A Travellerspoint blog

September 2014

14. Malawi, Nation and Lake

Traders in potato chips, tee shirts and postage stamps

I look around me dubiously. On the bare dirt ground in front of several rough brick shelters stand a couple of BBQs and some metal trestles. I inspect the chips on one of the tables with a critical eye. The tables look clean and there are no flies around. The chips seem well cooked, crisp and golden. On the recommendation of our guides, we have pulled into a roadside stall manned by several young Black Africans and the inevitable crowd of children. Jan and Eddie insist the fried potato chips for sale are very good. As we hesitate, Jan leads the way, buying a generous helping. Martin and Graham summon the courage to follow suit, while I take a photo of the transaction, certain that without Jan and Eddie’s example, we would never purchase, let alone eat, food from such an operation. The chips taste delicious and we suffer no problems afterwards.

We have crossed another national border into Malawi, our fifth country after South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Everything seems accentuated – more people on the roads, more police check points, more frequent villages, more trading of charcoal, firewood and crops. We enter Malawi near the capital, Lilongwe, and head towards the long narrow Lake Malawi, following its western shore north. Malawi shapes itself along the lake, wedged between Mozambique in the south and east, Zambia to the west and Tanzania in the north and east. The Great Rift Valley runs north-south through the country with the lake to the east of the valley.

Another ex-British colony, known then as Nyasaland, Malawi gained its independence in 1964. Of course the British heritage continues to have advantages for us – English is widely spoken and its people drive on the left hand as we do in New Zealand. It is one of the world’s poorer nations, with a large rural population dependant on subsistence farming. Many of its people struggle with problems of low life expectancy, high infant mortality and the prevalence of HIV/Aids. But they are a friendly welcoming people.

From my vantage point in the land rover, I view the green lush landscape dotted with crops of sorghum, millet, cassava and sugar cane. Sixteen million people live in this narrow strip of land. No wonder there are people everywhere. They walk along the side of the road, carrying their firewood, charcoal or market purchases. They crowd in the back of large lorries or small pick-ups; they peddle their cycles laboriously up the hills, laden down with heavy burdens. There seem to be so many more than in Botswana or Zambia.

We stop on the roadside for lunch, setting up our chairs and table on the rough ground, but before we can begin eating, crowds of children materialize, gathering around to watch the muzungu. Perhaps they are hoping for a gift of sweets, but we have made the conscious decision not to offer such, for the children have no way of cleaning their teeth, and we also don’t want to encourage the hand-out mentality. I cut up several apples and offer them around.

At each police check point we slow down and each time we are waved through. Mind you, the judder bars we saw in Zambia at each end of a village continue in Malawi and they ensure a drop in speed. Nevertheless, I encourage Martin to drive with care, for our guides have warned us that in Malawi, you don’t pay a fine on the spot. Instead you go before a court. This could delay our journey considerably, especially in the weekends, when we would have to wait till Monday morning for an open court. We see a speed camera in a 40kph zone on our way out of Lilongwe, and take comfort in the fact that, according to Eddie, it is one of the only two in the country.

We stay four nights right on the lake, the first two at Kande Beach and the second two below the mountain top town of Livingstonia. At Kande Beach, Judy and Graham take the opportunity to go on a village tour, but Martin and I are lazy and decide to spend the day relaxing – reading, swimming, an iced coffee in the camp ground café, walking on the lake shore. The lake water is warm and a little murky after the recent storm and heavy rain, but we enjoy the dip and the scenery, with numerous dugout canoes on the beach or in the water. The Lonely Planet warns of the dangers of bilharzia, caused by parasites in freshwater lakes entering the skin and passing on to the bladder or bowel. Our guides think swimming in Lake Malawi should be fine, but, just in case, advise us to take a simple medical test when we return home.

Martin's always friendly to whoever is around. He greets and chats with our adventurous neighbours, Gareth and Kirsty, who have their name, Aussie Overlanders, painted on their vehicle. They have shipped it from Australia to Durban and are now travelling through Africa.

Just occasionally Martin’s outgoing sociable nature gets him into trouble and one such incident takes place at Kande Beach. He meets an entrepreneurial young African on the beach who is very keen to sell him some tee shirts with a printed design of his choice.

“What about the words ‘Cape Town to Nairobi’ and a map of Africa?” Martin asks. “Yes, yes,” says the young man, and he persuades Martin to part with $7US as a down payment. The shirts are to be delivered at 5.00pm on our last evening when the rest of the money will be handed over. Five o’clock comes and goes, six o’clock, and still no shirts. We conclude that it is all a hoax and Martin has been had.

