Fuel is not readily available in Malawi just now. We filled up on Sunday however (luckily passed a petrol station with some and joined the queue) and with a full tank decided to get on the road.
My thinking is that if you don’t go on a trip when you get a full tank then it will inevitably be frittered away on small trips around town (Blantyre).
July is the coolest month of the year and so is therefore the best time to visit the Lower Shire Valley. This is the part if Malawi closest to sea level and therefore unbearable during the hottest time of the year.
It is nearly 10pm and I am sitting outside wearing a fleece, long trousers and feeling a bit cool. We are in Majete Wildlife Reserve staying at a bushcamp (?) under canvass under the starry skies. There is a waterhole a few yards away and I am sitting and waiting and hoping to see a rhino.
It was fascinating between an hour and half an hour ago as I and then we (when Amelia joined me) could quite clearly hear that there was something big in the trees nearby but could see nothing. Eventually buffalo emerged into the light next to the waterhole.
We plan to head on from here to the most southerly game reserve in Malawi (Mwabvi). It is more basic there, the campsite is undergoing renovation we hear and there are fewer animals. However, the scenery is said to be very different to other areas and wild and fascinating. So…my sense of exploration demands that we check it out.
We are supposed to be going on an early morning game drive tomorrow at 6am. I will get a boat ride (with the hippos and crocs) on the Shire but Ruth and David are not allowed. “You never know a hippo could capsize the boat.” we were told.
My hopes for sitting out at a different hide for the chance of seeing a rhino there were thwarted by national parks bureaucracy. Instead I am reduced to waiting at the camp and outside our chalet / tent in the cold waiting for luck.
The sky is amazing tonight. I can now, and for the last few minutes, hear something in the forest. It does not sound….as big as the earlier noises (which turned out to be African Buffalo).
I don’t know if I have the will to keep on waiting.
Earlier today we had close encounters with elephants, buffalo (not so close), zebra, sable, eland, impala, warthogs and nyala. Kudu? – I am not sure.
I now see something at the waterhole. Nyala I think.
Brian was in town yesterday evening so we met up at Doogles, a famous backpacker haunt in Blantyre. I had long heard about this place but never actually been.
Brian is the manager at the Nyala Lodge in Lengwe National Park. Nyala Lodge is probably the best place to stay in the Lower Shire and although busy he was up in Blantyre to meet family off the long distance bus.I headed to Doogles early to check out the information boards before he arrived. It turns out that they have a good map of Mulanje Mountain. I listened to travelers discuss their walking plans and mispronounce the names of some peaks. In a different mood I would have joined in the conversation to give them some advice – I just was not in that happy, friendly, independent traveler mood and instead concentrated on a game of snake on my mobile phone.
Doogles has a pool, a bar, a lounge, what looks like a garden and of course some notice-boards of interest to travelers. I did not bother requesting a look at the rooms. I took address and direction notes on a disabled people’s ‘factory’ on the outskirts of Limbe. I am interested to see what standard and level of crafts are produced – and how they are produced. What Malawi can export is something I am trying to pick up on.
When Brian arrived he caught me drinking from a bottle of water so I remedied the situation by buying him a drink. I don’t think he particularly enjoyed the public transport journey up from the Shire Valley.
One of the reasons for us meeting up was that Ruth left her ‘Princess’ bag at Nyala Lodge in Lengwe National Park. Her great fear was that monkeys or baboons would steal her bag but I assured her that Brian would keep it safe in his house. Brian said we should transfer this bag before I left. Fearing that we would forget I said that I did not mind sitting with a Princess bag next to me for all to see.
Brian says that the tourist industry in Malawi is doing very well this year – a big change. They have been fully booked and Jambo Africa, who own the lodge but also do bookings throughout the country, are seeing a big increase this year. Brian said that this looks as though it will continue throughout the year.
We speculated on the reasons for this and wondered whether the fatal drugs taken by western governments to ‘stimulate’ – or produce a final death kick to the world economy was resulting in false optimism. Also mentioned were Icelandic volcanic clouds and perhaps the thought that flying south would avoid flight disruption – possible. I suggested that tourism to Japan was probably down and would cause a ripple out to other areas. Perhaps there is a ‘lets try the southern hemisphere’ mood this year. If that is true then it sounds sensible to me.
I asked Brian if there were any general themes coming over in conversation with visitors at his lodge. He said that everyone who comes says that they would like to move to Malawi – but of course don’t, they head back.
