Around Lake Malawi for Pangolins

In December 2018, Naomi Brand and Xavier Briel circumnavigated Lake Malawi on foot, covering 1,482km in 33 days. They spent more than a year plotting the route. This story originally appeared in print in TRAIL issue 31.

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When we sat in the plane on our way back from Malawi – sunburned, scratched, spent – Xavier turned to me and asked, “How would you answer if someone asked you how Around Lake Malawi was?”

Neither of us had an answer. We’ve since been asked this question a hundred times, and still don’t.

Naomi Brand smile Around Lake Malawi
Smiling is possible when looking at your supportive adventure partner. photo Xavier Briel

A seed is planted

The idea to run around the ninth biggest lake in the world came to us in different ways. I watched a TV programme years ago, about Levison Wood walking the full distance of the Nile River. I was inspired and realised that I’ve never heard about anyone running around one of the big lakes on our continent.

What followed was endless hours spent researching, staring at the long blue strip of Lake Malawi thinking “How cool would it be to run around that thing?!”

Xavier had read about a group of guys who attempted to paddle around Lake Malawi years ago, and ever since dreamed about doing something similar himself.

Soon after we met we started chatting about our Bucket Lists and realised we had a big dream in common…

For the pangolins

Pangolin wikimedia commons David Brossard temmincks ground Africa TRAIL 31
Temminck’s ground pangolin is one of four African species (four are Asian). All eight species are endangered, and two are close to extinction. photo David Brossard

The idea was to do the run for a non-profit. In 2014 I organised a cycle around SA before to raise funds for Save the Waterberg Rhino, and in 2017 Xavier cycled with Davey Du Plessis’ team across parts of Botswana and SA to raise awareness for African species facing extinction.

We are both adventure junkies and are passionate about conservation. We agreed that in order to draw people’s attention to important matters, you have to do something to inspire others.

In July 2018 I worked with Dr Karin Lourens of Johannesburg Wildlife Vet. Dr Lourens works with the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG); an organisation that confiscates, treats, and rehabilitates victims of the pangolin trade in Southern Africa. These pangolins are admitted almost daily, and saving one pangolin costs between R15,000 and R20,000. (Donate.)

Dr Ray Jansen, another member of APWG, risks his life confiscating the animals from traffickers, spending weeks in the field with recovered patients to ensure they are adapting to their natural habitat.

Knowing that most are unaware that pangolins even exist – let alone that they are facing extinction – we chose to do our run to raise funds and awareness for APWG. (Donate.)

Unpredictable journey around Lake Malawi

We spent more than a year plotting the route, seeking sponsors, and researching the three countries that surround Lake Malawi. However; after our first few days we realised that we could have spent another year or 10, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The experiences you have and challenges you face in Africa are ones you cannot prepare for.

After a few interesting days in Lilongwe trying to adapt to the heat; attempting to explain to embassies why we want to run around in 40 degree heat for an animal no one has ever heard of; a five hour sardine-packed taxi journey; and a night of packing and repacking our bags in pitch darkness (Malawi has loadshedding too), we started on 7 December.

Our journey around Lake Malawi began in a little town called Mangochi on a bridge spanning its most southern tip. We started with a bang: not only was it the hottest day of our entire journey; but as Xavier was taking photos of me on the busy bridge, a strange man pointed a plastic gun (I later realised) at me and started shouting and shooting. I got such a fright that I started running with Xavier still putting his camera away – confused about what just happened.

We went clockwise around the Lake, starting and ending in Malawi, with some mountainous and wild parts of Tanzania and Mozambique in between. Days on our feet averaged 50km (longest at 62km, shortest 25km), which meant we were on the move for about 12 hours at a time. Because every single day was packed with so many experiences, too many to share in one article, we’ve realised the best way to tell our story is to categorise experiences and give examples. I’ve broken our mission down into our most challenging, beautiful, and special moments.

