Ben Winston

Not your average travel blog

Erotic Hippo, horny antelope, holidaying giants and no Maltesers to celebrate

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The adventure around Malawi was the first time Mother and Sister Wolfrider and I had been on a holiday together in over 20 years. The last time, Pappa Wolfrider was also present and it was a short weekend trip to northern France; where I lived for while as a child and where Sister Wolfrider was hatched. Apparently we bought her from the hypermarket, Mammoth, later she questioned this but we kept up the pretence. It’s where babies came from in France, everyone knows that. It was a blissful experience for my sister and I to join Mother Wolfrider on her first time south of the equator! At the age of, well, a healthy a age…I think she expected a fanfare, or at least a short message from the flight deck announcing our passing over the invisible line. I hadn’t realised that it was such a momentous occasion for her and in fact, I think I was asleep. If I had known, I at least would have packed a celebratory box of Maltesers!

I don’t think the Maltesers would have come close to the unforgettable experience that she had with her offspring, when fifty elephants entered our camp. You always dream of having the kind of experiences on safari that really are something to write home about. The three swiss chaps that went to the same spot as us just the week before didn’t see a single elephant and the highlight of their trip, we were told, was killing their own chicken before dinner – something they had apparently never done and I think they found the whole experience of killing and eating something, a rather humbling and important one.

So, within 30 seconds of entering Vwaza National Park in the north-west territory of Malawi, bordering Zambia, we were met with not just one, but two, massively oversized, humongous, healthy looking, great big backsides. Giant African elephant bottoms were staring us in the face from the bush. Quietly stationary, we gazed at what possibly were the largest arses we have ever seen. They then silently disappeared into the foliage. Amazing.

We slowly set up camp. Slowly, mainly because there were dozens of lazy hippo, warthog families, baboon babies, diverse bird life and various members of the antelope family wandering around the watering hole where we had just pitched up to. Putting up a tent wasn’t a priority when things like cracking open a bottle of gin, pondering dinner menus and hogging the binoculars were far more essential. We did however, manage to erect together a couple of tents, untidily throw our belongings inside and then methodically work through more important duties…”binocularing” and gazing at the earths most erotic of creatures, the hippo – what? Such healthy curves…

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Imagine an odd-shaped piece of clay in your hand. Then imagine four more pieces of clay stuck to the bottom of the first piece, in four corners. Then put four pin prick holes on a chosen front end. Then enlarge said piece of clay to about the size of a small removals van. Then imagining filling the van with your household contents, weighing it and attaching one of natures most unpredictable brains, short-fused tempers, largest mouths, strongest teeth and impenetrable skins. Give it a lazy personality but with the ability to snap at the smallest of threats and allow its fat, clay like legs to travel across land and shallow water at one of the fastest paces possible amongst mammalia. Make it nocturnal with an overly loud, grumpy, old man-style mumble which can travel for what seems like miles across open, still water. Then give it a rather short, violently manoeuvrable, swishing tail so it can simply smudge and flick, fling and make fly its faeces. It’s a beautiful sight. No, it really is. There you have it. The beautiful and hardly threatened hippo. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t mess with an oversized, impenetrable, grumpy, poo-flinging, violent ball of clay would you? Well, you would think not, but hippos are hunted and poached much like elephants for their teeth. The unrelenting demand for ivory makes these nocturnal grass eaters (think, Friesian cow with night vision) high on the poachers desired list of targets. A hippo might be a little trickier to bring down if one picks up speed than an elephant, but I would imagine they are easier to find, as they spend all day, neck-deep in the muddy water. Illegal it may be, but poaching, poisoning and mindless mutilation of all of Africa’s big mammals for their prized assets and bush meat continues. Whilst out on a morning drive through the park, we were reminded of poacher presence when we found a lone elephant bone (about the size of my whole leg) that had no reason to be on our route, especially as it had been stripped of meat very recently and there was no indication of a kill. We also came across a snared female kudu that limped painfully away from the tree it was sheltering under when our guide approached. Later the rangers would go and search for the rest of the elephant carcass and the injured lady. Sadly though, our concerned guides feared the common scenario that one, if not some of the rangers, would be in on the corrupt situation as it all seemed too close to the park headquarters to go unnoticed. The following day, the elephant carcass was hacked up outside the HQ and distributed to the local villagers for food. I think it’s important to mention that I’m now not against the hunting of wild animals for bush meat. My mind was changed recently after reading a friends thesis (she has certainly done a lot more research than I have) on alternative protein sources to bush meat. No modern practices that are attempting to improve the disastrous situation in Africa, or on other continents are solving the problem. In fact, the speed in which nature is losing the battle to simply stay alive is only accelerating and demands from (mainly) Asia are continuing to demolish whats left of the worlds largest and influential creatures. It doesn’t look like alternative protein sources are the way forward for the nations of Africa, but the illegal trading and “theft” of a continent’s living resources doesn’t look like it’s going to be stoppable force until it’s too late either. It’s a world problem and one that’s going to be a lot worse when the animals disappear – inevitably making Africa even poorer than it is now for the huge majority of its people.

