I first set foot in Africa in 1992 when I took advantage of some cheap standby seats on the weekly charter flight to Mombasa operated by the worldwide tour operator that I worked for. The plan for a week lazing on a beach quickly evolved as it turned out I have zero capacity for doing absolutely nothing and a short safari to Tsavo West was booked. We travelled on bumpy dusty roads in a packed minibus and for long stretches saw nothing but my interest was piqued and I loved the sense of anticipation. What was hiding behind the next tree or bush? When we eventually came across a sole lioness taking shade under a tree, I didn’t see the other (twenty or so!) vehicles or hear the noisy chatter from the other tourists, all I could think was … there’s a lion… it’s lying just metres from me…….and there are no fences! That moment stayed with me and for a long time after my return, my thoughts would often wander to the savannah and that lion.
It took me several years to get back to Africa but my next trip was totally different and a trip that really ignited my deep love affair with the continent. I joined an overland adventure group to Malawi and Zambia and as soon as I exited the aircraft in Lilongwe, I knew that this African adventure was going to be different. It was October and hot; a deep all-consuming heat that I had never experienced before, there was a different smell in the air seemingly rising from the scorched orange earth and never had I seen such vibrant colours with pink, red and purple bougainvilleas everywhere.
I was introduced to new ways of game viewing; a boat trip on the Shire River bringing us up close and personal to a huge bull elephant, the anticipation and exhilaration of a night drive spent trying, unsuccessfully, to track a leopard we could hear coughing, and setting out on foot in the South Luangwa, the home of the walking safari. All fantastic experiences with amazing game viewing but it was the quieter moments away from the bush that left just as large an impression on me.
On an afternoon game drive we stopped the vehicle as dusk approached and sat quietly in the middle of a vlei. The silence was broken by birdsong in the woodlands to our left to be followed by a bird singing in the tree line to our right. With each call being identified by our guide, the evening chorus continued and to this day it is a sound that fills me with a sense of well-being and of a day well spent.
Having been used to the lakes and lochs of the British Isles, Lake Malawi was a revelation; more of an inland sea than a lake, fringed with sandy beaches and offering an introduction to another new world, this time beneath the waves. We spent an afternoon snorkelling in what, to me, felt like an aquarium. It is said that Lake Malawi is home to more species of fish than any other lake in the world, including some 700 different species of cichlid, and it was easy to believe this, as what seemed like hundreds of these delightful small fish, of every colour you can imagine, fluttered and darted beneath us in crystal clear waters. The lake had not finished showing off that day and as we slowly made our way back to shore on our small boat, a fish eagle swooped and then flew off towards the sunset with a fish firmly held in its talons. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Lake Malawi is often referred to as a “Lake of Stars”, referring to the lights seen from the thousands of fishing boats on the water at night but it is the memory of the celestial stars that stayed with me. Late at night, we sat on the beach in front of our tents chewing the fat and putting the worlds to right but our conversation dwindled to silence as the sky above transformed into a blaze of twinkling light. It was the first time I had seen such a vast African night sky and with no light pollution the sight was astounding and I don’t think I have ever had such a clear view of the Milky Way since that night.
Towards the end of the trip, we headed to Mt Mulanje. Known locally as the Island in the Sky and standing at 3000 metres, it is Malawi’s highest peak and we spent a glorious day hiking on the lush vegetated slopes amidst towering cedar trees. In the late afternoon, hot and dusty, we arrived at Likhubula Falls an impressive cascade of water plunging over a rock face into a deep swimming hole. It was the adjacent rock pool that proved too tempting though and in we plunged relishing the cold waters just as much as the cold bottles of beer our clever camp hand had secreted there earlier. We eked out the remains of the day in that pool or lazing on the sun heated rocks and were still there when the sun began to set. I remember going off to sit on my own that afternoon and feeling suffused with happiness; it wasn’t just due to having had a fantastic holiday, it was a feeling of contentment, of peace and of belonging.
For me Africa has always been about more than just the wildlife. It is a sum of so many varied parts; the extraordinary animals of course, but also the warm and gregarious people, always so eager to make your acquaintance and share their stories, the richness of colour, the smells, the breath-taking landscapes and the vast skies.
That afternoon at Likhubula was a moment in time, one never to be repeated but to be often remembered and one that helped set me on course for a love affair with a continent that has lasted thirty years thus far and, I hope, will continue for another thirty.
To read about more or Mary’s adventures across Africa, as well trips from the rest of the team, please visit Our Travels In Africa.