Themicroloanfoundation's Blog

Abi gets her rocks off with the crocs in Lake Malawi
March 12, 2010, 3:51 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

On 1 May, our intrepid Malawi fundraiser Abigail Brown will attempt to become the first woman to brave the infamous beasts of Lake Malawi as she swims across it. She’ll be raising funds to help the MicroLoan Foundation raise much needed loan capital for their microfinance programs across Malawi and Chembe Village Projects at Cape Maclear.

Show your support with some well needed comments of luck below!

To sponsor Abi, please visit

MicroLoan’s Rob Webber recently attempted to unlock the reasoning behind the madness….

What support craft will you have?

I’m usually accompanied by a kayak on long distance training swims at Cape Maclear but for the lake swim itself I need something a bit more substantial! I am planning to have a ‘rubber duck’ (SA slang for a dinghy) motor alongside to steer a direct GPS course across the lake and carry nutrition provisions and camping kit, etc. I’m in contact with the team who run the Lake Malawi Sailing Marathon who could provide one of their ‘rescue boats’ to get over to the other side on Friday (Makanjira – still Malawi, so no passport issues!) and then accompany me on the swim back across to Salima on Saturday (1st May).

When did you start your training and how is it going? How far is it to training at the cape from Blantyre.

Most of my training takes place at a 30m outdoor pool at the Blantyre Sports Club – I try to get at least three 3k-5k swims in a week (mon-fri) before work and a big one in on the weekend (6k-10k). I’m roughly following Otto Thaning’s advice on long distance swim training (attached) as he was the first man to swim across the lake in 1992 together with Lewis Pugh, so he must have been doing something right! Most evenings after work I try to fit in land based training – the infamous expat Hash run on a Mon, then circuits, squash and cycling on other days. Cape Maclear is 4hrs drive from Blantyre so unfortunately I only make it up there once a month for a swim around/to one of the islands (Thumbi, Domwe & Mumbo – Google earth image attached). I do wish I could go more often as swimming in a chlorinated pool does not compare with the free feeling of swimming in the clear, blue, cichlid fish-filled waters of the lake.

How will you avoid becoming dinner for hungry carnivores living in the lake?

Swim quickly! Literally. This is what Lewis Pugh wrote about starting the swim in 1992:

“We ran into the water and swam as fast as we could, both of us remembering hippos like shallow waters. Fear certainly drove me and I never looked up through the first minute or two, thrashing through the water at an incredible rate. Then I could hear Peter’s shouting, ‘Lewis, Lewis!’ I looked up but couldn’t see the boat, it was behind me but it shouldn’t have been. In my desperation to get into deep water, I’d not looked where I was going and my stronger side, (every swimmer has a stronger side!), had taken me in a semi-circle back towards the beach. What must Justas have thought? Two guys who have come from South Africa to swim 25 kilometres across this lake and one of them starts by going a little forward and then, unknown to himself, going back towards the shore. Hippos have a strange effect on me.”

In addition to swimming fast at the outset (and hopefully in a straight line!) I’ll also have the rubber duck do a recce (perhaps with a rifle on board?!) and make some noise to scare away any lurking beasties.

How will you avoid Schisto?

Bilharzia is caused by a species of blood vessel-inhabiting parasitic worms that are carried by freshwater snails in the lake – unfortunately there is no way to prevent contracting it except for not swimming in it! People who live in Malawi and can’t resist the swimming regularly in the lake have to get used to taking the treatment for bilharzia every six months. The risk of letting the disease develop and damage your organs far outstrips the faintly unpleasant aspect of taking the treatment. If you haven’t contracted it then you usually don’t feel any side-effect from taking the pills but they can make you feel queasy if the worms are already running riot in your body! Unfortunately the incidence of bilharzia at places like Cape Maclear has been increasing over the years due to overfishing which decreases the cichlid population that feed on the freshwater snails. More awareness of the crucial role of the cichlids in limiting bilharzia is needed to encourage conservation efforts!

How will you protect from the Sun? Could you face being covered in sunblock – that would certainly be an eye-catching shot?

Hopefully I will get the go ahead from the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (who will be recording the swim) to wear a back covering Nero 10k open water suit For the arms and legs I’ll have to keep re-applying sunblock and neon zinc is definitely an option but I don’t think I’ll find any in Blantyre. May try to get some sent from my mum in Oz… can you find it in the UK?

Have you always been into challenging yourself like this (eg Kilimanjaro or anything similar?)

I believe in constantly challenging yourself – from the simple act of trying a new food to the daunting task of training to swim across an African Great Lake – if you don’t, how will you know if you can? People are sometimes put off doing things because of convention, routine, or sheer fear, and I have found that breaking out of these perceived limitations and opening your mind to trying new things is extremely liberating. Learning Chinese and moving to Africa on my own are notable examples of personal challenges, but have I tried something as physically challenging as swimming 25km open water? Not yet!

A background in swimming competitively encouraged me to see the lake-crossing as a possibility – but from there on it is training, training, training that is required to make it a reality. I have so much admiration for people like David Walliam’s and Eddie Izzard, who triumphed in their respective swimming and running challenges against general expectation. Their stories keep me motivated, along with gripping books on climbing Everest which helps put my training into perspective!

Could you provide a bit more background about yourself – where you are from originally, what are you doing in Malawi etc etc

Plus any additional info….

British born but brought up overseas, mainly in the hot tropics which meant I took any opportunity to be in the water! Moved back to the UK for boarding school which was a shock to the swimming system – NOT so easy to get up early in winter and slide off the ice into the pool. Still kept it up though (holidays in Thailand where my parents lived helped) but swapped to rowing at university. Then moved to China for a couple of years to work and study Chinese. Living on the 16th floor of an inner-city apartment building in one of the most polluted cities in the world was not conducive to much sport at all! Blantyre is perfect – small leafy town with good facilities and access to the lake and the awesome Mt. Mulanje for hiking. The only issue is balancing the various sporting activities with a full-time job in development consulting – a demanding profession with lots of project commitments!

For more on how Abi’s fundraising will help microfinance in Malawi, visit MicroLoan’s website

If anyone fancies getting involved in MicroLoan’s projects, do please get in touch.


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