MALAWI: April 2018

“I was attacked by a leopard when I was around seven years old,” says Emmanuel Kandiero, a guide in the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.

We are sipping rather generous measures of Jameson whiskey (well, I am, Emmanuel’s drink of choice is a ‘Green’ – a Carlsberg to you and I) around the campfire at Tongole Wilderness Lodge, while telling stories. I have a feeling Emmanuel will trump the rest of us with this one.

“We were cooking in a shelter on the side of our house, when he pokes his head in,” Emmanuel continues. “He’s staring at us, half in, half out of the shelter when a rat comes past, behind him. The leopard turns to chase it and [while he’s distracted] we run into the house, slamming the door behind us.

“As the door shuts the leopard thumps into it and we hear scratching as his claws scrape down the door.” He raises his hands in the air claw-like, dragging them down with a rapid movement to emphasise how close they had come to being leopard bait.

It’s not every day a rat saves your life.

A buffalo stance

It transpires that Emmanuel got into more than one scrape when he was seven.

His Dad was a scout so he was used to moving around, living in various national parks in his formative years.

“We were back in my grandmother’s village when I saw some older kids herding cattle with a stick,” he recalls. “When we went back to the national park [where we were living] I saw some cattle in the distance, so I picked up a stick and went into the middle of them, pretending to be a herder. Only they were buffalo.”

I utter an expletive, which to all intents and purposes means ‘uh-oh’. An audible gasp if you will.

“My father saw what I had done and tried to communicate to me that they were dangerous and that I needed to get out of there.”

Not something that was all that easy, once you know what you were dealing with, I’d wager.

“Fortunately they left me alone and when they moved off I ran back to my [mightily relieved] father.”

Not all of Emmanuel’s stories revolve around near-death experiences. Tall, with the makings of a goatee on his chin and a cheeky smile, he tells me that he has been guiding in Nkhotakota for six years, having moved there after working in the more wildlife-rich Liwonde National Park.

What prompted the change, I wonder, and which park did he prefer? “I love it [here],” he smiles. “Because there are not so many animals this forced me to learn about flora and fauna and the little things. I can name every insect, every berry, which you don’t have time to show people in parks with animals.”

Something, he says, his father encouraged him to do, to broaden his experience. 

Nkhotakota, though, has big ambitions for itself. “It’s a park in the making,” says Emmanuel, adding that he thinks it “is more authentic [than other parks] because the elephant are not so used to people; the same with the baboons”.

Nkhotakota was in receipt of some 500-plus elephant from Liwonde and Majete national parks as part of Malawi’s relocation programme in 2016 and 2017, with the hope that there numbers will return, naturally, to its original population of around 2000. Three-quarters of the elephants in the park are female so the numbers should triple over the next four years, Emmanuel explains.

Lion and cheetah are also being reintroduced. “The plan is to be a Big Five park by 2020,” he says, “which will be very exciting. It is good to see the change, especially if you saw the other side before the change.”

It is, indeed, an thrilling prospect – but I hope he still has time to talk about the little things.

Brothers in arms

Together with his younger brother Aaron, Emmanuel forms a unique guiding team. Aaron, who is just 20, has been working with his sibling for the past year and half and is every bit as knowledgeable. He takes me for a guided walk through Nkhotakota’s miombo forest.

“Civet are one of the only animals that can eat plastic without dying,” he says, as we inspect a huge pile of the cat’s droppings, before adding: “The civet always returns to the same place to [go to the] toilet.” That explains the vast amount of faeces in one spot then.

Continuing with his poo theme, as we marvel at the remnants of an elephant’s outpouring, he asks: “How can you tell if this is a male’s or a female’s?”

A distant part of my memory bank opens and offers the opinion that a male’s is usually wet because he urinates on his dung.

I’m not a million miles away, but Aaron’s explanation is more colourful, as well as more factual. “Like humans, male elephants can’t multi-task,” he says. “They stop and poo in one place. Females poo while they walk, so you get lots of piles as opposed to one big one.

“One there, one there, one there,” he points to various lumps scattered along the path. “So you can tell the sex of an elephant from its poo.”

Moving on, he plucks a heart-shaped leaf from a tree and sticks it on my chest. “The African vervet bean,” he explains. “As a symbol of love, a male will stick one on a female. It’s like Velcro… You can also use it to clean your teeth.”

The wonder of nature.

As our walk draws to a close he stops next to what first appears to be a non-descript bush. “The buffalo thorn,” he says, pointing out the pairs of sharp thorns that adorn each twig. The thorns in each pair point in opposite directions, designed to catch unaware predators.

But there is even more to this bush than meets the eye. Aaron sets the scene of a band of soldiers trekking through the forest, perhaps in the midst of battle. “When a soldier dies, his group will bury him under [a buffalo thorn tree],” he says, “because it creates problems if they have to carry him home. [Instead] they will take a branch from the tree back for the funeral ceremonies. [The branch] is said to contain the spirit of the deceased.”

If there’s one thing I love about Africa, more than the animals, more than the landscapes, it’s the storytelling – the true, the myths and the legends.

Scotch missed

Out on the river, Emmanuel points out a hammerkop, as it flies across our boughs. “The hammerkop can see into your soul,” he says. “[People believe] it has a third eye in its head.

“It is also known as the ‘lightning bird’ – if you kill one, then your house will be struck by lightning.”

Wondering whether this could apply to my house back in the UK, I tread warily, keeping an eye out for this vengeful bird as we head out to the magnificent Motor Falls. A series of torrents, raging down the Bua River.

Naturally, there is a story behind their unusual name. Emmanuel explains that they were ‘discovered’ by Dr David Livingstone in the 1860s when he was walking the Bua in his quest to find out if the Zambezi flowed all the way to the sea.

On coming across the falls, he says: “Livingstone told his Malawian porters that this would be a good place to put a motor [to generate power]. But they didn’t understand his Scottish accent and they thought he said to name them ‘Motor Falls’.”

The moniker has stuck ever since.

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