A horse called Joe

Kande Beach  – Malawi

May 2008

We finally rocked up at our campsite beside Lake Malawi at 6.30pm which was late enough considering we had to set up camp and get cooking. It was a bad night to try and cook up a feast on an open fire! It took ages to get any heat from the fire, ages to prep the meat and everyone just wanted to crash after two long days on the road. We finally served up around 10.30pm which I believe must have taken the number one spot for the latest time dinner was served all tour. By the time we had eaten, washed up, talked about the next few days’ activities and enjoyed a cheeky beer, it was gone midnight and the last of us retired to bed for the evening in the knowledge that we would get a wee bit of a lie in the following morning. One of the things about camping is that a lie in isn’t really the same in a sleeping bag, in a tent, compared to being in a comfy bed and air conditioned or, heated bedroom. Something about camping makes you want to get up and start moving about in the mornings. That something as I have already summed up is, comfort or, lack of! However, I am more than happy to sacrifice some comfort to be able to climb out of a tent in the morning and find myself in yet another amazingly stunning part of the world. Warm sun tickling your cheeks, blue skies, the freshest of air, not a sound to be heard other than the people around you and the gentle waves of Lake Malawi lapping at the beach. I constantly rate Malawi as one of my favourite countries in the world and since reading back through my diary I am not completely sure why. We were there for six days and spent pretty much the entire time chilling out. We were camped at a campsite that sat right on the beach, we were practically sleeping on it. There were all the usual sundries. Bathroom block, well-stocked bar, volleyball net, hammocks and the likes. I think it was just an extremely super happy and relaxed six days for me and everyone else on the truck. Yes, we had just had a super relaxing few days in Zanzibar but Malawi was nothing like Zanzibar or Tanzania. Malawi is like an African New Zealand. So very laid back, they fell over a long time ago. Why worry? Malawi is one of the poorest countries on earth yet every single person we met was so polite, friendly and, welcoming.

Some quick facts about Malawi and its lake then. Lake Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world and can you believe it, is home to the largest number of species of fish than any other lake in the world. One third of Malawi is lake, with agriculture making up a chunk of its economy. Approximately twelve percent of the country has HIV and the average life expectancy is fifty years old. I suppose when you have little, it’s the small things that can make a person happy hence the warmth we received from the locals. They didn’t feel the need to hassle us and try to get us to buy things. I got the impression they were happy enough that we wanted to be spending time in their country. Another great thing about Malawi was that they had things to sell that people would actually be interested in buying. Not so many minutes away from the campsite there was a row of tarpaulin sheets hanging from trees. Below each tarpaulin there would be a man sitting in the middle with a chisel, a hammer and a slab of wood. He would be surrounded by all his stock, all carved out of wood and as with any place like this, so much stock he could supply the whole of England with carved items for the next twenty years. I decided I would have to do my bit for the local economy and part with some cash. I got some personalised key rings carved, picked out a beautiful set of carved elephant bookends, a carved plaque of the African continent, a carved trinket bowel type thing and a stunning chair with the African big five calved into it. I loved the chair, many of us did and many beautifully carved chairs were purchased that day. This is what Africa did to me! I found appreciation in beautifully crafted things for the first time in my life. However, the heap of beautifully crafted things that I had gathered did come with a price tag and needed paying for. I do not spend my days watching Bargain Hunt but I would take a guess that what I wanted to buy could have been sold in England for several hundred pounds. When I asked the guy ‘how much?’, he said ‘US $100 please’ which would have been around seventy pounds at the time I reckoned. We were told to bargain but me being me closed the deal on the first offer. This was for two reasons. The main one being that I felt everything I wanted was easily worth what he was asking for and I thought anything less would be robbing the poor guy. He never pressured me into buying anything and he would have gone much lower if I had tried to take the price down. When I think about it now, $100 US would have been a fantastic sum of money to him, especially when you discover how many people live on less than two dollars per day (2.8 billion people according to the UN). But, I genuinely thought $100 was a bargain. The other reason I accepted the first price was because I was and I still am crap at bargaining. My problem is I only ever want to buy something when I am travelling if I really want it. Therefore, I never have testicles big enough to walk away when I don’t get the price down to something reasonable. My excuse is that I always end up with the tough seller but, let’s be honest, they are all tough! I just don’t like it, I hate confrontation as it is and so getting into a heated debate with a stranger about the cost of something is just going to stress me out. I want to pay and leave. As it happened on this occasion, I left very happy!

