Many of my favourite tales have come from people I have met on my travels in Africa. Over the years people living and travelled on this great continent have regaled me with all kinds of stories from adventure to tragedy but few have been as entertaining as Stefan. A native of South Africa but now running a small safari park about a two hour drive south of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi in the southeast of the continent.
Just over 6ft tall with a lean face and long blonde hair he looked more like he should be in a 90s grunge band or on the streets of San Francisco during the hippie era of the late 60s. In his late forties or early fifties he had a youthful enthusiasm about him as he built up his little safari park with just him and a handful of staff.
A hands on type of operator he did everything from checking tourists into their accommodation to driving the 4×4 on twice daily safaris on rutted routes in search of one of the big five.
For all his charm as a host or skill as a safari driver he really came into his own when he talked about some of the happenings of his past. In the evenings he would come and spend time with the guests when inevitably the questions would come as to how he ended up running a safari park in Malawi.
“Before I came to Malawi I used to fly little cargo planes for a living. My dad and I owned a small plane and used to deliver all over Southern Africa. That’s how I came to know Malawi well, I must have flown up here hundreds of times,” Stefan said one night over dinner.
“Wow that sounds interesting. You must have had some adventures on your travels,” I commented.
“Ya I really liked it but it could be tricky at times. I almost met the end of my days like flying into Blantyre (southern Malawi) about ten years ago,” he replied.
“Oh right, what happened?” I asked.
Stefan laughed and recounted one of the most hair raising stories I have ever heard.
“I was flying cargo from Joburg (Johannesburg) to Blantyre and was coming in after dark. To save money I only had enough fuel on board to get me there, you are supposed to take off with enough to get you there and halfway back but carrying extra weight costs money so I always travelled with just enough to get me there. Now the approach to Blantyre airport is unusual because you come up over a mountain and then dip down on the other side to land, so you don’t see the airport until late. This night I came over the top of the mountain and thought where’s the airport?”
“So what had happened were you lost?” I asked.
“No, they had a power cut at the airport and all the lights were off,” Stefan answered.
“Oh, so what did you do?” I asked.
“I radioed the tower and asked them what was going on? They told me there was no power and to fly onto Lilongwe,” Stefan answered.
“But you had hardly any fuel left right?”
“I had enough to land and maybe a bit extra,” he told me.
“So what did you do then?” I asked transfixed with his story.
“I radioed the tower and told them one way or another this plane is coming down in the next few minutes because I was almost out of fuel.”
“So what did the tower do, I mean there was a power outage and they can’t just switch the lights back on,” I commented.
“They got whatever cars were in the carpark and lined them up on the side of the runway with their lights on to guide me in. I think there may have even been a few mopeds and guys with torches as well,” he laughed.
“Obviously you got down safely because you are still here but it must have been a frightening experience,” I said.
“Ya it was dodgy but those were the kind of things we did back then to keep the costs down. After my dad passed away I had to do all the flying and keeping the whole thing going meant constantly cutting costs and I said to myself one day one of these things won’t work out well and that will be it, so I looked for a new line of work!” he finished.
Not that this new line of work removed him completely from danger. These days Stefan does all of his travel on land which can throw up dangerous situations as well. He told me about a story which had him in as precarious a situation as the flight into Blantyre airport.
“Sometimes I like to go off in the 4×4 on little adventures to see what’s around the local area. I could do this a couple of years ago when I worked for another lodge and had a few days off here and there. I was down in the very south in the Mount Mulange area when my 4×4 cut out on a river crossing,” he started.
“Sounds like a bit of a pain,” I commented, not realising what was coming next.
“Ya I tried to start it a few times but it wouldn’t go,” he said.
“So did you go for help?” I asked.
“I would have liked to but couldn’t cause there were crocs in the river and as soon as I entered the water they were coming for me,” he replied.
“So what did you do?”
“I just sat on the roof of the and waited for someone to come, there was nothing else I could do. I was out of reception to ring someone and couldn’t go in the river so I just waited,” he answered.
“How long were you there for?”
“Two days then someone else came in a 4×4 and pulled me out,” he said.
“You must have been getting worried after two days,” I stated.
“Ya but there was nothing I could do about it just wait and see.”
“Did you have some supplies with you?” I asked.
“I had some croissants and a few joints so I was ok,” he said and laughed.
Definitely not your usual adventurer.