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Published: June 24th 2007
The fish eagle's cry.
A peregrine falcon meticulously plucking and eating his breakfast of what appears to be a wader of some description, given the length of avian legs hanging off the branch.
The self-important chattering of a giant kingfisher as it takes up its perch on the dead tree near the Lake shore... but only once the falcon has vacated the premises.
A bearded scrub-robin hammering the local ant population, with our vocal encouragement.
A slender mongoose with his reptilian breakfast hanging out either side of his mouth.
The dassies among the rocks, playing peek-a-boo with the visiting humans.
Iridescent-coloured skinks scuttling around the paths and rocks, their progress suddenly frozen when a human appears.
A briefly-glimpsed otter.
The ever-entertaining antics of a troop of vervet monkeys playing in the trees and bushes, their piece de resistance being the theft of two oranges from a bowl in our room. I was particularly taken with the second thief's audacity: she sat on the beam watching me, bit a couple of lumps of rind off her prize and spat them out onto the floor below, leaving me to clean up after her (the
new role in life for which I have been hunting?). Meanwhile, her companions were checking themselves in the bathroom mirror: important to look one's best when playing.... or simply fun to cause the humans further consternation at the prospect of seven years' bad luck...
... and all this before breakfast and watched or heard from stoep of our Robinson Crusoe-esque room.
Nor was that all. During the day, fish eagles would fly over with a slow, measured wing-beat, and perch in distant trees for hours to survey the world. The occasional cormorant and egret would flap past, and one lunchtime we were agreeably disturbed by the distinctive sounds of a monitor lizard crashing methodically through the undergrowth. In the evening, we could see the huge outline of a Pel's fishing owl swooping silently past, fireflies would bob haphazardly around, and the occasional gecko and toad would appear to dine off insects hypnotised by the gas lamps.
This was the onsite entertainment at the aptly-named Nkwazi (fish eagle) chalet at the delightful Nkwichi Lodge on the shores of Lago Niassa, as Lake Malawi is called on the Mozambique side.
In my quest to visit as much of
the planet as possible, Mozambique had been on my hit-list for a while so, when planning a couple of weeks' R&R with Colin, it seemed the natural choice. Surfing the 'net for ideas, Colin tripped over Nkwichi Lodge. Manda Wilderness, which operates it, has a wide remit in this area, including running a demonstration farm to educate local villagers on more efficient - but no more costly - ways of improving the quality and quantity of their crops, and trying to re-establish a protected area to encourage the return of game, poached and alienated from the area during the civil war. It is the sole employer in this remote area.
For me, its very remoteness was one of its biggest attractions. From Johannesburg, we flew to Lilongwe where we caught a charter flight to Likoma Island, the biggest island on Lake Malawi and, although close to the Mozambique side, still part of Malawi. From there, it was an hour and a half's ride by speedboat to the Lodge on the far side of the Lake. I don't know where the nearest road is - it may be as much as three or four hours' walk away - but it
is impossible to get to the Lodge by road during the wet season.
Our route to the Lodge necessitated a somewhat complex set of immigration and customs procedures. Despite being in Malawi (or Malawi airspace) for something short of four hours, we had to "check in" to Malawi in Lilongwe and "check out" again on Likoma Island. This latter procedure, we were told, required the island's policeman, and we sat in a small hut to await his appearance. Perhaps he was in mufti that day, but two "plainclothes" young men turned up eventually, one self-importantly carrying a briefcase which, it transpired, contained the ubiquitous large ledger (does anyone ever look at what is written in these?) and the vital passport-stamping equipment. We sat in a small room off the main track through the township while the necessary procedures were solemnly and meticulously completed: an unlikely border post, it only lacked the menus and cutlery to be a small teashop. Shaking hands as if agreeing on a deal, we left to continue on our way across the water to Mozambique. In Cobue, the first township across the Lake, we walked up the hill to a non-descript hut decorated with posters
about refugees, AIDS and malaria, and, after waiting a few minutes, a uniformed young man - apparently coincidentally and unrelated to our needing him - made an appearance. There is no urgency about such formalities here... something we nearly learnt to our cost ten days' later when the customs official could not be located and we had visions of our delicately-crafted tripartite flight schedule to London crumbling before we'd even left Mozambique. The Lodge used to be allowed to issue "Lake visas" to guests who were not travelling further in Mozambique, but this seems to have changed: we had been warned to acquire the regular Mozambique all-singing/all-dancing tourist visas in advance, and therefore to check in and out of Cobue.
It was at Cobue that we saw the only physical evidence of the civil war. An old-style stone church further up the hill from the immigration "office" still showed the marks of gunfire and its shot-out windows have not (yet?) been replaced. This area was badly affected in the war, and many of the locals fled to Malawi. As a result, many of the returnees tend to speak the English that they learnt there as a first European language,
rather than the more customary Portuguese.
