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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE -

Ex­pert Africa has an 11day south­ern Malawi tour in­clud­ing the Zomba plateau, Li­wonde Na­tional Park and a lux­ury lake­side lodge; the dry sea­son, from May to Septem­ber, is best for game view­ing. More: ex­pertafrica.com. Aus­tralian-based op­er­a­tors that fea­ture Malawi in their sa­fari pro­grams in­clude The Clas­sic Sa­fari Com­pany. More: clas­sic­sa­fari com­pany.com.au. African Parks is a non­profit con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion re­spon­si­ble for the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and long-term man­age­ment of na­tional parks in part­ner­ship with gov­ern­ments and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. More: african-parks.org. • malaw­i­tourism.com Li­wonde. Krisz­tian Gy­ongyi, a Hun­gar­ian ecol­o­gist su­per­vis­ing the rhino con­ser­va­tion project, is hugely en­cour­aged by the African Parks ini­tia­tive. He is plan­ning to in­tro­duce more rhi­nos to en­hance the ge­netic pool, and says sim­ply, “This place is a na­tional trea­sure.”

The hip­pos would prob­a­bly agree, al­though hear­ing them shuf­fling and grunt­ing around the lodge at night can be un­nerv­ing at first. Then you get used to it, and look for­ward to the break­fast en­ter­tain­ment of swal­lows swarm­ing around gi­ant baobab trees, and wait­ers with cat­a­pults chas­ing ma­raud­ing vervet mon­keys.

A mem­ory that lingers is the haunt­ing whistle of a lit­tle bird called the trop­i­cal boubou echo­ing in the for­est at dawn. It is like a call from the spirit world. Many lo­cal vil­lagers have been sum­moned to that world pre­ma­turely af­ter close en­coun­ters with hip­pos and croc­o­diles. The golden rules are never to come be­tween a hippo and the river … and don’t even think about go­ing for a swim.

There are no such haz­ards a few kilo­me­tres away on the Zomba plateau, a tow­er­ing 1830m es­carp­ment swathed in ex­u­ber­ant for­est alive with bird­song. Ad­mit­tedly, there are leop­ards, but they keep pretty much to them­selves. Tom and Petal, an en­ter­pris­ing Bri­tish cou­ple who run Zomba For­est Lodge half­way up the moun­tain, usu­ally can tell when there is a big cat around. “If the dogs sniff the air and refuse to go out, we know there is a leop­ard in the woods,” Tom says.

The big at­trac­tion of the es­carp­ment is hik­ing trails that climb through wood­lands that are a nat­u­ral aviary, filled with melo­di­ous tweet­ing, chirrup­ing and war­bling, to panora­mas of south­ern Malawi, a rum­pled patch­work of green land and woods, and trails of red earth me­an­der­ing to far hori­zons. The first Euro­pean be­lieved to have mar­velled at the views in 1859 was David Liv­ing­stone, and Tom and Petal’s lodge in an Afro-mon­tane cloud for­est is also a foot­note to his­tory. It was built in 1940 as a re­tire­ment home for Dr G Mered­ith, who served as med­i­cal of­fi­cer on the ship that won the first naval en­gage­ment of World War I.

That brief bat­tle took place on Lake Malawi in 1914 when SS Gwen­dolen, com­manded by Cap­tain Ed­mund Rhoades, sank the Ger­man steamship Her­mann von Wiss­mann, which was un­der the com­mand of a friend and for­mer drink­ing part­ner. The Ger­man cap­tain was un­der­stand­ably fu­ri­ous, be­cause he was un­aware the war had be­gun. The gun that sank the Her­mann stands as a mon­u­ment to Bri­tish der­ring-do on a traf­fic cir­cle in the town of Man­gochi, south of the lake, be­neath a red brick clock tower ded­i­cated to Queen Vic­to­ria. It is pointed out to me by my driver and guide, a gen­tle, cour­te­ous man named Ev­er­last­ing Nyirenda, a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller who is a fund of knowl­edge on the his­tory and folk­lore of his coun­try. I learn how early postal de­liv­er­ies were dis­rupted by lions and croc­o­diles eat­ing the post­men, and hear old tales of a woman who beat a lion to death with a cook­ing im­ple­ment and how ants once killed an ele­phant.

My fi­nal and most ex­otic wildlife en­counter oc­curs in Lake Malawi, when I take a speed­boat to a small is­land to swim with the en­demic blue ze­bras ( May­lan­dia callainos). They are lit­tle cobalt blue and black striped fish, mem­bers of a perch-like fam­ily called Cich­li­dae, that are par­tial to bread­crumbs.

When I en­ter the wa­ter with mask and snorkel and the boat­man scat­ters crumbs around me, I am en­veloped in a swirling cloud of blue ze­bras that spend the next halfhour swim­ming along with me. The calm, silent wa­ter and the glit­ter­ing, slow-mov­ing cur­tain of fish im­bues a deep sense of con­tent­ment, like aquatic yoga.

Nyirenda is typ­i­cal of the hos­pitable peo­ple of a coun­try that is friendly and safe, with a dis­tinctly chilled vibe. As a re­sult, Malawi has been la­belled rather dis­parag­ingly as “Africa for be­gin­ners”. Maybe. But it is real Africa, with nat­u­ral at­trac­tions that arouse a sense of free­dom and ad­ven­ture. Just ask the lions.

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