Not your average travel blog
At last! You say. This one isn’t about how terrible humans are to the unfortunate wildlings.
I had goaded one of the more social park rangers to join us for a game of shot glass-battleships. It can’t all be elephants and heffalumps when in a colonial-style lodge! After our ranger had energetically announced that together, we would take on the Franco-German navy combo, I was reminded that it’s best to avoid a ship mate who rarely comes into contact with alcohol and even more so, those who underestimate the consumption capabilities of a Brit, a South African/German and a French paratrooper. We left Kasungu in the knowledge that our new friend needed help to get home through the bush that night, as well as struggling to make it to work for two more days. Strangely, rumour travels fast in the bush and we heard unfortunate tales of how much trouble he was in with his wife. If it’s any consolation, I can commend him for his hospitality efforts. Although when it came to going down with our sinking fleet, I’m afraid I was the only captain.
Bjorn, Matt, and I travelled East towards Malawi’s Lake, then north along the shoreline to Nkata Bay.
Nkota Nkota Wildlife Reserve, which has lions is on route. Managed by the commendable and successful organisation, Africa Parks, it is an important area. The road through it is not maintained all that well, but even though it is the shortest route across this part of the country, it deters people from using it and keeps the haven a little safer for its residents. At the gate, the potholed, paved road turns to treacherous dirt and the drive winds through the dusty, dry hills. In the wet season it would be lush and green on every hill side. Today, fire on the horizon saturates the atmosphere with smoke to the east and the haze across the sky dampens the sun’s vividness. Tall, dense, stiff, yellow, flammable grasses blanket the steep slopes like the endless crooked back of an oversized, blonde, porcupine. Amongst the spines, 20ft tall trees are dotted sporadically, stubbornly growing like giant scarecrows from a sun-drenched Tim Burton movie. Lions aren’t easy to see.
At the last count, half a dozen years ago, I’m informed lion numbers were up to seven and although the count could be summarised easily as “a good effort”, it’s likely it was fairly inaccurate. However, since Africa Parks have taken over, I’m told all the encouraging vibes suggest that the population of lions has grown. As far as any one knows however, there has not been a follow up count. This isn’t a bad tactic by certain people as it stops information on lion numbers being obtained and utilised by poachers. It might also be a good deterrent to stay out of this bush while lacking both decent safety gear and handy lines of sight. Even with so few lions left, stumbling into one while it stalks (or even sleeps) in the long grass would likely lead to a reduction in the human population, rather than the attainment of better stats.
With the state of the area, it’s location in the centre of the country and with it being relatively “watched” by the employed Rangers, it appears to be one of the more successful Malawian wilderness areas. I’ve heard only good things about Africa Parks and this is another example of their sound efforts. http://www.africanparks.eu/
I may appreciate that the lions here maybe both camouflaged and shy, but as we painstakingly avoid the potholes and gashes in the reserve road, we encounter dozens of baboons. Large ones! They’re expert loiterers on our track and like fanged, hairy hitch hikers, they’re curious about everything that drives by. Slow down too much with a curious smile on your face and they may be tempted to explore the flatbed like a troop of long-armed, light-fingered, border control officers. If they did, they’d find only a few back packs of survival equipment, along with a few crates of hot beer (just the essentials). Thankfully, they sloop off and disappear into the long dry grass like oversized, skulking rats. Baboons maybe quite exotic to foreigners, but opportunistic and often vicious, they’re much like flightless but intelligent pigeons after training with Chuck Norris.
Animal fact: Baboons are not apes. They are old world (African) monkeys and like humans, have downward facing nostrils. They also have massive, rip-your-face-off teeth!
Passing through dozens and dozens of villages on the drive to Nkata Bay, it’s clear that Malawi’s rural population has successfully sprawled all over the landscape, meaning at least two things: Malawians are extremely adaptable and can live anywhere, and that nearly all of the landscape can be, and is, farmed in some way. The areas (cities) of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu collectively hold approximately 1.5million people, but the entire country’s population of over 17million is sporadically spread everywhere else.
