Stepping gingerly into the small, wooden motor-boat, I caught sight of a crocodile lying silently in wait across the wide expanse of water. Or was it a dun-coloured log?
I shivered. Suddenly my plan to travel up a short stretch of the Shire River, following the trail of Dr David Livingstone, seemed less brilliant than when I conceived it several days ago.
“Don’t worry,” said Liwonde, our guide, whose brother Mixon just happens to be doing a PhD in physics at Edinburgh University. “The crocodiles will ignore you…just don’t put your hands in the water. And don’t stand up. You will be fine.”
And with that, we were off down Malawi’s broadest and longest river. This stretch of water taunted David Livingstone through much of his journey through this beautiful part of Africa.
For several years he was convinced if he followed the Shire’s route, he would find the source of the Nile.
Instead, it led him to Lake Malawi and the slave trade that scarred its shore.
“Sshh,” whispered Liwonde suddenly,
“Look over there. It’s a big one.”
I glanced across the river, to the opposite bank, where a huge, sandy coloured croc lay basking in the early morning sun, flicking its tail insouciantly as it snoozed.
“Oh,” I gasped. “How big is it?” “Around twelve feet,” replied Liwonde as if measuring chitenje cloth. “It is quite old. Crocodiles live to be 75 or 80 years. They live on their own,” he paused.
“They are only coming together when they have caught food.”
“Oh,” I said, again. I was reading ‘The Search After Livingstone’, the 1867 diary kept by explorer Edward Young, to record his search for his former boss, after reports that he had been murdered somewhere along the Shire river.
Young wrote of this very stretch of water, of the crocodiles who snatched women while they were washing clothes on the river bank. Grabbed them with their enormous jaws, tossed them in the air, before snapping them in two and feasting on them, like a candy bar.
“I prefer elephants,” I said, and right on cue, Liwonde hissed. “Over there, an elephant. He’s getting a drink. You know they need 120 litres of water a day. Every day.”
We had come to Majete Wildlife Reserve, which nestles next to the lower Shire River in southern Malawi, to see elephants and, we hoped, lions.
Malawi has an astonishingly rich natural heritage, from the fresh waters of Lake Malawi to the mountain plateaux of Zomba and Livingstonia.
It has around 90 forest reserves.
Driving around the north, it can sometimes seem as if we are back home touring the Highlands, until we stumble across a rubber tree plantation.
There are four wildlife reserves and five national parks, but in recent years, the big beasts so redolent of sub-Saharan Africa dwindled dramatically, hunted down by poachers.
The government of Malawi, with so few resources, struggled to protect the country’s precious wildlife. At one point, there were only around five lions in the whole country.
Step forward African Parks, a non-profit organisation whose President is Prince Harry. It works with nine countries, from DR Congo to Rwanda, to help cash-strapped governments conserve their precious environment.
African Parks now manages four reserves in Malawi, including Majete, where we had come for a belated wedding anniversary treat.
The cost of two nights in a luxury tent (with outside loo and shower) was eye-watering. One hundred and fifty years ago, Livingstone and his fellow explorers paid local people with a few yards of calico for their hospitality, as British coins were worthless to a 19th century Yao chief.
We paid Sunbird Hotels hundreds of dollars, but thanks to the EU rule that says airlines must compensate travellers if flights are more than six hours late, Kenya Airways was footing our bill.
We watched graceful impala fly over huge tree trunks, ugly wart hogs snuffle their way round the bush, and elephants drink languorously in the water hole outside our tent.
But as our evening safari drive entered its final minutes, we were reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that we would not see any lions. Money cannot buy everything.
Suddenly, Liwonde’s radio crackled and he whispered a few words of Chichewa to his invisible colleague. He slowly reversed up the track, turned left and stopped.
“Look,” he whispered dramatically, pointing his powerful torch to our right. And there lay the magnificent beast. A fully-grown lion, his eyes half closed, his sandy mane looking as coiffured as if he were auditioning for the remake of the Lion King.
He was so close, we could almost rub his ears. We watched, barely daring to breathe as he, slowly, got to his feet and, without a backward glance, lumbered into the bush.
“To your right,” said Liwonde, and through the gloaming we spotted his companion. A lioness enjoying some quiet time before her evening hunt. Seeing us gape, she yawned, clearly bored with the attention.
African Parks introduced three lions to Majete seven years ago. There are now sixteen. Restoring Malawi’s wildest areas to their natural state will take time, and money, but like the cost of our weekend, it’s worth every last penny.
Our week, which started magnificently, ended on a high.
Scrolling through Twitter, I caught sight of my two new heroes, Professor Jeremy Bagg, head of Glasgow University’s Dental School, and Dr Mwapatsa Mipando, Principal of Malawi’s highly-rated College of Medicine.
Two years ago, the men barely knew each other. This week, thanks to their efforts, and some cash from the Scottish Government, together they welcomed students to Malawi’s first ever degree course in dentistry.
“There are 15 students entering the foundation year, and ten going directly into the degree course, so 25 beginning the new programme…it is a tremendous start,” explains Prof Bagg.
“We are very excited,” says Dr Peter Chimimba, the project lead in Malawi. “For the first time, we have started to train Malawi dental surgeons who will be globally competent and locally relevant.”
And Dr Mipando admitted to feeling emotional as he welcomed the new students to his college. “I was teary seeing the first cohort,” he recalls. “They represent a giant leap forward for Malawi.”
It is easy to dismiss aid as the 21st century version of colonialism. And some of it is.
But when people unite, as Dr Livingstone and the Chewa chiefs did to help end the East Africa slave trade, and Dr Mipando and Professor Bagg do, to build a national dental service, then it is not aid, but friends coming together to build a better world. Right now, we need more, not less, of that mutual solidarity.