Not your average travel blog
Compared to a few other nations on the continent, Malawi has remained relatively peaceful. Even through the historically volatile and ongoing trials of Southern Africa, the people here remain extremely welcoming and friendly. Understanding life in places such as Malawi is one aspect to my travels. Ultimately though, sharing my experiences and hoping to bring a little relativity to people’s lives is what really inspires me to avoid tripping back to the city, setting up camp, and in my opinion and experience, living a most fashionable and mundane day-to-day. I don’t disagree with how people choose to live in the modern world. We all have varying choices to make, opportunities to prioritise, and responsibilities to carry out; and I believe neglecting it and hermitting away from it entirely is not fortuitous or expedient. However, I think one thing is the same for everyone. We don’t realise any ultimate life truths until we experience them. More importantly, we don’t appreciate them until we view them from afar, sometimes in isolation. Here amongst the remote trials of the Kasungu wilderness an entirely different truth plays out and it puts other’s into a much clearer perspective. It does not lessen their value and just like other lifestyles and worldly operations, the truths here are worth knowing like any other – and definitely worth savouring.
In a much safer zone nearer to the lodge, camped under a mosquito net a few hundred feet from the watering hole; I’m listening to the warning noises of the nearby Reed Buck yelling to his friends of danger. Danger that announces itself in the form of loudly “wooping” hyena. It’s an unmistakeable sound and one which I’ve come to be comforted by these last few nights. In the evening, birds cackle and caw, coo and chuckle as they settle down and tuck their lovers into their nearby nests. The cicadas and grasshoppers quieten themselves as the moon stretches up beyond the low, silvery clouds. Light falls and shadows dapple themselves on the low, still branches. The dry brush on the ground becomes a hash-patchwork of darkened insect dens and grub hideaways. The sounds in the dark are a supper-buffet on our ears, and if you’re not trying to get to sleep, they’re much more peaceful and melodic than those of the sweltering daytime. It’s a cool night and even though the moon is bright against the lake, it’s still impossible to see any beasts. Humongous silhouettes however, silently sway in front of the crepuscular light on the water behind them. The outline of a stout elephant, possibly leant against a straining tree, breathes quietly. Likely pondering the flickers of our campfire and the smells of our legally-purchased barbecued guinea fowl; he is carefully smelling us too on the still air. Occasionally, huge shadows move against the backdrop of the moon dance. Nearby, gigantic, grazing hippo and dozing elephant carefully negotiate each other’s movements, and so avoid a titanic battle in the dark. Before bed, while nocturnally grazing amongst the trees (neither beast with confident sight – as both should have gone to spec savers), they blindly and with the help of their dependable nostrils, evade each other’s colossal clumsiness.
Our rarely-used torch also lights up a few red and orange eyes staring at us from the undergrowth. Hyena, antelope, reptiles, birds and warthog are all checking to see if we are a threat. There’s a lot of croaking, jostling in the long grass, buzzing on the breeze, cracking of branches higher in the trees and plenty of sloshing around in the muddy shallows, twenty or so meters from camp. Proof that in the bush, the darkness is too alive to go for a safe wander – especially around a waterhole.
Noise travels louder and further with less wind and disturbance at night. The stillness of the surface of the water also acts as an amplifier to any noise travelling across it. Being nocturnal animals, hippo never cease to communicate in the dark, bellowing out their grunts while the rest of us are sleeping. Without sight, our ears assume the sounds are much closer than they are. However, knowing where the water is tells us that the lack of grunting amongst some more delicate sploshing, is that tonight, hippo aren’t our nearest neighbours. A herd of twenty or so water buffalo make their way out of the shallows and up a swampy verge, meters from our camp in the dark. Aware that we are not smelling fruity is calming the situation with curious carnivores around. However, I’m sure any matriarchal, hungry hyaenidae or felines wouldn’t turn down a portion of sleeping man meat (it’s why we keep a net over us). It’s a peaceful evening, albeit with the excitement of the buffalo – an animal I’ve only encountered once before. They should never be underestimated as they can be dangerous for their unpredictable behaviour. Tucked quietly under our nets, and from experience, we should be quite safe.
As we delve deeper into the night and the darkness, the noises die down. Even the hippo – their guttural huckling booms bounding around in the air, sound like oversized orks, genuinely amused at some delicious sausage fruit lodged in their throats. They provide an unusual lullaby that strangely and sporadically comforts like a distorted but humorous foreign radio station. It may keep me awake for a while, but unless it’s spitting distance from my ears, I sleep as soundly as a sloth after a few rohypnols.
With the day’s temperature dropping fast and a more comfortable breeze tiptoeing over my sun-scorched face, I’m actually beginning to cool. The thought that this is what it must feel like to be in a badly-cast porno, set in a sauna, is drifting from my mind as fast as the sweat is ceasing to leak from every drenched pore. After the unsettling sweaty-sleeps while out catching encroachers, tonight’s rest should be the best I’ve had since arriving. Even after hearing another illusive leopard just a few dozen meters from my pillow (I still haven’t seen one), it’s deeply relaxing to be here and the Kasungu wild is alive with magical compassion.
