Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Malawi – More tea, vicar?

June 20-21

Hello everyone!

For many reasons, Malawi isn’t a major global trader. One particular cause is its relatively simple – and thus cheap – resources. Malawi’s main trading resource is raw tobacco, which garners $702million annually. Tobacco makes up more than 50% of the country’s entire export portfolio. Other resources emanating from Malawi include sugar, cotton and tea, which has been grown in the southern region of the country for a long time.

Fields and fields of tea!

Lots of different green hues are visible at Satemwa

We visited a prestigious tea estate, Satemwa, in the hills south of Blantyre and west of Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest peak. The estate was established in 1923, with the factory starting to produce tea for the world in 1937. Satemwa consists of roughly 900 hectares of tea and 50 hectares of coffee.

One of the tea division of the estate

Including the off-road, 4x4 section, it's just under an hour
from Blantyre

You may not have heard of the estate (I certainly hadn’t), but the probability that you have sampled some of their products is high. Some of the tea leaves which go through a process known in the business as CTC (crush, tear, curl) have ended up in global brands around the world such as PG tips, Lipton, Tetleys and 5 Roses. Their artisanal hand-made range of teas have been used in restaurants such as Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck.

Some of these leaves may power your next tea break...

We didn’t have sufficient time to visit the factory or take a proper tea tour of the estate. What you can do is stay in the home of the family who originally set up the estate, MacLean Kay. He built Huntingdon House in 1935. As you can see, it’s rather…posh.

The exterior of Huntingdon House

My room: huge

We did sample their teas when treating ourselves to afternoon tea on their lovely, large lawn. They also made tea-based cocktails; I stuck to the delicious Mo-Tea-Too.

Perfect for when you've had to skip lunch...

Mum and Dad enjoying the civilisation of
Malawian afternoon tea

The gardens of the house resemble a stereotypical English garden, laden with high bushes and colourful flowers.

Indeed, it struck me as being a colonial experience, particularly on my morning run through the plantation and passing the ramshackle buildings which house the staff. In spite of the clearly visible wealth gap, the workers all waved and said hello as I jogged up and down the hills.

Two walking maps were provided, which
take you through the heart of the estate

In theory, the staff at Satemwa should be treated well. In 2007 it became the first Fairtrade registered tea estate in Malawi. The certification guarantees a minimum price to farmers as well as a financial bonus. Finding this Guardian article a couple of days later, which suggests leading British supermarkets may abandon Fairtrade, was quite concerning.

An internet picture of a worker at Satemwa

After the intensity and excitement of Liwonde National Park, staying at Huntingdon House was a calming experience; a drastic change of pace. I’ll certainly think of Satemwa next time I make a brew.

Sunset at Satemwa

Love you all


Monday, 26 June 2017

Malawi – If you see a crocodile…

June 18-20

...don’t forget to take a photo before you scream!

Hello everyone!

Liwonde: quite the way to introduce my parents to the animals of the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’.



I’ve had visitors in each country I’ve lived in since leaving British shores in late 2009. Some have been friends, some have been strangers. There has always been one constant though: my parents. Brave souls, coming to visit me in some far-flung places.

Eating in a local restaurant in Siheung-si, Korea

On a boat ride along Astana's Ishim river

'White water' rafting in Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
They had been to South Africa but hadn’t had many of the truly African experiences, particularly going on safari. After an introduction to Lilongwe life and a stop at Lake Malawi, we drove to a national park just beyond the lake’s southern tip: Liwonde National Park. The last 15km or so of this drive is very much off-road.

The national park straddles the Shire (SHEE-ray) river, which is the only outlet from the lake. The main accommodation is across the river, which you (not your car) are transported across by boat. This allowed my mum and dad to see one of the ‘Big Five’ in the flesh for the first time. The biggest of them, actually…

The elephant was initially well-camouflaged by the tall grass

An African elephant has ears which resemble
the continent on which it lives
Many of the activities in Liwonde focus on the river. Wildlife is abundant on the banks of the river. There are over 2000 hippos in the park, with the vast majority of them keeping wet and cool in the water.

