My brother, Neil, and me outside the Elephant Marsh Night Club.
I went to Africa at the age of 3 and sort of left when 20. My parents got a job out in Zambia and then we moved on to Malawi.
I've not been back for a few years but part of me is always there. It's only having left that I can fully aoppreciate what a great start in life it was. These are some of my rambling thoughts on it all.
Greg and me, inside the Elephant Marsh Night Club.
Africa has a lot of wild untamed areas where not so many people live and where animals and nature rule. There is nothing like being put in your place by an animal, one that could kill you but doesn't. I've had close shaves with baboons, buffalos, rhinos, and hippos, which were by far the scariest. Never get between a hippo and water, they say. I avoided that, but also don't swim where they might suddenly appear like a huge snorting wet rock, close enough to touch.
Or, if you want to avoid hippos, don't take a dugout canoe into the middle of the Elephant Marsh on the Lower Shire in southern Malawi. I did this with my brother and a mate plus two fisherman at the helm/paddle. We'd paddled for a few hours into the huge swampy area along reed-free channels, admiring the birdlife and fishes and water snakes, relaxing with a coolbox of drinks and local herb. Then we met a male hippo, blocking our path, grunting, snorting spray and millions of years of evolution. No solid land for miles, and an aggressive, territorial hippo baring his two foot incisors at us.
He'd rear up then slide underwater, but where to? Under the canoe? They're vegetarians aren't they? There was only a couple of inches of leaky canoe above the water line, low lying vessels like these. One fisherman, our local expert/guide, thought we could slip past the hippo. Otherwise it was a five hour upstream paddle back. We dissuaded him of this. The channel was the width of a one track dirt road. We back-paddled like Billy O, all hands in the water, even used the coolbox lid as a paddle. All over at seventeen, I thought. Can I swim through this? Where to? The reeds? Were there crocodiles? It was the single most terrifying experience of my life. People do vanish and die in these marshes. We didn't speak for hours afterwards, Jaws in Africa playing through my head.
Greg, two fishermen, and me in the dugout canoe, heading out into the Elephant Marsh.
These areas are designated as “no hunting” zones, and very few people, if any, live there, to conserve the wildlfe and natural habitats. They also happened to be the best place to spend days and nights with a bunch of mates, away from the parents and getting as one with the dizzy array of animal existance. We'd borrow our stepmum's Honda Civic, pack the coolbox, playing cards, beeers/cokes, vittles and rizzla. Then we'd pick up our mates and head off, stopping at the Elephant Marsh Bar on the way for cold cokes and monkey nuts, which were the best nuts, salted and roasted and sold by the coke bottletop-full at the roadside.
Lengwe was our favourite gamepark. It was a few hours drive from Blantyre, our home town, close enough but also remote enough to get lost. It had the added attraction of being mostly elephant- and lion- free which meant not so many people visited and you could walk around in the bush within reason. We stayed in chalets, with leccy and mozzi nets, so not slumming it but not high end safari nonsense either. (I went to Luangwa Valley in Zambia once. Different ballgame, big 5 style, leopards on roof, Italians in full safari rigs, plus machetes.) Lengwe was one of the most chilled out places – and I don't use that lightly – I have ever been. We'd spend afternoons sitting in hides watching baboons, buffalo, antelope, and birds galore, and getting slowly and quietly immobilized. I crawled around in the nearby bushes once and met a male baboon, and I did some head bobbing movements at it – not wise: never bare your teeth at a baboon.
I'm ashamed to say I don't drive, but I did in Lengwe. There was no chance of meeting another car, and often we would be the only ones in the park. You had to be careful when walking: meeting a Martial eagle on foot was one thing, but a herd of buffalo was the next level up. A male was as big as the Honda Civic. They are the most dangerous land mammal in Africa and kill more people per annum than lions (hippos take the aquatic title, killing more than crocs). They are bad tempered and mean as a rule.
Nightdrives were another favorite. We'd wait till midnight, having siesta'd, and head off to spot and wonder. The only time I saw an aardvark was late one night – weird beast, great diggers. We'd stop on a dusty dirt road, turn the engine off, sit there, wait and stare at the stars. A hyena came sniffing the car one night. We could smell it before we saw it since they are very pungent hounds, so we slowly wound the windows up and watched it give us the once over and amble off. Gameparks were places that I like to think haven't changed for millenia: animals, birds, and land as was. Sadly the pressures of humanity encroaching, poaching for food and firewood were serious problems. Couldn't blame the Malawians, they had to eat, but shame that man ultimately wipes out all competition. Hopefully Lengwe is still a haven of timeless tranquility.
Sunset on the lake.
Other things about Africa
I had long hair once, though not in Malawi where long hair (over the collar) was illegal and girls/women had to wear skirts to below the knees. No jeans at all for them. These laws may have been repealed now. Malawi was run during my time there by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, an enigma if ever there was one. He walked to South Africa at 14, worked in a mine, studied at night, qualified as a doctor, practiced in Paddington, went back as the first President of a “free” Malawi and reigned as a “benign” dictator for decades. Whole cabinets died in convenient car crashes. “Cecilia”, by Simon and Garfunkel – not one of their best, but some good rhythms – was banned because Banda's unofficial mistress' name was Cecilia.
Another delight was the drive-in cinema, weather and projector bulbs permitting. For teenagers in borrowed cars, this was a great night of chips, cokes, crusty flicks, and light refreshments. Golf was another fave, Blantyre Sports Club being the usual choice. Not that any of us were any good, but a stroll around the course was always a great start to an afternoon. Zomba Plateau, a kind of Tarzan-esque escarpment rising out of the central Malawian plain, was a top place to camp, walk, and generally wonder. It was also the location of Chingwe's Hole, an atmospheric spot on the edge of the plateau where an ancient chief, Chingwe, used to dispose of enemies by throwing them into a bottomless hole. Spent the night there once, freezing. Lake Malawi was another must, with Monkey Bay, beach football, weed pancakes and hot nights spent on the roof.
Our time in Malawi was soundtracked by tape compilations and a ghettoblaster playing Bowie, Stones, Beatles, Bob Marley, Hendrix, T Rex and the Flash Gordon soundtrack. It was fueled by Coca Cola, Carlsberg Greens, chambo and chips, egg burgers, Malawi Gold, samosas, brais (bbq), and lots of tea and coffee which are Malawi's main legal exports.
I can't really say how much living in Africa influenced my music, although I did pick up a copy of The Lemon Pipers' , which was Jelly Jungle of Orange Marmalde, in Kandodo supermarket once. Staring at the milky way from beaches must have made a mark.
Finlay and me on the way down the escarpment to Lengwe gamepark.