Rookie errors, Exotic Wildlife, A Leprosy Horror Story and The Lord of The Rings
The Republic of Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa that was formerly known as Nyasaland. It is a densely populated country with almost a third of its territory taken up by the stunning Lake Malawi, linking the country with Mozambique and northern neighbor, Tanzania. The country also has a well deserved reputation as ‘the warm heart of Africa’ or ‘Africa for beginners’. A country filled with mystery, exotic natural beauty and extremely friendly people. The majority of tourists visiting Malawi are backpackers. This means affordable accommodation, cheap food and booze (plus no shortage of the ‘gold vegetables’). A very welcoming, laid back atmosphere. If you want to take part in the sport of ‘Extreme Chilling’, Malawi is the place.
We came to the end of our tropical time in Mozambique. It was a memorable two weeks and it was time for us to push further north. At the same time our stomachs were filled with butterflies. We were heading to our second country on the list, Malawi. Neither of us had ever been to Malawi. Mixed feelings of nervousness and uncertainty, topped with extreme excitement got hold of us. Before we could get to Malawi though, we had to overcome a ‘little hurdle’. Travelling the roads of Africa can be hard graft, and ‘little hurdles’ or ‘curve balls’ (as we fondly refer to them) thrown at you every now and then, are inevitable. The only problem with the following curve ball was that it was pretty much self-inflicted.
The ‘plan’ was to drive the approximate 450 km from Gorongoza National Park to Tete on the Zambezi river in Mozambique. There we would spend the night and hopefully catch a tiger fish or two. The following morning we were leaving for the Mwanza-Zobue border post about 80 km from Tete. Once in Malawi we would then drive north for another 200 km to reach the town of Liwonde. Our goal was to get to Liwonde National Park. Two days to do just over 700 km from Gorongoza National Park to Liwonde National Park. Looking at the plan on paper, it seemed to be a simple exercise in getting to the next destination on our trip. Well, rookie error number one! We quickly learned that travelling through Africa could be absolutely everything but simple. There will be days when things will be backwards and bended. Our ‘plan’ turned out like this …
After our coffee ritual and some rusks, it was a 7 am departure on a Friday morning from Gorongoza National Park, heading northwards to Tete, to spend the night on the Zambezi. It was a rather uneventful road. Uneventful until I went and changed US dollars to meticais in a car park in front of a Shoprite store in Chimoio. Rookie error number two! I purely did it because the bank, the size of a telephone booth, had close to fifty people queuing outside the door. After we stocked up on our food supplies at the Shoprite and refueled BushNav, we were back on the road to Tete.
We were on the road for about half an hour when Bouter started doing the budget for the next two weeks in Malawi. She quickly picked up that we were short about a third of the money that I had exchanged in the car park. That was when it hit me! I was scammed with the oldest trick in the book. How it works, is that you are given the agreed upon amount of meticais for your US dollars. When you count the money, you pick up that there is, for example, two hundred meticais short from the total amount given to you. The money hustler will then state that it can’t be and take the money back and recount it with you. He will then acknowledge that you are correct and add the two hundred meticais to the top of the pile and hand the pile of notes back to you. Right there the rat got me. When he placed the ‘correct’ amount back into my hand, with a slight of hand, he removed a few notes from underneath the pile. Those few notes worked out to be close to R700. There was a mood of slight anger combined with confusion and helplessness. Still stunned with disbelief that we were tricked, I felt like punching myself continuously in the face. Then acceptance and humour set in. This is Africa …
After about 7 hours of travelling we reached Tete on the Zambezi. In my mind’s eye I could already see us pitching a tent on the banks of the Zambezi, opening a cold one and getting my rod out to catch some tiger fish. Well, that little romantic thought quickly evaporated. We could only find one camping site. It was the municipal camping site and looked like the local hobo hangout. Not feeling like hanging with hobos for the night, we went looking for a place along the banks of the river where we could enjoy a cold beer, stretch the legs and hopefully pitch our tent. Just down the road we found a small bar. Beautiful little spot right on the banks of the Zambezi, overlooking the town of Tete. Right there my day dreaming about catching tigers came to an end. Right in front of us, in the river, was half the local community, busy with their wash day. Hundreds of women and kids swimming, playing and doing their laundry. Sitting in a bar enjoying our local beer, staring over the Zambezi on wash day, made for a rather amusing picture. After taking in the whole Tete scene, we decided to rather push on and cross the border into Malawi. It was only another 280 km to Liwonde and it was just after six pm. We thought it would only take us another four hours to arrive in Liwonde later that evening. For the first time on the trip we were going to break a very basic but important rule: don’t drive at night while travelling through Africa. Rookie error number three!