Trailtalk Around Lake Malawi Naomi Brand Xavier Briel forest TRAIL 31
Hunting for trails in dense indigenous forests in Tanzania. The footpaths got harder to find as the rains came and the foliage became overgrown. photo Xavier Briel

Most challenging

People. We went into the heart of Africa expecting wilderness and solitude. Instead there were people, villages, domestic animals, boats, pollution, and crop fields everywhere. We were watched, questioned, shouted at, and followed almost all the time, making it difficult for us to set up camp, go to the loo, get clean drinking water, and have moments of peace to recuperate. We also witnessed extreme poverty, malnutrition, and animal cruelty. We care about people, and appreciate every single person that helped us. We were given water, shown the route, greeted with smiles, and offered shelter and food. It broke our hearts to see so many skinny kids and so many hardworking parents with a not-so-bright future. Africa needs all our help. There are so many ways that privileged people can help, and no excuse not to do your part.

Heat. I’ve run in heat. I even did a race in the UAE desert in 40 degree heat. But this was different: it felt like our veins boiled under our skin. Harsh sunlight reflected from the Lake water, the beach, and the rocks. And there was no place to hide as we had to keep moving in the midday sun every day to make enough progress. The malaria medication made us sensitive to UV light, and I am allergic to most sunscreens, which did not help.

Naomi Brand cooking food Around Lake Malawi
Naomi cooking. photo Xavier Briel

Food. Finding adequate food was something we struggled with. Carrying everything on our backs, we couldn’t stock up. Small village shops sell necessities and treats (soap, salt, sodas, cookies) as villagers eat their own crops, and fish from Lake Malawi. We could only buy mangoes and bananas in certain villages, and ended up picking up mangoes that fell from trees (mostly the ones in graveyards where the locals don’t collect them). We ran out of food in Tanzania as there were no shops, and were close to fainting when we finally reached a shop one and a half days later.

River crossing. We started our journey with the summer rainfall. This meant camping in thunderstorms (waking up with the tent floating on a puddle), and going through a lot of mud and water. It also meant that rivers were overflowing (we got to a big bridge on day five that got completely washed away, and had to take a half-day detour to get back on track). One of the rivers we had to go through looked shallow, but as I started to walk I was sinking in, and the more I struggled to get out, the more I sank… If it wasn’t for Xavier’s strong arms and the stick I had in my hand I probably would have gotten sucked in completely!

Trailtalk Around Lake Malawi Naomi Brand Xavier Briel TRAIL 31
photo Xavier Briel

Challenging anecdotes

Croc river crawl (18 December, Chiweta to Usisya, Malawi)

We had a big day behind us (covered 62km, finished at 8:30pm) and had already done 20km in extreme heat when we had a choice of setting up camp in a village, or making our way through a piece of indigenous forest to Usisya where we would have accommodation and food. Of course we chose the forest: a quick 30km trail through a valley, what could go wrong? What we didn’t know is that the trail was going to be extremely technical, that it was going to get cloudy and dark very soon, and a huge river with no bridges would be in our path. We were warned that most of the rivers that run into Lake Malawi are croc-infested, especially where there are no villagers around… So there we were, putting one foot in front of the other, slowly, so not to be swept away by the strong current, and scanning around over the pitch black dark water for eyes every three seconds… We got to the lodge at 9:30pm and were too late for dinner.

Ruarwe roll-andrumble (19 December, Near Zulunkani River Lodge, Malawi)

We wanted to take a half-day rest and went for a short-cut we saw on Google maps to a little river lodge in a valley between the mountains. What looked like a trail (and what we were told was an existing hiking trail) ended up in a cassava field on top of the highest peak (just under 2,000m) with a cliff between us and the lodge. Going back meant trying to find another trail, and we could see the lodge… Three hours later we had bum-slid, crawled, and fallen to the bottom of the valley. I was trembling and in tears after losing grip and rolling for more than a meter down the cliff. We sat in silence for five minutes, each seeing to our wounds, and grateful that we made it down safely.

Xavier exhausted Around Lake Malawi photo Naomi Brand
A picture worth a thousand words. photo Naomi Brand

Damned leg (21 December, near Chilumba, Malawi)

After a few tough days of going over and in between some proper mountains, Xavier’s leg started to hurt. At first it was just a niggle that we nursed with Voltaren and Cataflam for two days, but as time on he struggled to walk and had to hop on one leg using two cassava sticks as crutches. The going was so slow, and we had to make so many rest stops that a day off for recovery became necessary. We took time for ice, sleep and eating, in spite of the fact that we were already three days behind schedule… I had the same problem in the last two days of our journey, and had to pop anti-inflammatories like candy. When we looked back we were really grateful that those were the only real injuries we had: it could have been so much worse.

