Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Ilala: paradise afloat on Lake Malawi

Planning my trip to Malawi, I found a description of the Ilala. "Oh Roger", said Kevin, "just look at the dents - you've got to go for a ride on that".

We went for a ride on it, alright! Space really does not permit a full description of the Ilala experience, but here are just a few of the highlights.

  • Booking for this (up to) 5 day trip is not something you do in advance - queue up with the others. There is a range of accommodations available and we took advice by going to the top of the list: the Owner's Cabin. Beds! En suite! More on this later.
  • The Ilala has lifeboats and lifejackets, so is very safe. More on this later.
  • We quickly found a map of the route:
    Some parts of this map were accurate.
  • On board catering had First and Second Class saloons: clearly, we were in First. No complaints about the menu, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate. "English breakfast" includes - of course - salad.
  • Shipboard entertainment was endless but informal. A group of South Africans boarded at Nkhotakota and asked the bemused bar steward (when he surfaced) for the deck quoits. I rather thought they were taking the Michael, until they explained that on their last Ilala voyage in the mid-80s, Deck Quoits had indeed been available.
  • The Ilala is a ferry, not a pleasure cruiser. This doesn't make "pleasure" against the rules of course - especially when watching it stop at intermediate points, at most of which there is no jetty, or water enough for tying up at shore. So it creeps up on the shore, stops engines, blows about in the wind a lot, and drops the lifeboats to ferry people to and fro. I do mean drops; also, the ferrying includes bikes, large sacks of maize, job lots of plastic buckets, etc etc. When it's breezy, this in Europe would be regarded as a high-risk activity, but in Africa it's routine for the regular travellers, and high entertainment for us. The picture shows the boats part loaded: they are very clearly marked "22 persons", and we think this number is intended as a minimum as we usually saw more than 30, plus attendant baggage.
  • When you're on a trip like this, you keep thinking "Well, I've never done that on a boat before." Quite a long list. "Having a bath on a boat" was a first, so we wasted no time in using the bathroom, which contained a lot more plumbing than is normal. The toilet flush [sic] was actually a tap mechanism; the bath taps did not work; the shower (out of view, above the bath) delivered a stream of tepid fluid. Bendigegig!
  • One of the Europeans to join us at Nkhotakota was an 18-yo from Cambridge; as a result of his trip planners reading the Ilala schedule [sic], he had arrived at Chipoka 4 hours after it departed, having taxied there straight from arrival at Lilongwe airport after an overnight flight. So he had to drive (= be driven) up the lakeshore in hot pursuit [pun]. Consequently he had gone 48 hours without sleep - let me tell you this makes people look pretty grim, and probably explains his confusion about the sun rising in the east - "But we're in the southern hemisphere - shouldn't it rise in the west now?".

    Anyway, hats off to the fellow, who was en route to Mozambique on a summer placement leading choirs (meaning he had some hours of travel remaining).

  • Let's gloss over my exit from the Ilala, which involved discovery of a loose plank at the bottom of the lifeboat when jumping down laden with my rucksack. 15 days on, the ankle is nearly healed. So goodbye Ilala.

    (My African spies tell me it broke down at Chipoka last week - rather sorry to have missed this part of the experience.)

Friday, 17 July 2015

Elephants: reproduction, respiration and reintroduction

The image shows a depiction of elephant copulation, acquired in Thailand where this practice remains common. Some time ago, Welsh Celtic elephants (Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) Cambriae) decided to abandon this activity, and this is presumed to be one cause of their extinction. The reasons for their decision remain unclear.

The second image shows a troop of Malawian aquatic elephants (Loxodonta africana aquaticus) crossing the River Shire (pron. Sheeray) earlier this month. Note the highly developed trunk which has a third eye at its tip, making it useful for vision and respiration simultaneously. Few other mammals have this facility. Rumours persist that a small community of Celtic aquatic elephants survive in Bala Lake, but this seems improbable.

The Bala rumour may become irrelevant next year after the reintroduction of Celtic elephants in Ceredigion: these will be released partly in an attempt to control the virulent invasive plant Miscanthus (elephant grass) that has self-sown in the neighbourhood of the IBERS experimental facility at Gogerddan.

For linguistic convenience, the reintroductions will be brought from Brittany, but they may well be crossed with the famously hardy and fecund Patagonian variety, giving a direct link back to the native species. During the Welsh migrations to South America 150 years ago, Welsh elephant numbers were already in steep decline, but a small number were taken with the emigrants to assist in cheesemaking. They took readily to the Argentinian climate and rapidly interbred with local elephants (Loxodonta americana patagoniae).

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Things can only get better

While snacking with the Schwiegerfamilie in MGs, a party of sporty young men appear. One of them has a legend on the back of his t-shirt:
Tro Tawe 'di trefnu eleni
Mae Bangor yn trio bo'n ffyni
Mae Caerdydd yn snobs
Caerfyddin yn nobs
Bydd Aber yn ennill wrth feddwi

Those of us learning Welsh with the inestimable Rhiannon know how difficult a tongue it is, and we must take all opportunities to learn. This short poem will come in useful.

Gall pethau yn unig yn gwella (that's probably wrong).