Hippos spend most of their day in the river

Well, most of them…

This hippo was almost 100 metres inland

A hippo, visible from my chalet
This section of the Shire is quite shallow, allowing the three-ton tanks to run through the river. As you’d imagine, they make quite a splash…

Considering their size, hippos move
surprisingly fast

Another common sight – though well camouflaged – is the fearsome crocodile, who certainly doesn’t make a hippo-style din when slinking into the Shire. The way they move – and don’t move – is incredibly menacing.

Many crocodiles along the Shire are in excess of 4 metres long

What makes Liwonde a particularly special park in Malawi is the variety of birds. Over 380 have been recorded within the 548km2 park area. Along the river, we spotted fish eagles and starlings, whilst inland we saw two of my favourites: the green bee-eater and the lilac-breasted roller. Their vivid colours are beautiful.

Fish eagles, perfectly still on a branch

There is a bee-eater somewhere in this picture,
 I promise!
When leaving on our final morning boat ride, we eyed a kingfisher with a fish almost equal to it in size in its beak. It was killing it in a brutal fashion, hitting the poor chambo against the dock. The fact that it was still pureeing the same fish when we returned two hours later showed the bird’s indefatigable work ethic.

The kingfisher has to smash its prey to the point
at which it can swallow it

Often, birds such as egrets were to be found on the back of the larger mammals. Arguably our most memorable experience in Liwonde was seeing a herd of elephants up close from our little, wooden boat. The harmony of the two species, along with the mountainous background, painted a beautiful picture.

Birds often look like they're pecking the elephants - they're
removing bugs from their hides

There were about eight elephants all together at this point
Wildlife isn’t restricted to the river in Liwonde. The eastern side of the Shire, where the majority of the park lies, contains many different species of antelope, as well as warthogs and more elephants. I also saw my first wild porcupine on our evening drive; they are a lot bigger than I thought!

A kudu's age can be learnt from the
length of its horns - this one is quite old

This warthog buckled its knees in order to eat
The park owners have decided there are actually too many elephants for the size of the park to sustain, as they risk permanently damaging the environment. Currently there is a much-publicised move happening as hundreds of elephants are relocated to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, further north in the country. Described as one of history’s largest elephant translocations, African Parks successfully transferred 261 elephants to Nkhotakota, helping to repopulate a park devastated by poaching (numbers have fallen from 1,500 to fewer than 100 in recent times). A similar number are being prepared to move. One frightening fact I learnt was that one drop of the tranquilliser used, M-99, landing in your eye would cause you to die. In three minutes.

An elephant on its hind legs, desperately
stretching for the leaves above

A younger elephant hiding behind a tree
What was amazing about Liwonde was to see the smaller animals freely roaming the open grassland. This is due to a lack of predators in the park, with only the hyena or a crocodile being a threat to the impala, kudu and others. This dynamic will change in the near future, however. Cheetahs were introduced into the park last month (we didn’t see them), and there are plans for lions to be introduced into Liwonde in December. The current inhabitants will have to adapt quickly to avoid becoming the easiest prey for these cats.

Herds of impala roam free in Liwonde

Some of the more dangerous animals in Liwonde are currently contained within a fenced ‘sanctuary’. We didn’t see the black rhinos but I did see my first African buffalo. Their legs seem too spindly for their bulky bodies, though I wouldn’t dare say that to their face.

An African buffalo is said to have poor eyesight
and hearing, but a tremendous sense of smell

As ever, the scenery was stunning. I’ve developed a love for baobab trees and African sunsets, both of which were impressive during our time here.

Baobabs with a diameter of 5 metres are
thought to be about 1,000 years old

Sunset over the open grassland of Liwonde
All three of us thoroughly loved our time in Liwonde National Park.  It’s great to see the wonder in faces of people who have never been on safari before, yet every adventure is different. From our first sights of elephants on the boat across to Mvuu, to having a brief staring contest with an elephant on the way out of the park, and everything in between, it was a magical experience which I’m glad I could share with my parents. It was a unique experience for them, and with lions, rhinos, leopards and rhinos for them to see, I’m sure they’ll be on safari again very soon!

Love you all


Sunday, 11 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