I told him about my conversation with Darren at Bushman’s Baobabs next to Liwonde National Park. In the context of a mention of the weather Darren had asked “How is it been in Britain recently?”
I told Brian that I was 60% sure that this was a sarcastic question and 40% sure that he was asking about British weather (another form of sarcasm I suppose). Darren’s supplementary question removed all doubt “Why do people still live there?”
My answer – 1/ family ties and 2/ inertia. After some further thought I decided that ‘fear of the unknown’ was another factor that slowed down mass emigration from Britain.
Brian and I agreed that family ties is a powerful factor. I mentioned that I had seen in my own wider family a lot of movement based on where other members of the family have moved to. The way people should look at the pull of family ties is to take the lead – make the move and encourage close relatives to follow. When it comes to the pull of family ties one should aim to do the pulling…in the right direction.
Our discussions were interrupted by a text message. ‘Check the moon dude’ Brian was told and he headed over to the pool and stared up. After he came back I mentioned that I had noticed a great white full moon earlier on my way to Doogles and so I went out to have another look.
I was surprised to see what was either a disruption of cosmic proportions….or a lunar eclipse.
This morning Ruth was happy to see her long lost Princess bag.
It was the first time I had dared take the family into the Shire Valley overnight (given the fearsome mosquito and malaria reputation down there). However, Lengwe is a very dry area and I was easily (and correctly) convinced that we would have less of a problem there than in Blantyre.We headed off early on Saturday so that we could do something else while down there and I thought we would try out Nyala Park. Nyala Park is not really ‘the wild’ as it is an area within one of the huge sugar growing areas owned by a large sugar company. However, it is a large area that is in most ways a bit like the wild except for the perimeter fence. We were given a map at the entrance. I did not count the number of ‘roads’ but I guess it would have been thirty – I am trying to quantify in some way how big the place is. Let’s say it is huge or massive or colossal on the scale of a zoo (and there is only one animal pen and you are in it with your car) but it is miniscule on the scale of a National Park or wildlife reserve. I suppose it is something like the shape of a square with a few miles (not many) from one side to another. We drove around for a while (after I had secretly discussed with the wildlife staff where the best places for spotting animals might be) and after a bit we spotted (or Amelia spotted and I identified) two sable! That was quite a surprise as I did not think that there were many of those in these parts. Amelia was very impressed and thought that they looked like something out of Narnia. Next there was a moment that I have been waiting for – the first sighting of a giraffe. We were in a heavily wooded area with a great deal of leaves and tree cover overhead when and round a corner and there is was. I think Amelia saw the other two or three giraffes several meters away to our right while next to the car on the left towered a quite awe inspiring sight. These are impressive creatures – there is something extraordinary about them. They stared down on us for a long while – clearly deep in thought.
From then we quickly saw a lot of zebra, nyala and other giraffes including the young of all three. It was a good trip but not, of course, as satisfying as seeing them in a real national park – but still quite impressive.
Before long we were in Lengwe for lunch. We had a very good deal for full board (three meals) and a night in (to me) very nice accommodation.
Brian, who we had met on the previous Easter Monday, met us and was again friendly, helpful and full of information and conversation. We soaked in the pool waiting for a late afternoon drive (Amelia was determined to see Buffalo – even if she has to imagine seeing them).
We set off on a different route to the one we had taken on Monday. I knew it would be less fruitful but it was interesting never-the-less. Brian warned us not too be too late as he would have to come looking for us otherwise and his vehicle was low on diesel. Of course I pushed my luck and as the light was failing we were delayed by the very fortunate sighting of a python. As I was driving along I thought to myself that the tree lying across the road looked quite like a snake – not for a minute believing of course. There are leopards in Lengwe but the idea of actually seeing one to me was just a joke – finding a python was in approximately the same category. (The great thing about seeing wildlife in Malawi is that there is a certain amount of unpredictability about it all – you get a sense of satisfaction from the accomplishment of seeing certain species.
Unfortunately the light was very dim and the serpent began to withdraw from the road. Taking a photo was a rushed job and we have two very bad photos of it and another taken speculatively with flash into the bush once it had escaped the car headlights.
The dinner was good and some of the slabs of meat very well sized. Joining us for the BBQ were five southern Baptist missionaries – one in the country long term and the others here for a week. At the other end of the table were a south African couple in mining in Mozambique (Tete) who had come to escape to the comparative paradise of Malawi for the weekend.
Later the American missionary told me his tale of fishing (wading in) in the Shire River when he was new to Malawi. My hair stood on end – I would not go near that river. A Malawian said ‘there is a crocodile coming’ and he and his family looked through the raging current to see a twenty foot crocodile speeding towards them. They all got away but were too terrified to collect their abandoned fishing equipment.
