In the remaining twilight, we survey our surroundings. We don’t see people. We don’t see houses. No one is going to find us if we stay here. We have three choices. We can go south, toward the end of the island, but we’re practically there already, and we’re not convinced we’ll find much life that way. We can go east, further inland, but we’re afraid that we might get lost and just wander aimlessly if we do that. Plus there are a few too many poisonous snakes on the island for much shoeless wandering. Our final option, and the one we choose, is to go north. That’s the direction of our lodge, and so we know that there is life that way. Plus by staying along the shoreline, we’ll at least have a guideline, a way to know that we’re continuously moving in the right direction. And so we pull ourselves up from the rocks and start moving before darkness completely overtakes us. It’s no walk on the beach but is instead a clamber up and over boulder after boulder. We each take a paddle and use it like a blind person uses a walking stick, poking it out in front of us and feeling our way forward.
Jeff falls first, slipping into a crevasse between rocks. There is no light anymore (not even moonlight), so we can only make out the vaguest outlines of shapes. Each step is a guess. Jeff guesses wrong. I scramble to his side, wondering what the heck I am supposed to do. What if he broke something? I certainly can’t carry him. I’d have to leave him. Try to find help on my own. Luckily it doesn’t come to that. Jeff gets up, scratched and bleeding but okay, and we continue on.
I fall next, stepping on a rock that rolls and then flips over onto my leg when I fall. I’m pinned down, and I’m not sure the state of my leg under the rock. Jeff hurries back and removes the rock. I take stock of my state. Like Jeff, I’m just bloody and bruised. We’re lucky. But we’re beyond frustrated. Our progress is so slow, and at this rate, one of us will end up good and hurt. It doesn’t seem there’s anything we can do but keep pressing on through the darkness that makes it nearly impossible for me to even see Jeff directly ahead of me.
But then, my brain unfogs for a minute. I remember that I saved the daypack. I grab it from Jeff and feel my way through it.
Though one Nalgene bottle floated away when our boat sank, there is still one in our backpack, and if I remember correctly it’s the one I want. Once upon a time Jeff bought a Nalgene lid that with a press of a button illuminates a light and turns your Nalgene into a lantern. I made fun of him for it then. But now, I swear to take it all back if only the light will still turn on after its long dip in Lake Malawi.
I find the bottle. I press the button. For a moment, nothing happens. But then it flickers on. It works! The glow it casts is small, but it’s enough. We can see where we’re stepping. Slowly, slowly, we continue on, our feet cut up, our bodies exhausted. We stumble where we shouldn’t, our coordination not up to par.
I also remember that my whistle, the one I take with me when hiking, is attached to the front of my backpack. I grab it and begin blowing, hoping that someone will hear it and come investigate. At one point, I think I see a light, and I start yelling like crazy. No one responds. Turns out it’s just a glowing plant. I keep whistling, but no help comes.
We walk for an hour. At least. It feels like forever. And then finally we see a flicker of light ahead, which we soon realize is a fire. We move with renewed energy. The boulders give way to beach. We hurry through the sand to the fire, around which a group of men is gathered. When we approach, they all stare, jaws unhinged. In front of them stand two white people, soaking wet, dripping blood, and carrying paddles though there’s no boat in sight.
Jeff takes charge, asking if anyone speaks English. No on answers. He repeats the question. No answer. We don’t have another language to fall back on, so we just speak, slowly, clearly, trying to explain our situation. Blank stares are what we get in return. We gesture toward their boats, all still lined up on the beach. “Fishing tonight?” we ask, casting out imaginary lines. Every other night we’ve seen the lights of boats blinking from the lake. “Can you take us?” we ask. “Motor us back to our lodge. We’ll pay,” we say. Finally, a man steps forward. In broken English he says, “No fishing tonight. Lake too rough.” We should have known.