Bouter took the wheel for a bit and we made our way out of Tete towards the Malawian border. The 80 km to the border turned out to be a horrible, two and a half hour, driving experience. The reason? Trying to avoid a non-stop kamikaze line-up of oncoming monster-sized cargo trucks, swerving across all lanes at great speed, while dodging the crater sized potholes of northern Mozambique. All of this at night! Bouter did well driving that nerve wracking 80 km and I must take my hat off to her.
With our nerves shattered, we arrived at the Mwanza-Zobue border post around half past eight that Friday night. Most people who have travelled in Africa will tell you that nearing a border crossing gives you heart palpitations and sweaty palms. Purely for the reason that most border crossings in Africa are disorganised, confusing, painfully slow and often accompanied by bribery. There is usually a whole lot of paperwork to be filled in, leaving you in doubt as to whether all your documentation is in order, especially the ones for your vehicle. The border crossing took us another hour. It was an experience we would rather want to forget. We drove into Malawi feeling disorientated by the whole border experience. It was just before ten pm on a Friday night. We had been on the road for fifteen hours, our nerves frayed, totally overwhelmed by all the happenings throughout the day and we literally couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore. Not to worry! We made it to Malawi! Just another 200 km to go and we would be in Liwonde just after midnight.
We followed our paper map in the direction of Liwonde. So we thought. After twenty minutes of driving not one road sign appeared to confirm where we were heading and how much further it would be. No street lights and the roads covered in darkness. No place to stop at and ask for directions. In the car there were two pairs of bloodshot eyes, music playing as loud as possible and about four liters of Fanta Orange to keep the sugar levels steady. Before we knew it, we entered a place that had a whole lot more street lights than what a small town like Liwonde supposedly should have. Driving around, trying to figure out why Liwonde had so many lights, we saw a sign that read ‘The Blantyre Institute for Higher Education’. WTF! We were in freaken Blantyre. Not part of our route at all!
Looking at our paper map we realised we had missed a crucial turn off about 80 km back from where we came. We were on a 120 km detour heading east instead of north!
It was just after midnight, we were still 150 km away from Liwonde and we had been on the road for seventeen hours. Not very romantic. We drove around looking for accommodation. Everything was closed. We stopped at a garage, got more Fanta Orange, slapped ourselves to wake up and asked for proper directions. We managed to find our way out of Blantyre, driving towards the ‘highway’ that would take us to Liwonde. Eventually we got to the ‘highway’ just outside the city. The dude at the garage just failed to mention one thing…..the whole highway was being dug up and under construction! The only road to travel on was a dingy, messed up little temporary road, running parallel with the highway under construction. It was 150 km of shaking, rattling and bumping, travelling at a maximum speed of 50 km per hour.
At 3 am we drove into the town of Liwonde. Of course there was nothing open and the town was dead quiet. Our ‘plan’ to get from Gorongoza in Mozambique to Liwonde in Malawi turned into a hair raising twenty hour travelling experience. I could hardly keep BushNav straight on the road. Our eyes looked like we just walked out of a club after an all night party and our personalities were drastically deteriorating. We badly needed some sleep and we couldn’t care less about where we slept. I turned BushNav down a quiet little street and right at the end we found a deserted old building that looked like an abandoned church, with a few rocks blocking the drive way. Stuck on the wall was an old ‘for sale’ sign. A huge but neglected garden surrounded the building. There was no light and not a soul in sight. A unanimous decision was made. We were sleeping right there in the old church garden. Over the rocks we drove and we stopped at the back of the church under a big tree. We got out our mattress, pillows and sleeping bags and loaded it on top of the canopy. We climbed up and literally passed out beneath the stars.
