Sunday, 26 February 2017

More pictures from Malawi

As promised, another selection of pictures - this time nothing but creatures, arranged from biggest to tiniest:

I was in a boat, and this elephant was on the bank, so I wasn't as alarmingly close as this looks!

We were also in a boat when we saw these hippos, running into the water. What a splash! And a cry from Everlasting, 'Don't tread on the baby!' (It's very close to its mum, at the front - in case you can't see it.)

The buffalo, taken just before we decided to turn tail!

Do crocodiles really smile? This chap looks absurdly pleased with himself!

A zebra crossing. It's not my best pic of the zebras, but I couldn't resist the corny joke. Sorry.

This is a fish eagle. Isn't it lovely?? Well, I think it's magnificent - they are huge, and fly low across the water, and I thought they were one of the most exciting things I saw!

At the other end of the bird-size scale, this is a tiny kingfisher.

Brownie points to anyone who knows what this is. It's about an inch or so long (I do know the answer - and never thought I'd actually see one, let alone take its picture!)

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Malawi - with photos, as promised

I must begin by introducing Everlasting - he has agreed I can write about him, and use his picture. Which is a good thing, because he is a story in himself. 

This is the M1, heading north. It used to be known as the Great North Road. It's a bit busier in the south, but the major hazards are people on bicycles and potholes.

Over 85% of Malawians live in huts like this, in the villages. This hut has a grass roof; those with a little more money have tin roofs, which last longer but are hot. 

This is a typical market - heaps of vegetables on the ground (it's hard to see all the detail here, but there are heaps of cabbages under tarpaulins, on the ground. It's mostly women who sell fruit at vegetables, on the ground. 

This is a roan antelope, up on the Nyika plateau. He is rather wonderful!

This is a typical dugout canoe, used for fishing.

And this is a Catholic mission house - one of the first built in Malawi. The missions have been hugely important,  providing schools and hospitals, and housing the nuns (most of whom come from overseas) in buildings like this.

Next week - there'll be more!!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Looking for Lions!

I've spent the last couple of weeks in the south of Malawi, travelling from Zomba to Mulange to Blantyre and then the remote Reserve of Majete. Although the population is denser here than in the north, most people still live villages, growing food for themselves and a little more to trade in the markets.

At first glance the markets are ramshackle, chaotic affairs. But there is a logic: fruit, vegetables and dried fish are in the shade of the trees. Heaps of second hand clothes are on tarpaulins in the sunshine, divided roughly into men's and women's. Tiny stalls sell pots and pans. There are tailors and cobblers and barbers.

Close by are the trading centres: small shops in brick-built or concrete structures with locking doors. They have names like Jesus Saves Groceries and God is Love Hardware. Though I was a bit flummoxed by Blessed Fanny Investments!

And so to Majete. This is the one reserve, at the moment, that is officially home to a pride of lions. (They occasionally wander across from Mozambique, but are unwelcome in the villages!) But this park is huge and so far there are just eight lions - they were reintroduced five years ago. So finding them was bound to be a challenge.

We saw eagles and vultures, swallows and bulbuls, kingfishers and orioles. A praying mantis hitched a ride on the truck. We saw impalas and water bucks and kudus and elephants. Hippos and crocodiles were at home in the river. We saw fresh lions tracks, and heard them roar. But the bush is dense with in the rainy season. I've no doubt they could see us, but they weren't coming out to play.

But then ... not a lion, but an enormous male buffalo, wallowing in a water hole. We edged closer (in a truck, of course); and closer, till we were about fifteen metres away. For a while he watched us, and then looked away, as if we weren't worth bothering about. Then he looked again. He shuffled his back leg, muscles rippling along the length of his back. Slowly he stood, and gave us a side view, so there was no mistaking the size of him. And then he turned, inch by inch, to face us. He lowered his head, to give us a view of his magnificent shoulders and the length of his horns. It was time for us to leave!

This, it seams, is his Park. I have one more chance to see a lion before returning to Lilongwe. But who needs lions when I've been face to face with a buffalo!

(I'll be home in a couple of days and I promise photos!)

Monday, 6 February 2017

South, among the hippos and crocodiles!

After a couple of days lounging about in Monkey Bay, I carried on southwards to Liwonde National Park - staying in a Lodge in the middle of the park, an hour upriver in a small boat. Though it was big enough to weave in and out of families of hippos and steer clear of the crocodiles.

The park is also home to zebras and impalas and bushbuck - soon to be lion-breakfast, as there are plans to reintroduce the big cats. (Apparently warthog is a favourite food of lions, partly, maybe, as they are relatively easy to catch! Which might leave the impalas for the crocodiles.) It is also home to thousands of migrant birds - tiny yellow weaver birds, swallows, and multi-coloured kingfishers. And magnificent fish eagles. It is the best-building season, so I watched as male weavers construct three hanging nests and then strut their stuff in the hope that a passing female will take a fancy to one of them.

I picked so much useless (in the UK) but unforgettable information! For instance, adolescent male elephants display their manhoods by extending their penises till they are dragging along the ground. And I've seen armies of ants on the ground ...

More worryingly, the local health centre (with no running water) is seeing up to 50 cases of malaria a day at the moment, most of them children under 5.

I tore myself away from Liwonde to spend four days on the Zomba Plateau, where it's lush and green, with unpredictable mountain weather. So I've had serious wind and rain. And no electricity.

