On Sunday we filled up with fuel and informed my wife of my ‘theory of petrol’ which is basically – if you get a full tank of fuel go on a long drive into the countryside. When there is a little bit of a fuel shortage it is better to use the fuel on a trip that you really want rather than fritter it away on short trips around Blantyre. Also, it is often the case that when there is a fuel shortage it is easier to fill up at a rural petrol station rather than in a crowded city centre.
I had actually forgotten, or it was only at the back of my mind, that demonstrations were planned in the main cities in Malawi. This was not the reason for heading out of town but many people avoided the city centre on Wednesday and some other days.
So, once ready on Tuesday we headed for Majete Game Reserve. I am not that clear on the difference between a National Park and a Game Reserve but together they are the wild – the large areas of the country reserved for wild animals and their habitat. Humans have a role here of course and that includes, hopefully, the prevention of poaching. The government provides the legal framework etc and tourists and visitors provide the finance via the entry fees and so on. Wealthy others provide more finance for well conceived projects.
The need for the success of these places in the wild is obvious when you consider the explosion in the human population over the last few decades. When my dormant interest in Malawi was awoken two years ago and I started reading anything and everything about Malawi I noticed that quite a lot had changed on the wildlife front since my time in Malawi. There was bad news – and there was good news. The bad news included a massive reduction in the numbers of animals in Kasungu National Park which was the primary wildlife area (for visitors at least) in Malawi when I was growing up. Majete was one of the good news stories. For those who think of Africa as the home and habitat of free lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocs, antelope, cheetah, wild dogs, buffalo and giraffe etc the bad news was not bad enough to provoke despair. The good news was something that gave real hope.
Majete is part of the good news in Malawi. It is an interesting joint project between the Wildlife and National Parks department of the government (whatever it’s correct name is) and a private, not for profit, organisation called Africa Parks.
Majete lies in the Shire Valley which is the lowest lying (and hottest) part of Malawi. It is just west of the Shire River but includes that great river. It’s southern end co-incides with where Livingstone and the other early missionaries were forced out of their steamers and where they had to dismantle their boats, climb (above the waterfalls) and then reassemble their self assembly British built river and lake going crafts for the final trip to the Lake. So the river there is large, fast flowing and includes spectacular water falls. Due to the hot temperatures we had always planned to visit this part of the country in the coolest month of the year – July.
We planned to stay at Thawale Camp which is a mid-range type of accommodation. The accommodation is set within sight of a waterhole and consists of a part concrete part canvass type of structure. There are six of these and we certainly liked where we stayed. The other structure there is the bar and restaurant. You have to remember that you are in the wild when there. Particularly at night elephants, hippos, buffalo and other dangerous animals are likely to walk right past you and between the buildings.
After passing through the entry gates we were encouraged to stop at the ‘community museum / shop’ which is a tastefully built structure selling local crafts and so on. Africa Parks, and anyone doing this kind of work, has to work with the local communities. You simply cannot conserve wildlife and their habitat if you are working against, and not in co-operation with, the people from the villages that surround the areas designated for the wild. Given the size of these places and the population, particularly in this part of Malawi, that is a lot of people.
We were told, at the gates, that there were elephants right there and Amelia cynically commented that this was a clever marketing ploy. As is often the case in Malawi cynicism can be misplaced and the people there told us that the elephants were between the community museum and a place lower down where the community campsite is located. So we took that immediate detour and sure enough came as close to elephants as I have been in a car when also the ‘responsible individual’. Amelia as usual in these situations was bordering on fearful (scared), I was cautious – universally regarded as the right policy in this circumstance.
After taking a couple of pictures we headed on down the road and were very impressed by the community campsite and Amelia wondered if we should cancel our night at the mid-range camp and stay here in a budget tent or up on a platform. I thought we should keep to our reservation.
At Thawale we were welcomed by Zac and Amelia who manage Thawale for Africa Parks. We chatted for a while and learned quite a lot. Amelia’s are quite rare in Malawi so to get a sighting of two in a Game Reserve where they are even more scarce than rhinos is an unusual experience.
Relaxation was high on the list of priorities so we went for an afternoon nap before building up the energy for a ‘game drive’. Zac had mentioned the idea of a stake-out at one of the water-holes further into the reserve which rhinos were known to frequent at night. The idea would be to see them by moonlight and I thought that the full moon was not that long past it might be a possibility. Unfortunately Zac could not get permission from ‘law enforcement’ in the Parks Department. Nocturnal activity is restricted in Majete for various reasons including the temperament of the animals (many elephants have experience of human / animal conflict), the availability of trained and qualified personnel and who of those who are qualified are actually given permission (Zac has all the experience and paperwork) and bureaucracy. I was disappointed but accepted the decision – I was not going to go on a lone defiant drive.
On our pre-nightfall drive we took a route that included a couple of waterholes (including the previously discussed one) and avoided the road closest to the Shire River (save that for the next day I thought). We did see a lot of impressive sights including Zebra and Eland and we arrived at one waterhole just as elephants were leaving. Despite their still close proximity we still got out of the car to climb up into the hide above the waterhole. Anyone who likes tree houses will like these particular hides.
As usual in these circumstances I timed our return so that we were pushing the nightfall boundary and the closer we got to Thawale the more I took little detours to check out various interesting (now riverside) views. We saw the Eland in the fading light just before we got back. We had met another couple visiting – he, Mark from South Africa, had said that his favourite animal was the eland. His descriptions later in the evening of how high it can jump despite it’s great size was one of those interesting evening fireside conversations. We had not exactly spotted a rhino on our trip but seeing an eland was enough for some fireside evening conversation credibility.
That night I was fascinated by the sounds coming from the forest round about. “What is it that is making those sounds?” It sounded very close and large and I had the confident feeling that it was just about to emerge into the moonlight. They must have taken a detour as Amelia spotted a herd of buffalo arriving at the waterhole in front of us.
Later Amelia spotted something large coming slowly in our direction. By the time I could see that it was an elephant it was very close to the front porch where I was situated. I retreated inside and watched it pass within six or seven yards of the bathroom window.
Later I heard a gunshot or two. In the morning it turned out that the ‘gunshot’ was an elephant pushing over and snapping a large tree.
Now…this is where the story really begins… (watch this space for part 2).
We have had a fantastic and very interesting time down here in the Shire Valley. Just now in the far south in Mwabvi Game Reserve. The generator is on for another 15 minutes and after that point I will have no internet on mobile phone connections until some time tomorrow.
We have reached the farthest and most southern reaches of our Malawi adventure. On the way we found and saw a black rhino outside of their known range with Majete Game Reserve. More later…
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.