Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Malawi – 19th Century Football in a 21st Century Arena

April 29

Hello everyone!

100 is often a good number in sport. Scoring a century in cricket draws great acclaim; 100 is seen as the benchmark 3-dart average for a professional player. Being ranked the 100th best country in the world at a sport, however, isn’t something to shout about.



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Malawi’s national team certainly haven’t had their share of success. Ever. The ‘Flames’, as they are known, have qualified just twice for their continental football tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations. They were knocked out of qualifying for the next World Cup in the very first stage of qualification, along with other football luminaries such as Mauritius, Somalia and Central African Republic.

Malawi's old, flag, used between 2010 and 2012, was
the only one available outside the stadium

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Natives see their football team – or more specifically, the administration running football in their country – as a very bad joke. This was made evident recently when Malawi almost withdrew from Africa’s secondary continental competition, stating that they didn’t have enough money to participate.

BBC reporting the withdrawal, which was partly due to
a disagreement with the government over hiring a foreign coach

Money was miraculously found (no easy feat in a country currently dealing with a major corruption scandal called ‘Cashgate’) and Malawi were entered into the qualifying stages of an event I’ve never heard of. Having read up on it, I think it’s a great idea. It’s a tournament played between national teams, with the catch being that no expatriate players can take part. It encourages players from their local league to take centre stage, which is great considering the talent drain which has happened from Africa over the last 20 years.

Africa's version of UEFA is based in Egypt


Malawi were deemed rubbish enough to be placed in the very first round of regional qualifying, to play Madagascar. Disappointingly, their nickname was nothing to do with lemurs, instead being Barea, a type of zebu. I had to Google both.

Zebus are the only type of cattle that lives in
tropical rainforests

The less tropical surroundings of Lilongwe's fancy new stadium
The second leg of this titanic match-up was Malawi’s first FIFA-recognised game in their new national stadium. If you’ve followed my previous blogs, it’s the spaceship that can be seen from our back garden.

View of the Bingu National Stadium from our garden in August 2016
We took the opportunity to check out the Bingu National Stadium (named, as many things are here, after the former President whose brother currently runs the country) at close quarters.

The stadium doubles up as an athletics arena
The Chinese-funded stadium has been beset with problems since construction started, ranging from power outages to some people stealing the copper wiring from the electrics. It does look, however, like it belongs in the 21st century.
An example of Chinese influence

The spaceship has landed!
Unfortunately, the football team and its administration seem stuck in the dark ages. The lack of moveable posts in the stadium meant that the national team actually came to train at our school earlier in the week.
This photo followed a rather bizarre training drill involving
doing diving headers from 6 inches off the floor
The stadium is within walking distance of our house. There is a car park for people to use, though many drivers seem to prefer the side of the road…

Parking: anything goes
The stadium was probably one-third full to its 41,000 capacity. Tickets are 2,000 MWK (£2) but when the average monthly wage is 15,000 MWK, it’s quite a significant outlay. Sensibly, most people choose to sit in the shade.

Our second half view - we were just to the right of the large
green sign for the first half

Open stand - unless you looked foreign, in which case you
were moved into a nicer seating area
The stadium experience in itself was particularly interesting. Sights in the stands included a man selling boiled eggs, a man dressed in full chef’s garb, and another entrepreneur carrying a camera and printer to take instant photos for supporters.

The man would often wait for the egg to have been eaten and
collect the shell from the consumer

Fresh from the restaurant, obviously
Then there’s the atmosphere. Vuvuzelas blaring. Anthems being loudly and proudly sung.

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The match itself was fast-paced, with the lack of qualify reflecting both team’s position far down the world rankings. It was almost comical watching the number of air kicks, shanks and misplaced passes. Malawi’s fear of shooting ended up costing them, with a 1-0 defeat to Madagascar resulting in them – along with the Seychelles – being the first teams eliminated from their region. In spite of this, the fans were still supportive of both the team and their new manager.


Madagascar's team talk must have been inspiring -
they scored minutes after the restart
The stadium, an unnecessary extravagance in a country beset with many other problems, would grace anywhere in the world. Malawi’s football team…wouldn’t. The Flames have been extinguished from continental competition for another year.

Malawi supporters flock out of the stadium


Love you all,

Matt

Monday, 24 April 2017

Zambia – The Bloke That Bungees at The Smoke That Thunders

April 13-14

Hello everyone!

Africa isn’t the most visited continent and people who do venture out here are often attracted by the big hitters: The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Serengeti National Park…and Mosi-oa-Tunga. You may not know the latter by its local title but you will have definitely heard of its other moniker.



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Victoria Falls.

Falling - well, swinging - next to the falls

The Smoke That Thunders...and gets you very wet!

Acting as the most spectacular part of the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Africa’s most iconic water drop is a simply incredible thing to witness. Sometimes you get enveloped in the surprisingly warm mist, unable to see feet in front of you. Then the fog will suddenly disperse, leaving you with an awesome sight.

