Friday, 13 November 2015

Abigail, the first snows, and Cock Farm

We've avoided the worst of Storm Abigail here on Arran, with the strongest winds passing to the north although as I type, a rolling thunderstorm is chuntering overhead. Wally and I headed out in to the weather this morning, but avoided the worst of it with a circular walk from Lochranza over to the east coast. It was pretty wild, but apart from some sideways snow on the Narachan (it is settling in the mountains... woop!), and ferocious hail around Fairy Glen, we stayed dry. It was a gloomy day though so I enjoyed tinkering with the mono settings on my camera. We avoided Laggan Cottage for a change, and cut down through the historic ruins of Cock Farm, ancestral home of Harold Macmillan, partially deserted during the clearances, and finally abandoned in the early 20th century.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Fontainebleau Rocks

I've been on my hols, and as the year is an odd number we went to Fontainebleau for a spot of bouldering with friends.  I've covered the whys and wherefores a bit on the blog over the years, as I'm not really a boulderer, but I love the forest, and the joy of circuits is what draws me back to climb here. This year we were treated to near perfect weather conditions, with dry rock and gentle autumnal breezes the order of the day.


Monday, 28 September 2015

A Wild Summer

In the last days of September, I'm reflecting on a wild, wild summer.   Since I got back from Malawi at the end of July, my feet have not stopped moving.  I've crammed my life with work and play and not had time to look at this blog, let alone update it... So here I am now, and as the year changes gear and I've finally got time to draw breath. I'm looking forward to a bit of chill out time and a chance to refuel and recouperate, with the prospect of an exciting winter ahead.

Fancy bike socks matching the sky for once.
On the summit of Goatfell, working for Adventure Expeditions.

A girls beach trip, and perfect waves at Machrihanish.
Rainbows and coastal walks.
Watching basking sharks.
Sleeping amongst the granny pines in Glen Lui.
A Bronze expedition in Glen Trool.
A kayak mission to Carradale in perfect conditions
Co leading a walk on the Three Beinns for Arran Mountain Rescue's open day.

A spot of CPD on Ben Nevis with Alan Halewood.
Travelling to Cheshire with my old school bike to ride my first Sportive.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elephants come to visit

A final installment  from Malawi 2015, in the form of a wee report and pics from Liwonde National Park and the R&R phase of Arran High School's expedition, and some thoughts on Cecil the Lion.

We camped in our little tents at Mvuu Camp, perched on the banks of the Shire River.  Mvuu means hippo, and as anticipated we were serenaded day and night by the snorts and roars of neighbouring hippos frolicking on the river banks. I was bowled over by the biodiversity of the place.  In a day of wildlife watching we saw over 50 species of bird and mammal, with kingfishers, night herons, giant crocodiles and various birds of prey all vying for our attention, it was hard to know where to look.

 The stars of the show however were the elephants. On the first night I was woken at about four in the morning to the sound of guards calling softly in to the night.  "Njobvu... Njobvuu..." I listened intently and remembered that this is the Chichewa word for elephant.

What followed was one of the most intense wildlife experiences of my life. Frightening yes, but thrilling too. I became aware of approaching noises, crashing, thudding, and low rumbles.  Elephants are quiet, so this must be a lot of them to make such noise. As the dawn light glimmered, I peered through the zip of my tent and counted.  Fifteen elephants surrounded us, mums with babies. The guards had been calling to a male in must, who they were following around the camp- thankfully he moved on quickly. As group leader I was flummoxed.  What should I do?  Assessing the hazard of a herd of elephants in camp is not something we learn at Mountain leader school! With nowhere else to go I decided it was best not to wake the team and risk upsetting the elephants. At daybreak the herd moved away, and a few of the early risers got to see them as they trundled off through the thorns.

I've been back a couple of weeks, but Liwonde has been very much on my mind since I flew home, especially with all the recent coverage of illegal poaching and trophy hunting in Zimbabwe, which is not far south from Malawi. It appears that the tragic loss of Cecil the lion has gone some way to highlighting the plight of Africa's wildlife. What it has also done, in my mind, is flag up the disconnect between wildlife tourism and ordinary Africans, between poverty and conservation. Most of the people living close to Hwange National Park had never heard of Cecil the Lion. Meanwhile ordinary Zimbabweans endure food shortages, violence and political turmoil.  Interest in wildlife, whether for conservation or hunting, is linked to privilage and seen as a post colonial hangover. I'm as outraged as the next person at the slaughter of Cecil, but he is just one lion among many who will loose their lives this year, and meanwhile wildlife loss on an even more spectacular scale happens outside of the parks, through deforestation as ordinary people cut firewood to sell as charcoal in order to make a living. We must do more for conservation at every level, tackle habitat loss inside and outside of the parks, and to do so, we need to tackle the poverty that aflicts rural communities in Southern Africa.

