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Shire Valley

Dangers from Creatures in the Water

Lake Malawi is very safe for swimming. Swimming in the Shire River is suicide. (don’t swim in one of the other lakes – Chilwa Malombe etc.).

You know the song about 'messing about on the river'? That song is not applicable to the Shire River.

When in Malawi if someone tells you that something is ‘very dangerous’ it could mean that that some thing is close to suicide. It does not mean that the person telling you this is some jobs-worth from the local council trying to justify his job with unrealistic claims and wild exaggerations.

Strangely, and amazingly enough, when someone tells you that something is ‘safe’ then it probably means that it is…wait for it….safe. Wow! What a surprise! Hotel and lodge owners by Lake Malawi will tell a visitor who asks that it is safe to swim. (Normally people don’t ask – most people know it is safe). Don’t be suspicious of their vested interests. Just be aware of a few small ‘rules’ which are 1/ don’t swim between sunset and sunrise, 2/ don’t swim in the mouth of a river, 3/ don’t swim among reeds, 4/ do swim in an area recognised as being for human swimmers, tourists, villagers etc. and 5/ if swimming in a new area you find don’t do so without asking the locals first about whether there are crocodiles.

Lake Malawi is very safe – it is unlikely that you would need to know more than that. The biggest danger at Lake Malawi are mosquitoes. Take sensible precautions.

Beware of the danger of NOT swimming in the Lake. The regret associated afterwards with having missed out on The Lake may be bad for your health.

There is a pub argument over whether hippos or crocs are more dangerous. It is interesting to discuss the subject but it may come down to location and whether one means ‘killed directly’ or ‘killed indirectly’. I was reading the online comments of an angler brought up in Malawi who from his boat has witnessed people being taken by crocodiles in the Shire River – it is more common than most people think. The angler said that hippos can count as more dangerous if you mean that by capsizing a boat full of people who cannot swim the hippo has killed them (including the ones subsequently eaten by crocodiles).

Two years ago a Game Warden in Liwonde National Park said that 34 people had been killed by crocodiles so far that year in the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. Others I’ve spoken to locally back this up. This year I was told 10 or 15 so far this year in that particular stretch. They are local fishermen on dug out canoes fishing illegally at night. Wardens tell of meeting survivors they have saved (after all the other colleagues on the dug out canoes were killed) a couple of weeks later back on the canoe. An article I read by a licensed crocodile hunter said that at the worst time of year for it about two people a day are being killed by crocodiles in the Shire. This is an estimate – no one really knows.

Someone from America was telling me that when new to Malawi he went fishing in the Shire with his family. They waded in, with waders I think, as if they were fishing in the Tweed or the Tay… To be fair to them he did say that the current was moving so fast as they were next to a waterfall that he did not think a crocodile would be there…or could swim through it.

The next thing that happened was that a Malawian on the bank said “A crocodile is coming.” and he looked up and saw a mammoth croc coming very rapidly from the other side as if there was no current in the river at all. They all got out just in time.

Rules are:
don’t swim in rivers you don’t know – mountain streams on Mulanje are ok :-),
don’t go fishing on a dug out canoe in the Shire at night where there are a lot of crocodiles and hippos,
beware of hippos at night as they come out of the water and walk for miles eating grass. They are likely to kill you if you get between them and the water or their young
don’t swim even in the Lake at night
don’t paddle in rivers, especially the Shire
don’t walk on the banks of the Shire
don’t wash your clothes in the Shire River
don’t brush your teeth in the Shire River
don’t build sandcastles on the banks of the Shire River
when on a boat in the Shire do not drag your hand through the water to keep it cool

do you get a sense of where I am coming from with regard to the Shire River?

What about bilharzia in Lake Malawi? There is a tablet you can take if you are worried or concerned. Do not worry. I know one guy who works with wildlife in Malawi who tells me that when he goes to The Lake he spends all day in the water. He said he gets his food order from the hotel or guest house brought to him in the water. Bilharzia is dangerous if you live by the Lake and have no access to modern medicine. I really do not worry about bilharzia…at all. As I say, if you are concerned then get a check up a few months after swimming or take a tablet (pill). I did once hear about someone who had a complication connected with bilharzia. It was something unusual and connected with something else. Still, I think the biggest bilharzia risk for a western visitor is that it puts you off going into the Lake. Actually, there is another bilharzia risk if you are returning to the west. I made the mistake of mentioning, when in hospital, that I should get a bilharzia check. The medics were fascinated. They wanted to detain me. I realised that it was out of curiosity and because they wanted me as a specimen for their medical students. I got fed up with the time wasting to my day and discharged myself. I really could not be bothered. Maybe one day I’ll bother to get a check or take a tablet.

Now, I wanted to edit this post as the paragraph above does reflect something of the attitude of someone brought up here for who ‘bilharzia’ is a familiar word. There is an extent to which familiarity can breed contempt – including perhaps a feeling that the disease is nothing much to worry about if you have access to modern medicine (which is more of an issue for local villagers).

Coming into Africa for the first time an exotic sounding tropical disease could sound slightly more intimidating. It is partly the fear of the unknown. That is understandable. My advice is to take the required medication or get a check a few months after swimming and apart from that think nothing else of it.

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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.


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.

"hello"

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.


Lengwe National Park

We decided to go to Lengwe on Easter Monday.

The impala keep to the shade in the middle of the day


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.

I like the trees and plants in this low lying National Park


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.
Two female Nyala and an Impala
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.


Kamuzu View

On the way to Lengwe National Park we stopped off at Kamuzu View.

Ruth makes friends wherever she goes


Lengwe is in the Shire Valley which is at a much lower altitude than Blantyre. The horizontal distance from Blantyre to Lengwe is not that far so there is a steep drop down the escarpment. Half way down the first section of the road down is a place called Kamuzu View. It is very nice and a good place for a brief stop and a few snaps.

Ruth as usual found new friends. She was much less happy with me persuading her to pose for a photo in a tree.