Monday, 12 June 2017

Malawi – Running Wild

May 21-28

Hello everyone!

Malawi is a great place for people who like being outdoors. This is partly because regular power cuts (though these have lessened significantly since the rains arrived) stop you from spending all of your spare time watching TV or staring at a computer screen, but it is also because the weather is wonderful. It’s perfect for sporting pursuits.

Lilongwe Colour Run

Lilongwe Triathlon

May is a particularly pleasant month: the threat of rain has gone and the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. One less excuse for avoiding the Lilongwe Triathlon.

May is the first month of the year in which the
average temperature drops below 20'C

The swimming section took place in our
school's pool
 I’ve done a triathlon before in Kazakhstan but the Lilongwe version was organised more efficiently. Only two people in a swimming lane this time, avoiding the mass pile-up which happened in the Astana pool. Proper distances for a sprint triathlon as well.

Olympic distance triathletes started at 6am - I
was in the pool at 8:30am...

...which meant the Sun was quite
hot by the time I finished!

As my training had been slack/non-existent, my aim was simply to finish. The swim was cold, the bike was surprisingly enjoyable (save for the pothole-heavy hill we had to scale just before returning to transition) and the run was, as expected, the easiest bit. The best part of the run for me was little children sprinting along with me through the suburbs to the south of the school.

Con of using a helmet you're not used
to - you look like an idiot

The run snaked through the southern section of the city

I finished in one hour and forty-two minutes, which I’m happy enough about. Next year I’ve decided to do the Olympic distance, which Hannah completed this time. 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run. Might need to actually train for that one.

Hannah finishing one of her 60 lengths


Hannah finished in under 3 hours, an
amazing achievement

The following Sunday was spent just outside Lilongwe, in the grounds of Kumbali Lodge. This place is famous for being Madonna’s place of rest when she comes to visit and adopt, though among the expat community it’s known as a great place for running and cycling trails.



We had entered a 10km race, which quickly turned into a lot more when my group got confused by the markings.

The countryside at Kumbali

This event, however, was all about the Colour Run which happened after. This was lots of fun, especially when many children from my class magically appeared, intent on getting one over on their teacher just before the end of the school year.

Clothes quickly changed from white to rainbow colours


The girl on the left, from my class, getting her revenge
at the end of the Colour Run

Admittedly, the two events were expat-heavy, probably due to the fact that they were on Sundays and the entry fees constituted a large percentage of the average monthly wage. In spite of this, it was nice to see that Lilongwe can put on events like this which have a high turnout of people and are very enjoyable to participate in.




Love you all


Matt

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