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 troupe 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).