One thing on the TV I usually like is Globe Trekker. It is the traveller & wanderer in me.
Well, there is a show on now with a theme of ‘endangered places’. Much of what they are talking about is overcrowded areas of natural beauty. I found myself saying “it’s not like that in Malawi”.
Malawi has fantastic places but even the ‘busiest’ places at the height of the tourism season are quiet.
Like northern France in early 1944, Malawi waits.
People speak of an imminent and great invasion. But when. For clues we look into the sky and the heavens and we measure the signs. Like the English Channel in those days in 1944, the weather is a key. Today I heard that the heat now is like none in living memory. I doubted.
Like 1944 as now the weather was a source of uncertainty and disagreement. It was a sign of something more than itself. Now we await not the clash of the forces of good against evil. Now we wait for the great clash between the two great seasons of the year. In one measurable moment the hot and wet season will invade the hot and dry season at the pinnacle of its power. If the invasion is sustained then the old season will be gone and the new will be here. The third season, the cool and dry, seems so puny in comparison to these powerful giants of nature.
Only yesterday we baked under the oppression of the sun. Looking at the weather online was like observing a Ron Paul opinion poll result – you look at the number and think – ‘that can’t be right’. In vain we looked into the sky for the sign of a cloud no greater in size than a man’s fist. Surely the heat itself was sign enough that change is at the door.
At night last night change could be sensed. The night was hot but later and before dawn a noticable coolness was in the air. Forgotten duvets were sought and found. Today, change again. Much cooler than before but still hot. Gathering clouds loom above. Is this it? Or was this another decoy, like Kent and the model tanks. Tonight we step outside in the noticable cool as a great storm of powerful winds buffets the high trees all around. Great forces are at work above and around.
The rains come in the form of great storms. Thunder and lightening and heavy downpours turn dirt roads into rivers and rapids. The approach is measured as the time gaps between flashes of lightening that you can see with your eyes closed, and the great roll and roar of the thunder, narrows. Fear stikes momentarily as lightening and thunder strike at the same time and you know it was yards away. Children are ordered away from the windows.
The weight and intensity of the rain, the power of the raging rapids where there was once a road, and the deafening sound of the downpour heard from under tin roofs, provides a sense of awe and wonder.
When will this time come? I do not know, but tonight we listen to the sounds of the great trees swaying above us. We wonder, and we wait.
MORNING UPDATE – 3 November 2011
We awoke to the sound of rain. Not heavy rain however, nothing like the description above. So what is this? A decoy or is it the advance party in gliders landing behind enemy lines in Normandy? Well, it was certainly an arrival at night from overhead.
Today is cool, very cool. I am in shorts and a t-shirt but I do almost feel cold outdoors. Clouds above.
There are three season in Malawi: hot & dry, hot & wet, and finally cool & dry.
We have planned a lot of what we do around these seasons. We had plans to be up in the northern higher lands of Nyika and Livingstonia or Vipya and Mzuzu with close access to the northern lakeshore but we find ourselves in Blantyre. It is hot.
The rains (heavy spectacular thunder storms) are due to arrive in November. This is certainly something to look forward to. As a child I loved to hear the deafening sound of heavy rain in a storm beating down on our tin roof. The best time was at night as the sound was not only very loud but was also extremely relaxing. There is something about water…
But now it is hot, very hot. It is the perfect time of year for swimming in The Lake (Lake Malawi) or plunging into mountain streams & pools.
For the sake of this post I had a look at the weather online. 38 Celsius which I calculate at 100 looks like the high for today. Interestingly thunder & lightning is forecast for tomorrow.
If I organise tours to Malawi I will organise them according to the seasons.
Lake Malawi is very safe for swimming. Swimming in the Shire River is suicide. (don’t swim in one of the other lakes – Chilwa Malombe etc.).
When in Malawi if someone tells you that something is ‘very dangerous’ it could mean that that some thing is close to suicide. It does not mean that the person telling you this is some jobs-worth from the local council trying to justify his job with unrealistic claims and wild exaggerations.
Strangely, and amazingly enough, when someone tells you that something is ‘safe’ then it probably means that it is…wait for it….safe. Wow! What a surprise! Hotel and lodge owners by Lake Malawi will tell a visitor who asks that it is safe to swim. (Normally people don’t ask – most people know it is safe). Don’t be suspicious of their vested interests. Just be aware of a few small ‘rules’ which are 1/ don’t swim between sunset and sunrise, 2/ don’t swim in the mouth of a river, 3/ don’t swim among reeds, 4/ do swim in an area recognised as being for human swimmers, tourists, villagers etc. and 5/ if swimming in a new area you find don’t do so without asking the locals first about whether there are crocodiles.
Lake Malawi is very safe – it is unlikely that you would need to know more than that. The biggest danger at Lake Malawi are mosquitoes. Take sensible precautions.
There is a pub argument over whether hippos or crocs are more dangerous. It is interesting to discuss the subject but it may come down to location and whether one means ‘killed directly’ or ‘killed indirectly’. I was reading the online comments of an angler brought up in Malawi who from his boat has witnessed people being taken by crocodiles in the Shire River – it is more common than most people think. The angler said that hippos can count as more dangerous if you mean that by capsizing a boat full of people who cannot swim the hippo has killed them (including the ones subsequently eaten by crocodiles).
Two years ago a Game Warden in Liwonde National Park said that 34 people had been killed by crocodiles so far that year in the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. Others I’ve spoken to locally back this up. This year I was told 10 or 15 so far this year in that particular stretch. They are local fishermen on dug out canoes fishing illegally at night. Wardens tell of meeting survivors they have saved (after all the other colleagues on the dug out canoes were killed) a couple of weeks later back on the canoe. An article I read by a licensed crocodile hunter said that at the worst time of year for it about two people a day are being killed by crocodiles in the Shire. This is an estimate – no one really knows.
Someone from America was telling me that when new to Malawi he went fishing in the Shire with his family. They waded in, with waders I think, as if they were fishing in the Tweed or the Tay… To be fair to them he did say that the current was moving so fast as they were next to a waterfall that he did not think a crocodile would be there…or could swim through it.
The next thing that happened was that a Malawian on the bank said “A crocodile is coming.” and he looked up and saw a mammoth croc coming very rapidly from the other side as if there was no current in the river at all. They all got out just in time.
don’t swim in rivers you don’t know – mountain streams on Mulanje are ok :-),
don’t go fishing on a dug out canoe in the Shire at night where there are a lot of crocodiles and hippos,
beware of hippos at night as they come out of the water and walk for miles eating grass. They are likely to kill you if you get between them and the water or their young
don’t swim even in the Lake at night
don’t paddle in rivers, especially the Shire
don’t walk on the banks of the Shire
don’t wash your clothes in the Shire River
don’t brush your teeth in the Shire River
don’t build sandcastles on the banks of the Shire River
when on a boat in the Shire do not drag your hand through the water to keep it cool
do you get a sense of where I am coming from with regard to the Shire River?
What about bilharzia in Lake Malawi? There is a tablet you can take if you are worried or concerned. Do not worry. I know one guy who works with wildlife in Malawi who tells me that when he goes to The Lake he spends all day in the water. He said he gets his food order from the hotel or guest house brought to him in the water. Bilharzia is dangerous if you live by the Lake and have no access to modern medicine. I really do not worry about bilharzia…at all. As I say, if you are concerned then get a check up a few months after swimming or take a tablet (pill). I did once hear about someone who had a complication connected with bilharzia. It was something unusual and connected with something else. Still, I think the biggest bilharzia risk for a western visitor is that it puts you off going into the Lake. Actually, there is another bilharzia risk if you are returning to the west. I made the mistake of mentioning, when in hospital, that I should get a bilharzia check. The medics were fascinated. They wanted to detain me. I realised that it was out of curiosity and because they wanted me as a specimen for their medical students. I got fed up with the time wasting to my day and discharged myself. I really could not be bothered. Maybe one day I’ll bother to get a check or take a tablet.