Xavier Briel long stare Around Lake Malawi
The thousand yard stare. photo Naomi Brand.

Not so happy New Year (31 December, Mbamba Bay, Tanzania)

After making our way through wild Tanzania over dodgy mountain passes, boulder-beaches and in a boat we were craving civilisation. We hadn’t slept in a bed for more than a week and we were hungry and inexplicably tired. So we decided to spoil ourselves by booking into a lodge in Mbamba Bay with some money we got as a gift from our parents where we would celebrate New Years. We walked, ran, and crawled till 11:30pm the night before, got up early and did another 50km in rain and heat to get to a little eco lodge. Of course we reserved a room on Booking.com, and sent an email to confirm. But when we got there in the dark the lights were off, the owner was not there and they had no idea we were coming. We had to beg for room (that was so filthy that there was mouse urine and faeces under the pillows) and food. They served up a weird fish-dish that I tasted again and again as I threw up and had diarrhoea into the wee hours of the first morning of 2019.

Spider forest (4 January, en route to Cobue, Mazambique)

We had followed another trail into that ended up to be way more difficult and technical than we anticipated. This time we had asked around before taking it, but the villagers hardly use the trails as they mostly travel between villages on boats on Lake Malawi, and nothing they said resembled anything close to what we experienced. The trail again went over the highest peaks and took us into the night. Just as it was about to get dark I walked into a spider web. I screamed when I saw a huge black spider on my arm and slapped it off. Xav scanned me for spiders, I removed the webs, and we continued… Only to walk into several webs in the next few steps. We looked around. There were humongous webs everywhere, and especially between the trees on both sides of the trail. Different kinds of spiders sat in them, none of which looked familiar. We had no water left, and couldn’t turn back… So on we went, each swinging a stick over and in front of our heads while trying to find the hidden trail in our head lamp light. It was my worst nightmare coming true. We made it without a bite, but our arms, bags, and hats were covered in webs.

Goats to slaughter (7 January, Maulide, Mozambique)

We started the day in pouring rain, waterproof jackets and bag covers in place, but made good progress. We had asked a few people (locals, police men, military personal) whether we could go through the small border between Mozam and Malawi, and definitely be stamped in and out. They all said yes. But after running through mud for 55km things we found out that it wasn’t the case. The road was an abandoned gravel stretch going through protected land, which meant very little traffic. The only truck that came by was filled with goats on their way to slaughter: not standing, but tied by their legs and stacked on top of each other, some not breathing anymore, and all the live ones screaming and breathing heavily. I was in tears, Xav was hanging on for dear life onto a broken panel of the truck, and so we went back the whole 55km that we had just run, to start again the next day. To make things worse, we couldn’t find accommodation until 11pm, and were literally chased away from a missionary station, probably because of the way we smelled.

Trailtalk Around Lake Malawi Naomi Brand Xavier Briel pangolin TRAIL 31
Naomi is an artist, and created a pangolin with what she could find. photo Xavier Briel

Pangolins for dinner

Walking through a village in Mozambique there were termite mounds everywhere. I asked my friend Le Roux (he joined us for a few days in Mozam to help translate and organise things in Portuguese) to ask a local if there are pangolins in the area. The guy’s answer shocked me so much that I walked the rest of the day in silence. He said, “Oh yes, pangos. There is a local boy who hunts them down with dogs and we eat them. The village doctor also sometimes use them for medicine. And sometimes white foreigners ask the villagers to catch them so they can keep them as pets.” Here we were, killing ourselves for a cause, and a few houses down the road someone might as well have been eating left over “pango pie”.

Most beautiful

Beds.

I’m saying beds, because I mean beds. I emailed a couple of lodges before we left home, and asked whether they would be willing to give us a room for one night to allow us to sleep in a bed, shower, clean our stuff and eat good, nutritious food. Most lodges didn’t reply. But the ones who did had no idea how big a gift they gave us. Thank you Cool Runnings Backpackers, Fish Eagle Bay, and Ngala Beach Lodge.

Usisya Forest. (See croc river above.)