Sorry, but I can't give you a photo this time. I've got an iPad-charging problem, and am having to eek out my battery. I promise pictures when I get home.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

I know our teachers work hard, but here in Malawi it's beyond tough!

I made it down from the heights of the Nyika Plateau, to spent a few days on the northern shores of Lake Malawi. I began in Karonga, not far from the border with Tanzania. It's a bustling town, thriving on trade from the north. But - though it's the rainy season - the rivers are dry and fields parched. Maize is brown and wilting. The World Food Programme will need to step on or people will go hungry here.

Further south, around Nkhata Bay, there has been more rain and the maize is flourishing. As are the pineapples, mangoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, sugar cane ... over 80% of Malawis are dependent on the food they can grow for themselves. But there is rarely enough to share, and no structure (that I can see) to share bounty in one part of the country with famine in another.

I was also privileged to visit a secondary school for girls - precious here, as too few girls continue their education into their teens. I spoke with two teachers, comfortable with classes of fifty students, in low brick-built blocks scattered between the trees. There is a library (though a student told me it was not well-stocked), a domestic science room, a computer room (though no internet access), and a full curriculum - including agriculture.

Two students showed me their dormitories. (As secondary schools are few and far between, and populations scattered, boarding is essential for most). The blocks are divided into small sections (when I was working I saw bigger prison cells) each with two bunks and four small storage spaces for suitcases. Mosquito nets are provided - but too few are used as these little spaces get so very hot. Malaria, it seems, is just another African hazard. There is a block with showers, and outside sinks where girls wash their own clothes.

These girls are the lucky ones. Although in theory women have opportunities in Malawi, in reality almost all these girls will go back to their villages and marry. The head girl told me that when she leaves school she will help her mother to run her business - buying second hand clothes by the ton and selling them in the markets. So she will, at least, have her own money to spend. But university ...

However, I did have my picture taken with the teachers and three students - and they've agreed it can appear on the internet. They made me so very welcome.

And, following that, I managed to visit a primary school, where a teacher was doing his best with a class of 130 five-year olds. Somehow he was still smiling.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

North from Lilongwe, into the wild Nyika Plateau.

I knew my provisional itinerary involved taking the road less travelled from time to time. But remote takes on a whole new meaning in Malawi. We (Everlasting and I) left Lilongwe on the M1 - a single track road carrying just us and a bicycle or two. After four hours we turned onto a dirt road into the Viphya Forest Reserve - to drive for another 15Km to reach the Lodge.

This reserve began as a pine forest: the land was given by the government to a company who promised to build paper mills. When the first trees had matured, the company asked for more land. The government refused. Pine is not indigenous to Africa, and they did not agree with further encroachment on the natural forest. There was a stand-off; the government refused to back down and the company walked away leaving acres and acres of land covered in pine. In addition, bush fires and illegal logging have damaged the forest even further.

The Luwawa Environmental Trust is now growing thousands of indigenous trees from seed and beginning to replant the forest. And so my three days in their Lodge, deep in what is left of the natural forest, has contributed to a tree or two.

From there, we headed further north, to the Nyika Plateau. I knew, from my guidebook, that it could be a challenging journey. I'll leave you to imagine 140Km on dirt tracks in the rainy season. Well, most of it was dirt tracks. Sometimes the track had been washed away and we bounced hopefully or swished through muddy water until we found ground the tyres could cling to.

But it was worth the drive. The Nyika plateau, in the wet season, is lush and green. It's mostly sandstone, with granite outcrops. Trees cluster in the valleys. Kites and buzzards soar overhead. Tiny larks and pipits nest in the grasses. Herds of zebra, eland and roan antelope gather on the hillsides. Snakes slither across paths and up trees: grass snakes, pythons and spitting cobra. And, prowling among the trees and creeping through the grasses, the leopards stalk the unwary. One roared outside my chalet door the night before I left (I didn't open the door to take a picture!).

And it is a million miles, or so it feels, from a reliable internet connection. So I've had to wait until I've reached the northern lakeshore to post this. But here, is a glimpse of the coffee time on the Nyika Plateau, with the table set (complete with cloth) on the grass next to the truck, and behind it the rolling uplands of Malawi.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Introducing ... Everlasting

I have made it to Lilongwe without adventures. Hurrah! And there, to welcome me at the airport was Everlasting. He is my guide, and that really is his name. He has slightly grizzled features and most of his own teeth. His trousers were made for a fatter man. And he laughs.

We will, I realise, be together for the whole six weeks I am here. And so I have set about finding out more about him. His children, all four, are young adults now (though he is not too sure how old they are). One son plays for the Malawi national football team - and Everlasting swells with pride just to think of him.

'How often do you see him play?' I ask.

'Oh I hate to see him play. In case someone kicks him and he is hurt. Nobody can bear to see their child hurt.' I can see from the look on his face that he may need to be restrained from running on the pitch to give the other lad a what-for, and to kiss his son's bruises better.

He has shown me Lilongwe - it is a complicated city, with some magnificent buildings (largely unused, and funded by loans from China), some huge houses behind walls and metal gates. And there are areas of high density housing with markets and African bustle. There are also significant areas which have been set aside for development but not yet been built on. The city is a 'work in progress'.

By the time you read this, I shall be on the road heading north. I may or may not have access to wifi. Please, should you wish to comment, be assured that I shall get back to this blog eventually, even if it takes a week or more.

But I leave you with a picture, not of Everlasting, but of some soapstone hippos - they perch by the pool of my Lodge in Lolingwe.  And I like the smiles on their faces.