The second part of our trip took us to Liwonde National Park. To read about the beginning of the trip, Majete Wildlife reserve and the hectic trip to get to Liwonde, click here for Part 1.
Day 4 - Easter Sunday 21st April: Exploring Liwonde
Not gonna lie, getting up this morning was tough. Waking up at 5:20 after the day we had yesterday proved to be challenging. Breakfast was amazing - as Liwonde is huge, it’s taken (in my cased, wolfed down) before the morning game drive. We loaded up on banana bread and papaya, best breakfast so far. Simple and efficient.
We set off for the drive at 6:30, just as clouds took over the beautiful morning. The family sharing our car were lovely. When we weren’t busy swatting tsetse flies, or laughing at baboons as we drive across floodplain, we chatted all things Africa living (two were living in Malawi) and photography. There was a great energy about our group…good bush karma supposedly, as we managed to come across the three sub adult cheetah cubs, who, under our eyes, underwent a near missed hunt. They were too far for good shots but we could outline them distinctively. Such a rare and lucky find - our guides Duncan and Emmanuel were overjoyed, and Amir described feeling a rush of adrenaline for his first cheetah sighting. It happened really fast - we were looking towards the floodplain, had seen a few vultures circling high in the sky, and then noticed a herd of waterbuck all staring in the same direction - usually a good indication something’s up.
And then I saw it, the far away but unmissable, slender, athletic stature of a cheetah, creeping down and getting ready for a hunt. The entire car watched as it ran out towards the herd, chasing a young buck. No success this time - and it was getting hot. These males were old enough for their mother to leave them, as she was now pregnant Duncan told us.
We noticed the other two walking back towards the cover of a bush, the hunter joining them. Collapsing in the shade, we could see them nuzzle and lick each other through our binocs, their huge tails moving around.
We moved on, excited to see what else Liwonde was willing to show us. Shades of emerald, malachite, pastel, leaf greens expanded across the horizon, in an ocean of different tones. It was breathtaking beautiful.
Duncan drove us deep into the forests, until our safari car battery failed. Maybe Amir and I have a jinx regarding cars, but either way, we all climbed out and pushed. As the car started Duncan ushered us back in the car - we were surrounded by ellies. Peaceful, but there nonetheless. As we drove maybe 15m forward, we stumbled across a group bathing in mud, just by the road. Animals that big were wallowing, clumsily rolling over and slipping as they attempting to get out of the pit. Driving on, we came across more of them, scattered across the bush. We could watch them for hours, flapping their ears for ventilation and keeping away insects. We could see them trying to crush the tics as they rubbed against trees. Such intelligent creatures. These ones had no tusks - scientists are guessing this is a new evolutionary trait, to avoid them from getting killed off for ivory. “No tusk, no value” - EDIT: these tuskless bulls are prevalent in areas where intensive poaching happened because the ones with tusks were hunted down and breeding was only possible with them. Hence, being tuskless was sent down as a double recessive trait (see comments below for more info).
Moving on, the thick bush around us looks as enchanting as the one in Majete. When suddenly, we notice a dark brown face, with a white strip on each side of expressive eyes, observing us from a whole in the grass. A sable ! Finally, finally, I got to see my first sable. Apparently Liwonde and Majete are full of them - in the emerald season it becomes really hard to find them (this is me already making a plan to me back in the dry season). It brought back memories of a certain Mana Pools safari, looking for the supposed sable antelope….They’re some of the rarest in Africa, endangered and poached for the hair from the trip of their tails, made for brushes.
EDIT - they were used for their fur, though their main threat is habitat loss and competition for resources with humans (Thanks Larry for the precision).
As we’re slowly driving towards camp (about 1hr away), something catches my attention - a cheetah has just cross the road in from of us and is sat there, looking at us inquisitively. We don’t believe our luck. It was perfect. The setting looked more like the French countryside I’m so familiar with, the exception of a female cheetah staring right at us (and maybe the tsetses). It suddenly pounces towards the trees, following a female kudu, and shows off her impressive strides. Missing her prey, she retires to the shade of a tree, just 50m off the road.
We stayed with her for a while, making the most of this opportunity - we could see her perfectly without binocs.
As our stomachs started growling we decided to head back - we’d been out for 6 hours and it was a long drive back. Incidentally, we passed by the puddle Amir and I got stuck in. Malawi is being really good to us. In our bad car luck, we’ve actually been incredibly lucky - still having service we are bogged, finding a tyre repair shack just near Majete, not having any serious accidents - especially with all the people on the road and cars coming ahead. Not to mention the landscapes, people and wildlife around us. Feeling properly privileged. So little tourists, so much potential.
Lunch was followed by a nap for Amir and work for me, before we set out for our sunset boat safari this time. Not about seeing a lot of game, but enjoying the river’s serenity and calm. We hung out with 2 elephants eating the reeds and water plants, a lot of Malachite Kingfishers, dozens of hippos and a croc.
The sun set behind clouds but the light was still beautiful. Nothing get your heart beating like an African sunset.
Day 5 - Monday 22nd April: Cheetah cheetah
We loved the safari here so much we decided to extend a night at Mvuu. I don’t think we felt quite ready to hit the road again after our adventures on Day 3.
This morning was quite chill, the boat cruise was of order again. Great birdlife - Liwonde has over 400 species of birds, and lots of crocs, in a addition to the usually hippos and ellies.
Deborah, Paul and his mum Laurie were with us again, so it was an opportunity to mess around a bit more.