The nearby waterhole might be the size of a large English village, but the wildlife here is completely unique to that a few hundred kilometres away on the nation’s lakeshore. Waking up in the Malawian bush is a very different experience. The number of bird calls at dawn is impossible to count. Often sounding like a person testing out the ringtones on their new mobile phone from behind a nearby tree; it’s the annoying guy who woke up before dawn, failing to decide on just one alarm from the hundreds he now possesses. He ruins everyone’s peaceful morning. Buzzes, screeches, chirps, whizzes, bugs imitating race cars, invisible flies loudly-humming like tiny wallet pockets being zipped, and galactic-style sound effects coming from somewhere in the tree canopy echo against some flirtful, millennium falcon-esque warbles in the grass (that’s possibly the most obscure Star Wars reference I have ever made)! Birds cuckooing and hooping, screaming and beeping, squawking and cawing, and like some off-beat bass from a broken sub-speaker, the hippos grunt as if to say their dulcet good mornings and good night pleasantries all at the same time. Lolloping loudly with some over-dramatic, exasperated splashing, and to hide from the burn of the rising sun, they indulge like wrestlers without their spandex, groaning as they push themselves back into the waters after a night on the raz. If you suffer from phonomania, it’s a breakfast feast, but not for someone desiring a quiet lie in.
As the breeze pauses for a split second, the sounds are occasionally silenced (at least in my ears) by the distant elephants, trumpeting their way towards the water for a morning romp. It’s a happy sound and a celebratory chorus. Parading their carnival to communal bath time..and who doesn’t like a little shared bathing? They may be missing a fine wine, a scented candle, and a few rubber ducks (isn’t that how we all like to bath?), but they make sure they get their fair share of Turkish-style mud, bubbles and trunk-bumping massage. I’d like to think their morning rejoices aren’t because they are aware that they have made it another night without being murdered, but because an elephants mind is almost as complicated and as intelligent as a passionate woman’s. It would be understandable, if surviving to another daybreak was reason to celebrate, but I think they just love any chance they can get to have a girly spa day.
You may wonder what the guys think of all this….you’ll find them half a kilometre away in the same water, but in different mud. Having their own man time, lounging around, flexing and occasionally sparring, probably discussing their latest conquests, what DIY project they’ve recently completed, who might win the rugby World Cup and how much better off they would be if they hadn’t married Sharron, that spa-loving lush from across the park…
Dawn is around 5am and with no curtains, the day starts early. Echoing on repeat, the constant, wild sounds of an African morning only subside when the sun gets a little higher, and much, much hotter.
Bjorn and I have a walk towards the water to see if we can spot anything new – as if elephant, hippo, buffalo, puku, reed buck, clupspring, some gecko, a spring hair and a few raptors aren’t enough!
There is no chance we’re going for a swim! This morning, on their regular commute shortly after dawn, the elephant herd of around twenty passed right by our camp, shortly followed by a few bachelor boys (male bulls, not a west end, choreographed, all male dance group). Clearly nervous around new faces (and smells), the tusked-males are apprehensive of being too close to us. However they are successful in trusting us to leave them alone as they pass by. It’s helpful that Remi (the passionate Dutch woman running the KasunguElephant charity that sponsor elephants and monitor their wellbeing) has given them all names. Amongst many things, she knows their distinguishing features and their role in the herd. Naming them comes in handy to log how many elephants there are, where they have been seen, how they are behaving and how they are effecting the others in the group. Sadly however, it does make losing any of them to a poacher all the more difficult and emotional – especially with so few left. While we have been here, at least one carcass has been found and we have heard other gunshots not too far from camp.
Mr C is the largest of all the chaps. However, he is also the most anxious around us. It is clear he has had the most experience of all the males, but he hasn’t particularly had pleasant interactions with humans. A couple of the bachelors lay down in the mud not far from us; something an elephant will ONLY do if it is extremely comfortable in its surroundings. Mr C never turns his back, never takes his eyes off us, and always keeps himself between us and the more casual, smaller males. Naturally, he has an obligation to protect them and understandably, part of me is happy that he is wary of humans. It might keep him and his brothers alive, longer.
It’s a beautiful sight, but no one should ever forget that this is the wild. This is the elephants home. We are the visitors. If we are unwelcome, we shouldn’t disrespect our hosts and we certainly shouldn’t push their boundaries. It is however easy to get caught up in the moment and lose sight of where those boundaries are. In a split second, while I’m adjusting a camera setting, Mr C flaps his ears, raises his tusks, throws dust in the air and waves his trunk around. It’s our first warning that we’re too close for his liking, and as our hearts jump into our throats, we’re reminded that if we make a mistake now, Mr C might be the last mistake we ever make. Attempting to move back slowly, Bjorn and I move apart from each other and we may have suddenly confused Mr C. Even though he is silent, he makes it very clear with some more earth throwing, ear flapping and a few extra quick steps towards us, that we are not on his Christmas card list! He mock charges us. Even though you should never run from a bear, a big cat, a wolf, or any mammalian predator for that matter, the safest thing we could do was move swiftly away before we met with any weighty challenge. Mr C decided a few more quick steps closer to us, while making sure we could hear his trumpet, was what we needed for him to drive his message home. Although he kept his head high (if elephants are genuinely wanting to cause damage they will dip their heads and tusks into a more dangerous, low position), we definitely needed to respect his space. Personally, I thought being mock charged was quite enough for one day and unsurprisingly, I didn’t loiter to get a photo of the action.
Although a dramatic way to die, I wouldn’t have been able to write about it. Killing us would have been effortless for any of the elephants and even though we hastily retreated behind some trees (non of which would have stopped Mr C if he had decided to make an example out of us), it’s a reminder of how respectful we should all be in the wild, and in other people’s homes. With a more comfortable distance between ourselves and the big boys, they go back to their bathing and attempt to cool down. While making breakfast, I search for my hip flask to calm the nerves and after having my first elephant teach me a lesson about what an appropriate level of personal space is, I’m beginning to feel like I could spend a lot more time here.