Day 1 - Thursday 18th April: Alexander Supertramp
What. A. Day.
Amir was meant to meet me in Lilongwe - he was arriving from London on the early KQ flight, connecting in Nairobi, though we didn’t know if we’d have time to meet up as I was flying at 6:15am, 45mins after he was due to land.
That meant, for me, to be up at 3am, checked in and all by 4:30ish. Fates were in our favour, he landed early and we met up for a timely catchup around fresh passion fruit juice (JKIA I love you just for those) before I took off.
My Ethiopian Airlines flight turned out to be a Malawian Airlines flight but I was pleasantly surprised. Empty plane, super friendly staff, and smooth flight. Flying past Kilimanjaro at sunrise was an absolute treat - and pleasure.
Because it was so much cheaper (and fun) to rent a car with a local guy who’s website I happened to fall upon (rather than Avis or a tour operator) we took a chance and booked with Phillimon Chikombole. No deposit needed, just flight details and everything was paid in cash upon arrival.
A proper old school, solid, Toyota. Has a cassette player and it’s clearly lived a good hard life. Perfect for a trip across the Land of A Thousand Smiles - which happens to be one of the poorest in Africa. Phillimon was really great and I can’t recommend him enough. A good 300 dollars cheaper than most of the others out there. The car - good friend of mine suggested Alexander Supertramp as a name - has a moody gearbox, but it’s wonderful. So wonderful that we (hum hum Amir) start driving it a little too confidently. Within the first 30mins we get pulled aside by a police officer - 10 000 kwacha for speeding (about 13 dollars). They’re everywhere and I was paranoid when I took over the wheel. But at least they’re friendly.
It was a long drive, everyone had warned, from Lilongwe to Majete. We expected 6 hours, with an arrival just in time for game drive.
How in-experimented that expectation (futile hope maybe) showed we were. I was ashamed, I should have known. People everywhere on the road - so impressive, little public transport but everything is done on foot or cycling. Dodging people - albeit, on surprisingly good roads - and following (more or less) the 80km/hour speed limit…before getting stuck in Blantyre rush hour (Malawi’s second largest town) and then lost as we searched for Thawale Lodge (inside Majete game reserve, something google hadn’t quite grasped) meant we arrived at 6:30pm. Almost 9 hours or non stop driving.
We had small snacks to survive on, but we were hungry and tired - more like ravenous and extenuated - and nerves were on edge. At least mine were. I was driving the second half of the trip and although I just wanted to arrive, it was hard to not be in awe of the landscape. Malawi is emerging from its emerald season (we got a good bit of rain on the way out of Blantyre towards Chikwawa which was quite fun to drive in) so landscapes are lush and generous. Rolling hills, crashing waterfalls, beautiful rivers….a real treat.
Entering Majete Wildlife Reserve was also stunning. Dense jungle outlined by a glorious sunset promised beautiful game drives over the next to days. In our eagerness (or maybe desperation would be more accurate) to arrive, we very had a bit of an accident - nothing too serious, but it was enough to wake us up and fasten our seatbelt.
Finally, finally, we reached the lodge. I’m looking forward to seeing how African Parks have been managing their conservation projects here, bearing in mind their reputation to be relatively fortress conservation minded. During our security briefing, an Ellie walked past behind us, and on our way to dinner, we spotted 2 Nyalas in the bush and a snake I have yet to identify. Light brown, and apparently very poisonous. Our tents are proper treats. Very simple, but the bathroom is entirely outside, and the toilet has a superb view of a nearby waterhole. A long and at times frustrating day, but I’m properly delighted. A lot of first times for the both of us - Amir’s in Africa, and mine driving in chaotic rush hour or under African rains. I’m very much falling in love with Malawi’s beauty and people.
Day 2 - Friday 19th April: Lions!
The night was humid and full of cicadas. It felt like an alarm went off in the middle of a night - some sort of siren - jolting us awake in shock. A shrill sound resounding through the bush.
We’d wake up in puddles of sweat, the thick duvet provided (totally logical) not helping at all.