It was around 5 am when I was slowly woken by the noise of the town waking up. Some people were talking in the street, a bus drove past, some traditional Malawian music floated from the house across the road and a few birds in the garden were alive and happy. Bouter and I lay there for another 10 minutes, still tucked into our sleeping bags. Listening to our first morning in Malawi coming alive. I was still trying to physically open my eyes after just two hours of sleep. It felt like rising from the dead. I lifted my head from under the sleeping bag to see what our emergency ‘camp site’ looked like in day light. I scanned the garden around us and then looked in the direction of the old church. I thought I was still delusional and spaced out after the previous twenty four hours. Sitting right there on the steps, leading down from the church’s main door, were six local children. Six pairs of big white eyes were staring at us in confusion and a bit of amazement. They looked like homeless children who were squatting in the church. I don’t know how long they had been staring at us, but just imagine being them. They probably got up early on that Saturday morning, walked out the door, and standing in their garden was this big blue and silver UFO. On top of the UFO, two white people were sleeping! Hence the big eyed stares! The oldest kid of about sixteen came and greeted us. He shook our hands and offered us water. Their friendliness towards us was quite unexpected. I explained our reason for sleeping there and gave them all some old toys we had brought along on our trip. It was the second time on our trip that we received a special reaction. It warmed our hearts to see their faces break out in huge grins and smiles. We packed up our sleeping gear and left. It felt like a little farewell ceremony. All the kids were laughing and waving while we drove out the church yard. They carried on waving until we couldn’t see them anymore.
What are the chances of waking up on a Saturday morning, find two foreigners sleeping on the roof of their car in your garden and then give you toys when they leave? Only in Africa I suppose.
After twenty hours of torture the day before and the weird little experience of sleeping in the church garden, we were very much awake and looking forward to our first full day in Malawi. We made our way to Liwonde National Park, about six kilometers outside the town.
The 580 square kilometre Liwonde National Park is situated in the south of Malawi and is the country’s premier wildlife reserve. Dominated by the broad Shire River that drains into Lake Malawi, this wilderness area is a mix of mopane woodlands and marshy floodplains and boasts a rich and colourful bird life. The river acts as a magnet for larger animals, and the best game viewing is often experienced while on a boat safari, gliding past pods of hippos, herds of elephant and the many antelope species gathered on the palm-lined shores. Alternatively there are game drives across the park’s expansive floodplains, the grazing grounds for sable, roan antelope, buffalo and impala, while night drives offer the chance of seeing jackal, hyena and serval cats. Visitors can also go on guided walking safaris in the separate rhino sanctuary contained within the reserve – part of the Rhino Tracking Experience which contributes to the conservation of this highly endangered species. Since the recent reintroduction of black rhino, Liwonde has become a Big 5 reserve, but bear in mind that sightings of the big cats, leopard and lion, are rare. This is not a destination for those with a big game check list. Instead, a Liwonde safari will appeal to adventure travellers who want to go game viewing in a very off-the-beaten-path environment, with excellent guides who focus not only on the larger animals but on smaller creatures too. The bird watching, with the area’s crossover between southern and east African species, is said to be amongst the best and most accessible in central Africa.
The Park only opened at 6 am. We arrived at 05h45 and we were allowed to drive through the entrance gate and wait inside, but not go any further. While we were boiling water for our coffee at the gate, we were already seeing birds that we did not recognise. Being keen birders, Bouter quickly grabbed our new field guide titled ‘Birds of Africa south of the Sahara’. Before we left SA we acquired this new book as we needed a field guide that covered more of eastern Africa and central Africa, including Malawi and Zambia. Our old and trusty bird book covered southern Africa only. We could barely contain ourselves. Right there at the entrance gate we ticked off the second birding highlight of the trip. The Bohm’s Bee-eater! What a great start to our visit of the Park, and we were only at the gate! Liwonde National Park is also home to the endangered Lillian’s lovebird and it is the only place in Malawi where they are found. We managed to find the lovebirds on our second day in the park which made us even more ecstatic!