Now, I wanted to edit this post as the paragraph above does reflect something of the attitude of someone brought up here for who ‘bilharzia’ is a familiar word. There is an extent to which familiarity can breed contempt – including perhaps a feeling that the disease is nothing much to worry about if you have access to modern medicine (which is more of an issue for local villagers).
Coming into Africa for the first time an exotic sounding tropical disease could sound slightly more intimidating. It is partly the fear of the unknown. That is understandable. My advice is to take the required medication or get a check a few months after swimming and apart from that think nothing else of it.
I said I would try to add a blog post once every two days. I have not kept to that this week. For that reason I am pulling out something I worked on earlier. I have divided what I have written into three parts so far.
Risks – general
Risks – animals on land
Risks – creatures in the water
They will be divided into different blog posts. Perhaps I will write about other kinds of risks. Mountains, health and roads spring to mind.
There is so much to write. If you do not want to read it all then just read the following paragraph which sums it all up.
The purpose of this blog post is to point out that Malawi is very safe….but only if you respect and adhere to the safety rules.
Malawi is, generally speaking, a safe country to visit. I feel safer here than I do in my home country. In that sense however I am meaning ‘safe’ in a sense that is wider than purely ‘physical’ safety. I mean how relaxed I feel about life’s full set of dangers, particularly with regard to children. If you are an expat here or a reasonably well to do Malawian, then Malawi can be a great place for children and their families.
When talking about the concept of ‘physical danger’ I also feel pretty safe in Malawi. The main point I want to make in this blog post however is that your safety here assumes that you know, understand and avoid specific dangers here. Dangers that will be very different to the dangers in your own country.
Of course over-reactions as well as under-reactions to warnings can and do occur. Understanding the issues and how to be safe is the key. Understanding is not difficult at all if explained.
There is a problem of so called ‘cultural misunderstandings’ to do with risks, dangers and safety. In the west we have a ‘health and safety’ culture that has been pushed to bureaucratic extremes. Some people are happy enough with the fact that ‘health and safety’ removes personal discretion over risk taking. Many others, myself included, think that health and safety regulations in many places is out of control, counter-productive and often irrational. [I remember looking at a packet of nuts for sale in the UK. Written on the side was the following warning ‘WARNING: MAY CONTAIN NUTS.’]
Over-regulating health and safety is nuts. In the UK there was a ban on ‘beef on the bone’ while at the same time we were informed that we faced greater danger of being hit by a meteorite if we went out into our gardens. Prince Charles openly and in front of the media defied this beef on the bone ban. I heard that in Australia you are not allowed to drive along the road with your window down and one of your arms resting and catching a little of the breeze – because one person once had an accident. Personally I’d rather take responsibility for my own actions.
It would be understandable then for some people coming to Malawi to think that guidelines or warnings on what is dangerous are ‘the usual exaggerations and over-reactions just there to give someone a job and to allow someone else to boss people around.’ Actually, if you are told that such and such a thing in Malawi is dangerous then the chances are that it is very dangerous. I have seen people sneering at certain warnings as if they were listening to some functionary from the Health and Safety Department from the local council in the UK.
I know of a lot of violent tragic deaths that have occurred in Malawi. I know of quite a number of people who have come very close to death in the mountains, near animals and in the water (including my dad). I cannot think of a single example of where the individual in question was not going against or was outside of a ‘safety rule.’ Sometimes that being ‘outside of the safety rules’ has come about due to a development of circumstances rather than because they were ignored. In other words I can think of no ‘freak accident’ deaths were the person involved was within the safety guidelines and rules. A freak accident could always happen – but it could happen anywhere.
It is as if there is no middle ground. If you respect and adhere to the safety guidelines – you are very safe. If you break the safety rules then you may be in real danger.
So, when you visit Malawi you will be very safe because you will simply follow the guidelines won’t you?