Panorama from Devil's Bridge


Rainbows abound in the mist

Not just incredible to see, either. Mosi-oa-Tunga translates as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ and it is a very apt description of the volume of the waterfalls.


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The other volume is also staggering at this time of year. At its peak, which is just about now, a simply ludicrous 500 million litres of water splashes and sloshes over the edge every minute. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to South Africa’s water usage in an entire day. Some of that gets you very wet as you cross a small bridge to get a better view, such is the velocity of the water and the swirl of the wind.

An imperious sight

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They are an awe-inspiring sight. It’s little wonder that David Livingstone, often associated with being the first European to see them, described the world’s longest continuous curtain of water as ‘the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa’. The rainbows, appearing from the mist, were magical.



Livingstone embarked on a journey up the Zambezi river, which includes the falls, in 1858. It is a beautiful, wide river, shimmering blue under an often cloudless sky. The clouds that rise from it is the 'smoke' - the magical mist produced from the sheer and sudden drop.

The Zambezi is Africa's fourth-longest river

What seems like low cloud is actually the 'smoke' from the falls

The sun sets in the opposite direction to the falls. We had a spectacular sunset on our first night; unfortunately, the 'sunset cruise' we took on the final night quickly turned into a thunder and lightning cruise. 

Africa's longest East-flowing river ends in the Indian Ocean

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Some nods to Livingstone’s era are prevalent in the area, such as the main town on the Zambian side being named in his honour. Britishness is certainly the order of the day at the eponymous hotel, situated with a view of the smoke from their pristine green lawn. Afternoon tea here was a pleasant though exorbitant affair. Personally, I hope they invest some of my $35 into making more efficient fans to keep you cool on a sunny Zambian afternoon. I guess you pay for the location – and the free-roaming zebras – as much as the cake.

A far cry from the campsite where we were staying...

Scone, dear?

A friendly member of the campgrounds

Of course, times have changed since then. Nowadays the thunder of the falls is occasionally drowned out by the buzzing of microlights and the whirring of helicopters, offering fantastic views of the waterfall and the Zambezi above and below. On ground level, my first impression was that there was a fire in the distance. This is actually the ‘smoke’ – the mist emanating from Victoria Falls many kilometres away.


Not a fire - the smoke from Victoria Falls

You can also get some spectacular views without your feet leaving the ground. The boiling pot, a strange occurrence at river level where the currents clash and merge to form a series of whizzing whirlpools, gives you a better idea of the river’s speed. It’s lovely when the mist from the falls moves through the rift, creating vivid rainbows. A beautiful sight.

The bridge from river level

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The main border crossing between Zim-Zam is also here: the Victoria Falls Bridge. Built in 1905 and standing 128 metres above the rushing water of the Zambezi, it also gives you a great view of the murky mist generated by the power of the waterfall.

Zambia is on the left, Zimbabwe is on the right

Rainbows transcend borders!

The bridge also serves as a focal point for thrill-seekers. You can zipline…


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…take a rope swing…



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…and, most breathtakingly, bungee jump head-first towards the rapid river below…


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Channelling my inner YOLO (Google it if you don’t know), I decided to try all three in that order. I’d actually decided to do the bungee months in advance. Remarkably, I didn’t feel any nerves until right before the final fling. There weren’t any thoughts of backing out, but the combination of your legs being tied together and the bridge crew pushing you off makes any fear pointless.

What the picture doesn't show: nerves!

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As you can see from the video, I was tossed around like a rag doll after the end of the initial leap. The first second-and-a-half was exhilarating, mainly because I found it difficult to process the fact that I was hurtling vertically 111m towards impending doom. After that it was a combination of disorientating, painful and generally unenjoyable until I was the right way up again.

Twiglet legs, as my brother so beautifully described me,
jumping into the Rift Valley

You spend about a minute upside-down before being hauled up

I much preferred the rope swing, which essentially is the same concept but being the right way up. Swinging like Tarzan (minus the arms), dropping 70 metres towards the Zambezi was a simply amazing, white-knuckle adventure.

Very enjoyable, despite the face suggesting otherwise

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The zipline, being gentler than the other two heart-stoppers, allowed me to take in a gorgeous view of the river, bridge and falls.

The zip line goes from the Zambian cliff to the bridge

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Victoria Falls is on many people's bucket list as a place to visit. Having visited, I can tell you that you should bump it up towards the top. The waterfalls have a stunning impact on all of your senses: Mosi-oa-Tunga is certainly an apt description. In high water season, they are breathtaking. If they don't, there are other ways for Victoria Falls to take your breath away...



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Love you all


Matt

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Zambia – Pride March

April 9-10

Hello everyone!

South Luangwa National Park allows you to get up close and personal with some of Africa’s most amazing animals, including the ‘King of the Jungle’: the lion. Whether you want to be this close to a whole pride of one of the world’s most ferocious mammals is for you to decide…

In the jungle, the mighty jungle...

