So, this post details something that occurred before the wedding in the first post, but chronology is for fools and communists. I won’t be shackled by your bourgeois commitment to coherence, man!
We arrived in Malawi on a Saturday, having flown overnight to Jo’burg (so called because A) I wish to impress you with how cosmopolitan I am and B) I am not sure how to spell the full name) and then on to Blantyre, where I now live. We were utterly exhausted and let customs and the journey sort of wash over us. It was only a few days later, for example, that Sarah reminded me that no-one had seen us with our passports. Someone had seen our passports, as they had been collected en masse by the deputy head, and they appeared to have been stamped, too, but at no point did a Malawian immigration official see me with my passport. Yet here I am, living and working in Malawi. Odd, no?
We’d been a bit worried about noun’s buggy/pram thing as it was late coming off the plane, but it got there eventually, as did everything else. “Eventually” is a concept I’m getting very used to here.
Anyway, the first week was a bit of a blur, and we missed the first shopping trip which was a bugger, and on the second night I introduced myself to someone I’d met, and spoken to for forty minutes previously, so that was a bit embarrassing. But on the Wednesday I went to Majete, which is a game reserve, and had a day so splendid that I would consider it top twenty of my life, and the memory of which has, so far, made the rest of our life in Malawi bearable (I’ve been hugely positive so far on this blog but, believe me, I’m building to a massive bitch fest. You have that to look forward to. All four of you)
Majete is not the most famous game reserve in Africa. Hell, it isn’t the most famous game reserve in Malawi, but it is pleasantly close to Blantyre, and so it is where we went. The drive to the park is an experience in itself. I should give you a context – we had flown in through cloud, and landed in searing heat and wall-eyed exhaustion. The drive from Chileka airport (“Chileka” is Chichewa for “cowshed”) to the school was definitely new and exotic, but not picturesque, and then we’d failed to go anywhere else for four days, so we were starved for a view. We would have been enchanted by Cheddar Gorge. What we got was the escarpment road into the great rift valley. In case you haven’t spent the last few months reading guide books to Africa, I should explain what a big deal this is. The great rift valley is exactly that. It’s great as in huge and great as in astonishing. It is a valley, forged by continental shift and the course of several rivers, which runs through the heart of Africa. It is considered likely to be the birthplace of whatever monkey-like fellows that eventually became us. And should you should ever drive, unexpectedly, over the brow of a hill and find yourself on a road winding vertiginously down a sheer cliff a thousand feet high, with what feels like an entire world spread before you, well, it’ll make an impression.
We drove for about an hour and a half from Blantyre, through suburbs and then villages. The handmade brick and tin roofed structures eventually gave way to the dried mud and thatch buildings that I’d been expecting, and reassured me, by their presence, that I wasn’t just a big old racist. Crowds of kids ran along the roads after us shouting “Bwana” and “Mzungu” (“boss” and “white man,” respectively) hoping to be given something: money or sweets. We stopped in a village on the way back and handed out some biscuits. One little girl, about ten, I’d guess, managed to grab about fifteen and pelted off, easily outrunning boys five years older than her. She has a glowing career ahead of her as a fly half, that one (though my unexpected association with the Malawi National Rugby team is going to have to wait for another post.) The poverty was shocking, and sobering. There’s no way to adequately prepare for it, and I can’t sugar coat it here. In villages not far from where I’m typing this there are people who are starving and who have no clean water or adequate medical provision. This post is about elephants, and I’ll get back to Majete shortly, but driving through the villages was an important part of the day, and it wouldn’t feel right to mention it solely as a joke about fleet footed biscuit thieves.
Anyway, Majete. Majete is huge and exists as a reserve first and a tourist attraction forty-fifth. There’s one restaurant, one shop and there’s now, something like thirty years after it was designated a game reserve, a hotel and guided safaris. We didn’t bother with guides though, we just drove into the park and followed a few of the tracks. The teachers who took us newbies to the park all said that we were exceptionally lucky and that most days in Majete aren’t as successful. I can only assume they are right, because fifteen minutes after driving into the park we stopped, got out of the cars (you really aren’t supposed to do that, but everybody does) and spent forty minutes watching a huge herd of elephants at the water. Not long after that we saw ten or so hippos sunning themselves on a sandbank in the river. We saw crocodiles floating menacingly across pools and, memorably, had a large group of baboons run chattering and screaming across the river bank about fifteen feet below us. We all decided to get back in the cars then. Baboons are scary.
It wasn’t just the big-ticket beasts that impressed, though. There were also wonderful moments where we saw impalas through trees or nyalas in groups. There was an amazing bird, easily the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen, and one we still haven’t identified (Newman’s “Birds of Southern Africa” is in the sea freight, so I’ll get it in December.) There was also the simply remarkable fact of being in Africa. The landscape was utterly alien. I mean, Switzerland and Norway don’t look much like Gloucestershire either, but this was a genuinely visceral shock. A case in point being the trees. Trees, surely, look the same wherever you are, but the bizarre whiteness of the ghost trees, and the intimidating bulk of the baobab takes some getting used to. Anyway, I can’t describe all this well enough, so here are some pictures, all of which were taken either by me or by a friend on that day in Majete. I warn you, I’m in some of them. They will also be the last photos not taken with a phone that appear on this blog for a while as,like I said earlier, our camera is broken. Sarah was carrying it at Majete and got some beautiful shots of impalas and stuff. She spent the whole day thining she’d lost it, but she never had. It wqs always in her pocket. Which is where it was when she, literally, fell down a mountain at the end of the day. She was remarkably unscathed. The camera wasn’t.