During last week’s account of my time living in Malawi, I wrote about how I decided to give Davison, my gardener, a matching short-sleeved jacket and short trousers I’d gone 40 miles to buy for my “smart, casual wear” in the dry, searing heat (see “Librarian recalls Malawi shopping trip” in the Aug. 24 edition).

I also gave George, my cook, an unexpected cash bonus. He had rapidly become my Malawian Jeeves, a general factotum and confidante whose advice I valued.

Zomba market

George bought freshly butchered meat at the centrally located market early in the morning and even successfully introduced me to chambo (a tilapia unique to Malawi) — previously the only fish I’d liked was battered cod (with chips). He also selected fruit and vegetables there. However, I enjoyed browsing around it by myself.

Many items were priced per piece, with a bonus for buying a set minimum quantity. Smokers could buy a single cigarette, but got an 11th one free if they bought a packet of ten; while if I paid for a complete pile of, say, ten tomatoes, I could claim an extra one as a “prizey.” The stall-holders were all very friendly.

Villagers brought potatoes and other homegrown produce to the market on foot from Malosa mountain on the other side of the plateau, and the intervening Domasi valley via the Potato Path, also followed by the gatherers of firewood from the plateau’s pine forest.

The Potato Path

Roy’s wife Maggie agreed to drive their car up to the Ku Chawe Inn, on Zomba Plateau, while Roy, John M. and I toiled up the steep, stony path, taking frequent breathers to admire ground orchids and butterflies and observe different aspects of the dramatic views below.

The path was so narrow that walkers descending it waited at certain points where it briefly widened for anyone coming up. Looking ahead, we saw two women springing down from side to side with baskets of mbatata irisi (white potatoes) balanced on their heads. They stood aside and exchanged greetings with Roy and myself as we passed by.

However, the older woman looked John, the youngest of us, straight in the eye and asked him, “How many children you got, bwana?”

Taken aback, John replied curtly “I’m not married, madam.”

When the woman said she was sorry, her tone betrayed no regret she’d asked the question, but it was unclear whether she was commiserating with John for not being a father or for him still being unmarried. The younger woman just giggled.

At the top, we spotted Maggie beckoning us towards a bench and table on the terrace of the Ku Chawe Inn, with a spectacular view of Zomba, the rivers and countryside below for miles around from 6,000 feet up.

On the table were four cartons of fresh strawberries — in the African tropics! A waitress came over and served us afternoon tea.

We had thoroughly recovered from the climb by the time Maggie drove us slowly back towards town, with Roy indicating things to notice on the descent, like the thick iron spike projecting from concrete, dubbed Excalibur by the Brits, and the high walls surrounding one of Malawi’s presidential palaces.

Maggie stopped the car at a lookout, where Roy pointed out the small rabbit-like dassies (a.k.a. rock hyraxes) emerging from the rocks, to bask in the lowering rays of the sun. He told us that their nearest living relative was the elephant — their incisors even grew into mini tusks!

On the wild side

I loved to escape to the Ku Chawe’s terrace when it was sparsely occupied, quietly enjoying the cool environment and the beauty below. However, late one afternoon, I was disappointed to find the tourists from two buses still noisily finishing a meal, so I waited in my car for them to leave.

One coach hooted and several tourists got up. However, it startled a lady who’d been absorbed in the view. Her plate was still half full, so she walked towards a waitress clearing tables. Before she had taken more than two steps away from her food, a raven swooped down on it. The tourist returned with a waitress carrying a take-out bag and looked at her empty plate in disbelief.

She must have asked the waitress for an explanation, as the Ku Chawe employee pointed up at the raven perched on a bough above. Its sharp-eyed companions were waiting nearby for other guests to leave. However, baboons could be even more audacious and snatch food from a table while a guest was still sitting there.

The second coach hooted, but the remaining passengers seemed reluctant to leave. Rather than wait any longer, I decided instead, on an impulse, to take a favourite walk of mine that curved round the top of the plateau and ended close to where I was parked.

Night falling

I started out briskly along the familiar path, but my pace slowed as night suddenly overtook day before the moon had risen and clouds blotted out even the twinkling stars. It became almost pitch black. I knew that so long as I felt the tarmac under my left foot and kept going anti-clockwise I should reach my car within an hour.

Occasionally, my left shoe strayed on to rougher ground and I was alarmed to trip over something hard, but decided it was only a thick tuft of grass! To keep my spirits up, I roared loudly into the bush, knowing that there were few lions in Malawi to answer back. However, I hoped that any animal hearing the sound would not take it as a challenge.

I was relieved when my car came into view at last, having encountered neither man nor beast since I left it. It had also been a strangely exhilarating experience, so unlike my illness following the walk in the midday sun. Setting aside the contrasting times of day, my main advantage had been that I was following a familiar path.

It could have ended very differently, though. Next morning the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation announced that an unidentified body had been recovered from bushes near the Ku Chawe Inn. It had been badly mauled by a leopard.

Not even George would have known where I was!