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National Parks

On the way to the Lake – Liwonde National Park

Our big August holiday was to the Lake and Likoma Island. We took the Ilala boat from Monkey Bay to Likoma Island and returned just over a week later. It was a beach and scuba diving holiday.

Between Blantyre and Monkey Bay a good place to stop is Liwonde National Park. It is half way. Early European explorers in this place reported seeing an extraordinary variety and concentration of wildlife here. The first missionaries, from David Livingstone onwards, en route from the Indian Ocean to the Lake took their steamer along the Shire River through what is now Liwonde National Park.

Darren's Domain. The 'living room' at Bushman's Baobabs: armchairs, sofas, books, a bar and conversation.

We wanted to stay at Bushman’s Baobabs, a new place run by Darren, the previous owner of Chinguni Hills Lodge, towards the southern edge of the National Park.

We took a ‘canoe safari’ from the Shire river tributary next to Bushman’s Baobabs into a large lagoon adjoining the Shire River itself. Assured that it was safe because the experienced local boatman sticks to shallow waters (too shallow for crocodiles to get any upward trajectory) and knows what distance to keep from the hippos, we got on board.

Others were on another canoe from Bushman's Baobabs

Our canoe kept a safe distance from the hippos

It is an ideal way of getting among the animals and birds in their natural environment. Over 400 species of birds have been spotted in Liwonde National Park and even for a non bird lover for me it was clear that there was an extraordinary variety of birds round every corner. Unfortunately we did not see any elephants drinking but we did see many other species of wild mammals.

The next day we were ready for Monkey Bay.


More on Bushman’s Baobabs

I just finished congratulating myself on writing a brief blog post and now I have decided to fill in a few more details.

For photos you will have to wait as I am using my wordpress iPhone app and am uploading these words via the mobile phone network.

We decided to stop at Bushman’s Baobabs because it is very very roughly ‘half way’ between Blantyre and Monkey Bay (it’s on the way to Monkey Bay), we’d only stopped for lunch there before while staying in Liwonde, Sam Ncozana said it was a favourite place of his when he is taking groups about, I wanted to bounce some things of Darren and the wall-less lounge area looked like a good chilled out place for a long yarn into the night.

The other bonuses are that you can hear hippo while lying awake at night and because it is far enough from city and town lights you get a great view of the southern sky at night.

There were four others staying there last night, two Dutch and two Germans. They were all very nice and I decided to be my usual diplomatic self so at dinner asked whether the Dutch or Germans are better at football.

I discussed with them the complications of getting accurate information from a three year old (Ruth (e.g. when she claims to be sick)) when she is so good at blending the real and imaginary worlds together. One of the Dutch girls then said that Ruth had told them that she had just seen a lion eating a man. Although we thought that was funny daddy does not approve of this kind of conversation and she has recently started talking about subjects that mum and dad either don’t approve of or think that she talks about too much. It is getting to the stage where her two imaginary friends Poppy and Saisha are dying even more frequently than they are having birthdays. It was more innocent a few weeks ago as they were merely being bitten by crocodiles on a daily basis.

We planned a canoe trip taking us out This particular lagoon was a place for only rare sightings of the crocs as it does not have good sunbathing and resting spots for them apparently. We were also told it was too shallow to be dangerous and that it was fine to take children. What the wildlife experts tell you…you believe, accept and trust.

Still I warned Ruth not to put her hands in the water.

Amelia was a bit more on edge at the prospect of meeting hippos but the guide just laughed and said that he knew how close to the hippos was safe. I knew that Amelia was wary as she asked on a couple of occasions for confirmation on whether that sound of a hippo was very close.

The whole trip lasted about two and a half or three hours. It was something like being punted on the river in Oxford or Cambridge except that the boat was a four or five man canoe (not a dug out canoe I hasten to add). The other difference was that you were in the wilds of Africa and could easily meet bathing or drinking elephants.

Amelia asked the names of every exotic and strange or beautiful looking bird she saw – so those questions were being asked seemingly constantly. Our boatman seemed to know his birds. I’d already heard that 435 species had been seen in Liwonde National Park (compared with about six or nine hundred in the whole of North America I’d also heard). Amelia and I agreed that our birder friends would be in raptures here.

