14 August 2009

African Nights

A few days ago we misjudged the distance from the Zambian border to our camp in the South of Malawi and ended up driving at night to get to our destination. It was a harrowing experience. There are endless bicycles on the road, but not one has lights front or back. Of course there are just as many people walking as there are in the daytime, and of course they are wearing dark clothes, and of course no-one carries a torch. There are no street lights anywhere, as there is little electricity, so the nights are pitch black when there isn't a moon, and other cars seem to be reluctant to use their head lights - I can't work that one out, is it to save energy, because they don't work, what? The roads are pretty hazardous in daylight, potholed and unmarked with no hard shoulder, with goats and cows and dogs wandering into the street, with masses of people crossing any which way in the villages and children playing by the roadside. But at night we felt blind and frightened that we would drive off the side of the track or into something - we have even been warned to watch out for elephants, who blend in nicely with the grey tarmac. We are determined not to repeat that particular stupidity. Our second theft happened at night, when we were parked in a hotel camp ground in Maun. Some sticky fingers got into the car through an almost-closed window (open a crack to cool the fridge) feeling for something interesting, but only got away with some bits of cabling from Stuart's camera bag, not the camera or the medical kit that lay below it. They could have opened the locked car, but were obviously worried about making too much noise. But not all nights are fraught with imminent danger or nuisance. At Livingstone a few weeks ago we saw a lunar rainbow curving into the falls, the white water spawning a milky arc where the full moon's light hit it. It was a perfect geometric shape amidst the chaos of falling water, the mist splashing back up to envelop us, the loud boom of the Smoke That Thunders (its local name) providing an aural backdrop. As far as sounds are concerned, ever since we left Namibia's deserts behind we have been going to sleep to the snorting of hippos proclaiming their territory, although we have not seen a hippo at night. They like to stay in the water or go off to graze when it is cool in the dark. We have listened to baboons loudly telling each other to shut up all night long like a rowdy group of drunkards in a dormitory, after giving us the fight of our lives at Third Bridge camp in Moremi (I guess we shouldn't have parked under their sleeping tree) We have seen jackals skirting the tents looking for shoes left outside tents and had our bag handles chewed off by them when the bag was too heavy to drag off, and we have watched elephants working off their testosterone on each other and on passing rhinos in Etosha. The best animal encounter by far came one night a few days ago when we woke up at 1 am to the sound of munching and shuffling to find a group of elephants next to our roof tent (hooray for roof tents!) crunching their way around the trees and tents in their desire to pick up the very last of the elephant biscuits - seeds that drop off the trees here, big spirally pods filled with protein goodness. A large specimen walked right past us as we held our breath in an attempt not to make a sound, watching him through the mosquito netting as he shambled past us at eye level. Eventually the grey shadowy shapes disappeared, but it was a most dream-like encounter.

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