Villages are located every few kilometres along the lake shore, along the major roads, but also strewn around the bush lands and far away from any kind of busy townships. You can tell which villages are wealthier than others by some buildings being made from bricks and having corrugated roofs. Grass and mud are still very much the sustainable and go-to resource, especially where it’s almost impossible to get any other building material. However, what many foreigners fail to realise, is that just because many people’s houses are made of compacted mud and have straw on their roofs, is that not all people living in similar conditions are financially equal. Extreme rural villages are full of hand crafted mud huts and in the hot, dry season, grass roof tops are sometimes discarded to keep things cooler in the night. Seeing these building standards of entire villages doesn’t mean that there aren’t many different levels of wealth within their communities, or that there isn’t a class system. In these communities, keeping up with the Jone’s is merely obvious in slightly different ways to our own. It may be less important when everyone eats the same food, but it is noticeable as to who owns a bicycle, how many chickens are in a well-brushed yard, who owns the farm and who works on one, who owns a dugout canoe or who has more than one fishing net, who has been able to spend money on music speakers (which wake up the entire village at dawn), who has larger solar panels (meaning they have appliances to charge), who can speak another language, who wears shoes, and yes, in many cases, who has a clay brick building and/or glass windows in their shack. It’s easy to assume everyone is living on a similar level of wealth when we are blinded by such basic standards of living. However, just as wealth disparity exists in our own western communities, it is important we are not ignorant of localised wealth disparity purely by assuming that because people don’t have what we have, we can paint the entire economic landscape with the same brush.
Sadly, it is assumed that “we” (the tourists from the west) are wealthy because we have mobile phones or cash to spend on luxury items here. However, most people here own their property and the land it is on. Many of us struggle to even afford rent, let alone manage to get on the property ladder. If you have money here, you can buy bricks and simply start building when you have enough (as well as have permission from the chief and the rights afforded to you by the government). What we may consider very difficult to obtain in the west, appears comparably easy here, even in perceived extreme poverty. I’ve found that because of assumed richness through mere belongings, true wealth is completely misunderstood. Would you prefer a stash of electronics and a car with no fuel, or would you be more content with a piece of land and a building that you can call home?
Granted, it’s not that simple, and of course coming from the west I have a hugely influenced view of what wealth is. I haven’t begun to discuss the type of wealth which has nothing to do with money. However it’s important that we don’t assume that because people here don’t have appliances or multiple vehicles parked outside their house, that they are all as poor as each other. The philosopher in me understands that happiness through wealth doesn’t come through obtaining belongings. Lack of exposure to this in both the rich and the poorer worlds inevitably skews our perception of how to be content. What stands out the most for me is that nearly everyone you come into contact with here, anywhere in the country, has a smile on their face and very few belongings. However, most people own their own house outright. Can any of us say the same about everyone living on credit in the cities of the west?
Not all of the beers in the hot crates in the back are almost at boiling point. Clearly a man of acute ingenuity, Matt introduces Bjorn and I to the Beer Braai (South African word for barbecue). When there is no fridge or even cool air, how does one chill one’s happy hop juice? One way, is to hang your bottles in wet socks from your wing mirror as you drive. Water plus a breeze is nature’s chiller. However, on roads rougher than a camels kneecap, or that spot between the toes of an athletes foot, in our sweaty cockpit Matt lays the beer bottles down over his air conditioning vents and tucks them in under a few spare t-shirts. I find there are two reasons for the beer duvets. It keeps the cold air snugly around your glass bottle and it hides the fact that there is alcohol when you come across the regular checkpoint officials positioned every few miles on the Malawian roads. Importantly, we’re not trying to hide our liquid for legal reasons; but it does stop every single official pulling us over and asking for a drink! You’d be surprised that after fifteen minutes of driving and with regular bottle rotation, the beers are as cold as a penguin’s happy place. Matt drove safely, so as responsible passengers Bjorn and I enjoyed the only cold drinks we’d had in over two weeks. Life without a fridge really does remind you of the first world problems we face…and how ridiculously privileged some of us are.
It’s a long drive, but after a solid six hours across what looks like only a jiffy on the map, we near Nkata Bay in the dark with quite an appetite and unsurprisingly, lacking all of the beers we started out with. Once again, Lake Malawi is at our feet, but tomorrow it will be our highway…