So, I still haven’t got the pics of Nyala Park from John, so you’ll have to wait for them. I do, however, have the pics of Mvuu, so I’ll show you a few of those, but I should explain where we went first. Mvuu (means “hippo” in Chichewa) Lodge is in Liwonde national park. Liwonde is the biggest and most famous of Malawi’s parks and is one of the few places where you can do “big five” game watching. We were skint, and feeling sorry for ourselves, and regretting coming because I’m now being paid less than a main pay scale teacher would get in the UK despite being a head of department (and what a department!*). So, we did what everybody does when they haven’t got any money: we decided to go and spend two nights at Malawi’s most expensive retreat. “Malawi’s most expensive” sounds like a “world’s tallest dwarf” thing, I know, but in fact, Mvuu’s advertised costs are over three hundred dollars per person per night, if you come from outside Malawi. It was less than that for us because we are African residents (that feels really weird to say) but it was still pretty pricey. It was so, so worth it.
To get to Mvuu you drive past the Zomba plateau, which is awesome and craggy and beautiful. Zomba, the smallish town nestled at the bottom of the plateau is a charming little place, with actual houses and grass rather than dogs and sand. It used to be the capital when Malawi was still Nyasaland and everything stopped for tea. It’s becoming weirdly fashionable to find positive things to say about the British Empire, and I don’t want to do that, because, you know, plunder, genocide and oppression, but we were right about Zomba. If I were building an International school in Malawi, (and let me count the reasons why I’m not) then I’d do it in Zomba not Blantyre. The plateau deserves its own post, and pics, so I’ll put it off till then, but I’ll just tell you that as well as being beautiful, it also has a genuine micro-climate, where it is never too hot, never absolutely freezing, and makes for some of the most fertile land in Africa. You can buy Himalayan raspberries and strawberries all year round. It’s perfect.
Having driven past the plateau for what felt like hours, we motored on up toward the lake, before taking the Mzuzu turning and then driving through the villages to get to the gate for Liwonde National park. This drive is both exciting and sobering. It’s about ten miles from the highway, and takes about forty-five minutes because of the terrain. The guard at the gate told me that my original plan to drive back through the park wouldn’t work because I wasn’t in a “real” four by four. I was hurt and defensive on the part of my Suzuki, as it had done brilliantly driving through the villages. The “roads” were, in essence, concrete-hard, single track ploughed fields. They also wended their way through the most brutal poverty we’d yet seen. The horrifying thing is that it is in fact quite picturesque. Rural poverty is less grubby than urban poverty, and things like barefoot children somehow seem less horrifying, despite the fact that these children have even fewer life chances than the ones in the city. They can’t work for, or beg from, Mzungus for a start. The only Mzungus these kids see are the ones sweeping past in air conditioned SUVs on their way to their hundred pound a night safari park. These kids won’t see that much money in a lifetime, and there would be nothing to buy with it if they did. The kids, indeed all the people, in the village closest to the park live perhaps ten miles from the highway, and then another fifteen miles from the nearest town. It might as well be a thousand miles, as you couldn’t walk that far in a day, not on these roads and without shoes, and anyway, why would you bother? It certainly put the luxury we were about the experience into perspective; especially as the guide told us two men from the villages had been killed by elephants the night before, and that crocodiles had eaten over sixty people on the river in the last twelve months.
You get to the actual Lodge by boat, after leaving your car under a grove of Borassus palms, with cormorants and fish eagles roosting in them. The boat trip is just across the river, perhaps half a mile at this point, but we saw a herd of elephants and lots of hippos, and, as I said, fish eagles, so we knew we were in for a good time. We knew we were going to see a lot of hippos** as the Upper Shire is the most hippo-heavy area in the world, there’s a hippo every fifteen metres on this part of the river, but the elephant concentration was a wonderful surprise. Elephants are amazing things. It goes without saying that they are massive, and that they are peculiarly shaped. This is what we know about elephants – huge and funny looking. The thing that isn’t really understood, or wasn’t really understood by me, anyway, is that they are also bloody scary. I think it’s because there are so many cartoons of them and children’s toys. Noun’s got two elephants, for a start.**** The first thing you actually think when you see an elephant is “Jesus, that thing is certainly going to kill me.” As you can see form the pics, one or two of them probably wanted to. At one point on a night drive a massive cow stood in front of the Land Rover for about ten minutes, flapping her ears in aggression. You can’t reverse from an elephant, because it’ll charge; you can’t honk your horn or drive at it, because it’ll charge. What you have to do is wait, and eventually, it’ll either kill you or go away. This one went away.
