Malawi Kimberley Burnett

Little-known country a safe tourism bet

WHEN planning your African holiday itinerary, Malawi mightn't readily come to mind, but it is a place to consider if you wish to experience a side of Africa not far removed from the Africa in which David Livingstone roamed in the mid-19th century.

The thatch-roof mud huts might have given way to mudbrick huts with thatch (sometimes corrugated iron) roof, but in many parts of rural Malawi, little has changed in centuries, though gone are the slave traders and colonialists.

(David Livingstone helped arouse world indignation against the 600-year long slave trade that plagued this area).

With a Western-leaning democracy overseeing government, Malawi is one of the safer countries of Africa in which Westerners can travel, though I saw few tourists on my recent Malawian odyssey.

I travelled to Malawi with a student/staff working party from Nambour Christian College, who had given up their mid-year holidays to work at a children's home and two schools largely funded by the Sunshine Coast's Neighbours Aid Community Stores.

Many of the children who attend these schools are orphans and who otherwise face a bleak future. At the schools the orphans and other village children are well-fed, clothed and educated.

Support from Australia also has helped to build accommodation, class rooms, a medical centre, toilet blocks and other facilities, as well as sink a well which is used by all nearby villagers. The school children appear healthy, happy and well-cared for.

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We stayed in the commercial capital Blantyre (the seat of government is at Lilongwe), a bustling city and curious mix of Third World and Modern World features - a couple of modern supermarkets, and roadside vendors hawking almost anything you can imagine.

We quickly learned to adapt to irregular water and electricity supply, and to frequently having our queries greeted with "we have a problem" - but this becomes part of experiencing life The African Way.

Every village, and practically every house, is a marketplace, where farm produce and other goods are offered.

The tomatoes, displayed in artistic mounds, are everywhere, and are to die for; they have flavour which long ago disappeared from the tables of Australian homes.

Papaw trees seem to grow strong and disease-free, and produce large fruit that drip with taste and texture, and judging by the all-pervasive mango tree, in season the markets offer mountains of mangoes.

Other farm produce available at the markets, at prices that we haven't seen in Australia for a long time, include bananas (with flavour), red onions, cabbage, sweet potatoes, chilli, peas, beans, eggs and live chickens. In one village I saw the finest maize crop I have ever seen, companion-planted with climbing beans.

The villagers' staple is Sima (a porridge made from ground white maize).

Every villager has his maize plot, cultivated by hand and sometimes grown even on road verges.

Most villages, still ruled over by chiefs, have a couple of cows supplying milk to the village, along with pigs, chickens and in some cases goats.

At Samuti, NACS has built a fish farm, which it keeps stocked with fingerlings, and which helps provide protein for the villagers, and efforts have been made to introduce mushroom production.

Curiously, most domestic animals in Malawi are in miniature - small pigs, small cattle, small goats - all easy to manage for the village animal husbandry.

Malawi's main export earners are tea (we travelled every day through a 60-year-old tea plantation), coffee, tobacco, cotton and sugarcane.

The tea is of excellent quality, though I didn't get to sample the coffee. Sugar cane is grown on expansive South African-owned plantations on the Shire ("Shiree") River flood plain.

Wherever we travelled, there were reminiscences of Australia - eucalypts growing everywhere and supporting the sawmill industry, providing rough timber for hut construction, and used as firewood.

We also saw silky oak (especially growing among the tea plants), macadamia nuts and bottle brush.

The impact of early English and Scottish Christian missionaries is not lost on the visitor; you see churches everywhere, mostly humble buildings of mud brick construction, though Zomba has an impressive Roman Catholic cathedral.

Nevertheless, mosques also dot the landscape (there is a large Asian quarter in Blantyre) though Christians and Moslems seem to live in relative harmony.

On Sunday mornings, the streets are almost deserted, and the churches pulsate with an African brand of Christian music and rousing preaching.

On your road trips, you are likely to encounter regular police roadblocks, set up most likely to counter child trafficking (the new slavery, where children are sold as farm labourers, or sent to South Africa, the Middle East and Europe as sex slaves), which seems a serious problem in Malawi.

The police are courteous and friendly, and unlike some other parts of Africa, do not use their authority to extract bribes.

Blantyre is a short drive from Africa's famous Rift Valley, at the bottom of which is the majestic Shire River, which joins the Zambesi before flowing into the Indian Ocean.

Game parks along the Shire plain offer a close-up of African bush wildlife.

We stayed at Nyala Lodge, where the lodge and accommodation are brilliant. Antelope, impala and warthog came in to drink at a waterhole a couple of hundred metres from the lodge observation deck.

An early morning walk, complete with armed ranger, had us in pursuit of a herd of buffalo.

Though we didn't catch up with them (we heard them in the distance), we did see great clusters of impala, antelope, baboons and monkeys.

And who could forget the braai under the Southern Cross on a clear, crisp African night, with the sounds of the wild animals and birds emanating from the scrub nearby.

We moved on to Majete National Park, and while the setting is not quite as magical as at Nyala, the wild animals are more profuse. The ubiquitous "waterhole in front of the lodge" drew a steady stream of wildlife (floodlit at night).

The terrain in this park is not unlike parts of the Sunshine Coast hinterland - low hills and valleys, rich with vegetation - but the difference is with the wildlife. We saw impala, nyala, warthog, sable antelope, waterbuck, zebra and elephant.

Our ranger-led early morning open-truck tour took us down to the mighty Shire River where hippopotamus lounged in the shallows, shadowed by crocodiles who feed on the fish attracted by the hippo.

The day's "Malawi Moment" was when a bull elephant wandered between our huts and down to the waterhole. Marula (fruit) season was in full swing, and after a drink the elephant proceeded to vacuum up marula from around out lodge, while we watched and photographed from a discreet few metres distance (behind a wall).

We were told the marula makes him a bit tipsy, the evidence of which is that he stands on three legs, dribbles from his trunk while his stomach growls can be heard from 100 metres away.

Next morning, there he was, at the waterhole on three legs, dribbling from his trunk.

Thankfully, we were a bit too far away to be disturbed by his growling stomach.

My abiding memories of Malawi comprise two streams and a pool.

Wherever you travel, by day or by night, city or country, there are two streams of humanity - people walking on both sides of the roads and highways. Some carry huge loads on their heads, others just walk.

In the villages, whenever you stop, you are immediately surrounded by a pool of faces - the faces of small children.

Many young women have given birth to two children by the time they reach the age of 17, and of those children only about 50% will survive to reach their fifth birthday.

To visit Malawi is confronting; you encounter extreme poverty, strange sights and strange smells.

But you also encounter happy children, happy people and The African Way, which is sufficient to broaden the mind of any Aussie.