Thursday, 27 February 2014

Safari - not for the faint hearted townie

Last weekend I went to Zambia for a safari.

It actually started in my accommodation in Malawi, when a lizard jumped on me as I moved something on a bookcase, and a large rat flung itself with abandon onto my kitchen surface.

We drove westward for miles, passing open sheds with tobacco leaves hanging to dry from the rafters, past shanty villages, across plains and round mountains.  It was an epic journey.

When we arrived, the 'welcome' sign warned us not to walk outside the camp as we would be eaten.  I thought this was a merry jape.  That was, until the manager gave us an introductory talk while we sipped our welcome drinks on squishy chairs next to the river.  'If a hippopotamus comes out of the water while you are sitting here in the evening, keep still, keep calm and keep quiet'.  I was spluttering on my iced tea at this point, and wondering why I had come.  Sure enough, at 3am, I heard an odd noise.  Looking out of my flimsy chalet window, I saw the world's biggest hippopotamus, grazing mere feet away from my wall.

I also had a bit of animal life in my room.  There were a lot of flapping noises in the night, and when I woke up in the morning, there was a baby bat attached to the inside of my mosquito net.  Although cute, this is a bit worrying as bats carry rabies.  I haven't started foaming at the mouth yet, so think I have avoided that.

We went on four game drives, in an open sided Landrover.  This became rather over-exciting, especially when we parked next to a leopard, lounging on a low branch in a tree.  As if that wasn't scary enough, it soon became worse when a pack of hyenas wandered round to check out the impala he had killed.

We came back to visit the leopard again, and he was sitting next to the track.  If I had stretched out my hand, I could have stroked him.

But I didn't.

This wasn't the moment for the truck to get stuck in the mud, right next to the leopard.  As the vehicle revved wildly and slid back and forth, I noticed the exhaust fumes were belching into the leopard's face.  I muttered a quiet prayer, and eventually we slithered on our way.

The 'fun' didn't stop there.  We approached a dip in the track, where a stream crossed.  In the middle of the stream, right in our path, floated A CROCODILE.  I assumed the driver would turn back.

But he didn't.


I could have reached out and stroked the crocodile.

But I didn't.

I was tightly curled in the foetal position, whimpering.  I had to be coaxed upright to take a photo, with shaky hands.

After that, the safari improved, and we saw loads of giraffe, elephants, impala, buffalo, wart hogs with their funny tusks and all manner of brightly coloured, beautiful birds.  Less beautiful was the flock of vultures, gathering round and starting to pick at a not quite dead impala.  It was a very dramatic scene.

Some of the views were astonishing.  Zambia is an amazing country.

A sobering piece of news we received the next morning was that two men had been killed while we were in the park.  One had been fishing on the bank and a crocodile had come out of the water and attacked him, the other was in a kayak, capsized and was never seen again.

Safaris, not really suitable entertainment for townies!
 Way too close
 Out of the water this time, but still too close
Elephants - bigger teeth but nicer personalities

Sunday, 16 February 2014


Yesterday I went to the mountains further south, near the border with Mozambique.  There was a rural village called Dedza, where several of the huts had been turned into art and craft shops.  It was fascinating to walk along the muddy track, and wander into the different buildings to see wood carvings, paper making and pottery.  One house had a maize grinder on the go, spitting chaff and flour out of the hopper.

The wood carvings were mainly of elephants and crocodiles.  The paper shop had paintings of giraffe and hot African scenes.  In the pottery there were plates with zebra prints, cheetah paw prints and more mud huts with removable lids for your biscuits.  I had to laugh at one sculpture of a four by four stuck in the mud, with a group of men heaving to release it.

Some young girls walked past, carrying firewood, they had long bundles tied up and carefully balanced on their heads.  They walked with the dignity and composure of super models elsewhere in the world.

A group of boys had a goat, and were pulling it along by dragging one of its legs.  It remonstrated a bit, but then started grazing happily on the plants in someone's garden.

Occasionally an overloaded bicycle would wobble past, slewing sideways in the ever present mud.

The backdrop to the village was of what looked like volcanic mountains, with pointed peaks and jagged slopes.

It all felt a long way from home.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Good Samaritan

Malawi is a place of contrasts.

In the suburbs, houses have six foot high walls, topped with barbed wire.  Steel gates on the driveway stop unwanted guests entering.  Every once in a while, the gates slide open, spit out a four by four, and quickly close behind it.

Like an airlock.

These fortresses protect a wealth of material possessions, as well as the inhabitants.

From what?

