Kate Turkington downs a pint in one of Africa’s smallest, friendliest and least discovered countries – Malawi.
I think this may be the first time in a very long and very far-flung travelling career that I find myself sitting with a beer in one hand and a roasted dried mouse in the other. The beer is one of Malawi’s best; ‘Kuche, Kuche’ (which means ‘until dawn’). Thankfully, however, too many buzzing mozzies will drive us away from this spot long before dawn and the prospect of more charred rodents. (It’s hard to refuse a barbequed mouse when offered so charmingly by a smiling, expectant Malawian.)
The River Shire (pronounced ‘Shirra’) is huge, certainly on a par with its better-known neighbour, the Zambezi, which the Shire joins before entering the Indian Ocean in neighbouring Mozambique. Huge also are the Shire’s crocs, 65 million years of evolution producing a pea-like brain and total reflexiveness. Let an unwary antelope, monkey or bird stray within reach of these lightning, snapping jaws, and it’s instant oblivion.
I’m staying at Mvuu Lodge, in a comfortable tent with a wooden deck jutting out over the reeds and riverbed, surrounded by fever trees and baobabs wearing their bright green springtime leaves, like so many Ugly Sisters now getting into their finery for the Palace Ball. I watch the moon rising from my gently swinging hammock on the deck, as the sun and the toasted mouse go down.
That first night I’m sure there is a herd of elephant, or at least two or three hippos in front of the tent, because the splashing is so loud and continuous. However, when I peer over the railing with my torch, I see not paddling pachyderms but a shoal of medium-sized fishes, silver in the moonlight, leaping in a perfect arch out of the river. Behind them, neck curved in another perfect arch, are the jaws of a large crocodile, which gulps the lot in mid-air. This process is repeated until dawn, when one of the best bird choirs in Africa erupts in splendid song.
Mvuu is the place for bird specials, so if that Angola pitta, Bohm’s bee-eater, palmnut vulture, spurwing lapwing or collared palm thrush have been evading you, you’ll practically fall over them in and around this delightful little bush camp. We drove to Mvuu from Blantyre, in Malawi’s south, past red mahogany trees, tea and tobacco plantations, rows of wooden carvings, bananas drying under mounds of dusty palm leaves, piles of second-hand clothes for sale beside the road, signs advertising everything from ‘First Hand, Second Hand Shop’ and ‘The Best Fairness Cream in the World’ to ‘Drive Safely Always’ and the ubiquitous ‘Kuche Kuche’.
As we drove further north towards Mvuu, dozens of tiny mosques, reminding us that this was once a busy and prosperous slave-trade route, mushroom between the Borassu palms, the heavily laden mango trees, and some rival Christian churches. Small faces oozing with mango juice smile at us, and bicycle taxis, some with passengers perched on the cushioned seat behind the driver, wobble by. A gleaming white 4X4 rushes by with two sleek Europeans munching chocolate bars, ensconced safely behind air-con and closed windows. Its sides bear the legend ‘Malawi Famine Control’.