An organisation that aims to do this is Children in the Wilderness who describe themselves as "a non-profit organisation to facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa." Children in the Wilderness is supported by Wilderness Safaris, who run Mvuu camp, where we stayed  at Liwonde.  They bring local children to Liwonde to learn about conservation and the wildlife of the park. They don't just work in Malawi, they can be found as far afield as Namibia, Botswana and the Sechelles.  They support literacy schemes within the schools and through Eco Camps and mentoring. Projects include reforestation initiatives, working to support girls to stay in school and scholarships for deserving students.  If you've been distressed by the fate of Cecil, its worth offering them your support.

Finally, I think we need to put our own house in order.  Hen Harriers are perched on the brink of extinction in England thanks to hunting interests here in the British Isles.  Hunting for fun may seem barbaric, but it is also big business, putting money before conservation interests. This sunday is HEN HARRIER DAY, a day to celebrate one of our most beautiful wild birds, and ask why more isn't being done to protect it.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Fisherman's Rest

Our second block of community work took us to a well established project south of Blantyre called Fisherman's Rest. Wiktor and Sue Chichlowski have been working in the community for thirty years, and have achieved tangible change to the quality of education and opportunities that children receive.
We were excited to learn about a whole raft of schemes that include waterhole maintenance, school meals (via The Good Food Project), library building, poultry husbandry, tree planting and  the My Girl Project, which encourages girls to stay in school when puberty hits. Fisherman's Rest currently work with 22 schools in the area, as well as a community centre called Tilitonse.

Like Dzalanyama, our time here was short. However, this time, we were slotting in to existing work that had started long before our arrival and will continue long after we have left.  We were aware that whilst our presence, in the form of a bit of literacy teaching, hilarious games and English language conversation, are an important part of what happens here, the real hard work is being done by the community, Wiktor, Sue and their tireless staff. However, we brought essential $$ with us, and were made to feel welcome and valued by everyone we met. Wiktor was careful to ensure we could see the big picture, so as well as dong some construction work and teaching at Mtemaumo School, we also got to see a completed library at Mpemba, where exam results have rocketed since it's completion, and an impressive new school build close to Fishermen's Rest (I'm sorry Wiktor, I've forgotten the name of the school!). In the afternoons we danced, sang and played football at Tilitonse with the local children. It's a spectacular operation, with success down to Wiktor's ability to attract a considerable amount of corporate sponsorship, whilst at the same time engaging the communties in the development.  Nothing happens unless the communties themselves are fully commited and supportive of the scheme. There are no wasted efforts here.

Helping to build library and classrooms at Mtemaumo School

Helping deliver nutritious porridge at Mtemaumo School

Super competative Duck-Duck-Goose, Tilitonse Community Centre

Teacher Steve Garraway entertains the children at Mtemaumo School

A fun creative class, Mtemaumo School
Completed library Mpemba school.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Mulanje Mountain

It's a year since my first visit to Mulanje working as a leader for Outlook Expeditions, and the place laid a spell on me that has proven impossible to break.  I was blown away by the sweeping granite walls, the high altitude meadows, and the strange affinity to Scotland's moorland, with heather, peat and moss, re-imagined in Malawi, a land of mindboggling biodiversity. Last year I met our guide Wonderford Mmambo, and learned about the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team, of which he is a member.  I'm a member of a mountain resuce team too, and I was shocked by the stark contrasts between our two organisations- basically doing the same job. Except that Wonderford's team also do a lot to help out in their community, where there is little in the way of a safety net for people when life goes wrong.

Fast forward to January 2015 and the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team was at the forefront of efforts in the area to rescue people trapped by catastrophic floods.  Many were killed, either drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others passed away in the aftermath from illnesses caused or made worse by the unsanitary conditions. Homes and businesses were destroyed. I'd already wanted to do something to help the rescue team, but the bad news from Mulanje encouraged me, and I undertook a fundraising challenge in May to raise some cash to take out to the team during this year's visit.

I was delighted to see Wonderford again this year, and he accepted on behalf of his team $1160 raised donated by you- my friends, family, colleagues and clients, to support the work of his team.

Wonderford is a superb guide, who knows the mountain like the back of his hand, and is both kind and incredibly professional. The Arran High Team were delighted to have him showing us the way in 2015 and we enjoyed a superb three day trek on the mountain.  He arranged for a team of strong porters to carry our tents and spare equipment for us- a worthwhile investment for enjoying the trek that also helps support the local community. Portering is one of the best paid jobs in the area.

