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A Trip to the Liwonde National Park

Off On Our Own Today – Malawi, 15 January 1996
Our fifth day in Malawi. This page follows on from A Day at the Seaside, Malawian Style. Today we have the use of a borrowed pickup and have been booked into a tourist lodge in the Liwonde National Park on the Shire River. First we have to drive to Liwonde and stay there overnight in a hotel.
Off on our own in the borrowed red Nissan pickup that is affectionately known as the fire engine. Back along the Salima road and then turn off onto another long, new motorway, practically empty except for the hordes of hard- or soft-shoulder pedestrians. We see a man walking barefoot and carrying his shoes, nineteenth-century Irish navvy style, and a number of women balancing rolled umbrellas on their heads, it having recently stopped raining. Many of the women carry buckets of water on their heads and when you pass a well there is usually a queue of women with their galvanised buckets, waiting their turn at the pump.
Once or twice we see a man walking a pig along the hard shoulder. Often we pass a couple of little boys, less than 10-years-old, who appear at first sight to be playing on the hard shoulder, but are actually minding a herd of goats in an adjacent field.
We comment on how cleanly-dressed many of the people are, though they live in a mud hut and possibly only have one set of clothes and those second-hand.
Intercity. The driver is indicating to pull out. We hope he’ll wait until the door is closed.
Intercity. (Smaller road, no white lines.)
We travel along the motorway and pass numerous buses, many of which are in Stagecoach livery and are marked Intercity. This surprises us but subsequently we see from the Stagecoach Group website: Stagecoach was one of the first major transport operators to expand overseas and this period [1980s] saw it run its first services outside the UK after buying UTM, the major bus company in Malawi.
Most of the buses crab extraordinarily and belch out black exhaust. (It says on UK Business Park UK Activity Report 1997: Stagecoach is selling its 51% stake in Stagecoach Malawi to Admarc Investment for a nominal sum. Now I wish I had taken some more photies.)
More about buses in Malawi at Oh dear!. Seems that no one manages to run a bus company in Malawi for long. Stagecoach’s ‘nominal sum’ presumably meant they lost money on that venture, though perhaps were pleased to see the back of it. [Next political . . .]
On the road to Salima, the roadside pitches seemed to be primarily selling charcoal and, in one place, tomatoes. In Salima it was fish and samosas, plus some burned corn-on-the-cob. Here on this road it is mangoes. On every corner there is a little boy with a cloth containing a small pile of mangoes, mostly small green ones.
We pull onto a dirt road up to the Mua Catholic Mission to eat our packed lunch. We have been told that there is a picnic spot here, and you cannot picnic by the roadside unless you are keen to attract a crowd.
The Mua Mission has recently begun a museum. It seems that the mission was started by three Catholic fathers from Italy, who pitched their tents round a baobab tree. Why they chose this particular baobab tree is not clear. They presumably must have camped in many other places before they got here. It is a fairly lush place though, with water and a tumbly stream over rocks, and probably not that good for farming, so perhaps people left them reasonably well alone when they camped here.
Anyway, this is where they put their tents round the baobab tree and round that tree they have now built the three round buildings of their museum. The museum is not open yet, but the outside walls have been painted in a very lively manner with images depicting the history of the area, starting with Chewa ‘History of Our Time’ legends, the Chewa version of Adam and Eve; going through wars with the Yao; the arrival of Arabs and slavery; then of the Europeans and their fights with the Arabs; then in 1899 along came these three Italian fathers and erected their tents.
Now, the mission consists of a number of substantial buildings: monks’s quarters; a hospital; various other houses; the museum; and a zoo.
We look at the zoo and it is of the old-fashioned, pre-animal rights kind, with stinking cages, a snake pit, and animals that look rather keen to get out; pacing the bars or looking pathetically unhappy. The animals are all of types that can be found locally so far as we can tell, so they probably see their friends outside and think, ‘I am a loser in the lottery of life’. Presumably they are caught locally and brought in.
The fathers employ a number of wood-carving artists and sell their work. Today is a bank holiday and so the woodcarvers are asleep in their workshop, which is like a park grandstand, open on all sides, but one of them comes and does his bit to explain the history via the wall paintings. We buy some carvings.
Mua is the first of a string of Catholic missions we pass on the road, the churches getting obscenely grander as the people seem to get more ragged.
We join the M1, Lilongwe–Blantyre motorway, then leave it again and meet more potholes. A potholed tarmac road is worse in many ways than a dirt road, at least in the latter you expect a slower ride and do not hit holes in the road with such jarring force. We are cautious, we drive to drive round the holes, unlike the string of Mercedes’ with tinted windows and Malawian flags on their wings, for whom slowing down at all would be a slight to their occupants’ fragile feeling of self-importance. They slow down for nothing and no one: potholes, goats, children, they ride over them all at about 80mph.
We come to Liwonde and turn onto a dirt road between stalls of street-traders and people walking this way and that, and arrive at the Kudya Discovery Lodge Hotel.
The Kudya Discovery Lodge is African-run and smells of wee. It has a swimming pool but the water is too dirty to see the bottom, and by the pool is a bar, a dark and dingy shed where your seating is upturned beer crates.
The setting is wonderful and we go to the ‘Hippo Bar’ which has circular openings on three sides giving a panoramic view of the garden and the Shire River, with cool breezes while you swallow your drink.
But the seats in the bar have faded covers stamped: ‘Kudya Discovery Lodge, Liwonde’ and they are not all in position, some of the backs lying upturned on the seats.
The ambiance is dark, not helped by the lighting which consists of a number of 60-watt bulbs held at the end of cables dangling from the ceiling, some with lampshades some not, some working some not.
Each beer you buy and every meal you take, including breakfast, has to be paid for individually to the waiter, which meant that both he and I very soon ran short of change.
We weren’t too sure about dinner but they seemed to be expecting us in the dining room so there we went for chambo and chips. Chambo is a Lake Malawi fish. It was not clear to us whether chambo was a particular type of fish or a generic name for a fish-shaped fish. We have subsequently discovered from Islam Online of all places that chambo is a type of fish, that chambo and chips is one of Malawi’s popular dishes and visitors are told that they have not visited Malawi if they have not tasted chambo, ‘which graces the menu of almost every restaurant, lodge and hotel in the country’.
Islam Online also tells us that in 2003 the stocks of chambo were diminishing alarmingly, mainly through overfishing, and that there was a ten-year strategic plan in place to ensure their survival. News from Africa also reports this story. In 2008, Goliath Business News reported that the authorities were still struggling to restore chambo stocks – getting nowhere by implication. Various other reports, eg IPS indicate that Malawi has an environmental challenge on its hands that it is failing to deal with effectively, or at all. [Next political . . .]
The chambo we are served tastes OK, probably better for having been well salted, and the chips taste like chip shop chips of the 1950s, possibly cooked in lard?, so we ask for a second helping. Malawians must think the Brits gross, for finishing a meal and then asking for chips.
Dessert is lemon pancake or ‘white cake’. We try one of each.
The lemon pancake tastes like those that mother used to make, simply a thin pancake with lemon juice and sugar on. The white cake is a plain, bready, cup cake.
We go to bed in a philosophical frame of mind, having cold-showered – no hot water – and switched of the clattering wall fan – we have already changed rooms because the wall fan was not working in their original choice for us. At least tomorrow morning’s boat is booked. A man came to check if we needed one, then a lady with an English accent phoned to say, no problem.
The story continues with By Boat to the Mvuu Camp Lodge.


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