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.
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.