In a change of pace, I decided on a spot of horse riding. When I am travelling I find horses prove to be an excellent way to see the world and I thoroughly enjoy a good hack through some high-class wilderness such as Patagonia or in this case, around Lake Malawi. The trek cost $70 US, lasted for three hours and was classed as intermediate which basically meant that we would get to let the beast shift up through the gears from time to time. My horse riding technique is very much like my skiing. I have no technique. I just convince myself that I am perfectly capable of staying on top of the horse and not under it. For this excursion I was given;

“A big bastard horse called Joe, ex race horse, 20yrs of age, and a habit of rolling whenever he got the chance”.

I was more than up for the challenge of riding a big bastard ex race horse and so away we went into the bush of Malawi. There wasn’t a huge amount to see other than bushes but the pure tranquillity of it all was epic. It was an early morning hack with just a few of us forming the group and all of us were at a similar level of competence. I had been warned that Joe loved to drop to the ground and roll whenever he exited a stretch of marsh. To prevent this, I would have to keep the leads tight (reigns, whatever!) and kick him on until he got the point. This had all the hallmarks of a potential ‘dick of the day’ moment and sure enough as soon as we exited the marsh, Joe stopped and started to prepare himself to hit the deck. On one of those rare occasions in life where I actually listened and did as I was told, I managed to keep Joe upright and snapped him out of his obsession to sit down and roll on me. I felt rather accomplished! Now I don’t want to sound like a pansy but horse riding along a sandy beach always appealed to me as a cool thing to do. Maybe because it looked cool and romantic in the movies, maybe because I just love being by the sea, who knows? It was Malawi that provided my riding a horse on a beach moment, a moment that was both exciting and anticlimactic. It was exciting because it was a beautiful deserted beach, we literally stepped out from the overgrown bushes to be welcomed by it. It was anticlimactic because well, it was just horse riding on a beach. It’s no different to horse riding anywhere else really and I could easily walk along the beach and have pretty much the same experience with or without a horse. We followed the beach back to the campsite and to cap off the trek we were allowed to go bareback. Off came the saddles, back onto our horses we jumped and we rode into the waves coming in off the lake. I’m not quite sure what the novelty of riding a horse, bareback into a big-ass lake is but, it was one of those things I have never done since and I suppose that’s why we did it back then. How often does one get the chance to do something a little random like that!?

The rest of the day was then spent perfecting my volleyball skills, swimming and eating. Fantastically, I made the point in my diary that I had finally managed to jump into a hammock for thirty minutes. I had been eying up one of the hammocks since we had arrived at the campsite yet I hadn’t had time to jump into one. I know it sounds crazy as all I have talked about is how little we did whist camped on beaches. The thing was that the group was a very social group, full of good times and mini adventures and I was always lucky enough to be a part of that group and I was always very reluctant to miss out on anything. Therefore, if anyone asked if I was up for a swim, a beer, volleyball, chat, horse ride, bungy jump, anything, I would pretty much always say yes. Getting a bit of time to myself was nigh on impossible. This would trouble me normally but this group of people were a pleasure to be around and on very few occasions throughout the trip did I feel I needed my own space for a wee while. The thirty minutes that I did finally achieve in the hammock though, was amazeballs. I hadn’t really spent much time in hammocks during my life until this point and it was at this moment that I promised myself I should be spending a lot more time in hammocks. They are so damn comfy. For that brief moment of time it was just me swinging gently, cocooned in a piece of fabric strung up between two trees on the edge of a sandy beach with the waves of the lake gently crashing on the shore, most likely with the biggest of grins on my face. Before I knew it, it was all over as I got summoned to play another game of volleyball.

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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