On the wildlife front we saw waterbucks, impalas, a bushbuck, warthogs, monkeys, hippos and baboons. We did not see any elephants (although our guide could see them on the far bank) and there was no chance of seeing a big cat as the few that there are here are nocturnal.

In the lagoon we stayed close to the shore where it is shallower. We could see illegal fishermen in the distance on the main part of the Shire River. I asked our guide how dangerous it was for them and asked specifically for an estimate on how many would be killed in a year on this stretch of the river from Liwonde town up into and through the national park.

“10 or 15”

“What is more dangerous for them, hippos or crocs?”


“I thought hippos tipped them out of their dug out canoes and then the crocs would eat them…?”

“yes, that also happens.”

“So how do the crocodiles get them otherwise?”

“In deeper water the crocodile can swim from deep down in the river and then jump out enough to grab the fisherman on his dug out canoe.”

I then told him about my conversation with another game warden further up the river in Liwonde National Park at Mvuu Camp.

“I was told that 34 people, illegal fishermen, had been killed so far that year (2009) in Liwonde National Park.”

“Yes! That is very possible.”

Of course I think that many of these fatalities are at night when the fishermen think that the National Parks wardens will not see them. At night the hunting instinct of the crocodile comes out. The other factors in our favour I understood to be the shallow water, the relative scarcity of crocodiles in that particular area, knowing where the hippos are and knowing how far to stay from them.

The beauty of the ‘canoe safari’ is that you are surrounded by the beauty and the wilds of Africa for a few hours. I have now been fortunate enough to have been on three very different kinds of ‘boat safari’ on the Shire River, two on the Upper Shire in Liwonde National Park and one in the Lower Shire in Majete Game Reserve.

After a very nice lunch it was time for a nap and then onto the road to Monkey Bay.

For the en-suite accommodation, food, canoe safari, drinks and conversation Bushman’s Baobabs is very good value for money. Darren also does A-Frame tents and Dorms.

Shire Valley – 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…

The Shire Valley – part 1

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.

Cape Maclear History – Part 1

Robert Laws handwriting can be seen on this 1891 map of the mission grounds – Cape Maclear by PA Cole-King

Cape Maclear has played an interesting part in the history of Malawi. In September this year it will be 150 years from the time that David Livingstone first saw and named Cape Maclear.

The best book to read, that I am aware of, for a quick history, is ‘Cape Maclear’ by PA Cole-King. There may still be a copy for sale in Mandala House upstairs in the library. Otherwise you can turn to the much longer and weightier ‘Laws of Livingstonia’ and ‘Livingstone’s Lake’.

Robert Laws, possibly the greatest missionary to set foot in Malawi and the leader of the Livingstonia mission, set up base at Old Livingstonia (Cape Maclear) before moving on to Bandawe and Livingstonia.

These three books are my main sources for this blog post.

David Livingstone first set foot on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1859, 150 years to the day before I last stood on the shores of Lake Malawi before my last return to the UK. It was also 150 years to the day before Ian Tallach and his new bride Carrie began their honeymoon on Lake Malawi. [I was only on their honeymoon for just over 24 hours].

Like me, David Livingstone decided that he needed to spend more time exploring the Lake and returned two years later. So now, two years later is the time of my exploration and 150 years from the time when David Livingstone was looking for a natural harbour from where a mission on the Lake could be based. On his return to Britain Livingstone says “we rounded the grand mountainous promontory, which we named Cape Maclear, after our excellent friend Sir Thomas Maclear the Astronomer Royal..” and he further refers to “the great harbour to the west of Cape Maclear” which would “form a magnificent harbour.”

David Livingstone’s brother was there and he refers to burying grounds that in some way impressed him and the people of a neighbouring village who were friendly and brought food for sale. The interesting point about that is that the first Europeans to make a base there fourteen years later found no villagers but did find the burial grounds.

Southern Lake Malawi Map today – Cape Maclear in light green

David Livingstone never returned to Cape Maclear but did see it from higher ground in 1863 and in his last great journey in 1866 he passed the ‘base’ of Cape Maclear (I presume that that means the part of the Cape Maclear peninsula attached to the ‘mainland’ – to the west of Monkey Bay on the way to Salima?).

