5 Nov 2013

Crocs, Hippos & Mud Wrestling

Malawi: Liwonde National Park

When compared with its neighbours, Malawi is not an obvious destination for a big game safari.  But Liwonde National Park, nestled on the east bank of the River Shire, just to the south of Lake Malawi, is an often overlooked gem.  This park has two claims to fame that we are aware of.  Firstly, it was along this shoreline that deserters from David Livingstone’s final expedition falsely claimed that Livingstone had been attacked and killed by local tribes.  It was this report, sent back to London via Zanzibar, which sparked frenzied debate for years to come about whether Livingstone was alive or dead.  Secondly, J.R.R. Tolkien apparently visited this region before writing The Hobbit and was so taken with the stunning landscape that “the Shire” in his book was inspired by this original namesake.

The park fees are a refreshing change from those further west – just $10 per person per day and $3 for Tonka.  Once again, camping gave us the option to gate-crash far more exclusive accommodation than we would otherwise be able to frequent.  In this case it was the rather classy *Mvuu Camp*, its cluster of safari style tents positioned along the riverbank.  These are occupied by fly in tourists at nearly $500 per night, and so it was immensely satisfying to pay our $15 each and park Tonka almost alongside them.

In a well-rehearsed routine, we quickly changed into our least dusty clothes and swaggered into the lodge bar.  And so our metamorphosis from road weary vagrants to civilised tourists was complete.  As the sun sank over the far bank of the Shire, we watched giant monitor lizards (about 1.5m long) scurry around in the twilight. 

Dinner back at the campsite was interrupted by a sudden and violent rainstorm, during which huge clouds were illuminated like Chinese lanterns by great flashes of lightening within.  Clutching our plates we dashed up into the tent, while the rain hammered deafeningly on the flysheet, finally giving way to the nocturnal rumblings of a pod of hippos close to the camp.

The next day dawned clear and later than afternoon we joined a bout trip for the best views of the wildlife.  From here we could really appreciate how the riverbanks and shallows team with fauna.  There are hundreds of species of birds in the park and we could only recognise a handful of them – several species of Kingfisher, heron, and the ubiquitous African Fish Eagle.  

Unmistakable though are the rivers heavyweight residents.  Great pods of hippos lie like submerged boulders, only their nostrils and porcine-like eyes exposed.  Occasionally their massive heads rise up and hinge open 180 degrees in their trademark yawn. 

Equally intimidating are the mega crocodiles that laze on the bank, totally motionless with their mouths wide open.  Presumably they lie like this to be able to snap their jaws down on any unsuspecting passer-by.  This rather optimistic posture did remind us of a popular Chinese proverb we heard when travelling there – “A peasant has to stand on a hillside for a very long time with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in.”  Certainly they are far more lethal when they are concealed in the water.  Some of these monsters weigh in at 1,000kg and one was pointed out to us that had allegedly been responsible for at least one missing local.  How Livingstone explored these shores on foot and survived for so long is nothing short of miraculous. 

It was also on this boat trip that we became acquainted with our carbon copies – Jonathan (a Brit) and his Danish wife of one and a half years Anne-Sophie.  Like us, they were in the middle of driving a loop from South Africa to Uganda and back.  We got on very well with them and decided to exit the park together the next morning.  This collaboration turned out to be a good thing – over the last two days a section of the road had turned into a gloopy swamp of the dreaded black cotton soil.  Bravely going first, Jonathan’s Toyota Fortuner tried to plough through but quickly bogged down, listing heavily to one side.

Rather than go in after them, we unravelled our steal cable and slowly winched them out.  Finding an alternative way out through the thick bush, we finally emerged near the park gates.  Here there is one last point of interest to visit.  Peering into the dim, hollow trunk of a baobab tree, a heap of human bones is just visible.  These are the remains of a number of leprosy victims who were traditionally “buried” in this way.  Clearing the east gate, we bid farewell to Jonathan and Anne-Sophie and headed for our next destination, the Mulanje Massif on the Malawi/Mozambique border.

Days in Africa: 58
Km driven: 432km
Km total:  7,647km

1 comment:

An said...

Great to read through all your adventures. We enjoyed Malawi last year as well even though it is by far the poorest African country we've been to. Just for info, the crocodiles have their mouth open to help them to cool down...it's their form of AC....although should something fly in, I'm sure they wouldn't object :-). Keep the stories coming!