We were planning to stay in the Park for two nights only. It was a rather expensive excursion at $70 per day including the campsite.
There is only one camp in the park that offers accommodation. Set in a spectacular setting on the banks of the Shire River, lies Mvuu Camp. Mvuu means hippo. The sweeping river views were fringed with palms and baobab trees against the magnificent backdrop of the Rift Valley wall. Our camp site was a mere 20 meters away from hundreds of grunting hippo and feeding elephant. There was still a big pile of elephant dung lying right on the spot where we got to pitch our tent.
These giants occasionally come walking right through the camp site at night. Hopefully they would see our little green dome tent standing where they were feeding just the night before! The campsite was rather quiet and empty the first night. The way we liked it. Next to us was a small group of three ‘bush packing’ backpackers, travelling with a well known tour leader from South Africa, Pieter Botha. In the other corner was a European couple looking rather out of place with the whole ‘camping in Africa’ exercise. Weird.
All of this peace and quiet was to change drastically the following day. The next morning, before we knew it, there were about twenty five American Peace Corp workers taking up the rest of the camp site. They arrived to take part in the annual, voluntary game counting operation in the park’s sanctuary. Once a year they do a game count in Liwonde National Park to establish the growth in numbers of their rare species, kept and bred in the four hundred hectare sanctuary.
Out the window went all the peace and quiet of our bush experience on the banks of the Shire! I couldn’t understand why they got these guys to do game counting. Most of them couldn’t tell a sable antelope from a roan antelope or even an impala from a bush-buck. One of them even claimed to have seen a bear while out on his game count! Are you for real? They come and live in Malawi for two years, staying in local villages and running development programmes. I have my reservations about those ‘programmes’. One guy, I spoke to, lived in the fantasy that he will be saving an entire village by helping them set up a bee farm that would produce honey for the whole village. Huh?
You always get painted the picture that these guys go out and do some hard work while trying to save the whole Africa. Most of them I spoke to were either college drop outs or didn’t even finish school. One guy told us he was purely doing it to run away from bad debt back in the States. All of that just looked to me like one big screw-you exercise and a waste other people’s time and money. Saving Africa is a whole topic on its own and I don’t have the answers for that. One thing I do know is that these clowns are definitely not the answer! I suppose their mothers still love them. Shame.
After getting acquainted with Pieter next door to us, we learned that he was also there for the game counting. He has been doing it for the past six years. He always plans his trips to be in Malawi during that time of the year. This then give the people travelling with him a great experience and the opportunity to encounter rare African wildlife at the same time. On the second and supposedly last night of our stay, Pieter invited Bouter and I to join their group on the game counting operation for the next two days. Pieter does know how to tell animals apart from each other. We wouldn’t have to pay for the extra two nights accommodation either. Since Bouter and I do know the difference between a monkey and a baboon, we jumped at the opportunity.
How it works is that during a four hour session, five people and two rangers will sit in a hide next to one of the four waterholes in the sanctuary. You get a count sheet with a list of animals that need to be counted. Then you have to count each animal per species that comes to drink or was spotted in the area around the hide.
What an amazing experience for us. Our two best sessions, out of the four we did, was from 3 pm – 7 pm and then from 10 pm till 2 am the next morning. The afternoon session delivered all the general game species such as impala, bush buck, warthog and baboons. It got more exciting when we counted some eland, kudu, sable, roan, buffalo and elephant. On one occasion during that afternoon I snapped a picture of a single roan antelope, a single sable antelope and a single eland antelope all standing together at the waterhole. Staring at one another. Three of the rarest antelope species around the same waterhole. Rare stuff indeed.