On day two, we were enjoying breakfast and casually looking out over the water when a couple of elephants made their way to the water near by. Clearly scoping out their common walking trail along the water’s edge, which they have done for hundreds of years, they came closer and closer to inspect the possible dangers. They wanted to walk past us. Hippo were really their only concern from the shallow waters but there was one other creature on their minds to be worried about – Man. Obviously, we were there to marvel at them, to respect them, to admire them, but these creatures have learnt to be wary of us, and rightly so. Unlike the hippo that would simply charge at anything that happened to be between itself and the prized waterhole or their babies, elephants are much more precautions and more intelligent to fathom just what level of threat things, creatures or situations posses. A few casual ear flaps, a load of dust flinging into the air, some trunk raising along with some conversational trumpeting and slowly, one by one, another fifty elephants came out of the bush to the shallow water. Not only were they so incredibly hidden just meters into the bush, expertly experienced in the game of hide and seek, covertly camouflaged by inches of leaves and twigs, but they were infinitely silent as they crowded the area behind the leaves. All of our chins were on the floor as slowly, the massive elephants approached. Witnessing so many in the same area, at the same time, whilst trying to sit quietly like primary school children with ants in our pants and trying to chow down on my (neglected and now cold) eggs on toast was about as perfect as breakfast can be. I just lacked a gin and tonic.

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The elephant herd needed to pass between us and the waterhole and this wasn’t met with such confidence or bravery as the two “scout” elephants had first imagined. Mothers and babies huffed and clearly disagreed on whether it was OK to come any closer. Eventually the herd moved back into the trees, walked a few hundred yards further around us in the foliage and reappeared at the water’s edge, after making the long detour to avoid coming too close to us. Clearly the scout boys weren’t all that trusted. Mother knows best..

This same mentality to test the threat came in handy just a few minutes later when the herd had a similar scenario on another stretch of beach, only this time with some disgruntled hippo that were in the way – with their babies. A hippo had charged a lead elephant, putting the whole herd on alert. Gingerly, they crept, one by one past the edgy hippo (and I mean they were on edge, not that they were wearing skinny jeans, trendy sunglasses with beaded neck cords and platformed Dr Martens), but stalemate standoffs quickly made for an uncomfortable, silent atmosphere as the giants decided against upsetting the hippo further. Mothers clearly wanted to avoid putting their babies in harm’s way and again, all the elephants manoeuvred away from their desired walk way to avoid conflict and protect their lively and troublesome young. Intelligent and careful, passive and respectful, it’s inconceivable and sickening how anyone could ever point a weapon at these humbling and gracious creatures, aware that they are almost extinct or not.

Just a few weeks before we entered the park, a crocodile was killed by an elephant because it had taken offence at where the elephant was putting his trunk – into the water. Obviously I think the croc might have thought, just at the moment when it was too late, that it might have misjudged the size of the elephant when it decided to attack it from the murky shallows. The elephant promptly picked up the crocodile, all nine feet of solid muscle of it and slammed it into the ground, killing it instantly. A strange notion, but one might conclude that elephants don’t like their trunks being bitten. Nonchalantly, as if it was just a mere scratch, the elephant walked away and drank somewhere else….carefully, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, for the remaining crocodile in the watering hole, there are no more to discuss his troubles with. He is a lone reptile, with no common council. Not even the floods will bring more crocodiles and as it’s so far to travel for the water-loving socialites, they won’t be any holiday romances for the lone, cold-blooded widow. The water hole was the size of a small town and it’s amazing that we saw him at all for the two last days we were there. He’ll die alone.

My favourite of all the creatures that we saw, and we saw a lot (Sister Wolfrider kept an up to date list and I think we counted at least 60 different specimens before we left, not to mention the many variables of insect or bird that we couldn’t name with the help of our guides – and they were good guides), was by far the rather bland, rather nervous and rather overlooked, Warthog.