“Oh well, I only lost $7. It could have been worse,” he says. And we laugh it off. Then in the darkness at 7.00pm, the camping ground guard appears at our cabin (yes, we have upgraded for the Kande Beach stay) with Martin’s trader in tow, wanting to finalize the transaction. He indeed has two tee shirts and they are printed with a map and the designated words.

“Let’s have a look at them in the light,” says Martin, his suspicions roused. “Hey, this one is not new; look, the collar is frayed.”

“What’s the printing like?” I ask, fearing the worst. We stare at the poorly executed art work.

“I am not paying for this,” Martin tells the entrepreneur, where upon he dissolves into a shaking mess of imploring entreaties.

“Please, mister, please, mama, you must pay me. I did what you asked. I went to the market and I bought the tee shirts and I paid my friend to print them.” Out flows his sad story, with copious theatrical hand waving and much pleading. We wilt before his outpouring of self-pity.

“We’ll give him something,” I say to Martin, “otherwise we will never hear the end of it. Twenty dollars?” Martin nods to me.

“You are lucky to get $20,” Martin tells him. It’s only half of what he wants and he begins to object, then thinks better of it, accepts the money and departs. We realize we are late for dinner in the camp café, and we slink into our seats, too embarrassed to explain what we have been doing. Later in the trip, when we have had time to laugh about it as part of the African experience, we show Graham and Judy the shirts; they have a clothing business in Australia and they know about fabric printing. They agree that the quality is sub-standard. We dispose of the incriminating items somewhere along the way.

On the road to our second camp stay along the lake, we stop in the town of Mzuzu, a pleasant place with wide clean streets and gardens down the middle. I go to the post office to post some cards we have written to the grandchildren in NZ and Turkey. When I see the large size of the stamps and number I need to purchase, I tell that clerk that there isn’t enough room and they won’t fit in the allotted space.

“Oh, I can fix that,” he says with a grin. He proceeds very carefully and neatly to layer them on, one on top of the other, with just the price of each stamp showing. I think to myself that he has obviously had experience with his country’s large pictorial stamps and has done this before. I thank him for his efforts.

What a contrast there is between the town’s Shoprite supermarket and the outdoor market across the road. The supermarket is modern, not too different from those at home. Perhaps it is one of the string of supermarkets in southern and central Africa owned by an Indian South African.

We are the only whites in the outdoor local market, covering a large corner lot of bare red earth. As we wander along the rows of items for sale, spread out on sheets of plastic or woven matting, the women shyly smile and the men are happy to answer our questions about the crops or the fish. I ask some of them if I can take photos and all agree, though I notice at home a man pointing at me as if he is unhappy with the camera. A cute plump baby sits beside his mother’s stall of potatoes and cassava. I ask if I can take his photo and she agrees. But Baby objects, bursting into tearful loud cries at the strange white face in front of him. Mother laughs, and picking him up, produces a breast from beneath her frock, and the little one is happy again. Malawi is a very different from home, but babies are the same the world over.

Posted by rhinospin 22:04 Archived in Malawi Comments (0)

13. South Luangwa National Park

Lions and leopards on the Luangwa River

We turn off the Livingstone-Lusaka-Lilongwe highway at Chipata to go west to South Luangwa National Park, entering near the village of Mfuwe. Though it is probably the leading park in Zambia, I have not heard of it before our trip. Serengeti, Etosha and Chobe are familiar names, but South Luangwa is not. It proves to a real highlight, the best national park thus far. It has the advantage of a high concentration of wild animals and birds around the Luangwa River, among the most intense in Africa, as well as more limited visitor numbers. When we arrive in mid-April the dry season has just begun, with winter approaching, and the wet season that finished in March has left the jungle lush and green.

We stay two nights at Croc Valley Camp, right on the Luangwa River, full of hippos, their throaty hrumps making us aware of their presence. I am glad there is a high river bank between our tent and the water, though further along they can come up out of the river at night and graze in the camp. I avoid going to the toilet in the darkness, hanging on until the light of dawn.

Our programme includes two game drives with Moses, our driver, in an unroofed open cart. We are joined by an American couple and their two young children and three South Africans. Moses tells us the rules allow him to travel 20 metres off the formed tracks, but he seems to drive anywhere and everywhere, keen to delight his passengers and hunt out the nearby wildlife. The first game drive begins at 6.00am and I am squeezy again, but fortunately it passes quickly.

We see lots of antelope – kudu, waterbuck, puku, impala, as well as warthogs, crocodiles, hippos, baboons and zebra. The latter are interesting in that they are a distinctive sub-species of the locality, known as Crawshay's zebra, and have narrower strips, very definitely black and white. We don’t see any of the Thornicroft's giraffe, which are supposed to be numerous in the area. The highlight of the morning drive is a pride of lions, about 20 females and 3 males and a number of cubs hidden in the bushes. Eddie says there are about 600 lions in South Luangwa, though Moses believes the number to be as many as 1000.

