Sunday Morning~ Majete
November 6, 2016
Well, one way to make Blantyre seem cooler was to come to the Lower Shire Valley for the weekend. On Friday we filled a day pack and set out to walk a couple miles, in the heat of the day, to catch a minibus to Chikwawa. It’s the same road we took to church a couple of weeks ago but this time went all the way down the escarpment to sea level and a steamy 42 degrees. That’s about 108 American degrees, ten degrees hotter than Blantyre. We were heading to a splurge weekend at Majete National Park where we had a tent chalet booked for two nights and four activities planned and paid for, the first a game drive at 4 p.m. Chikwawa is only an hour’s drive from Blantyre where the road turns off toward the game park. There is no public transport to the park, but we thought we’d get a taxi to take us. Chikwawa is a bustling place, but not prosperous, and we learned there are no taxis. At least car taxis. There were plenty of bicycle taxis transporting people short distances, but the gate to the park was 17 kilometers and at 3 p.m. in the baking sun, the thought of going 17 kilometers on the back of a bike, even if we weren’t the ones peddling, sounding risky. We asked a few how much to take us there, and none of them jumped at the chance to make money. That was a statement, let me tell you. George called the camp about getting a ride and they looked for someone to come get us. This was not part of the package. Apparently most people visiting this place have their own cars. While George was fretting and arranging for transport, I visited the market across the street and came away with three chithenjes. I couldn’t resist. The lodge finally located a guy with a car and he found us outside the Triangle Hardware Store under an overhang desperately seeking shade. After unloading large quantities of our cash into our taxi driver’s hands, he took us the long hot dusty dirt road to the park. We were desperate. We had to pay. But we made it in time for our evening game drive and Osmond, our guide, was all smiles and welcomes. Life can be so sweet here.
The Majete Wildlife Reserve covers 70,000 hectares and was established in 1955. In the 80’s and 90’s the poaching increased to the point where most of the large species had been exterminated completely, including elephants. In 2003, the organization African Parks took over the responsibility for the reserve and rehabilitated it magnificently. It is the only park in Malawi where you have a chance of seeing the “big five”––– elephants, rhino, cape buffalo, lions, and leopards. We’ve only gotten to see two of those five, but we still have a few hours left here, so we’ll see if we get lucky. We’ve seen loads of other animals though, and are happy this place is so close to where we live. I was never much of a birder, but I’ll say, it’s been fascinating to see how many species there are here, to hear the symphony of birdsong at all hours of the day, but especially the early morning, and see how Osmond could identify them hundreds of meters away.
The Thwale Camp, where we are staying, has six ensuite tents and one family chalet. It’s rustic but luxurious compared to where we stayed in Liwonde. The tents are all separated by trees and shrubs and have a private veranda facing a waterhole where we watch various animals come to bathe and drink at all hours of the day. The tents are about fifty meters back from the waterhole and our presence does not seem to bother the animals. We are not allowed to leave our tent after dark without a “scout” accompanying us. Dinner is served in the open thatch-roofed dining area, and they come to escort us at seven when dinner is served. We can walk from our tent during the day, but only on the path to the dining area. We can’t walk around the reserve alone, not that I would consider that given what we’ve seen here. It’s incredible to watch all these different animals living harmoniously. This morning we stood outside as the sun was rising and warthogs, nyala, baboons, impala, guinea fowl, and water buck all strolled around each other, in and out of the water, as hundreds of birds flitted in and out of the trees. George said, “It looks like Eden! Everyone all living harmoniously.” A lion would have disrupted that notion, but none of those visited the water hole this morning.
Yesterday morning we did a walk with Osmond and a scout named Damiano who had an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder. We were warned not to make sudden moves or talk loudly and to follow instructions when either Damiano or Osmond raised their hands. If we saw something we wanted to point out, we were to snap our fingers. It was a bit thrilling. I asked Damiano if the gun contained tranquilizers or bullets, and he laughed and said, “Oh, no tranquilizers; only real bullets.” I couldn’t decide if I was reassured by that or not. I wondered if he was a sharp shooter if a lion came charging at us, but George said later, “You don’t have to be a sharp shooter with that gun. It’s an uzi and will kill anything in front of you.” Not being too fond of automatic weapons, I wasn’t aware of this tidbit.
I love the game drives in the open classic Land Cruiser scouting for the big animals, but I also love the walks. We see fewer animals, but I love learning about the plants and seeds and insects. It’s fascinating and finding tracks of the large animals is fun too. I love how the guides can tell so much by their tracks: which direction they were moving, how long ago they were there, how many of them. Osmond pointed out a gorgeous Chestnut tree, with smooth soft yellow bark. He had us feel the bark to see that it was covered in a fine powder. “Even the baboons cannot climb this tree,” he said. “No, no, if a lion comes for you do not try to climb this tree, you will not make it.” I wondered if the thorn-covered Acacia trees surrounding it would be any easier.