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Upper-middle class Bacon

Rarely coming close enough for investigation, they remained content at arms (or rather a football field’s) length – another man-wary creature, which I applaud them for – I bet they would taste incredible. They trotted around in their family group; mother, babies, teenagers and an ever so grumpy but responsible, father. Rarely more than five of them, they ventured to the waterhole a few times a day and back again to the bush. Always together, always moving at the same, regimented, trotting pace. The children always needing a responsible eye or reminder that they must be close to mum and dad and should there be a threat nearby, they would all trot, at the same pace, back to the safety of the undergrowth. They weren’t all that curious, not at all graceful or pretty to look at, they just knew their place, their comfort zone, their pace of life and they clearly had pride in their family make-up. They were aware of their whereabouts and respected that they shared their surroundings with more brazen, dangerous, threatening creatures. To me they seemed rather upper-middle class and definitely radio 4 listeners (nothing wrong with radio 4), almost pompous that they understood who and what they were in society. They were however, above all, just odd. The way they moved and responded to a possible threat was never with any hurried panic. They were quirky and clearly liked to go back to their hollowed out tree stump of a home and write letters to the local council committee requesting that their neighbours stopped making so much noise and respected their garden boundaries. They obviously would have taken Fridays off work to go and watch the cricket at Edgbaston.

Since writing my earlier notes on the Warthog, I’ve recently re-thought my opinion of them and I wonder now, if I just liked them the most because they would taste like bacon. Difficult to conclude…

Roan had made a special appearance whilst we were there. Rarely venturing into this particular national park, our guide had only ever seen them in neighbouring countries and was quite literally as excited as a south african ranger can be. The roan antelope is one of Africa’s largest bovids, only exceeded in size by the African buffalo and eland. They look like a large deer with black stripes around their faces, sporting some impressive horns. Quite a site and I was pleased to have mentioned that there was something we hadn’t seen before standing not too far in front of us. I clearly had my eye in at this stage as I was spotting things that, when I had arrived, just blended into the wilderness and I was blind to them. The Roan were clearly on holiday from abroad and fancied a change of scenery, possibly even a bit of man-spotting. Speaking of horns, there were non quite as magnificent as the Male Kudu’s. We spotted plenty of small bachelor groups of Kudu and I could only imagine what they must have tasted like. Their horns were like something dreamt up from a children’s fairytale; wave-like twists coming out of their head made for quite a silhouette. The females were a little blander, but did have comedy ears that they’d stolen from a hairy-version of Princess Fiona from Shrek.

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Kudu: Cracking horns, unfortunate ears

We left on day three knowing that in 24 hours Mother and I would be flying home – not knowing when we’d see Sister Wolfrider again (and we still don’t). Sister and I sat on the roof of the truck for a few miles to take in the magnificent, vast and magical scenery for the last time, as well as all the bloody dust into our lungs. Another rodeo ride across the pot-holed tracks and with flesh reddened from the dusty earth, there was no way we were getting sunburnt! Mother travelled ‘business-class’ in the front passenger seat, sunglasses on, scarf blowing in the breeze like some kind of bounced-around, Robert Redford mistress, she loved it. We again saw a few extra species sitting in the trees and we slowed down to check them out like true bird pervs! I think Sister Wolfrider has a new hobby, twitching.

I’m going to avoid writing about the last morning in Malawi. Spending time with Wolfrider Junior was, is and always will be inspiring, educational, randomly adventurous, full of comedy and I’ll always be ultimately proud of my sibling. Not to bore you with that, but reminding each other that when you travel, you say goodbye to people….a lot. I guess I have come to the conclusion that with America pending and with much to plan, I WANT to travel and saying see-you-later is going to be a large part of life.

My return to London seemed a little bland to finish off this post. Commuting in the smog, the rushing crowds, the concrete jungle and the grey clouds can all wait; I’ll leave all that for the next post. I know how much you love to read about the blandness.

On returning to Blighty, I was taken ill. Just for those who haven’t had an update since my tests, I did not have malaria and I’m still alive. America is still on.

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One comment on “Erotic Hippo, horny antelope, holidaying giants and no Maltesers to celebrate

  1. Pingback: “Be a good boy and don’t bite anyone’s legs off” | Catching up with old friends: Hollis Plample | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

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This entry was posted on September 7, 2013 by in USA on $6 a day and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Where am I now?

After extensive work and tours through Southern Africa, I’m now mainly in Malawi.
Go Untamed Safaris is now up and running.
Between work days and in the rainy season (December to April); I am planning some expeditions and seek out some experienced individuals keen to be involved.
I am normally available in the U.K. January to March.

For safari and expedition details:

email: info@gountamed.com

http://www.gountamed.com

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