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Wildlife

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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Danger, Risk and Safety in Malawi – Part 1 – General

Let us have a look at the dangers....and work out how to be safe.

I said I would try to add a blog post once every two days. I have not kept to that this week. For that reason I am pulling out something I worked on earlier. I have divided what I have written into three parts so far.

Risks – general
Risks – animals on land
Risks – creatures in the water

They will be divided into different blog posts. Perhaps I will write about other kinds of risks. Mountains, health and roads spring to mind.

There is so much to write. If you do not want to read it all then just read the following paragraph which sums it all up.

The purpose of this blog post is to point out that Malawi is very safe….but only if you respect and adhere to the safety rules.

Malawi is, generally speaking, a safe country to visit. I feel safer here than I do in my home country. In that sense however I am meaning ‘safe’ in a sense that is wider than purely ‘physical’ safety. I mean how relaxed I feel about life’s full set of dangers, particularly with regard to children. If you are an expat here or a reasonably well to do Malawian, then Malawi can be a great place for children and their families.

When talking about the concept of ‘physical danger’ I also feel pretty safe in Malawi. The main point I want to make in this blog post however is that your safety here assumes that you know, understand and avoid specific dangers here. Dangers that will be very different to the dangers in your own country.

Crocodile

Of course over-reactions as well as under-reactions to warnings can and do occur. Understanding the issues and how to be safe is the key. Understanding is not difficult at all if explained.

There is a problem of so called ‘cultural misunderstandings’ to do with risks, dangers and safety. In the west we have a ‘health and safety’ culture that has been pushed to bureaucratic extremes. Some people are happy enough with the fact that ‘health and safety’ removes personal discretion over risk taking. Many others, myself included, think that health and safety regulations in many places is out of control, counter-productive and often irrational. [I remember looking at a packet of nuts for sale in the UK. Written on the side was the following warning ‘WARNING: MAY CONTAIN NUTS.’]

Over-regulating health and safety is nuts. In the UK there was a ban on ‘beef on the bone’ while at the same time we were informed that we faced greater danger of being hit by a meteorite if we went out into our gardens. Prince Charles openly and in front of the media defied this beef on the bone ban. I heard that in Australia you are not allowed to drive along the road with your window down and one of your arms resting and catching a little of the breeze – because one person once had an accident. Personally I’d rather take responsibility for my own actions.

It would be understandable then for some people coming to Malawi to think that guidelines or warnings on what is dangerous are ‘the usual exaggerations and over-reactions just there to give someone a job and to allow someone else to boss people around.’ Actually, if you are told that such and such a thing in Malawi is dangerous then the chances are that it is very dangerous. I have seen people sneering at certain warnings as if they were listening to some functionary from the Health and Safety Department from the local council in the UK.

Learn about safety on the mountains - especially Mulanje. This mountain is different to other (lesser) mountains. Understand the various kinds of risks here and the single most important rule to remain safe. I know two people who nearly died up here (including my dad) and one who was killed. I take my children up. It is safe - if you obey the rules.

I know of a lot of violent tragic deaths that have occurred in Malawi. I know of quite a number of people who have come very close to death in the mountains, near animals and in the water (including my dad). I cannot think of a single example of where the individual in question was not going against or was outside of a ‘safety rule.’ Sometimes that being ‘outside of the safety rules’ has come about due to a development of circumstances rather than because they were ignored. In other words I can think of no ‘freak accident’ deaths were the person involved was within the safety guidelines and rules. A freak accident could always happen – but it could happen anywhere.

It is as if there is no middle ground. If you respect and adhere to the safety guidelines – you are very safe. If you break the safety rules then you may be in real danger.

So, when you visit Malawi you will be very safe because you will simply follow the guidelines won’t you?

This does not mean that in Malawi there are all sorts of exciting adventurous things that you must not do. No. What I mean is with the many exciting, adventurous and fun things you can do here there are a few specifics you must not do and a few specifics that you should do. Danger warnings here are not ‘killjoys’ – they are just about how to enjoy without being killed. This is Africa, it is not Disneyland Paris.

I want to explain, with examples, that defying warnings about dangers in Malawi can be much much more dangerous than some might suppose.

Another potential problem on the risk front is the assumption that what is done in one’s own country is the only sensible or rational way to do things. Actually, if things are done differently in a different country, and that society accepts and takes account of that different way of doing things, then it gains it’s own inherent rationale. Some people who have only lived in one country all their lives and have not thought about it might find it hard to get this. (I could give examples to do with driving conventions and expectations).

A related problem is not to realise that Malawians may have a different ‘risk threshold’ compared with many westerners. I am not criticising Malawians for accepting too much risk – I am saying that people can have widely different assessments of what is constitutes too much risk. There are perfectly legitimate personal subjective judgments involved here. Differences are not only between individuals – the bell curve of acceptable risk will be different in different countries and ‘cultures’ – if you know what I mean.

I am quite happy on the other hand to criticise overly paranoid westerners for attempting to tie themselves up in cotton wool. Now that is what I call an unacceptable risk – the risk of missing out on life. There is also the risk of not knowing how to deal with risk when it arises.

I think I come somewhere in between paranoid westerners and average Malawians with regard to my own risk thresholds.

The next post in this series will either be about animals on land or creatures in the water!

I could write about other things – we will see.


Huntingdon House at Satemwa Tea Estate

Let us have a look around this tea estate

On Saturday morning we decided to check out some tourist spots that we have somehow not seen so far.