...the lion sleeps tonight...
Unlike the elusive leopard, we saw lions on each of our four visits to South Luangwa. Each showed different behaviours and came with their own degree of awe/trepidation (delete as appropriate to you).

A lioness crossing the road

A lion dozing after a filling meal


I was within five metres of lions in Etosha National Park in Namibia. The most important difference between there and South Luangwa – and the reason for an elevated heart rate in the latter – was the vehicle in which we were driving. I guess you’d argue that a car without windows, doors or much protection at all is a truer game drive experience, allowing you to get within touching distance of some rather imposing predators. The obvious counter to that is that they can easily touch you, too.

Most cars in South Luangwa look like this -
note the lack of windows!

The drivers get up close to the wild animals in the park


The first time we encountered the leo panthera in South Luangwa was on a beautiful morning, with a cloudless, baby blue sky complementing the stunning variety of greenery growing tall from the dusty floor. We were informed that a male lion was hiding in a bush, protecting his pack’s recent kill.

Blood from the unfortunate zebra

Our driver, who seemed to possess a complete disregard for human safety and respect for sleeping lions, decided to swerve our car across the long grass, right to the edge of the bush, before inexplicably turning off the engine. Less than two metres from our car was the male, lying horizontally with his rear facing us and panting at an alarming rate. This was either due to feeling hot or feeling full from the amount of zebra he has consumed. Either way, something annoyed him and he stirred, lifting his majestic mane and staring at…me. Though it felt like longer, he almost immediately returned to his slumbering position in the shade.

The male hiding in the bushes

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Males are rarely if ever involved in the hunt so the handiwork of bringing the zebra back to base must have been done by a lioness. She arrived on the scene soon after, casually crossing the road before moving towards the carcass.


The lioness going to join her man in the bushes

Our driver once again wanted to give us a better view, meaning he started driving closer to the sleek lioness. Initially startled, she then elegantly leapt over the carcass, which the lions seemed to have eaten from the behind judging from the massive hole, before eyeing us nervously from behind the remains. Her eyes, like the male, were a beautiful yellow. Once again, we were within 10 feet of a lion.

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The following morning, we returned to this road and found the same lion panting violently whilst on its side. The difference this time was that he was in full vision on the side of the road, rather than in the thicket of the bush.

The zebra carcass, with a rather large hole in its behind

Greedy Simba!
Looking at his stomach, which looked as if it has been inflated by a bicycle pump, it was clear that our male had had his fill of zebra meat. The drivers of many jeeps were aware of the fact that he was simply too tired to move, allowing all of our eager eyes to see the lion’s handsome body and face from a minimal distance.

Lions are the only big cats which have manes

You can see from the blood around his mouth that this lion
ate heartily during the night
The lioness was more mobile, though seemed to be limping as the she crossed back to where she has emanated from the previous day.

The lioness was struggling to put pressure on one of her rear legs

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Fittingly, lions were the final major animal was laid our eyes upon in South Luangwa. The whole pride were out in force, stalking silently in the distant dark. Clearly more meat was needed after the denouement of the zebra feast.

The pride are towards the back of the picture 

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This wasn’t the first time we’d seen the lions after sunset. After driving around more distant parts of the park to see different animals, we returned to the zebra cadaver and found the male and female lying down, facing each other.

Male and female, seemingly in conversation

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No other lion was with them at this point. This is because they were all up the road. We had been informed that lions often use the road during the wet season as the bush is too thick to easily walk through – this was the spectacular result.

Walking in a single line, taking up the whole road, are
six lions, marching in step
The male in the group broke off, yawned as if bored with the attention of numerous spotlights, and then relieved himself before rejoining what had now become a single file line.

A male lion heading off to go potty

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Our driver used this opportunity to undertake all of the other cars, which were fixated on the male, and get ahead of the lions. This meant that the lions were about to walk past us.

A male lion on the march, about two metres away from our
open car
To be that close to these marching lions, with minimal protection, was quite the adrenaline rush. It was a little bit scary, though the focus in their eyes was such that they weren’t going to be distracted from their aim, whatever that was, by mere humans.

A lioness stops to observe her surroundings -
thankfully, she didn't observe us in detail

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The lions are clearly used to the attention as well. One lioness took a break to lie in the middle of the road and soak up all the adulation and camera clicks.

A lioness stretching in the middle of the road

After investigating down a road to the right for a short time, the lions returned to the main road and marched on towards the dead zebra. We were told that they were in the same pride as those lions we had seen previously so no fight for food was going to happen.

Wrong turn!

You could argue that it isn’t fair or right to get this close to lions. Certainly, we learnt our lesson when it came to doing the same with elephants on our last drive. The difference here was that the lions weren’t remotely phased unless it directly impacted on their resting or feeding. In fact, it seemed that they almost revelled in the spotlight. The arrogant strut betrayed an utter confidence in their position as Kings and Queens of the Jungle. I feel very lucky to have witnessed something so awe-inspiring and magical as that night march at close quarters. My heart rate has just about recovered!


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Love you all


Matt