When the alarm rang at 5:30, I made the mistake of snoozing it. After 2 weeks of getting up at that time, I thought I had everything under control. Woke up in a start 5 mins before 6…before we were supposed to leave the lodge for our first game drive. Luckily, we were the only two guests staying at the lodge that evening, so our guide couldn’t leave without us.
We met Jimmy, our African Parks guide, who drove us around Majete for 2:30 hours. African Parks is a conservation organisation specialising in the rehabilitation of depleted game reserves, often located in unstable, war torn, extremely poor areas - to name just a few scenarios. They focus on parks in difficult areas, and seem to bring them back to life, with translocations and the deployment of specialised ranger teams. Although AP have historically been accused of prioritising fortress conservation methods (exclusionary ‘nature for nature’ practices), their past actions in Chad, Mozambique, DRC and Malawi have shown otherwise.
Of course, being the conservation nut that I am, I questioned Jimmy, to understand the extent of AP community’s involvement. He answered vaguely - probably more due to lack of English than information. We talked about schools, clinics and community involvement projects, particularly tied to conservation education, so as soon as I have decent wifi or access to more people to interview, I’ll deepen my research.
Our game drive was particularly quiet. The forrest is absolutely beautiful but the grass is long and the bush thick. Plenty of Waterbuck, Impala and Warthog, the occasional Nyala and Eland. A massive croc. Oh. and Yellow Baboons. Lots of them - Amir was happy amongst his brothers.
It was only back to camp, from the comfort of our breakfast table, that we saw elephants, crossing near the waterhole in the distance.
It took us a good 45 mins to check out, simply because everything seems to be complicated in Malawi - Malawi time is on a whole other level compared to Africa Time. Setting off towards our next stop in the park, we had a fun game drive - didn’t see much except impala and waterbuck, the new norm, but hey, Amir’s over the moon with them. Apparently it’s funny to compare mine and the impalas’ ears. Getting bullied left, right and center.
As we reached Mukulumadzi, we heard the loud yet melodious Shire River before anything else. To reach the lodge, you need to cross a rope bridge over it - with the floods last month, it got completely wiped away, with water level rising by 20m.
Arriving in time for lunch, we finally had a moment to soak in the fact we were in Malawi, in a game reserve and in a beautiful place. Driving around is tough - roads are in great conditions but there are people everywhere, walking or cycling on the side of the road.
Time for our game drive. The light was beautiful, as it seeped through the dense foliage, creating pools of light reflected upon the bright green leaves. We managed to find the Park’s few giraffe - three of them. Clearly quite young (small in size) but what beauties. Driving off, and towards our sundowner spot as the light was disappearing (fast) we come across….lions on the road. Incredibly lucky considering they were just reintroduced and relatively shy around cars and humans. It was brief, but a chance to casually stumble across some gorgeous and healthy cats. I relived my first lion experience through Amir’s eyes and that was a really treat. His excitement was communicative.
I think the other wildlife sighting very worth mentioning was the lodge’s resident bushbaby. Probably one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. We were chilling around the fire before dinner, when out of nowhere this fluffy little creature creeps down, clearly looking for food. So. fluffy.
Day 3 - Saturday 20th April: When Supertramp is not so super
Waking up to the sound of the gushing Shire River, we got dressed and ready for our morning game drive, scheduled at 6.
It was a foggy morning and we drove a good 2 hours without seeing anything except from waterbuck, impala, turtle doves and emerald spotted doves.
And then…as the rain started, we come across a male lion and 2 females on the road. The same as yesterday. The male goes into the bush, on the side of the road, and as we stop by, he snarls at us. A powerful roar, silencing us - except for the thudding of our hearts. He disappears in the thick green vegetation, and we follow the two females, covering a fair bit of ground. When they halt, so do we. Clearly on a mission, the two lioness ignore us completely. Amir and I were sitting at the back of the vehicle this time - we had front seats yesterday. He turns around to randomly check behind, and suddenly….the king is in the middle of the road, maybe 20m away, regally looking us. We urge Mali, our driver, to stop following the girls as the male walks towards us, pausing every now and then. He seems irritated by the vehicle in the middle of the road, clearly not as habituated as the cats in more frequently visited game reserves. These lions are wild and shy. He disappears before we notice he’s walking alongside us in the vegetation again, a game of hide and seek. We give him space, and he obliges, crossing in front of the vehicle at cautious distance. The two females give chase to a zebra just near a clearing we can see from the road. But no luck.
