Liwonde

Friday evening at Mvuu Camp in Liwonde National Park, and I was hoping to prepare a basic supper for Sue and I in the communal self-catering kitchen. I decided to camp two nights, rather than staying only one night in the expensive chalets, and in order to save more money I planned to cook rather than eat in the restaurant. The woman on the phone had assured me, "Yes, there’s an old fashioned hob with four hot plates." DSC_0801 The stove was in fact really REALLY old fashioned, and required one to make and stoke a fire under it! So Sue and I went for the restaurant anyway, which turned out to be the Friday night "boma dinner", out in the open in the shelter of a wooden boma, with central fire, and traditional music and dancers. All very "African", and luxurious, the sort of thing my parents have been to but I’d only heard about. After dinner as we were leaving one of the waiters asked if he could escort us back to the tent. I confidently said no, I had a torch, and proudly waved by Petzl headtorch at him.

"Ah but what if you meet a wild animal? That is not big enough." He swung his massive torch spotlight into view, and I conceded that his light was stronger. (Still, he couldn’t wield it on his head, ha!) DSC_0818So we walked back to the camping area, sandy ground with thickets of thorn and other trees providing shade and some privacy. Earlier in the evening, when exploring the camp and putting up the tent, I startled some baboons, almost bumped into a solitary bushbuck, and photographed some warthogs, all wandering calmly about the campsite. The whole of Mvuu camp is open – that is, not enclosed by fences – and the wild animals can wander in and out at their leisure. DSC_0898There are signs warning one about this. (That’s my tent in the background, top left.) The guide added that should we see any elephant or hippo we should "wait and let them pass." His advice was hardly necessary, I thought. Our torchlit walk back to the tent was uneventful, however, and I commented with slight relief that the animals seemed to have left for the night. The waiter/ranger was amused and quietly confident. "Ha, they will come. You will see. They will come." They had planted a paraffin lamp outside the tent to make it easier to find in the dark, which was a thoughtful touch. I also wondered optimistically if the lamp kept wild animals away, but then hoped that I wasn’t relying on it, because the back of the tent was in darkness.

DSC_0781-DSC_0784                         Sunset over the Shire River, from Mvuu Camp

Sue and I went to sleep to the sounds of hippos grunting in the river a hundred meters away, accompanied by the hoots of an owl and other unidentified bush sounds. I was woken a short while later by a tremendous cracking sound, followed by a trumpeting screech and some more tearing noises, just nearby. "What’s that?" hisses Sue from across the tent, also suddenly wide awake. "Elephants…" I say, with the tent fabric suddenly feeling very thin. We peered through the mosquito meshing of the tent, making out in the moonlight some dim shapes moving in the nearby thicket. We were told not to use flash to photograph the elephants, as "the Liwonde elephants are nervous". I thus refrained from shining my torch, not wanting to give them unnecessary cause to be "nervous". About twenty meters away, between two chalets, they were ripping down the topmost leafy branches of the thorn trees to eat. My tent was sitting under a tree with nice leaves, if I remembered correctly. I felt both entranced and a little worried. They were right next door, and it was a rare privilege to watch them this close (even if only by moonlight through some mosquito mesh), but I could not think of a good reason which prevented them from wandering over here and flattening my flimsy tent. And what of that stupid sign – "Beware of the wild animals"? What does that mean?? I was now very well aware of the elephants, but felt no safer for it! I lay down again, as did Sue, listening wearily to the tearing and ripping and cracking, but there was nothing else to actually do except fall asleep again. Particularly loud cracks woke me again and I stood again to watch them briefly. At least two elephants, maybe three, big, heavy, feasting. I reassured myself in all ways I could think of, relying eventually on the circular reasoning that they surely don’t trample tents otherwise people like us wouldn’t be camping here. This line of reasoning, however, is more reassuring in the UK or even SA than in Malawi, where bad things do happen with alarming frequency and few consequences. It worked for Sue though, who seemed to sleep easily.

