Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary – From the lioness of Liwonde to the Lions of Lisbon

Celtic Star readers, if you can please donate a few quid to the Celtic FC Foundation organised Celtic’s Malawi Adventure 2024, Matt Corr of this parish has just returned from Malawi. With internet connections issues over there, Matt’s Malawian Diary can now resume. Donations via Matt’s Just Giving page HERE…Thank you!

Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary

Part 5 – From the lioness of Liwonde to the Lions of Lisbon

5am, Saturday morning. Blantyre, Malawi.

The volunteers assemble in the Kabula Lodge courtyard for the long journey north-east through the Shire Highlands to Liwonde National Park, where the Shire River flows into Lake Malombe and from there to the southern edges of the giant Lake Malawi, a 350-mile long African Great Lake which dominates the eastern border of the country.

Map of Malawi

Today is a rest day for the group with a trip to the National Park. Hopefully, there will be some sights to see when we reach Liwonde but it will be hard to beat the view from the terrace here, a stunning African sunrise across the early morning silence of south-western Blantyre.

Sunrise at Kabula Lodge

As always, our hosts have arrived punctually to get us on our way. Ozzie – Oswald Phiri to give him his full handle – has been our host lead on this trip and is a quite remarkable man. Some of the team know him from previous visits and it’s fair to say that if there is anyone in Malawi that he doesn’t know then I’ve yet to meet that person. Whatever the situation, Ozzie is your man, a quiet word removing any of the many obstacles you encounter in this incredible country. Day in day out, he takes questions from the group about pretty much anything and fills in the gaps. Each day, Ozzie arrives wearing Celtic kit of some description. He would not look out of place in the North Curve and would probably be the coolest-looking guy in there.

Isa, our driver, is quieter but nevertheless key to making this trip as smooth as it has been. His job is negotiating some of the toughest terrain I have ever seen, and he does it effortlessly. Like Ozzie and Dezie Trigu – our Classrooms for Malawi representative – Isa has bonded with the team from day one and we have all taken him to our hearts. As an aside, his name is pronounced ‘Eeza,’ rather than the nosey ‘people huvtae know’ character from Still Game.

Isa, our driver, resplendent in his Hoops

The drive to Liwonde is expected to take between two and three hours, subject to traffic and pretty much anything else that can happen, and we’re more than halfway there when Ozzie advises that we are approaching ‘the old country seat’ of Zomba. This was the capital city of Malawi before independence was gained in 1964 and it continued in that role for a further decade before the mantle passed to the current centre of government, Lilongwe.

At 8am we finally reach Liwonde National Park. The sign for Kutchire Lodge advises visitors to be aware of the potential for animals to wander into the grounds. No problem perhaps until you see that the list includes lions, cheetahs, rhinos and elephants. Safari time, baby.

There is a chuckle as someone points out that the notice bans loud noises then tells drivers to hoot and wait for the gate to be opened! Silent hoots presumably.

Welcome to Kutchire Lodge, Liwonde National Park
Kutchire Lodge base camp

We are given a brief induction by our guide before boarding a truck for the three-hour drive around the reserve. I’ve nipped to the toilet so I am one of the last to board, but things are looking up – quite literally – when I’m squeezed into the front row behind the driver with a cracking elevated view ahead. Only problem will be that I’m not sure that was actually a seat. Within a short time, the combination of the metal bar below me, the bumpiest of tracks and my anatomy will render this one of the more uncomfortable trips of my life.

Here we go…hopefully!
“I’d drive a million miles, in one of your trucks…”

Speaking of life, the driver’s first act doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this will be a given by the end of the trip. The sound as he turns the key in the ignition to zero response sends a chill through my heart at the prospect of meeting one of the Big Five en route. From my bird’s eye perch, I can see that the speedometer is reading 913,000. I’m wondering if that’s kilometres or miles then realise that it doesn’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. We’re about to head into a lion-infested nature reserve in a truck which has done the best part of a million whatevers and, well, doesn’t start. The front of the dashboard consists of a bunch of tangled wires where presumably once there was some of sort of navigational or communications equipment. It’s going to be an interesting morning to say the least.

By 9am, we see our first wildlife, an impala gracefully crossing the track ahead of us as a family of baboons go about their business. Both species plus the large waterbuck antelopes will be amongst the most common animals we see on this trip, in fact, rather disappointingly, the animals have decided to stay out of view in general, perhaps down to the time of day according to the increasingly exasperated driver. At one point, he is forced to stop the truck to announce the presence of a squirrel, much to the amusement (well, largely!) of the group.