Anyway, I’m all out of sequence. We got to the lodge, by boat, seeing herds of big grey things, and we went to our tent. Tent is a misnomer really, although they do have canvas roofs, as they are stone built cabins with king-size beds, a lovely wooden cot for noun, plumbed bathrooms, solar showers and a gorgeous khonde.***** The staff were brilliant, and brought our meals to our tent every night because noun was asleep. One night we sat on the gorgeous khonde watching what I’m pretty sure was a partial lunar eclipse, listening to hippos grunting and crocodiles splashing in the water****** about fifteen feet away. It was pretty bloody awesome.
The one thing that was a problem was that we got placed, logically enough, with the other family group with children. I’m not going to go into great detail, because it would be unfair, and though it seems unlikely they may stumble across this one day and be hurt, but the other family group with children were an utter bloody nightmare. We are extremely lucky with noun, and I’m not going to pretend it is anything but luck. Since birth he’s been a happy, charming little boy and no trouble to anyone. He tends to sleep on Sarah when we go on game trips and when he’s awake he’s fun and easy. He doesn’t scream and he’s too little to run around. Also, it must be harder with two, so I’m trying to be fair; but the other people were a walking textbook in colossally bad parenting. I knew we were in trouble when the father gave the little girl not one but three bottles of coke on the night drive. They made no effort to hang on to them and stop them running and climbing around the open boat surrounded by crocodiles. At one point during a night safari the little boy (about five) was climbing over the seats of the open land rover and fell onto the edge of the car. He could have fallen under the wheels, which is terrible enough, but then he screamed, loudly for ten minutes as his mother shouted at him to be quiet. Obviously, he scared away all the animals, which is bad enough, but I’d like you to consider this for a minute. It’s dark – I mean pitch black – we’re in an open topped car in the middle of the African bush, an infant is screaming in distress and somewhere – possibly right over there – are lions. Actual bloody eat your face off lions. That wasn’t fun. Also not fun was the fact that they were in the next tent to us, so when the kids started screaming at half past four in the morning and their parents did nothing to stop them, well, no sleep for us. The people in the other tents wouldn’t look at us in the morning and we realized it was because they, sensibly enough, assumed that the awful bloody racket that kept them up came from the baby, not the two kids aged four and seven. The second morning there Sarah took our guide David aside and told him we weren’t going on the boat safari with them again, but that they’d have to sort out a different boat for us. He was a bit resistant, but then one of the kids ran headlong into the table of the nice American missionary group who held prayer meetings over breakfast and started screaming again, and he didn’t argue any more.
We assumed we’d get put in a different, but established boat, but in fact we got given a boat all to ourselves for the last trip, and it was absolutely stupendous. We saw lots of animals over the weekend – elephants, obviously, hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes, warthogs, bushpigs, baboons, monkeys, eagles, kingfishers, a Pel’s fishing owl – but on the last trip we saw something both terrifying and incredible. Elephants have a complex social structure, which I’m not going to explain here*******. One thing I will quickly describe, though, is the way the males live. There’s one big bull attached to each herd, but the rest of the elephants in that herd are either females or juveniles. Other adult males live solitary lives until mating season as rogue bulls, but there’s a period, between being a juvenile and being an adult male where the adolescent bull elephants live together in what the guides referred to as the bachelor herd. In no mammal society is this a good idea. Just look at British boarding schools. I don’t know if adolescent elephants do the main thing for which British boarding schools are famous – I imagine that biscuits are hard to come by – but they do fight a lot, and that is what we saw on the last day. Not only did we see about five elephants fighting – and really going for it too, all tusks and lashing each other with noses – but the fight spilled off the river bank, like cowboys rolling out of a saloon, and carried on in the water. The sheer size and fury of these animals was magnificent. I’ll never forget it.
I think I’ll write about school next. No more elephants for a while. I might take some exciting action shots of my y7 displays for you. Laters.
*I will talk about this soon. I’ll describe the school, and the board of governors and the management, and the department. All of it. I’ll even tell you the mooncup story. But, for now, more elephants. Sorry. I know this is just me showing off my holiday snaps.
**People here say “hippo” and “elephant” for the plural. “Lots of hippo . . . a herd of elephant” – that sort of thing. It feels pretentious to me, and ridiculous. I like things to be consistent, and unless I’m to start referring to “two cat in the bedroom” then I’m sticking with the S, as we use in the UK***
***They say “UK” as well, rather than “the UK.” “I’m just back from UK, I missed the marauding packs of feral dog.” This is another thing that I’m not doing.
****One of them, Nelson, is a gay, Glaswegian elephant. The other, Daphne, is from Boston and used to work on Broadway. He also has Bernard, the Cornish anarchist hippo, but that’s another story.
*****Veranda. I’m not saying Hippo, but I’m picking up some of the lingo.
******I told Sarah they were waves. It took her a couple of days to say “Hang on. Waves? It was a river.” But by that point we were back in Blantyre so it was cool.
*******I could, honest. Oh yes. I know lots about elephants, me.