They left after the cruise (and after Paul gave me the first Game of Thrones episode for me to watch - finally!! Tried watching in in Kenya but miserable failed.) and we said our goodbyes, parting as friends. They worked for a British NGO working to eradicate Rabbies, especially in Malawi, the country with the highest human deaths related to the virus. Learnt loads, especially how unaware people are of the disease.
A beautifully sunny day, we rested by the pool after lunch before getting ready for the evening game drive.
In for a treat, as it was just Amir and I. Duncan drove us to the floodplain nearest to camp, and he immediately knew something was there - something being a predator. Vultures in the trees, Waterbuks, Impala and Warthogs running amok…but we couldn’t see anything. After about 40mins of scanning and observing, we drive off. 2 mins off the road, and his radio cracks - cheetahs are on the floodplain. He had been right! We double back and drive off road to go around - we’ve found them! They’re very far off, but clearly getting ready for a hunt. Sun is setting, golden light reflecting upon their beautiful pelts and it’s that splash of gold that tells where they move. I indicate to Duncan where to position the car, anticipating their direction and we find ourselves in the perfect spot. The sun is behind us, and they too need visibility in the thick, tall grass, so two of them jump on termite mounds. Far away, but we can see well with the binocs, and with at 600mm with my lens. I know they won’t be the sharpest of images but the experience is far more important.
The cheetahs missed their hunt, but we decide to stay there for sundowner, we’re already facing the Shire River and the sun is setting fast.
Out other guide - Duncan’s assistant, Emmanuel is very young - tells us about the CITW (Children in the Wilderness) programme he was a part of. Wilderness Safaris sponsor orphaned children in 8 African countries to go to school, funding their education with merit bursaries from secondary to university. He was then trained as a guide in South Africa, in the Kruger, before starting at Mvuu Camp for Wilderness Safaris back in his home country, Malawi. Not all bursary-winners go back into the safari industry, but his father was a ranger and he was born into nature. A beautiful story. He was such a sweet person, and it was an honour to have him as a guide. Very quiet, very humble and also very good at his job. Duncan later told us how proud he was to have him as his assistant.
Later that night, I literally crashed before 9pm. Fell asleep dressed and all on the bed, exhausted and happy after another memorable day in the bush.
Day 6 -Tueaday 23rd April: Safari Njema (Swahili: Safe Journey)
Alarm at 5:15, how has getting up become so hard?
The morning was misty and mysterious, but not ominous. Duncan and Emmanuel met us again, just the both of us, and after a cup of tea, of we went.
The bush was quiet that morning, we tracked rhinos unsuccessfully, but ended up coming across (with a gasp) a beautiful elephant bull. Athletic, powerful, tall, he was just 10m from the car, unsure if we were friend or foe. We could observe how he ate, de-rooting the grass with his trunk, wrapping it firmly around the strands, and kicking with his front foot when the trunk wasn’t enough. every so often he would stp, stare at us, shake his impressive head (ears, trunk and all) and softly snort, sometimes with a slight start towards us. I could have watched him forever, he was stunning. He eventually decided we were friends, relieved himself, let out the fifth leg, and turned his back to us, before disappearing in the thicket.
Having decided to have breakfast en route, Duncan took us to a floodplain north of the park, overlooking a small, but impressive Lake. Members from the communities can enter the park on a bicycle and cross it to reach a ferry service departing from a very old Baobab tree (1200 years old to be precise) inside the park, taking them across the Lake.
I couldn’t resist. On the way back, I asked permission to sit on the tracker seat (that little one at the from of the car) and it was the best thing ever. Didn’t track much apart from some Little Bee-eaters, Impala, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Warthog and Waterbuck. Ohh and a huge herd of Elephants on the other side of the river.
Graciously, I passed over the seat to Amir for the trip back to camp. He was having the time of his life, which was great. Trying to spread the safari love with everyone around me, and I can only hope I’ve been successful.
We checked out, had lunch, and got into our Supertramp. The hydraulic steering had been fixed by the guys at the camp, but our suspensions are the ones creaking now…
Our guide Duncan was off for the next 12 days and needed a ride to get to Liwonde Town where he’d pick up the bus to go North. We had to cross the entire park. Quite good to have a guide with us as we almost took a wrong turn a few times. And we were invaded with Tsetses, so as Amir drove, Duncan and I swatted, rolled and massacred the flies.
Avocados here are amazing, a little like the ones I remember from a memorable breakfast in the Virunga Mountains (one of my best breakfasts to date), so we asked Duncan to show us a good place in Liwonde Town to buy some. They look delicious, and it was good to get out in the town a bit, just because safaris generally exclude seeing locals and realities of life.
Saying goodbye to Duncan (if he can’t find a ride, he has to walk to Liwonde, crossing the park via the River on foot) we set off to Monkey Bay. The drive was amazing, driving along Baobabs as the sun was setting, Lake Malawi on our right, only catching glimpses of it between the trees.
Along the way, we talked a lot about conservation and tourism, as well as seeing a lot of game for a first safari trip versus not seeing much. I tend to think it’s better to not only have to work for the wildlife (as in, spend ages driving and tracking until patience pays off) and not see everything in one trip - it’s easy to become blasé otherwise. We didn’t see rhino and leopard, barely saw zebra and giraffe, so I think another trip is definitely due soon.
We arrived at Monkey Bay in one piece and checked in the Beach Lodge. A simple place but with great food, lovely people (as always) and a mosquito net - vital, because man this place is teaming.
Falling sleep to the soft rhythm of the waves, we set an alarm early for the next day as we changed our plans last minute and hadn’t booked anything else - though we had a small idea of where we wanted to go. If it would be possible was an entirely different situation….