From the rest of the impoverished population.  Those made vulnerable by food shortages, those that can't afford clothes, those that see the inflated lifestyles of the rich and become desperate for a small piece of it.

The inequality is so difficult to digest, that perhaps it is easier to turn a blind eye.

I walked into the town recently.  I saw a woman sitting on the crooked stones, legs at unnatural angles, imploring passers by to help.

I had been given advice not to give money to those asking for it on the street, and had previously seen how difficult things get if you do.  You are quickly overwhelmed by the needy.

I thought about how this woman probably would like to be hugged, to feel human warmth.  I held back though - how could I hold her and then just leave?

I walked by.  Just like everyone else that morning.

The woman would continue to go hungry, continue to be in pain.

Later in the day, I remembered the parable of 'The Good Samaritan'.  When I first heard it as a child, I thought how awful it was for the person to walk past the needy - how I would always help.

When did life become so complicated?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Partying in a Game Park

It's been an amazing weekend.  I went to a party in a game park near Lake Malawi.

When I arrived, I thought the organisers had put special lighting effects in the grass below the decking, but it was fireflies.  The intermittent glow from different places beats anything I have ever seen anyone do with electric effects.  It was mesmerising to watch.

The party was fantastic, but waking up in the morning to see the zebra and an ostrich in front of my chalet was magical.  Less magical was walking back to the main gate through the baboons - especially as we were carrying a food bag.  It made me appreciate the bars in zoos for the first time.

 Baboon patrol
Outside the door to my chalet this morning...

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Poetry Please

Yesterday evening I went to a poetry evening.  It was a bit intense.

One poem went on for ages and had mention of everything from cancer to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, another described in great details the trauma of abortion.

I had written a poem, well, more of a rhyme really, about 'smug travelling gits'.  I hadn't wanted to get up after a quite nice American lad had eulogised about finding himself on his gap year, but my friend had secretly put my name on the list.

There was no choice.

The Smug Travelling Git

We all know one, the smug, travelling git
Wherever you mention, they've visited it
You talk about your last holiday with great pride
Turns out they took their bike there, for a fancy ride.

Show photos of Bali, Bahrain or Bolivia
And smug, travelling git will say,
'Oh dahling, didn't we go there last yar?'

Whatever you did, they'll one up you with a smirk
Be it snorkelling, skiing or Cossack dancing with a Turk.

So when you next see them, this smug, travelling git
Buy them a drink and think
'I don't give a s**t'.

I got a good laugh and round of applause, so I am aiming to be the comic relief each week now.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Typical Day

Now I have been in Malawi just over a week, I think I can write about what makes a typical day here.

At about 6am the birds start calling very loudly to each other, and a cockerel crows intermittently.  This is a very nice way to wake up.  Much better than an alarm clock.  The sun will already be streaming through the windows, and the humidity will be building up.  I fight my way out of my mosquito net and go and make a cup of tea for me and my roomie.  While the kettle boils, I get some toast on the way and take it all back to bed.  My toast has to be taken with my antimalarial tablet, which is huge, but seems to go down OK with a bit of the blackcurrant jam.

After breakfast in bed, my roomie will get her guitar out and we will have a singalong, Carol King, Fleetwood Mac and a spot of Leonard Cohen go down well.  We are a bit croaky and the cockerel generally sounds better.

After that it is a shower in the en suite - a concrete affair, with no hot water and a leaking toilet.  The termites have been having a party in there, which is a bit ominous, but I do like the lizards that scuttle along the walls. The lizards are good news as they eat the mosquitoes.

Once dressed, we go for a half hour walk around the local streets.  There is a lot of locking up of metal gates and wooden doors, and signing out, patting the guard dog first.  Outside, there might be children trying to sell us tomatoes or the fried doughnut type bread.  The trees are magnificent, but it is sad to see that all the houses need high walls and security gates, due to the lack of an effective police force here.

Work starts around 8.30am, sitting round a long desk in the office, next to our bedroom.  Everyone works hard, until lunchtime.  I sometimes make the lunch, which is generally rice and beans and a vegetable (which needs to be picked from the vegetable patch).  Then more work until around 4 or 5pm.

After work it is good to go to the local backpackers' hostel, where there is a bar, pool, restaurant and garden.  There are balcony style seats so it is a good place to unwind with a drink.

Generally there is a social event later on, a theatre visit, jazz or poetry evening.  Then it is back to bed, smearing insect repellent liberally all over first (so you stick to the sheet), climbing under the mosquito net and complete shut down once your head hits the pillow.