Moses gets wind of the pride and he is off, over the bumpy long grass and through the overhanging bushes. Other game drivers have similar ideas and there is a traffic jam of three or four safari vehicles all converging on the one spot. Moses is forced to reverse and backtrack. Suddenly we are upon the pride with several females sprawled at ease in front of us, surrounded by a circle of vehicles. The previous evening they have made several killings, the bare bones of one carcass evidence of an appreciated feast. Vultures hang around the skeleton, pecking on the remains. Moses shifts the vehicle to the other side of the clump of trees and we see the body of a water buffalo beside the stream and several lions still feeding. It’s wonderful to witness wildlife in action.

The South Luangwa area is rich in bird life and Moses points out a number of interesting fowl, just a few of the 400 species there. There’s a lilac breasted roller, saddle billed storks, a brown breasted snake eagle and some red billed hornbill – just some of the names I wrote down as we went. Martin, wielding a camera with a magnificent zoom lens, is in his element and snaps away with gusto.

We return to the camp for brunch and relaxation. Martin chats to our neighbours, Margreth and Werner who are true independent and intrepid adventurers, driving through Africa on their own in their vehicle which they had sent from their home country of Switzerland. We are to meet them again later at the Malawi border.

South Luangwa is one of the few national parks that allow night safaris and we are privileged to participate in one with some special highlights. We see several groups of elephants – though I understand poaching has placed the elephant population under serious pressure. A group of three elephants cross the boggy land below the road, mother in the lead and two younger ones of different ages following behind. When they level with our vehicle the mother and the older young one turn around to the smallest elephant as if to encourage it and they allow it to go in the middle. The second group we meet includes several young elephants and as they move close to the vehicles, the adults draw the babies in under their wide legs, sheltering them from possible danger. It is delightful to see - I wish that all human adults would protect their babies with the same care and attention as the elephants.

The climax of the evening is provided by a group of leopards. We drive into an open clearing, and before our amazed eyes, a wildlife drama unfolds. A leopard is chasing an impala across the rough short grass. My heart thumps and wills the impala to escape. Though the leopard is very fast during short bursts of energy, the impala has greater speed over a longer period and he out runs her. The leopard gives up the chase and slinks off to the centre of the clearing where she sits down, apparently unfazed by the audience in the watching vehicles. I hardly dare to breathe; she is so close to us, sitting there with her handsome spotted coat.

I expect the impala to disappear, grateful for his reprieve. But no, he is about to teach the leopard a lesson. As the leopard rises and wanders over in the direction of the impala, it dashes towards the cat, emitting a spitting sound loud enough for us all to hear. Several times the impala retreats, before again chasing the leopard and repeating the spitting noise. I am astonished at the courage and tenacity of the impala. Perhaps he is protecting a nearby herd. At last, the leopard moves away, conceding victory to the impala. She eyes some guinea fowls as she goes, but they move quickly beyond her range.

We move to the river bank for a snack break and watch the pink sky of the sunset reflected in the Luangwa River. The spot lights go on as darkness falls and Moses finds a group of leopards in a tree – one adult up the tree, two cubs a little lower down and another two adults on the ground. We peer through the night and pick out the animals caught in the spot light. One of the leopards on the ground has killed a baboon, and is eating it; we assume it is the same one which had the confrontation with the impala an hour earlier. Moses circles the tree allowing us to get a better look at the leopard family. I drink in the experience and the wonder of it all.

The night game drive is not over. With the aid of the spot light, Moses finds other animals like bushbuck, genet, hyena, mongoose and hippo. He stops the game vehicle and we sit in the darkness of the forest, darkness so complete that there is not the tiniest hint of light. We listen to the sounds of the bush and stare at the stars, all the brighter for the absence of light. Moses indicates the points of the Southern Cross – alpha, beta, gamma, and delta - and shares some of his knowledge about the heavens. A wonderful ending to a great day.

The following day is Easter Sunday. Our Swiss neighbours come over to wish us Happy Easter with chocolates they have brought from home, and as we drive north to the border with Malawi, we see the Zambians walking along the road to church in large numbers, dressed in their Sunday best. Back to Chipata, we call in at the supermarket to stock up on supplies, and are greeted at the entrance with a large poster announcing the resurrection of Jesus. These people aren’t afraid to wear their Christianity on their sleeve.

Posted by rhinospin 21:44 Archived in Zambia Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]