The late evening session was a definite highlight. It was full moon. You were not allowed to use a torch or spotlight or take any pictures. Just seven of us in the hide using the bright moonlight to see which animals came to the waterhole. It is rather amazing how clear and far you can see by the light of a full moon. During the night we counted a herd of twenty four sable antelope. Then behind the hide, in the bush we spotted two black rhino bulls. They never came to the water and were rather skittish. Half an hour later a herd of seventeen roan antelope visited the waterhole. The next moment a black rhino cow and her calf emerged from the bush. The rhino cow literally charged the roan antelope from the waterhole, clearing the area for her and her calf to have a drink. What an incredible sight! It was an amazing four hours. Rare animal species in large numbers, interacting with one another around a waterhole, while the whole scene was lit up by the full moon. As keen nature lovers we couldn’t ask for a better experience.
We never expected to stay in Liwonde National Park for a week . We also never expected to end up in hides, counting rare and exotic game species. An experience we both appreciated a lot and will remember for the rest of our lives. We ended our stay in the park with a visit to a place with a rather weird but interesting story. A leprosy horror story I like to call it.
According to numerous sources, the traditions of various ethnic groups in southern Malawi recognise conditions in which a person may be denied the merit of a full ritual funeral. People who died due to leprosy may not receive a burial according to traditional ritual patterns. They are not buried in the ground, but either left hanging from a tree in a graveyard or tied up and put inside a hollow tree and left to die, so that the earth would not be contaminated by the disease. Yes, things like that still exist. There we were, standing in front of a baobab tree with a big hole in the tree trunk. Less than sixty years ago nine people from a local tribe fell ill with leprosy. The solution to this? The chief decided they needed to be removed. They were all tied up and thrown into the hollow of the baobab and left to die, removed from everyone else. We were standing in front of that exact same tree. There was even a little sign indicating the event. You could slide your head into the hole at the side of the baobab and take a look inside. Of course we went and did exactly that. My goodness! Slap me silly and sideways! A clammy and very ominous odour immediately assaulted us and at the bottom of the hollow lay the skulls and skeletons of the nine people who were thrown in there a mere sixty years ago.
You walk away thinking to yourself how bizarre and weird it all is. The fact that things like that are still out there in Africa just blows your mind. You just got to love Africa for so many reasons. Fascinating, beautiful, weird and filled with wonder and rarities. Malawi itself lived up to that reputation. Just when we thought we had seen or heard it all, something new came along to fascinate us.
We learned of another fascinating story that neither of us knew about.
Apparently there is a connection between Malawi and the famous ‘Lord of the Rings’ fantasy novels written by JRR Tolkien. It is believed that Tolkien spent some time in Malawi in the early 1930s, just before his first book ‘The Hobbit’ was released in 1937. He apparently spent most of his time in the Mulanje Mountains area. The mountains are shrouded in folklore about spirits, disappearing people and secretive populations. Its beauty, vastness and mysteriousness makes it hard not to believe that this is where Tolkien got his inspiration for his beloved Shire and the rest of Middle Earth.
We found enough evidence all over Malawi to further support this belief:
The Shire – Malawi’s main river runs from Lake Malawi south through Liwonde National Park (the lower Shire) and into the Zambezi.
The Great Lakes – Lake Malawi and Lake Nyasa, situated at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley in Malawi
Misty Mountains – Mulanje Mountains and the Zomba Plateau, both in southern Malawi
The Ents – Malawi is home to a massive number of baobab trees. In some places there are forests filled with hundreds of them. Some of the oldest baobabs are believed to be in Malawi. Look carefully at those big talking trees in the movie. They closely resemble the baobab trees.
We had only been in Malawi for a week, but we were blown away by all the wonders, rarities and bizarre stories. We left Liwonde National Park with a feeling of sadness. It is a place that stole our hearts. We will always have a soft spot for it and we will definitely return again for the game counting season in the near future. Hopefully without a camp full of noisy bear counting volunteers!
I pushed BushNav into a northerly direction. We were heading for Lake Malawi and from there we would head west to take on Zambia.
Follow us next week with an installment that will cover our experiences in Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi, and the first part of our adventures in the wild and remote parts of Zambia. A story about the sport of Extreme Chilling, Dube the artist, immigration detention and the real wild side of Africa.
Till next week, keep on Designing Life.
Edrich and Lelanie.