DSC_0897 We woke unflattened the next morning, and saw the broken fence (photo left) and torn trees, and I was impressed that the fence was fixed by the end of the day. I asked various wardens why the elephants would not trample on the tent. "Ah! They know you are there. They respect you," was one opinion, also "Ay! They can smell you!" as well as "Elephants have very very good memories." None of it too reassuring. The next night I knew what to expect, and was woken this time by loud snorting just outside the tent. I was alone this time, as Sue opted for a night of (expensive) luxury in the chalet with Steph and Pennie. This time it was warthogs, I think, though I played with the idea that they may be small hippos. Dim patchy grey silhouettes in the thicket two meters away. They snuffled and grunted amongst the leaves behind the tent, probably searching for grubs or fruits or seeds or something. Very noisy eaters. Lying back down, I listened to them snorting and hoped they weren’t hippos and that I’d wake up with all my limbs the next morning. Just then I heard, or sensed, a brushing sound of something passing delicately through bush, and the soft sounds of rough skin rubbing on rough skin. The moonlight darkened slightly as I stood up and peered out. There just three meters away was an elephant cruising by, smooth almost noiseless motion in the moonlight, neatly giving my tent a wide berth. The elephant passed out of sight and I lay back down, heart pounding a little bit faster. There followed some tearing and loud cracking, and then the soft sound of heavy padded feet approaching again. Once again I was up crouching to look through the mesh, and saw the same elephant walking back, again three meters from my tent. My head brushed the tent fabric though, and the elephant turned his head toward me. We shared a momentary startled look at each other, and he passed. This was thrilling, and actually quite reassuring as he had purposely walked well round the tent. I managed to sleep through the night after that.

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Fisherman in dugout canoe on Shire River – hopefully NOT in the protected area of the river, though of course they do poach.

Liwonde is a small but beautiful game reserve just an hour’s drive north of Zomba. It’s west border is the Shire River, which is absolutely packed with hippos (an average of one hippo every 20 meters). You are guaranteed to see many of them, and almost guaranteed to see elephants. There is other small and game as well, including waterbuck, eland, kudu, warthogs, yellow baboon, vervet monkeys and impala. The few predators include hyenas, with very rare spottings of leopard. There were rumours of two lions having entered the park again a few months previously, but they hadn’t been seen since. We were there towards the end of the dry season, the best time to see animals as they all gather at water sources.

DSC_0984 We stayed at Mvuu Camp, me camping for two nights as described above, the others opting for a single night of luxury. Getting to the camp is half the experience if you don’t have a car. Sue and I took the minibus after work on Friday, up to Liwonde town, then walked for an hour or so in the blazing heat trying to find the place where the boat picks us up from. The large clear sign pointed to one side of the river, the boat left from the other. Hey, this is Malawi. The boat trip from the town to Mvuu Camp takes about half-an-hour, DSC_0919 and one is continuously greeted by hippos, and sometimes surprised by elephants coming down to drink.  I splashed out and joined the others for a game drive and an early morning game walk. The walk was especially enjoyable, as the landscape is flat and clear now, with interesting trees and cacti and anthills. In the rainy season, it is a carpet of green, I’m told. Will have to come again.

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                     Dry landscape with extensive elephant damage.

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Sausage trees – or salami trees? Inside there is a fibrous white flesh which tastes like nutty potatoes.

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Naughty vervet monkey, steals food, swept away with broom by waiters!

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Another warthog, just because they’re so cute. He’s enjoying the grass in the camp.

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Fish Eagle on tree, large anthill on the right. Interesting fact: Old anthills often have fruit trees growing on out of them, because baboons often sit on anthills to keep watch, and like eating fruit.

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Majestic kudu.

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The oldest elephant in Mvuu, with only one very long tusk.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] October 9th – Liwonde December 3rd – Voices in the Dark […]

  2. Dad said

    Your “African experience” is great, something which tourists will shell out thousands of Rand to have. Sounds like a nice bunch of friends too.

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