Monday, April 09, 2007

Travel Writing

I've been busy posting my novel "Malawi and the Lake of Stars", of which you can read an excerpt below.

It was well-worth the effort. If you would like to know more about the story and are interested in publishing the MS, please leave a message with your credentials in the comments box below and I will forward you a synopsis.


Friday, January 28, 2005

Lion Passant

Dawn is merely a silver streak outlining the dark seam of the moors. In the grasslands that unfold over the silent plateau, wild orchids shiver in the twilight. The morning wind tangles tufts of grass. There are no trees here, only grasses and ferns and proteas that grow into a lush coat covering the montane terrain. At more than a thousand metres aloft the sea, the murmur of herds of eland and reedbuck and zebras grazing in the dew-covered hills, rises with the morning mist.

At this early hour he comes. Through the dispersing darkness I have summoned the night creature to my bed in Chelinda Camp. I feel his warm breath on me, the deep roaring sound that accompanies every breathy exhalation. A wild scent fills the room. His eyes are two emerald flashes, his pale coat marked with broken black circles; he flicks the tip of his tail. Then I awake.

Nyika Plateau is the most bewitching National Park in of all of Malawi. The plateau sprawls north to south along the Great Rift Valley that runs across central Africa and plunges into a deep channel, filled by the waters of the Lake of Stars. The hilly terrain of Nyika, situated in the far north along the Zambian border, is covered in low brush land. Nyika is all rounded hills and sky, tall grass and white clouds drifting. Here, roan antelope, eland, bush buck, wart hog, reedbuck and zebra graze undisturbed. Because no lions and elephants roam at this altitude, it is possible to venture on foot anywhere throughout the park — though Monica does not believe this is safe.

We have rented a room at Chelinda Camp, which lies at the end of the sixty kilometre dirt road from the Thazima gate house — where the park headquarters is located — at ten kilometres from the Rhumpi to Katumbi road turn off, seventy kilometres north of Rumphi. The room consists of two cots, two kerosene lamps, a fireplace and a bathtub concealed by a bamboo partition. From the terrace outside the room, we watch herds of zebra criss-cross the hills. A family of wart hog trots through the front yard where our Land Cruiser is parked beside the old-fashioned petrol pump. A tiny store sells such basics as matches, dried biscuits and candles. Inside the main building, which resembles a wooden chalet, a dark hall opens into a large living room. Dusty leather couches are arranged in a horse shoe before the carved fireplace. At the back of the edifice, against the hill, the narrow kitchen is equipped with two wood stoves. At meal times we hand our groceries to the cook employed by the National Parks. Thanks to his magic, packet mashed potato and canned peas become palatable. With our food supplies we brought a wooden container of tea from Fabio’s plantation in Thyolo. It’s very strong. I’ve become addicted to the aroma; If I drink it after dinner, It keeps me awake.

‘Shall we take a walk?’ I ask. Monica won’t budge. She lies in the sun, on a weathered canvas deck chair, pretending to read a book. ‘Come on, it’s perfectly safe.’ I say. ‘The only carnivores in the park are leopards and they’re no larger than a dog; they prey on field mice, fruit, porcupines ... arthropods!’ She won’t come. I’ve been eager to encounter Panthera pardus ever since my arrival in Africa four months ago. Embarking on numerous expeditions in search of the lion passant of medieval heraldry, I secretly sing the leopard to appear. I have risen at dawn to cruise the Zambesi past tribes of elephants, driven though the inky blackness of night to spy the lions’ hunt, canoed up the Shire river dodging clusters of hippos, stepped beyond the safety of the jeep and searched on foot, past a thicket of giraffes. The creature remains elusive.

‘Very rare to see leopard.’ The park ranger speaks with a Chicewa accent. The shy, nocturnal hunter keeps out of the way. The Ngonde people assure me that only the most fortunate may see him. Fabio told me he saw a leopard only once — driving home at night along the windy road through his tea plantation at the foot of Mount Mulanje. He was just out of the cedar forest, when the leopard crossed the road. He paused a moment, startled by the high beams of the white Jaguar, then vanished into darkness. After dark, the park ranger escorts us on our quest. ‘Why do you need a gun if he is harmless?’ Monica asks.
‘Do you shoot them?’ I ask.
‘No, it’s for protection.’
In vain, we drive through the black, bumpy night. ‘We try again tomorrow. At day break.’ During the few hours between the nocturnal safari and dawn I dream the leopard.

We drive past bush buck and zebras grazing in the pale morning. At one hundred meters from camp, two leopards appear out of the bushes to the left. They walk before the Land Cruiser, alongside the path. I hold my breath — Monica eases the accelerator. We follow slowly. ‘Get the camera, quick!’ Monica hisses. I fumble through the backpack. By the time I have the camera the leopards have vanished. ‘Damn!’ We stop the engine. The plain is silent and appears deserted. Suddenly the leopards reappear beside a rocky escarpment, fifty metres to the right. Our guide exits the car carrying the rifle and we follow him up the hillock. The leopards dart into the tall grass. I stop in my tracks, clutching the camera, not daring to move. I carefully scan the ground. There! Amongst the ferns.

The leopard sits a couple of metres away from me. I hear him breathing. His moist snout protrudes through the foliage. I see the whiskers, the round ears. He stares back at me. The camera is in my hand but I do not dare avert my eyes — if I blink, he’ll be gone.

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