Our route took us up to the Lichenya Basin, via a steep climb through high altitude pinapples, jungle, and moorland, to Lichenya Hut, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric of the huts on Mulanje.

In the forest strangler vines wrap themselves around ancient trees.

The porters carrying our equipment at Lichenya Hut

From Lichenya, the following day we enjoyed an undulating walk out of the basin, and along the narrow neck that links the main mountain to Chambe- an impressive outlying peak with impenetrable granite walls. We were excited to learn that it was the day of the Porter's race, a huge 26km mountain running event that attracts international competitors, but which is always won by one of the strong men from Likhubula, the village at the foot of the mountain.

The leaders in the Porter's Race

Stunning views from the path to Chambe

The entire team, reading the Arran Banner on Mulanje!
At Chambe, we were given permission to stay at France's hut, the setting for the tragic events told in Laurens Van Der Post's account of his 1949 explorations on Mulanje Venture to the Interior.

The following day, we descended to Likhubula, to enjoy a delicious pizza at the Mulanje Pepper Pizzeria. A rare treat in Malawi. After the trek, Wonderford arranged for me to meet some of his colleagues in the rescue team, and I was honoured to hear first hand from David Majeweta, John Ben and Kingsley Mmambo about the difficult times during the floods. I also learned a lot more about how the team functions.  With 24 members in total, drawn from  members of the Guides and Porters Association, six at a time from each of the four main settlements around the foot of the mountain. In this way the team ensure that they are able to provide a rapid response, as the mountain is very large and quite an obstacle to be negotiated. The men work as volunteers, and not only that, but the members of the Guides and Porters Association donate part of their earnings on the mountain to help keep the team going. The team has recently received some branded warm jackets from a benefactor, but on the whole they are fairly limited in their equipment.  They may not have much gear, but there is no lack of strength or dedication. As a mountaineer, who has fallen in love with Mulanje and been welcomed by the people I've met there, their story is a powerful one to me. They deeply impressed me with their commitment to their community and respect for the mountain on which they work.

Wonderford Mmambo, David Majeweta, Kingsley Mmambo and John Ben.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Dzalanyama Primary School

I've got my usual post expedition lurgy, which is incredibly frustrating, but is allowing me some time to catch up on writing and go through my photographs from my recent return visit to Malawi. I'll try and get them up here over the next few days.  Here is my first installment. If you have any questions about Malawi as a travel destination, please do get in touch. As last year, it was a wonderful journey, across a country that I love, filled with kind and generous people that are fast becoming friends.
We flew in to Lilongwe at the beginning of the month, to a warm welcome from Tom and Janey at Mabuya Camp. "We" being a small team of students from Arran High School, their teachers, and myself, their expedition leader, working on behalf of Outlook Expeditions. Lilongwe served as a platform for a short visit to the Ministry of Hope Crisis Nursery, where orphaned children from precarious backgrounds are taken in, and cared for until they are weaned and able to be returned to their families, or placed with foster families. Here the students learned about the risks that tiny babies face, including the hazards of childbirth, HIV and poverty- each putting their precarious lives in danger from the word go. We also experienced first hand the love and dedication of the care-givers at the nursery, who strive to give the babies a strong start in life. MoH also run a second crisis nursery at Mzuzu in the north of the Malawi, and a operate a mobile clinic service too.

From Lilongwe we travelled to Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, where a village primary school is in urgent need of support. Our task was to rennovate an old staffroom to turn it in to a library for staff and students. Time was short, so the students worked incredibly hard, painting and building bookshelves, under the watchful eye of the headmaster and his students. The school lacks many basic amenities, and is in a sorry state of repair. We would have liked to have done much more. The teachers were on strike, having not been paid since the start of the financial year. The children still came to school however, giving the place a topsy turvy air, with riotous kids running around the quad all day while the teachers sat in the headmaster's office. Even under these strange circumstances, we received a warm welcome from staff and students. The headmaster outlined to us the urgent needs of the school, from sports equipment to exercise books, and solar panels to classroom furniture. Last year I helped build a boys dormitory, but this still isn't being used as they don't have the money to build the toilets.

Just as I was feeling quite downhearted about the situation, I met Benson, a former learner at the school,  back in the village for the holidays, currently studying Pharmacology at university in the city. Possibilities are here, if only young people get the help they need.

There isn't much scope for scratching a living in the Forest Reserve. One way the local make ends meet is by cutting firewood and then cycling the 65km to the city to sell it.  Deforestration is a pressing environmental concern in Malawi.

Everywhere we went, we were escorted by curious children who held our hands and laughed at our strange manners. 

The crazy, lovely children of Dzalanyama Primary School. They are just like kids anywhere really, except the they have a lot less of everything.