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Story & Photographs by Colleen Friesen

"Something just bit me!" Danielle jumps to her feet. She's holding out her left hand. The fingers are stretched back and stiff. My headlamp reflects wet eyes in a pale face. It's a dark night, as only dark can be in a country like Malawi where lights are a luxury reserved for a few. The village children continue to dance and sing for our group in their native Chichewa language. It's too dark for them to notice that those of us sitting at the back of the reed mats have stood up and gathered around our new Australian friend.

We flash our headlamps back on the mat where Danielle had been sitting. The scorpion scurries for cover. The young village guide, Christopher Columbus the Second, stomps it dead. The children keep singing.

We are on day seven of a twenty-one day overland camping trip from Victoria Falls in Zambia to Nairobi, Kenya. We are a mixed international melange of twenty-one people traveling with Acacia Africa. Tonight we are camped at Kande Beach Resort on the sea-like shores of the 600-kilometre long Lake Malawi.

Marietjie, our truck guide/cook takes Danielle's arm and heads back down the dark track from Kande village to our gated beach campsite. I overhear her thick Afrikaans accent, "The venom is like egg white, we must keep your hand in scalding water for a couple of hours, so it thickens like cooked egg and stops it from spreading up your arm."

"It is incredibly painful but at least it's not deadly," says Danie, our driver, shaking his head.

I am traveling with my girlfriend. Previously we had traveled in India with Intrepid Travel. We loved Intrepid's style and were quick to book with them again. Intrepid explained that for this trip, they contracted with a local company called Acacia Africa.

Travel in many countries within Africa can be a logistical challenge. There is rather dodgy local transport but the overcrowding and questionable mechanics can leave you stranded at best. Overlanding on one of these self-sufficient trucks is a cheap and efficient way to cover a lot of ground. Many of our group are on independent round-the-world trips, but for their time in Africa, they've chosen an overland trip.

Earlier that day we had walked through Kande Village with Christopher Columbus. Our feet make hot clouds of the copper-red earth. Everywhere, the cassava is growing out of the little hillocks that have been mounded by hand. It is a starchy root that keeps bellies full.

Women walk with enormous bundles or pails of water on their heads, babies snugged on their backs, hoes in hand. Children run barefoot on paths that wind organically like game trails, to homes that we would call huts. They laugh and ask to have their picture taken, gazing wide-eyed at the digital display of their ebony faces.

In the village nursery school we listen as a young man named Bright Amon Phiri explains what he teaches the young children every day. He is a recent high school graduate. It is too expensive for him to get his teaching degree but just like the certified teachers in the rest of Malawi he will average 100 students each day. Government statistics say that at 60 students per teacher, there is currently a shortage of 15,000 teachers in the country.

It is a small brick building with a well-worn blackboard. There are no desks, very few pens and limited paper. The children crowd around wanting to hold hands, to have their picture taken, the older ones seeking pen pals. None of them stops grinning.

When we first came to Malawi, I had noticed a smell at the markets and in the crowds of people. It reminded me of riding my horse as a girl, the scent of hot horse, grassy hay, earth and hot leather. I am smelling it again in this classroom of adults and children. Finally I realize what it is; it is the aroma of humanity. It is warm flesh that hasn't been sanitized, deodorized and perfumed into submission.

We finish our tour, slipping back into our compound of white privilege, where we can order beer at the grass-thatched bar, lounge in a hammock or swim in the endless turquoise waters of that limitless lake…and think.

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Photographs by Colleen Friesen

1. Making bricks - Kande Village
2. For hire
3. Two wheel taxis
4. Always working
5. Working Mum

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