Although this was one of the scariest and most dangerous parts, it was also the most beautiful. We found that wild (unknown, rugged, scary) and wonderful (beautiful, peaceful) went hand in hand most of the time. It all comes down to less people, more nature.

Naomi Brand in boat on Lake Malawi photo Xavier Briel
It’s clear why they needed a boat. photo Xavier Briel

Dowhe (26 December, Kilonde, Tanzania)

We followed a trail into a village and after going through we realised that it had suddenly stopped. There were no paths. And one giant cliff in front of us. We looked everywhere. After a while the locals started to gather around us pointing at the water. One of the only English-speaking young men was the owner of a small locally-made wooden boat (dowhe, or water taxi) and explained that the only way to get to the next village 3km away was on his boat. We were hesitant. What if it falls over? What if our bags fall in the water? But we took the chance. Two strong men got with us in the boat, and we glided through the water as if we were in a motorised boat. Muscles, sweat, turquoise blue around us, green mountains in the distance, water splashing everywhere… And on the trees on top of the cliffs next to us, fish eagles. I had goosebumps from beginning to end, and we paid the guys double what they asked for.

Motorcycle ride in Tanzania (29 December, Lupingo, Tanzania)

We had to take a lift inland to get some cash, and catch a bus back to Lake Malawi sure a little further on (cutting out a 10km stretch where there were no trail and no ferries). After trying to organise boats and lifts, wandering around the small village of Lupingo for hours, we finally found to young guys with motorbikes (who would probably offer a lift to the moon of it meant extra cash). We got on the bikes quite hesitantly (we had to get a translator to sort out the payment and weren’t even sure whether they understood where to take us), but off we went at a speed. Up into the Tanzanian mountains in thick mist we sped. I am not sure if it was the speed, the skill of the bikers to ride over any terrain, the sheer thrill of being off our legs and in a cold wind; or the jaw-dropping beauty of the misty, bright green mountains that disappeared into the skies… But it was an experience we will never forget.

Most special

Fireflies and butterflies. I last saw fire flies in South Africa when I was about 12-years-old. But on our trip we were so spoiled to see thousands of fireflies every night. It looked like the stars never stopped, and went straight from the sky into the forest. We would sit in darkness after a hard day, and before taking on the cooking, cleaning, and camp set-up, just staring in awe. We also saw hundreds of species of butterflies throughout our trip. They were part of our everyday, and added some beauty, colour, and grace to the grim.

Friends. We grateful to the friends we made along the way that helped us in so many ways, but what was 100 times more special was all the people that know and care about us that supported us with messages, donations, shares, likes, and posts. What was most special though was our friends Dalene van Staden and Le Roux Terblanche who came to Malawi/Mozam to help us. They brought food, supplies, and good vibes. Dalene (a well-known local outdoors-enthusiast who joined me on the rhino cycle in 2014) took beautiful pictures of us, spoiled us with gifts and stocked us up with supplies. Le Roux, who grew up in Mozambique and worked with me as a field guide years ago, organised everything from food to accommodation, carried some of our load when our legs got tired, and laughed with us when everything went wrong. Maggie and Brian (Malawians, climbers, cyclists, and head of the Malawian Mountain Club) offered us accommodation, ran with us, and fetched our tired, stinky bodies at Mangochi on our last day. There are no words to thank these people enough.

Tanzania. Everything about this wild place was special. The scenery, the trails, the weather, and the people. We would highly recommend the Tanzanian side of Lake Malawi to every trail runner and adventure junkie, any day.

Refuge in a thunder storm. Most people didn’t understand what we were doing. They didn’t understand us, period. But somewhere, in the heart of Tanzania, a kind, beautiful young lady saw us struggling through a proper storm, and invited us into her clay hut. Inside were all her belongings: a few pieces of clothing, a bucket of maize, a water bucket, and a bed. We sat there in silence, watching each other. And when we left all of us were smiling. You don’t have to understand each other to be kind.

Sharing the experience. I don’t think I have to explain this any further. Most people asked if Xavier and I ever had the urge to kill each other… We did, once or twice, but most of the time we laughed, supported, encouraged, and uplifted each other. And we both came to the same conclusion: the success and enjoyment of an adventure is 20% what you do and 80% who you are doing it with.