First stop was Game Haven. This place is advertised as offering top end accommodation in the Blantyre area (actually it is just over the border in Thyolo District). We had been intrigued to hear that it is the nearest place to Blantyre offering ‘game drives’ to see a reasonable selection of animals within a large fenced off area. The animals were no where to be seen near the lodge – we did not actually make an effort to look to be honest. We were told however that with all the work going on to build a golf course, a swimming pool and more chalets and rooms the animals had retreated to the farther reaches of the large fenced off area.

I hope that all the building work goes well and that when it is finished Game Haven will provide great five star accommodation with zebras and nyalas grazing on the golf course. I wish them all the best and hope that their vision turns into reality. I certainly would not fault them on ambition.

Imagine rolling hills of tea like this for as far as you can see and then you can imagine a tea estate. The landscape could hardly be more different to that at Game Haven.

We did not stay long and headed off to the other end of the upmarket spectrum to experience some old colonial style life in a tea estate.

Satemwa Tea Estate is a family run and owned tea estate and the family of the Scotsman who started it all in the 1920s are still living there.

Huntingdon House itself is no longer occupied by the family. They are elsewhere on the estate. This place is therefore a great place for visitors to relax.

Huntington House is the original family home and the rooms are named in accordance with who used to sleep where. We thought that it was a great place to stop and relax and I would recommend this place as well as Fisherman’s Rest as good locations for a relaxing day away from Blantyre.

In addition to eating and drinking other activities on offer are tea tasting, coffee tours, bird walks, walking, picnicking, mountain biking and croquet. The nearby Thyolo mountain has unique sub species of birds.

An elderly member of the family, now eighty, had this room when a child.

Ruth enjoyed the courtyard and especially the goldfish

Apparently 'The Chapel' was rarely used even at the best of times. Now the 'honeymoon suite'.

We liked the fact that there were islands of old trees preserved among the tea. They were good to drive through. One thing that Malawi needs is the conservation of trees and forests.

We did plan to go on to Mulanje but by the time we had checked out the bungalow it was time for lunch and Amelia suggested that we stay. By the time that we had returned from viewing the bungalo the managers had returned from watching the rugby. They are a couple that we had met briefly at Majete. At last we had fulfilled our promise to visit their establishment. The good news is that Marc is very keen to climb Mulanje with us. On the way out we met another couple keen to climb Mulanje. It seems there is no shortage of people looking for someone to organise Mulanje trips for them.

The bungalow, also on the estate, looks like a great place to stay with friends.

It is nice to drive or wander through the little forests.

Amelia and Ruth wait for lunch. We made the right decision to wait here for lunch instead of heading on to Mulanje for 'the best pizza in Malawi'.

Ruth and David relaxed before we headed back to Blantyre

The car engine was making a loud deep revving kind of sound as I turned it on and when I pressed hard on the accelerator. Not being a petrol head I did not understand what might be causing this. This problem seemed to start while driving on some of the rough steep roads within the tea estate. As it was getting late we abandoned our Mulanje ambitions and headed back to Blantyre.

Little known fact: Tea and coffee arrived in Malawi via the original Scottish mission in Blantyre. Now they are two important export crops.


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.


Update on Likoma Island Bird Debate

There was some scepticism expressed over the figure of ‘over 400’ species of different birds seen on Likoma Island.

Josh has backed up the claim by saying that the source is the definitive guide to ‘The Birds of Southern Africa’. Perhaps it is ‘Birds of Malawi: A Supplement to Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa’ or ‘Sasol Guide to Birds of Southern Africa’. I have seen the book or one like it on several occasions in the last few months. I assume that the reason for this is that Likoma Island is on a migratory route. Josh said that only 30 or 40 species are endemic to the island, however that does include the extremely rare Pel’s Fishing Owl.


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?”

“Crocodiles.”

“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.


Bushman’s Baobabs

We arrived yesterday at Bushman’s Baobabs. As far as humans are concerned we are on the edge of Liwonde National Park but as far as animals are concerned we are within their territory.

We are on our way from Blantyre to Monkey Bay on The Lake. Tomorrow we are due to board the Ilala and make our way half way up this Great African Lake to Likoma Island.

Bushman’s Baobabs, an ideal stopping off point, is the domain of Darren, wild-man of the African bush, Africa’s Crocodile Dundee. Darren was brought up in Malawi and has roamed Africa for most of the time since then. He has worked with wildlife all his life.

We chilled out in the afternoon (Wednesday) instead of going game viewing. The dinner was good, most people who stop here have good things to say about the food.

Darren and I stayed up talking longer than everyone else. We discussed the wildlife situation here in Liwonde, the very wild and vast area just over the border in Mozambique and all the way to the Indian Ocean, Malawi’s history, the extraordinary achievements of Robert Laws (Darren has also read ‘Laws of Livingstonia’), education in Malawi (& Zimbabwe) since, what’s gone wrong, hope for the future, why its mad to live in the west, politics and other people.

In the morning we went on a boat (canoe) safari along a Shire River tributary and into a Shire River lagoon. Amelia has a list of the extraordinary number of birds that we saw.

Got a phone call from Monkey Bay. Ilala departure delayed from tomorrow (Friday) morning until Saturday afternoon.

Struggling to get up after our post lunch nap. Ruth had a nightmare about ‘someone left me on the boat’.


The Road to Majete – Majete Day 1

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.

Zebra at Majete

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.

We met these two minutes after entering Majete

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.

We saw a lot of sable in Majete. They are more striking when not looking at you

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.

Our place in Majete

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.

From our front door Amelia ventured forward to see the buffalo at the waterhole. We relaxed.

The buffalo come to this waterhole to drink....and sometimes to view humans

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.

We were quite attracted by this budget accommodation. I liked the idea of hippos walking underneath us here

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.

The elephants left this waterhole just as we were arriving. Rhinos frequent this area - we heard.

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).


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…


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.