In the afternoon we went on boat ride on a different part of the Shire River from Liwonde, and let’s say this was a bit more basic. The boat had an African Queen feel to it, minus a few cases of gin. Since it was so much smaller that the last boat we were in, we were able to get close to the shore and frighteningly close to some crocodiles. I turned to Osmond with his hand on the outboard motor and asked if they could leap? He laughed, “Oh no! They can not get in the boat, but if you swim in this river you will not get five meters without being eaten. But the hippos, no. They will just bite you in half and leave you for a party for the crocodiles.” We were so close to the hippos I feared a big splash would dump us into their little gathering of friends. Osmond was getting a kick out of my anxiety, laughing, “Oh no no, you are quite safe. They will not tip us.” He seemed to know what he was doing and I assumed he didn’t want to die either, so tried to put a lid on it. We puttered upstream and about a quarter mile away, Osmond said he saw elephants crossing the river. He sped up a bit and we got close to this group of elephants submerged halfway across the river. It was a group of mothers and babies. When they heard us they turned and went back to the island they started from. As we passed, maybe ten meters from them, the mothers turned to the river, spread their ears and stomped their front legs. They looked like they would charge at us and could have capsized our little boat with a tiny fleck of their trunk. But they didn’t go any further than the sandy riverbank. Osmond just sat smiling. I asked if they would come after us? He said, “Oh no. They are just trying to scare us because of the babies.” I told him they were doing a good job and maybe we shouldn’t upset them. Oh, he reassured me it was fine, just go ahead and take pictures. I took a video of the two mother elephants, their full tits hanging down between their front legs. There were four babies so there were two more mothers around somewhere, but the way they protected them was exciting to watch. It’s so thrilling to see these animals in their native habitat. I was worried we upset them and I felt badly we disturbed their river crossing, but really watching those moms pacing in front of the babes, flinging their trunks and flapping their ears, I wanted to cheer them on. I can’t imagine anything messing with them, holy smokes.
We lolled upstream a little more and when we turned around to head downstream we could see about twenty elephants crossing the river. We slowed to give them plenty of space and watched this amazing process. The mothers completely surround the babies and in one mass, cross over and all help each other up onto the riverbank. It was spectacular. As they climbed and walked into the jungle the mother at the rear turned to look at us, totally nonplussed, lifted her back leg to scratch the other one, and lumbered off with the group. I turned to George and said, “Can you believe we just get to sit and watch this?” And then we motored slowly downstream as the sun was sinking, that beautiful soft red. It’s just so gorgeous.
I’m now sitting in the dining area facing the waterhole and watching an elephant who sauntered in all alone. It’s a male and he doesn’t seem bothered by any of the antelope down there, but he swats at a warthog. Osmond told us the males don’t hang around the females and babies because there is nothing for them to do. The females rule the herds and the males just come in for mating. There’s an interesting community model. And, he tells us, “The females choose which males.” Even better.
I find it amusing to hear Malawians complain about the heat; and they all do. I guess it’s like New Englanders complaining about the cold. You’d think you’d get used to it. But, believe me, it’s hot here. It got as high as 45 degrees (113 Fahrenheit) and it’s oven-like. Everything we touch is hot. I sat on the bed in the tent and it felt like an electric blanket was on. The cold water in the shower was lukewarm. I decided to air-dry, hoping to cool off a bit, and the breeze on our veranda felt like a blow dryer set to the hot setting. I feel logy and drowsy and it’s even hard to read. This laptop is almost too hot to touch. The packed minibus should be pleasant later on. We’ll leave here after lunch.
I have said before that I believe the only thing that will save this country is ecotourism and I am so grateful this organization has put the resources into places like this. We can stay here very comfortably (aside from the heat at this time of year), with minimal environmental impact and give jobs to locals and boost the economy. The park employs about 125 people, many of them scouts to keep track of the animals which are all thriving except for the Hartebeests, (though we did get to see some babies this morning). Every day scouts track the rhinos, the most valuable animals and the most vulnerable to poachers. We saw some of their tracks but didn’t get to see any. Anyway, I still say, depending on tourism dollars will keep a country peaceful and motivate them to protect the environment. Only ten million tourists a year visit this continent. When I think that almost five million a year visit MDI, a tiny island off the coast of Maine, I think there is so much potential.
So this has been a good way to avoid thinking about this Tuesday. I can’t wait to stop worrying about what is happening to my country. I am praying that sensibility prevails and we’ll wake up Wednesday to hear of our first female president. Otherwise, we are thinking about staying here.
Love to all,