Trailtalk Around Lake Malawi for pangolins Naomi Brand Xavier Briel TRAIL 31
Xavier and Naomi running along Kande Beach, Malawi, 10 days in. This was the first time they managed to run right next to the Lake for a full day. photo Xavier Briel

Most different

  • There are no rubbish bins in Malawi. Most days we walked and ran the whole day with plastic bottles and wrappers in our hands orpacks until we found a place to burn them or someone to give them to who could re-use it.

  • To our surprise, very little canned food gets sold in this part of Africa.

  • We saw about three people who were doing exercise for the sake of doing exercise, or for fun. In Africa energy is “expensive” and people would rather save their energy to carry water, row their boats, or work in their fields.

  • We saw very few wild animals. They were an otter, a hippo, and only signs of elephants in the form of fresh dung. This is really concerning considering the amount of ground we covered.

  • In Malawi, the main form of transport is bicycle. This means anything and everything can be transported by bicycle: whole families, the rolled-up thatch roof of a house, firewood, fish, live animals… The bicycles also serve as taxis, and the owners brand them with names or numberplates, and fix a seat to the back where their passenger can sit. 

  • In Africa you can fasten anything to the back windscreen wipers of your car. We saw  mattresses, fish, bags of chips, chairs, and bags of charcoal hanging from that tiny wiper that I always thought was just to improve visibility.

  • In Malawi begging is illegal. In fact, you can go to prison if you are seen giving money to someone. Therefor people do not ask for money, but will typically say “Give me my money.” We laughed in the beginning when we heard it, but when we ourselves ran out of money we quickly lost our sense of humour.

  • In Tanzania and Mozambique you have to stamp out of the country before you physically go through the border. You can, therefore, be in the country but not be stamped in or out anywhere

Looking back

Looking at the photos, we are amazed at what our bodies and minds could endure. We are wiser, proud of each other, and closer than ever. We managed to raise R15,000 for APWG, and invaluable awareness. (Donate.) Our goal is to raise at least R150,000 in 2019, enough to save 10 or more pangolins. Gone Outdoor is helping us by donating their 1% For The Planet contribution to APWG. Please keep donating, and look out for our film on the journey.

Around Lake Malawi statistics

  • Total distance covered: 1,482km in 33 days
  • Distance per day: 48km/day (longest day 62km, shortest day 25km)
  • Number of off days: Three (these days were spent travelling by bus to borders, stocking up on food and cleaning/ organising gear)
  • Weather: Warm (mostly around 35 degrees and hotter), more humid the more north we travelled and raining at least once a day for a couple of hours on most days.
  • Weight of our bags: 8-10kg (depending on the food/water we carried with that day)
  • Naomis kit Around Lake Malawi
    Naomi’s kit
    Gear: Spot Gen 3 tracking device (2), Ultimate Direction Fast Packs (Fastpackher 30L, Fast Pack 35), Altra Lone Peak 4.0 shoes, Bold Gear technical shirts (one long and one short sleeve each), Altra running pants, Injinji socks, MSR Hubba hubba tent, Therm-A-Rest Neoair mattresses, MSR Guardian water purifier, MSR Whisper lite cooking system, 2 cooking pots and cutlery, First Ascent Amplify Down Light sleeping bags, basic toiletries, watches, batteries and cables.
  • Accommodation: lodges (about 12 out of 33 nights), tent, churches, a head master’s office, a peace core worker’s store room, a missionary station, a tent in an empty house, rest houses (basically a minus-5 star lodge)
  • Diet: Cookies (glucose biscuits), soda drinks, fruit like mangos and bananas (only in certain areas where people sell them rather than just eating everything they pick themselves), tomatoes, one very big pineapple, vetkoeke (deepfried dough balls), soya pieces and two-minute noodles (typically for dinner, if and when we could find some), peanuts, a few sachets of Tailwind, fish and chips at lodges.
  • Injuries/illness: Both of us had severe sun burn blisters that wouldn’t heal on our hands especially, both had the same lower leg overuse injury, I had a spider bite and a wasp sting. Xavier had heat stroke twice and I had food poisoning once.

Naomi Brand is an elite ultrarunner, artist, and veterinarian. She shared Around Lake Malawi with her boyfriend Xavier Briel, a professional sports photographer.

Naomi’s Instagram

Xavier’s Instagram

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