This does not mean that in Malawi there are all sorts of exciting adventurous things that you must not do. No. What I mean is with the many exciting, adventurous and fun things you can do here there are a few specifics you must not do and a few specifics that you should do. Danger warnings here are not ‘killjoys’ – they are just about how to enjoy without being killed. This is Africa, it is not Disneyland Paris.
I want to explain, with examples, that defying warnings about dangers in Malawi can be much much more dangerous than some might suppose.
Another potential problem on the risk front is the assumption that what is done in one’s own country is the only sensible or rational way to do things. Actually, if things are done differently in a different country, and that society accepts and takes account of that different way of doing things, then it gains it’s own inherent rationale. Some people who have only lived in one country all their lives and have not thought about it might find it hard to get this. (I could give examples to do with driving conventions and expectations).
A related problem is not to realise that Malawians may have a different ‘risk threshold’ compared with many westerners. I am not criticising Malawians for accepting too much risk – I am saying that people can have widely different assessments of what is constitutes too much risk. There are perfectly legitimate personal subjective judgments involved here. Differences are not only between individuals – the bell curve of acceptable risk will be different in different countries and ‘cultures’ – if you know what I mean.
I am quite happy on the other hand to criticise overly paranoid westerners for attempting to tie themselves up in cotton wool. Now that is what I call an unacceptable risk – the risk of missing out on life. There is also the risk of not knowing how to deal with risk when it arises.
I think I come somewhere in between paranoid westerners and average Malawians with regard to my own risk thresholds.
The next post in this series will either be about animals on land or creatures in the water!
I could write about other things – we will see.
I am not inspired to write very much just now. Instead I will post some photos from Mango Drift on Likoma Island. These pictures were taken on the first couple of days that we were there.
I did write other posts, with no photos, on our time there and I will provide the links.
There is a series leading up to our trip to Likoma Island. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnight stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.
The First Likoma Island post is about reaching the island itself on the Ilala. This contains useful information for anyone wanting to know about disembarking from the Ilala.
The next set of posts were written on the island itself and uploaded from the island. Because I was doing this on my iPhone I decided to leave out photos.
The main post that i wrote on and published from the island was about learning to scuba dive on Likoma Island. It is my propaganda piece on why Likoma Island is the best place in the world for learning to scuba dive. I did have a conversation with someone very recently who fully agreed with my view that it is better to learn to dive in freshwater. There were many other reasons, as I recall, for my view that Likoma Island provides the best value for learner divers. I hope you are convinced. If you want to do this yourself then please get in touch. I may be able to help.
Another piece was on the birds on Likoma Island.
The comings and goings of people at Mango Drift are dominated by the arrivals and the departures of the Ilala. The secondary influence on who is at Mango Drift and when are the flights to the islands. However, it is not the passengers who are seen at Mango Drift so much as the pilots. Small planes bring customers to the upmarket Kaya Mawa, the pilots come to Mango Drift. There is probably no better place in Malawi for meeting pilots than Mango Drift on Likoma Island.
The Ilala runs up and down the Lake each week. We were on the northbound journey and some of our fellow passengers were simply waiting for the return of the southbound Ilala. This gave them a couple of days at Mango Drift.
Others there were a very nice Israeli couple, Dan and Gabriela, who were traveling on to Mozambique and the coast. He is a brave man as he is Israel’s answer to Richard Dawkins. In Israel seemingly there would be a lot of opposition to his book launch despite my perception of a large secular community within Israel. It was unfortunate that time was too short for a wide debate as there was a full range of views on offer among the guests. From the tranquil of Likoma Island he would be heading to the storm of his book launch in Israel. I hope that it generates a good debate and light as well as heat…
Here is a musical composition by Dan accompanied by some pictures that Dan and Gabriela put together from a previous trip in Mozambique. Here is his music website. Dan also told us about a tribute to Japan, The Tsunami Song he co-wrote with words by Gabriela.
There was also a family from the UK mentioned in a previous blog post. Several of them, like me, were visiting Malawi after many years away.