Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 31 October 2009

Sounds of Africa

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Mvuu Lodge, Liwonde, Malawi

I arrived at the jetty in pitch darkness. A boat was waiting to ferry me across the river. On the other side I was handed a refreshing drink and asked to sign a waiver form exempting the management from legal action by my next of kin if I was attacked by wild animals during my stay. Then I was shown to my tent.

The ranger led me along a sandy path across open bush. It was a bit of a hike. My tent was ten yards from a lagoon, explained the ranger, when we got there. That peculiar slapping and splashing noise was the sound of crocodiles snatching at fish, he said.

Beside my bed was an aerosol can of insecticide. This was to be fired at any nasty insects encroaching on my tent. Next to that was a red plastic trumpet attached to an aerosol can. That was the air horn and strictly for emergencies. And beside that was a drum made from animal skin. In half an hour I must beat this to summon a guard to escort me back to the open-air restaurant for supper.

So when had a guest last had recourse to the air horn? A fortnight ago, said the ranger. A succession of blasts had sent him sprinting over with an armed guard. Two young Englishwomen were staying in the tent. One was lying on the porch in a dead faint. The other was hiding in the toilet, paralysed with terror. And on the floor beside the bed was a small spider, deafened by the blast from the air horn, which the women had in their panic mistaken for the insecticide.

Half an hour later I dutifully beat a tattoo on the drum and a guard arrived to take me to dinner. As we walked, he flickered his torch anxiously at the surrounding darkness as if an animal might attack from any direction and at any moment. But we made it in one piece and I was welcomed to the open-air dinner table next to a wood fire.

Besides myself, there were two other guests, a Dutch couple, also newly arrived. They were questioning the ranger closely about their safety. I, however, was sceptical. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I didn’t think there were too many dangerous animals left in Malawi, now one of the most densely populated countries in Africa.

But during the dessert the ranger said he could hear an elephant lurking quite near. And soon we could see a more solid shape in the blackness and then the elephant came wandering into the lamplight and stood not ten yards away, swinging his trunk and contemplating us.

The Dutch couple retired to their tent early. I sat on with the ranger swigging beer from bottles. In front of us was another lagoon, explained the ranger, and beyond that the Shire river. Neither of us could see any of this, but we sat facing lagoon and river as though enjoying the view, but instead of seeing we listened, like two companionable blind men, the ranger patiently interpreting the different noises.

The crocodiles were particularly busy with their fishing, punctuating the frogs’ chorus with tremendous splashes as they launched themselves forward and snapped at their prey.

Around midnight a hyena began to howl. He was a long way off to the left, on the other side of the river. ‘Ah,’ said the ranger. ‘The sound of Africa.’ We swigged and listened reverently.

Then, from the other side of the river, we heard the piercing cry of something which should have been familiar immediately, but it took a few seconds to work out that it was the screaming of a human being. ‘A poacher being taken by a croc most likely,’ said the ranger, taking another swig. ‘It happens all the time around here. Last year the crocs took over 30 people, poachers mostly.’

The screaming ceased and the frogs’ chorus reasserted itself. We swigged on. Presently, another ranger appeared out of the darkness. He’d been across the river to investigate the screams. The crocodile had launched itself into a poachers’ boat, capsizing it. The poachers were flung into the river, whereupon the croc grabbed one by the leg. Commendably, the other poacher did not desert his friend. By hanging on to his upper body, he had entered into a desperate tug-of-war contest with the croc. The arrival of the ranger and a few judicious whacks on the crocodile’s head with a stick had won the day. The poacher was on his way to the local hospital and then to the police station.

The account was given without emotion. Then the ranger said he was off to bed as he had an early start in the morning. ‘What was this poacher poaching?’ I said. ‘Fish,’ said the ranger. ‘Small fish. To feed his family.’