On to plan B. “Does anyone have a phone?” we ask, pantomiming calling someone. They exchange glances. Then one of the men runs off, returning shortly with another man, who speaks better English and has a phone. He hands it to us. We stare at it. Theoretically it should be of help, but we don’t have any numbers. Who are we going to call? We ask if anyone knows the number to Mango Drift. Silence is the response.
I am completely exhausted at this point, my body wrecked. I am also being stared at as if I am an alien, as if I just shot down from a hovering spacecraft. I collapse into the sand. I sob. I am overwhelmed, uncertain how we’re going to make it back, but mainly I’m overwhelmed by the realization that we’re okay, that that we’re going to be okay.
The people are trying their best to help us, but they don’t know much more than we do. “You should just stay here tonight,” they suggest, gesturing toward my cuts, still dripping blood. “You’re tired. You can sleep here with us, and then we’ll take you back in the morning.” I thank them. I try to smile. They are warmhearted and generous. But we can’t stay here. We have to get back. They’re expecting us back. They expected us long before the sun set.
We return to the phone. There has to be someone we can call who can help us. “The police,” I suggest. “Ask them to call the police.” Jeff hands the phone back to the owner and asks him to call the police for us. He dials.Â We wait. He hangs up. “No one answered,” he says.
Shit. Now who? I rack my brain. “Call the hospital,” I suggest. There’s a British-run hospital on the island, and we had met some of the workers earlier in the week. “They speak English,” I say to Jeff, relaying my chain of thought, “and can call the lodge.” The man with the phone dials the hospital. Again the phone rings and rings, but no one answers.
There’s no one else we can call at this point. We stare at each other, blank, not knowing what to do. Finally, we ask if they know where the hospital is. In chorus, they shake their heads yes, and point in a general direction. “Will you lead us there?” we ask, and again receive a chorus of nods. It’s not close, a couple of kilometers, but closer than the lodge. We also don’t have shoes. It’s going to be a long, painful journey. But at this point, we don’t see what choice we have. We start walking.
But we only make it about 200 meters before our guide stops and enters a house. He returns, then gestures for us to follow him in. I have no idea what’s going on. I hope he’s not trying to get us to stay there for the night. We can’t.
Jeff and I look around at the house—a very nice one for the island with couch and TV, a dining table, separate bedrooms—and try to figure out what’s going on. Then a man, nicely dressed and speaking excellent English, addresses us. He’s the mayor of Likoma Island. We’re in the mayor’s house. I feel like Dorothy when she finally makes it to see the wizard. I only hope that there’s no curtain.
He immediately tells Jeff that he knows Mango Drift, that he goes there often for a beer, and that he’ll call them as soon as the man who was leading us returns with a card for his phone. It’s low on money. Then he begs me to have a seat. I decline. I’m still wet, blood’s dripping from my elbow. I don’t want to sully his furniture. He insists until finally I relent. Then he offers me dinner, asks us to eat with him and his wife. I look at the steaming bowl of cassava and know that there’s no way I can stomach it right now. I decline. When I agree to eat a banana and have some tea, he accepts this. He asks what happened, listens to our story, tells us that we are lucky, so, so lucky, that so many people have died on the lake when the weather suddenly turned.
Then the man is back, and suddenly Jeff is on the phone with Josh and Becky, the managers at Mango Drift. In ten minutes, Josh is at the door, laden down with blankets, chocolates, cookies. He keeps saying how happy he is to see us. How they’d kept watching and watching the water waiting for us to return. How when the sun set and we weren’t back they called to the lodge on Chizimulu to see if perhaps, if hopefully, we’d decided to stay there for the night. How they’d called everyone they knew on the island, asking if they’d seen a kayak, if they’d seen two white people. How they were sending out the rescue crew just as we called. We express relief that we caught them before they pulled out the big guns, say how happy we are to see them too.This adventure gone wrong, oh so wrong, is over.
I snuggle close to Jeff in the car as we ride back to the lodge. My mind keeps replaying the events of that afternoon. But already the day has become grainy. Already it’s become unreal. Already it’s become nothing but a good story.