With great regret, we hear our guides announce it’s time to move on and look for something else. At that precise moment, I realise exactly why I go on photographic safaris. A sighting like that, we could have stayed hours. The were active and energetic…and rarely has a lion sighting been more rewarding, in my experience. We saw ellies and buffalo as the game drive needed - safe to say, it was an exhilarating morning for both a safari newbie and myself. Could never get bored of this…
With game reserves such as Majete that have been depleted by poaching, and that are slowly growing back to their former glory, big game can either be scarce (only 16 lions on the 700 sq km reserve) or shy of humans - or both. You can tell the ecosystem is recovering, though equally that it is occurring at a rapid rate. That, and the fact that the bush was in full emerald season. Which is why sightings like the ones we had are so much more rewarding.
With sad hearts we said goodbye to Mkulumadzi and set off. Lodge staff had noticed one of our tyres were flat, so offered to change it. We were told it was best to get it patched up as soon as possible and given an address on the way to Blantyre.
What was supposed to be 5 mins ended up being 2:30. Turned out it was not 1, but 7 (at least) punctures our tyre had - clearly had been damaged long before us, and that our replacement had to be moved and inflated. Thank goodness Amir was there - these guys were absolutely great though they tried to sell us some cheap “new” tyres which he saw right through (for about 30£ - anything under than 200£ is a little fishy…something I didn’t know. Had it been just me, I probably would have ended up with 4 “new” tyres and an extra spare). We came for a simple patching up, they did their best, albeit at Africa time, to patch up our wreck of a tyre.
Driving off, we finally properly commenced our drive towards Liwonde National Park, another reserve managed by Africa Parks.
A smooth and beautiful drive across the Zomba plateau, we could see how much the landscape was changing as we approached the park. Flatter and open, the light was becoming beautiful and we were excited to get to camp soon to avoid missing the afternoon activity as we had in Majete.
That went well.
As we crossed the gate into Liwonde National Park (my gut feeling was telling me something was off), entering a reserve teaming with wildlife - kudu, impala, waterbuck, baboon literally everywhere across a beautiful floodplain, we were in awe. Literally. The light was stunning, we could see animals until the horizon, and the sky was morphing into a beautiful African sunset (some tsetse flies flew in, making it difficult to swat and enjoy the moment at the same time…in my case at least). We are maybe a little too eager as we parked across the floodplain to get a good sunset view. Driving off, the road we followed continued in a little puddle, that apparently wasn’t so little. We got very stuck. Very. Stuck. So of course we made it worse, struggling to get out of the mud, desperately trying to get the vehicle in 4x4 mode (which, we concluded, was either broken, like so many of its other parts, or we were just clueless). I managed to call the camp manager for help via WhatsApp, but service was poor in this part of the park. Night was falling fast, and I needed to pee. Badly. We must have waited about 1:30 - 2hrs for the miracle vehicle. Instead, as I was resolving myself to pee in an empty bottle we’d managed to cut open, a car was branded British Army. Turns out these guys were employed by AP, training local rangers, they’d heard of our misadventure through Mvuu Camp - our rescuers’ car had broken down just as they left to get us. At about an hour’s drive away.
The full moon was up by the time the rangers managed to pull us out. They advised us to wait (maximum one hour….) for the Camp’s vehicle to find us, but, stroke of luck, they arrived just in tie and we mentally prepared ourselves for an hour long night drive across Liwonde NP and its bumpy (understatement) roads.
What an experience. Amir is such a good driver, and after spending so long at the wheel today, my respect and admiration shot through the roof. Halfway through, we realised our hydraulic steering was broken, and so we had to continue driving on manual steering - basically picture driving a tractor. On Liwonde’s bumpy road. In the dark. But we had no choice other than following the (speeding) rescue car back to camp. It was so resemblant to a video game that at some moments we couldn’t believe what we were doing.
A long, stressful but exhilarating drive. Thought we were going to die / stay stuck / puncture a tyre fair few times, but we made it.
Exhausted, drained, but thrilled. We wanted authentic, hardcore and African, and we got it.