Impalas and baboons

We’ve been travelling through the park in the African heat for well over two hours now, with the driver going through his mantra, “Impalas, waterbucks, killer squirrel…” The driver is on the phone from time to time, and occasionally he will pull up alongside another safari vehicle and have a chat with his colleague, presumably trying to establish if and where the animals have been spotted that morning. I turn to Lewis from Celtic FC Foundation and suggest that he’ll give it five more minutes before the call goes out for the guy in the lion costume to make an appearance, and, as if by magic, we’ve only travelled a short distance before Daktari stops the trip and raises his binoculars before proudly announcing “Cheetah!”

To be honest, I can’t see anything resembling a cheetah but as he indicates the direction and tree involved there is certainly something sitting there in the shade, and whilst we watch it gets up and moves slowly away. The driver looks like he has just won the Lottery but his day is just about to get better, as a few minutes later Ross shouts out “Lion!” Sure enough, around 100 metres to our right, a lioness is contemplating an impala or waterbuck dinner. She then decides that maybe a bit of variety in her diet is called for and examines the Scottish Tourist option, striding powerfully towards the truck as flashbacks of that failed ignition attempt earlier somewhat dilute the ambience of a very special moment. Thankfully, the lioness of Liwonde decides to pass behind us and into the trees on the far side and, a short time later, our lorryload of volunteers are enjoying lunch back at base camp, rather than being it.

Lunchtime at Liwonde…it’s behind you!

The afternoon involves a boat safari along the River Shire, and whilst it was enjoyable a combination of stormy waters bringing it to an end early and an absence of ‘big five’ wildlife dampens our spirits a bit. As always though, there is a laughter in abundance, particularly at ourselves as we tackle the various access and egress options available. Boarding the boat involves a short trip from the beach in a canoe, three by three unlike Noah’s project, as two locals drag us into the deeper water and the waiting barge. I’m Jimmy Krankie-size but the guys’ expressions as some of our six-footers jump into the canoe together are priceless.

We do see a crocodile/alligator resting on the bank and several hippos enjoying bathtime but it’s with a sense of relief that we make the return canoe journey back to dry land. It’s been a long, hot and rather uncomfortable day and the absence of the elephants in particular was a disappointment. Just one of those things, I guess.

It’s 7pm before we reach downtown Blantyre after the long journey home, but there is an unexpected surprise as we are allowed one hour in a local hotel bar before returning to Kubala Lodge. It feels really weird as we emerge in the darkness in a built-up area after a week spent in very different terrain.

Happiness is…an unexpected hour in a bar!

The Amaryllis is brightly lit overhead and once inside, some tables are pulled together as we enjoy a beer or a coffee in circumstances which we would normally take for granted but are now pretty special. Finn has ordered some beers and I’m enjoying one facing the bar, above which is a television set showing that Portugal have just gone a goal down to Croatia in what is presumably a pre-Euro 2024 warm-up match. The stadium is unfamiliar at first but with Portugal listed as the home team, I’m thinking it’s perhaps that one in the Algarve where both Celtic and Scotland have played in the past from memory. But then the TV camera spans to a view from behind one of the goals and there we have the unmistakeable vista of Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional in all its wonderful glory.

Photo @Tam_Selleck

So a group of Celtic supporters are sitting in a bar in downtown Blantyre, Malawi, watching a football match taking place on the very pitch where on one beautiful, magical, unforgettable evening back in May 1967, 11 Lions made history and put the gold star above our crest. What are the odds? It is a powerful, emotional moment.

I’m sitting with my brother. Amongst the Celtic supporters in the crowd that night was our dad, Matt Corr, and his brother-in-law Robert McGuire, our mum’s wee brother. Both are gone now, sadly, having followed Celtic all of their lives and taking with them that ultimate memory, witnessing the greatest day of them all in person.

Happy heavenly Father’s Day, Dad. Forever in our hearts and thoughts.

The Lisbon Lions – ‘The Men who put The Star above The Crest,’ Matt Corr

I’ve been blown away by the generosity of those who have already supported our efforts by donating to the various Just Giving pages of the volunteers. If you have a friend or relative on the trip then please do what you can to raise awareness of their efforts and donate if, what and when you can. You will find these pages at Celtic’s Malawi Adventure 2024 – JustGiving.

Matt’s Just Giving page is Matt Corr is fundraising for Celtic FC Foundation – just click HERE to donate…

Hail Hail!

Matt Corr with the Celtic FC Foundation volunteers in Malawi. Special thanks to @Tam_Selleck

Follow Matt on Twitter/X @Boola_vogue

About Author

Having retired from his day job Matt Corr can usually be found working as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park, or if there is a Marathon on anywhere in the world from as far away as Tokyo or New York, Matt will be running for the Celtic Foundation. On a European away-day, he's there writing his Diary for The Celtic Star and he's currently completing his first Celtic book with another two planned.

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