However, for me, the most shocking piece of living history was much closer to the Lodge. After a few days of pure R&R where the hardest decisions each day were where to eat the next meal, whether to request yet another coffee/tea/soft drink/beer and which book to read, we finally extracted ourselves and went to explore the demonstration farm with one of the guides. A little way along the Lake shore from the Lodge, the path turned inland and we reached what might be described as a T-junction. This was the footpath to Tanzania, some 150 kilometres' away. I was enchanted: in this day and age of motorised transport and every-multiplying roads, here was a footpath - literally only shoulder-width, and sometimes not even that - which could take me to another country's border. How romantic! For the next few days, I took off on my own in the late-afternoon and went to explore the path further, reaching the neighbouring villages a hour or more away on either side of the Lodge. This was Real Africa again, just as I had experienced in Malawi, and I felt the rhythm of the land calm
me once again. I was walking the paths the locals used, meeting and being amongst people going about their daily business. At one point, I was honoured to be introduced to the local village headman, a youthful-faced but grey-haired man of proud yet welcoming bearing, with the obligatory collection of children around him. He spoke no English, and I was lucky that a young man I had just met kindly acted as interpreter. As usual, I was asked about my business there, and, just as I had found in Malawi, my simply "going for a walk" to explore the local area - with the customary compliment about the beautiful countryside - was met with some bemusement. On my way back past the headman's house, the children ran out to greet me and the little boy marched importantly with me for a few yards, then collapsed in laughter when I mimicked the Ministry of Silly Walks as I went on my way.
I should have guessed...
..but only on the morning of our departure did someone mention the origins of this "romantic" path. It was the slave-trade route, the path that those slaves who had survived the awful conditions
on board ships bringing them across from Malawi and further west then had to walk, shackled and chained, to Tanzania and across to Zanzibar where they were kept in such confined, crowded, cold and damp cells that the imagination cannot comprehend. I've seen the cells in Stone Town, and, even standing there, back bent as dictated by the low ceiling, I could not visualise how so many humans could ever have fitted into this lack of space, nor could I begin to understand how any man could subject his fellow humans to such awful treatment. Learning the real history of the path near Nkwichi Lodge silenced me. Its timelessness had been one of its huge attractions, and it was now as if I could see the ghosts of the slaves around me...
Back in today's world, the people at the Lodge were, without exception, extremely kind and thoughtful and we were warmly looked after. Our immediate hosts were a young Dutch couple who made my travels pale into insignificance: they had driven from Holland to Ghana... although they brushed off our amazement - even the road across the Sahara is Tarmac-ed now, we were told, though they had tried
the offroad version, quickly becoming expert at digging their vehicle out of sand. From Ghana, they had had their vehicle shipped to Mozambique; I was relieved that they hadn't tried to cross half a dozen war zones to complete the overland route. Somehow they had found themselves at Nkwichi, initially volunteering with the community and conservation projects, but were now managing the Lodge for a while. Manda Wilderness has four or five European investors, one of whom, a young architect called Patrick, lives close by with his wife and young child. He designs the chalets - an inappropriate word, but I'm lost for a suitable alternative - each of which is different. Endearingly, one of the chalets is named after the birthplace of a prior volunteer who had helped with its construction - Scotland!
The location is stunning. The main beach has pale golden sands that would not be out of place on any self-respecting desert island. (In fact, the Lodge is named after them - its full name, mchenga nkwichi, means squeaky sand.) At one end, a raised platform has been built among the rocks and under the shade of a large spreading tree. This is a delightful
place for lunch, and the local agama and lizard population provided endless entertainment while we ate, the most amusing site of the trip being an agama scuttling off with his prize of an onion ring in his mouth... and encircling his head: a reptilian angel with his halo! We often lapsed in referring to the water around us as the sea, not least when the southern trade winds blew and created breakers that would entice an amateur surfer to take up his board (in fact, boogie boards were provided). I found myself at one point nearly grumbling about the noise: the continual crash of waves around us at our chalet, sited as it was on a small promontory, drowned out everything else. I did pull myself up short: what a thing to be even thinking of complaining about! However, the degree to which the waves had obliterated everything else was stunningly evident when the wind dropped one night... and the gentle chirps and croaks of the waterside African night woke me.
Not surprisingly, we could hardly tear ourselves away from this paradise when the time came... unlike some of the local insect population. Several times during our stay we
sunset from Venus Beach
..did I mention that this was our own private beach?!
would find some large bug or other trying to stow away in our luggage - whip scorpions seemed particularly keen to try out life in the Big Smoke - and, back in London, we carefully unpacked over a sheet but, to my nephew's disappointment, none had made it home with us.
The last three weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, as well as a fun blast of socialising. No matter how often I travel, getting ready for the next trip always seems to take a lot of organisation (not to mention shopping). Mind you, I am having to cater for potentially minus temperatures this time, and the paperwork - with three visas to obtain - is more onerous than usual. For those of you who can't remember where I'm off to next, I won't spoil the surprise: fingers crossed for the odd internet cafe in the next eight weeks....
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