Next day I rose at five for my own sunrise drive (wife and kids more sensible) – it feels different and lonely at that time of day. I was determined to scout out a waterhole somewhere away from the road that Brian had told me about. I was nervous as I drove through the bush as it is a miles from the camp and the signs that a vehicle had once driven this way would sometimes almost disappear. I knew that if I lost this vague track I’d be lost. I did find it – but no wildlife and after this did not feel at all like driving again for a few hours and instead lazed around the pool.
Eventually Amelia’s determination to find buffalo and my rest resulted in a final trip where Amelia assured me that the very distant ‘large animals’ were in fact buffalo. I can’t comment – I don’t know. We did however make our way back to the remote waterhole I had earlier found and we found the elusive Kudu that I was interested in seeing.
After saying goodbye to Brian we headed back in time for a shower and joined the largely Azungu group at 5 in the building next to the old clocktower. Crispin was there and it was interesting to hear what he had to say. It was nice to see people but somehow I prefer the traditional Chechewa.
Later we received a call from Brian. Ruth had left her pink ‘princess’ bag at the lodge… There were tears before bedtime and Ruth told me that she did not want a monkey to take her bag away.
That was Sunday night and we then stayed in bed for 12 hours – I think I slept 11.
We decided to go to Lengwe on Easter Monday.
That part of the Shire Valley is very flat and the road is long wide and straight for quite a way in a couple of parts. Being down in this hot zone made us think that we are doing well to have an air-conditioned car – especially with little David.
I called to everyone to look out for crocodiles as we crossed the Shire River but I was not really bothering to slow down or stop.
Lengwe National Park used to be the more popular of the National Parks / Game Reserves in the Shire Valley and I remembered visiting it as a child. I also remembered that it is a good place for walking as there are no elephants or lions. One highlight is going to the hides that they have near a waterhole where the animals will go to drink after the hottest part of the day is over. I think that the good thing about looking for wildlife in Malawi is the challenge. You have to be quiet (when on foot) and keep your eyes peeled. So when you see something – especially something which you might not be expected to see – it feels great. It is not like going to the zoo or to some of the ‘best’ other African wildlife areas where you are guaranteed to see everything just by turning up. I prefer the challenge and the appeal of the unknown and the unpredictable.
These days Majete is the best known and most visited Game Reserve in this part of Malawi. It has more of the big beasts. I do however know the guy who used to visit this place on his own (from age 10!) and who claims that at one point in time Majete was ‘his’ as he was the only visitor. He claimed that he woke up one night and wondered why he could not see any stars – he then realised that he was under an elephant.
When we signed in at the entrance to Lengwe I could not help but notice that we were the only visitors entering this national park that day.
One advantage of an off peak visit is that you can spend more time talking to the people who work there. We met Brian who is the new manager at Nyala Lodge. He is a long time African wildlife person who left Zimbabwe a long time ago. I had a whole series of questions for him and was interested to find some answers that were very different to others I had asked of other wildlife experts.
He kindly invited us to a BBQ on Saturday evening at Nyala Lodge which would allow us to do a late afternoon wildlife tour – a better time than the middle of the day tour we had planned for this particular trip.
After a couple of drinks we dragged Ruth away from her latest swimming pool and headed off into the wilds of Lengwe.
Lengwe has the most northerly populating of Nyala in Africa but there are far more impala than anything else. The other things we saw plenty of were baboons, monkeys and warthogs.
Amelia was keeping her eyes peeled for African Buffalo and I wanted to see Kudu. We did not even consider the possibility of seeing leopards as there are few of them and they know how to hide…
I read that this is a great place for bird-watchers.
The most exciting part of the day was the long drive through the bush – especially when the ‘road’ nearly disappeared in the long grass. Eventually after a long long bit of driving the road did end. I got out to examine the situation. There was a tree lying across the road and with what else was growing I could see that this point had not been passed for a long time.
I did not think that this was the best place for this to happen as we were near the end of the day and it was a very long drive back where we had come. I was not even exactly sure where we were but did think that we were probably heading in the right direction.
Soon we found a way round all these trees and plants and eventually back onto what looked like the road.
After exchanging contact details at Nyala Lodge we headed back up to the Highlands and into Blantyre for 6 o’clock. Amelia commented that it felt like 11pm.
We had a long sleep to end the Easter holiday. Sometime twelve hours in bed is necessary.