No Money No Fuel No Hope In Africa A Birding Adventure

Toyota Truck Malawi 2008 1

Our rugged but very thristy 4x4 in Malawi, Africa.

We reached the entrance gate at Nyika National Park and hit another problem. Entrance fees were due and the lady on the gate would not take Zambian Kwacha. We had nothing else. We explained that we had just arrived in Malawi and had not yet seen a bank to change money. A long delay followed as the lady telephoned somewhere but eventually she came back with good news. As we were staying in the park she would let us in, but we must pay the bill before we leave.

At last we were in the park and heading for our base, still a further 60km down a rough dirt track. The scenery was very odd, not very African, with open rolling grassland on high hills with some forest clinging to the slopes, more like parts of Scotland! Mammals were numerous with duiker, roan and side-striped jackal all showing well. Clearly we were over the border; in Zambia these would have quickly found themselves in the cooking pot. By now, the light was disappearing fast and we arrived at our cottage by a small lake with pine trees around - it was Scotland - after dark.

Inside we were greeted by our butler who had a roaring fire going, and we needed it, the temperature had really dropped as darkness fell. Our new friend immediately set about cooking us a great meal from the supplies we had brought during our long drive. Food demolished, we headed for bed. It had been a tough day.

It was soon 5am and we headed out to explore this very European-looking landscape. Bracken grew everywhere, and what with the pine trees and the lake, it was hard to believe we were still in Africa. It was cold here at dawn, but then we were now at 2,500 metres above sea-level. We walked the area around the cottage and then explored the tracks in the Toyota. We failed to find a forest area where we had heard good birds could be found. Two new species of Cisticolas were at the bottom of our garden, Churring and a gang of Black-lored. Out in the grasslands, we found Buff-shouldered Widowbird, Scarce Swift and Malachite Sunbird; we had missed the latter in South Africa.

We spent the whole of the next day exploring the park, this time trying for forest birds but it was very hard going. Patches of forest were few, many less than the information we had been given, and those that did survive were impenetrable! Thick vegetation made progress near-impossible under the canopy and we saw few birds. Moustached Tinkerbird and Fuelleborn’s Boubou both eventually showed. Bar-tailed Trogon was heard only, very frustrating; we were putting in a huge amount of effort for little return. Mammal ticks include gentle monkey and eastern sun squirrel. Luckily the day ended with two good birds back near the cottage. A Mountain Yellow Warbler sang from a patch of scrub and at dusk we had good views of a hunting Montane Nightjar.

Ken went to see the park manager to enquire about changing money and was told it was not a problem. The nearest town, Rumphi, about sixty km beyond the park gate had a bank and we could exchange our Zambian for Malawi Kwacha, so that was the plan for the next day.

A pre-dawn start saw us at the gatehouse before the staff were on duty. Eventually the lady that had let us in appeared, but she was not letting us out! We explained we were on the way to the bank for the very job of changing money so we could pay our bill. No, she was not having that. We must pay before we leave in case we didn’t come back. But we couldn’t pay until we left and found a bank. Stalemate!

Eventually we took her to the truck and showed her that it was empty. We had left nearly all our gear back at the cottage deep in the park, so we had to come back. This did the trick and finally the barrier was lifted and we set off for the bank.

As we drove, we realised that we were short on fuel, the gauge nearly in the red, and all the jerry cans were empty. No problem we thought. We were heading for a town with a bank, so surely they would have a garage and diesel?

The town was busy and rather rough-looking, though we were met by smiling faces. We pulled up outside the bank and Ken and I extracted several bundles of the wad and headed inside to make the exchange, leaving Ruth in charge of the truck. A long queue was at every position so we sweated and waited. At last our turn came and we explained what we wanted.

“We cannot change Zambian into Malawian Kwatcha.”

“We were told you could. This is the only money we have.”

“We cannot change Zambian into Malawian Kwatcha.”

“What can we do?”

“We cannot change Zambian into Malawian Kwatcha.”

Ken decided we should see the manager. Surely they could change money from a neighbouring country? Another long wait, then at last we were ushered into the manager’s office and he was a very polite man.

“I am very sorry. We cannot change Zambian into Malawian Kwatcha.”

But at least he did have an idea. He told us of a much larger town, some three hours drive away, that had more and larger banks. He was sure one of these would be able to help us. But we had a problem: no fuel and no money to buy any more.

The manager told us. “There is no fuel in this town, we have a shortage in Malawi. But wait outside. I might know someone who can help.”

We sat in the truck, a minor tourist attraction here in Rumphi, and sweated while we waited to see if the bank manager knew people.

Two young men approached and looking very shifty, they asked,

“Do you need fuel?”

We explained that we did, but that we had no money. However, Ken showed them his very fancy-looking mobile phone which he was happy to exchange for fuel. Desperate times required desperate measures. “Ok, follow us and we will give you fuel.”

We now had enough fuel to reach the big town and the banks that would change our money, but had lost a mobile phone.

It was a big town with plenty of banks but all had the same message for us.

“We cannot change Zambian into Malawian Kwatcha.”

This was becoming serious! We had no money and of course we were now just about out of fuel again, and all the ATMs rejected all our cards. There was one last bank to try.

“We cannot change Zambian into Malawian Kwatcha.”

As we turned away from the counter with no idea what to do next, a man approach us and very quietly asked,

“Do you want to change money? I may know someone.”

Yes, we certainly did and would happily take any lifeline offered us! Our new friend continued.

“Go to Z’s Hardware Store. He can help you.”

A hardware store? It didn’t sound the sort of place to change money but our options were very limited, so off we went in search of Z’s. It was large shop selling all sorts of stuff, from shovels and ropes, to knives and glue but no signs for a bureau de change!

We went in and saw an Arab gentleman sitting behind a desk, busy punching a calculator. This presumably was Z. We thought this looked hopeful; surely an Arab would have good business sense? We approached and he looked up.

“Hi, we were told you might be able to exchange some money for us. Would that be possible?” asked Ken. “What are you talking about? This is a hardware shop! Why have you come here? I don’t know where you got this idea from? I sell hardware that is all!”

Z’s expression was one of confusion and disbelief. It looked like we had been sold a dummy by our friend at the bank. No doubt he was having a good laugh sending us to a hardware shop!

Back out on the street, we pondered what to do next. We noticed a FedEx office across the square and in desperation we went over there.

“Do you know anyone who could change some money for us?” I asked.

The young woman looked thoughtful and then asked us to take a seat while she slipped out into the busy street. She was soon back and looking puzzled.

“Apparently you have already been there. Z’s?” she asked.

What was going on here? Z had looked totally nonplussed by our question about changing money. Now here was a second person saying that he was the man to see. Time for another visit to the hardware store. This time it was totally different. Z was in the mood to trade! Yes, he could change money but would need to check the rate before making a deal. We sat outside for over an hour before eventually being called back in by one of Z’s henchmen. He had the rate, but what a rip off! The guy was giving us one quarter of the rate we expected! But Z knew we were desperate and being a good businessman he was going to exploit the situation to the fullest.

So we at last had money, if not as much as we had hoped, and luckily this town had diesel too, so we filled the tank and set off for the long drive back to Nyika National Park. We stopped off in Rumphi to buy back Ken’s mobile phone which the guys were happy to sell as Ken had cleverly removed the SIM card before handing it over!

It was dark by the time we reached the park gates and as we drove along the dirt track back to our base, we nearly ran into the back of an unlit lorry that wasreloading its shed load of wood. We eventually got past and it was now nearly midnight. But we were rewarded for our late return when a large leopard loped across the track in the headlights! What an end to a very tough day.

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