Ben Winston

Not your average travel blog

Backpacking Spooners….and Charlie

Charlie was a young Berkshire boy who lost himself backpacking in Malawi over eighteen years ago – back when most of the lakeshore was wild and when backpackers didn’t expect to be lazily-spoon-fed all the secrets that an area has to offer. Queue sweeping statements and controversy…. Having come across a lot of modern backpackers on my travels, that’s what self proclaimed “nomads” have become. They’re internet-seekers, desperate to show people how amazing their life on Facebook is. They take rural selfies of themselves far away from home with a cute, stray cat that lives next to their hostel and assume a rural persona. A lot, but not all, lack abilities to often manage themselves in an actual remote or alien location and are fearful to explore beyond the realms of the safety of a tourist lodge or hostel. Granted, some people are more vulnerable than others (I merely mean their personality. I’m not making excuses for  all the acts of sexual predation which is appearing in our news so much at the moment – that’s a whole other issue) and it does take a lot of spirit to wander beyond the realms of what is familiar. However I find it a little sad and depressing how “safe” people need to feel – especially when assuming an adventurous or intrepid persona. I know we can all sometimes crave an “escape”, yet even though we have made it easy to get to places compared to twenty years ago, we’ve become so geographically bogged and restricted as a species. The majority of travellers have become fearful of actually going anywhere unless it involves having things (especially at night) “just like home”. Is it just too much for people to adapt to something unfamiliar? Is this a modern devolution of the way we travel and experience? For many backpackers, being intrepid often now involves huge amounts of time spent on finding as many comforts of home as possible, and in most cases it completely defeats the object of being so far from home. Two things bother me. 1) Many people seek an escape, but too many re-enact or look out the types of familiarities which they cling to when they at home and 2) We spend too much time catering for these seekers! We complain when we don’t have things jus as they are in our culture.

Why do we go on holiday? It should be to experience the place we travel to. Yet we destroy culture and quirkiness, uniqueness and experiences by agreeing to throw alien accoutrements into areas that are really so much better without them. I’m not discussing Africa now, this is worldwide and even worse in the west. The worst part of modern travel is that it is extremely hard nowadays to find what we ALL should crave when we travel: “Genuinity”.
However, back to Charlie, who isn’t an expectant spooner. He found himself getting off a boat in Ruarwe and heading off on foot around the coastline – just for kicks and giggles. With just a few homesteads and rural cassava plots near the lake, he and his friend trekked out into the wild. It was very much unexplored (or at least not documented) Malawian territory. There really was nothing here and there isn’t much more now. Unbeknown to them at the time, they had camped on the cursed and unholy snake territory over looking the lake at the mouth of the river – where locals avoided at all costs. The rocks are still a nice haven for a handful of small snakes, but mostly harmless lizards enjoy basking in the sun. After their little excursion, Charlie and his chum found themselves in front of the nearby-village elder, who explained to them the area they had ventured into. To keep a long story short, there wasn’t any sane native that would go anywhere near the rocky area, let alone use it for something. It was a devilish plot, cursed with unholy serpents. Charlie was offered the land to use discretionally and so he built his home. A dozen years later, he is still here, running his award winning lodge and the locals have accepted that he and his dedicated workforce have driven out the unfortunate spirits and are only occasionally visited by “lost” serpents. In fact, dwelling near to the lodge and not openly advertised, is a cracking specimen of a very large rock python. Uninterested (unless in self defence) in attacking an adult person and not poisonous at all, it has been seen only a few times in half a dozen years. It does well off the small vermin that frequent the rocks. Amazingly however, it stays well hidden even though it’s reported to be more than 5 meters in length! There have been other snake incidents. Heartbreakingly, Charlie lost one of his security dogs to a black mamba only a few months ago. We know it was black because in self defence, Charlie now has the skin of the snake in two pieces in his possession. His dog was unfortunately in this case, doing his job. It isn’t uncommon for things like this to happen when you live in such snake-friendly territory (anywhere in Southern Africa), but it is important to have a sensible approach to the environment you live in. Snakes are here for good reason. Killing them all is not a solution to make life easier. Kill all the snakes, and you’d be overrun with vermin, pests and probably all kinds of disease. There is a balance to achieve. It’s best to let most things roam free around your home, with an efficiency towards eco-management, effective bug-proofing, appropriate clothing, good knowledge of medical treatment, and essentially an appreciation for the wild.

Tiger Snake (The Rock Python is 5x this size!)

The lodge plot now has a public footpath running through through it, and rather than taking a tiring canoe around the bay, locals aren’t fearful of making the journey on foot to the lakeshore dwellings not far further north. Charlie is now extremely revered by the Ruarwe locals – also know as “The Rockies” by other natives. They live on rocky lakeshore in the north of the country. He is well respected in the local community and has his thoughts heard by the local village dignitaries. He’s essentially an advisor to a Chief and if he weren’t still a young chap with white skin, he’d probably be on the short list to eventually find himself in a position with even more responsibility than he does already. He is humble about it, but he is influential in local politics and has found himself being quite an important figure for some of the nearby families dependent on him for his employment and guidance. He tells me stories of how Malawi used to be when he first started out here, although nothing much has changed! There are plenty of entertaining tales which have been in the local press. Newspapers report fairly accurately here, however front page news has been known to be dominated by headlines about witchcraft, flying doctors and people turning themselves into lizards in order to escape their capture after committing a crime. Once Charlie went to visit a police officer/friend for some information, only to find him in the interrogation room questioning a monitor lizard. This is all news in the last decade! I can’t help but feel we could all do with some of this back home; not only to put a few things into context, but also to magnify the amount of tabloid crap that so many people swallow up as fact. Witchcraft and magic may not be scientifically reliable, but it is an effective contribution to the social system. Imagine the Daily Mail informing us that a witch was on the loose after crash landing onto someones roof, and the only evidence for this was some broken roof tiles and a damaged broom outside your front door. Actually, it’s not that much of a reach for the Mail…
Matt’s arm is unchanged, but no blood came out of his anus or anything worse than french-accented curse words out of his mouth, so we’re assuming he is ok. He has feeling in his tricep again so the poison seems to be retreating back down his arm. He says there is no need for more pain killers or anti-histamine. If his cold finger does drop off, he has nine more to fiddle with.
One more night in the bush (and I’ve moved my hammock onto the floor). Tomorrow morning we should be able to go for a swim in the lake, as we’ll be back at (Charlie’s) Zulunkhuni River Lodge.


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Where am I now?

After extensive work and tours through Southern Africa, most of my time is spent between Malawi and Europe.
Go Untamed Safaris was striding into top gear, but volatile poitics in 2019, Covid in 2020, the impacts of Russia vs the World as well as insesent corruption forced my hand.
The dust is now settling. Everything has changed. New chapters are about to be written.

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Info: The Writer
Foot fetishes, Alcoholic Hummbingbirds and some Beautiful Boobies
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