Friday, 24 April 2015

To Manchester, with 4 clear porpoises;
  1. To attend the Mount Sion steam crane on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal near Radcliffe. A wholly successful mission - the crane is present but looks unloved.
  2. To attend the very well preserved remains of a water powered beam pump, also near Radcliffe. Only partially successful, as the pump is on private territory and defended by awesome fences, wire, threatening notices etc etc. Some especially good industrial dereliction to be seen, however.
  3. To see first hand the enterprise No Elephants Please, also near Radcliffe. Unsuccessful - the house is in evidence with no commercial signage visible.
  4. To attend a concert by Godspeed you! Black Emperor in the marvellous Albert Hall. This did just what it said on the tin - as last time I saw [sic] them, they exchanged not one syllable with the audience and performed in darkness. The ambient lighting actually converted this to twilight so on this occasion I could count them. A tight 1h40m during which the building shook once or twice.

    Quick words of congratulation for:

    • The gentleman controlling the film loops - four projectors of the kind I used to see in my school physics lab., and umpteen literal loops of film hung around like laundry.
    • The support act, a gentleman playing solo. For 30m he issued a single tone (with harmonics), with much use of moving spots and strobes. The performance straddled sunset, which certainly created an atmosphere.
Porpoises have also already been seen in Aberystwyth harbour.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Art Deco in Abergavenny/Dead dogs

I was able to use Dirty Protest's Cardiff performance of my play Mae Ben wedi marw (tr. Ben is dead) as cover for a trip to Abergavenny to see their 24-carat branch of Burtons.

These panoramic views are anomalous as the building is in fact apical. That may be clear from geometric oddities of the rectification (but Matthew Brown's Autostitch software is fantastic).

In case it is unclear, the branches advertised in the window lights are: Stockport,Halifax, Leicester, Darlington, Plymouth, Leeds, Wrexham, Manchester, Newcastle, London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Bradford, Belfast, Dublin, Bristol, Glasgow, Cardiff, Derby, Norwich, Dundee, Preston, Northampton, Edinburgh, Reading, Swansea, Portsmouth, Newport, Exeter, Southend, Blackburn, Bolton. It is now a crusade to capture those which I have as yet not seen first hand – many, of course, are victims of the Luftwaffe or town planners [sic].

As luck would have it, there was a magnificent partial solar eclipse this day, in cloudless skies; at its nadir I captured this very fine GviR 2110/1.


NB: The play was very well received by a capacity audience, as were the other seven presented on a platform of "New work by Welsh writers". Me - Welsh? Me - a writer? Bendigedig!
Here is a crap blurrrrrry picture of the excellent Hannah Jarman & Rhys Warrington performing my piece.

And big thanks to Sandy.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Re-enacting the battle of Edgehill

Circumstance permitted me to attempt a one-man re-enactment of the battle of Edgehill (Warwickshire, 23rd October 1642) on March 13th. It remains very easy to capture a panoramic view of the battlefield.

Full accounts of manoeuvres can be read in a hundred places; here let it suffice to say that a large proportion of the field is inaccessible as it is owned by the MoD, which seems strangely appropriate. Ergo, no attempt at complete re-enactment was going to succeed, and I compromised with a gentle stroll around the prettier bits together with some isolated theatrical displays. Unsurprisingly, the local churches had some information to give.

Kineton was just behind the parliamentary lines on the day and would have seen a lot of action; I recreated a small piece of this outside the post office. In St Peter's church there's a dinky mermaid on Frances Bentley's tomb:

Radway is stationed at the base of the “edge” (bank) that was strategically important to the Royalist army on the day. Henry Kingsmill was interred in St Peter's church here after falling in the battle (beautifully re-enacted by me, if I may say so).

It reads:
HERE LYETH EXPECTING THE SECOND COMING OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR HENRY KINGSMILL ESQ. SECOND SON OF HENRY KINGSMILL OF SIMONTON IN YE COUNTY OF SOUTHERN KENT WHO SERVING AS A CAPTAIN OF FOOT UNDER HIS MAJESTY CHARLES 1st OF BLESSED MEMORY WAS AT YE BATTLE OF EDGEHILL IN YE YEARE OF OUR LORD 1642 AS HE WAS MANFULLY FIGHTING ON BEHALF OF HIS KING AND COUNTRY UNHAPPILY SLAIN BY CANNON BULLET IN MEMORY OF WHOM HIS MOTHER THE LADY BRIDGET KINGSMILL DID IN THE 46TH YEARE OF HER WIDOWHOOD IN THE YEARE OF OUR LORD 1670 ERECTED THIS MONUMENT. I HAVE FOUGHT THE GOOD FIGHT I HAVE FINISHED MY COURSE HENCEFORTH IS LAYD UP FOR ME THE CROWN OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Unsurprisingly, his Mum had to wait for the re-establishment of the Throne in the form of the debauched Charles II before putting this thing up.

Ratley is over the edge and was presumably a royalist haven on the day. Here's a nice picture of Mary Magdalene up to her old tricks (not really part of the re-enactment) in the church of St Peter ad Vincula:

The day was accompanied by a lowlight and a highlight.
  • Both of the Kidderminster restaurants billed as “the best curry in town” were closed, so I had to settle for a steak pie in the 3-Shires Cafe. It was not good.
  • Hard by Radway church was PB 1086272, a type 3204/1, numbered CV35 147 by RM. It's seen some use; in my view these look all the better when they have not been beautified by RM: