MALAWI: April 2018

As we watch a scrub hare scurrying across the road in front of us, before it just as quickly disappears into the vegetation, Whyte Mhone, our guide on the Nyika Plateau, turns to us, ready to impart another of his wonderful tidbits.

“Hares are so clever,” he smiles, a twinkle in his eye. “People hunt them with dogs, and when a dog is [closing in] the hare will wait until the last second before darting behind a tree and the dog then runs into the tree – ooowwww!”

Later, we see a side-striped jackal on the prowl. We follow him up the road for a while, before he veers off in hot pursuit of a scrub hare. There are no trees to save the prey on this occasion, but his speed and cunning outgun his pursuer – at least, we don’t hear any signs that this particular hare will be on a jackal dinner table tonight.

“Jackal calls at night,” pipes up Whyte, “really annoy leopards because it ruins their hunting, scaring off their prey. So, they kill [jackals]. They don’t eat them, just kill them – they don’t like the taste. Leopards are very fussy.”

Hyenas can also prove an irritant to the leopard. “If a leopard has a kill, a hyena may come and try to steal it. While the leopard chases off the hyena, the rest of the pack will move in, urinating on the meat so that when the leopard returns to his meal it is really smelly and he can’t eat it.”

No wonder hyenas laugh like a… well, a hyena.

The ingenious hyena also has a novel way of hunting reedbuck. Although, as their name suggests, reedbuck feed on reeds near the water’s edge they are not great swimmers. “Hyena chase reedbuck into the water,” Whyte explains, “and it drowns. They wait for it to float and then they drag it back onto the bank.”

Any leftover food, hyenas or otherwise, becomes fair game for the ravens. “Ravens are known as the cleaners because they eat anything,” Whyte laughs.

Mind your language

As we dine after our invigorating night drive – god, it gets cold in Nyika after dark – Whyte amuses us with tales from long ago.

“My great grandfather was an Ngoni, a sub-tribe of the Zulu,” he tells us. “The Ngoni started migrating north from South Africa in the 1700s, travelling through Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to Malawi. Once the Ngoni got to Malawi a fight broke out with [local] tribes, including the Tumbuka and Chewa.

“The Tumbuka were skilled in knowing how to cross the swamps and they ascended to a sanctuary on a hill, then named ‘Chilinda’ (meaning ‘lookout’), now known as Chelinda. [By doing so], the Tumbuka managed to outskill the Ngoni, who struggled to cross the swamps, and claimed victory.”

Despite the defeat, some Ngoni still settled in the area. “The Ngoni language, a dialect of the Zulu tongue, started to become indistinct during this time,” continues Whyte, “[due to] intermarriages with the Chewa and Tumbuka tribes.

“Once procreating commenced and the men went off to fight, the children’s first language became the mother’s tongue. Today, unfortunately, only a handful of elders southwest of Mzuzu can still speak Ngoni.”

However, all is not lost. “One exciting effort is a broadcasting station, south of Chelinda in Mzimba, which has been set up to teach the new generation of Ngoni about their history, identity and language.” he enthuses.

A net result

Whyte is proud that his parents were born and raised in the park where he now works: “[Nyika] seems like home to me, because my great grandfather, grandfather [and other relatives] are buried in the park, in spots special to them.”

His father has passed down stories of the traditional ways to him, and he is making it his mission to share them with the next generation, and guests, regarding them as his inheritance.

“My father used to watch his father hunting,” Whyte continues. “Some men would hold a net, while others would drive the animals into it. Once an animal was trapped in the net they would spear it.”

It wasn’t always that straightforward, however. “My father told me that, once, they were hunting a duiker. As they chased him into the net he jumped over it, landing on the chest of one of the hunters, spearing him with his sharp hooves.”

The net result was no dinner that night.

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