It was when passing Cape Maclear for the last time that Livingstone met an Arab slaver with slaves. It was this Arab who spread fear among Livingstone’s followers over the danger of the Ngoni. It was that day that some of Livingstone’s followers left him and returned to Zanzibar with the false and self serving story that Livingstone had been murdered.

In 1867 a search party sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society stopped at Cape Maclear just after they had established that the reports of David Livingstone’s murder nearby were false. Faulkner describes meeting a crocodile on the beach and says of the hills behind which he attempted and failed to climb saying “I never saw such huge masses of rock piled up in the way they are here.” He describes the “magnificent” lake and the smooth and blue waters within the natural harbour in contrast to the “fury” along the western shore. From as high as he could get on the hill he describes watching his ship ‘The Search’ attempting, and failing, to sail out of the calm waters in the narrow gap between the mainland and Domwe island. How did he know that they were not trying to leave without him? Also on the search party Young said “for a settlement nothing more could be desired” and Faulkner regretted that “…we were to leave this beautiful lake, perhaps for ever.”

After this search mission the next foreign (foreign European that is) visitors arrived eight years later. Without doubt Arab visitors would have continued to pass that way ‘on business’.

The next group of Scottish visitors came to stay, at least for a while. They included former slaves freed by David Livingstone. This was the group, inspired after the real death of Livingstone, who contained the first members of the two great missions – Livingstonia (from the Free Church of Scotland) and Blantyre (from the Church of Scotland). These two groups began modern health, education and (non slave trade) industry in Malawi. They played the crucial roles in defeating the slave trade, halting Portuguese colonial ambitions, dragging the British in (largely against their will) to provide protection from slavers and Portugal, and in bringing peace between waring genocidal tribes. These elements, including much more comprehensive education than practiced by other missions brought about the beginning of a Malawian national consciousness. Of course, it is much more complicated than that. There were a lot of failures, setbacks, scandals and mistakes. On the whole, and learning the lessons of the Anglican mission failures, they refused to do the job of fighting the slavers directly or applying political control and administration. They were however a constant thorn in the side of the Foreign Office and later the colonial authorites.

Many early missionaries paid a high price without seeing the fruit of their labours

I almost forgot – the missionaries also translated the bible and brought Christianity to Malawi. That and the defeat of the slave trade were their primary motivations.

Now, I can’t be bothered to write anymore just now so will just have to stop here – for now. As I say, you really need to buy the books.

If I continue with further installments you will read about….

The curious price paid for the land by the mission
A mauling by a leopard
The Roman Catholic on the presbyterian mission
The English… on a Scottish outpost
Death and disease – the personal prices paid by the missionaries
The first convert – and his achievements
The first circumnavigation of the Lake
The Elephant on Elephant Island (Mumbo Island)
The first Roman Catholic to die a violent death in Malawi
How Robert Laws nearly walked all the way ‘downstream’ to the coast for the post (only to be passed by ‘the postman’ on the other side of the Zambezi).
Bad news from Blantyre
Rules of engagement with slave drivers
The moving away of the mission and the arrival of tourists
The price paid by the government for the purchase of the land – and why
The flying boat service from the UK to Cape Maclear
The new Irish clinic at Cape Maclear opening decades after the Scottish one closed
The origins of Chembe village
Hiccups Bar

and much much more – of course.

Elephant and Thumbi Islands Sunset – that’s enough history for tonight

Lengwe National Park: Part II

There was a long 'stare-out'

Having been invited to a BBQ at Nyala Lodge (and having seen the ridiculous film ‘Yes’ (where you always say ‘yes’ in response to a question or suggestion)) we decided to head down to Lengwe National Park for a serious meat feast on Saturday night.

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.

Fellow Road User

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).

"Mr and Mrs Warthog and family did not join us for the BBQ....I don't think."

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.

Impala are better than pythons when it comes to posing

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.

Early morning light in Lengwe

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.

Ruth's fear was that a monkey would steal her pink bag

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.