like a razor blade and cut me incredibly deep almost taking my index finger pad off. he crew just groaned, but we dealt with it as a group and still managed to create many wonderful boulder problems and found some really hard projects and scary ones to boot!
Our third and final location was beautiful, but a total bust. We were hoping to accomplish some deep water soloing near Cape Maclear, but the rock kept breaking. It was just too rotten and crumbled to the point where the lines that looked possible would not go. We enjoyed our time there and immersed ourselves in the local culture, watching as people would go about their days on the lake’s edge; washing clothing, fishing, laughing, working with wood, and living their lives. The people were happy and always very kind; they even taught us their favourite board game: Boa. It was soon time to leave Africa and as we packed our bags a feeling of warmth came over me.

Life is full of surprises. It brings people, events, and experiences that help to build and change us, make us better, and hopefully, more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. We had a simple plan, go explore, get lost (which I was a master at), and have an adventure. However, what seems simple has complexity. We felt lucky to explore a part of Africa through the lens of rock climbing – and as we learned more about Malawi, we discovered that it has a peculiar nickname: The Warm Heart. It is a proper and beautiful name. In all of my travels, I had never experienced anything like Africa and after this all other countries are tame… After all: T.I.A.