Sunday, January 09, 2011

January 8 and 9, 2011

The rain did let up after quite a significant downpour and we boarded the Range Rover again with Patrick and Henry. We headed north and east this time at first drivbing alongside an open field between two wooded areas. When I asked if the open area was natural they laughed and told me that this was the airstrip. I shudder to think was the landing must feel like on that rutted, wet and irregular field.

Patrick and Henry are quite incredible. They are both locals who began working at Mvuu years ago working their way up from servers, porters, kitchen staff, etc. to the rather envied position of guide. They have had to take exams, study manuals and apprentice for quite a while to achieve this. They are both incredibly knowledgeable. They seemed to know every type of tree, insect, animal, bird and flower. Henry was able to drive along the extremely wet and rutted roads and still see a mongoose hiding in the tall grass 50 meters away to the left! He was also an expert at spotting and identifying animals tracks.

Evidently we have been very lucky. It is the rainy season and the big animals can wander wherever they want as there is plenty of water. This means that they are difficult to spot as they don’t hang around close to the river or to the standing water. They will stop the motorized safaris next week as the roads (they are what are called dust road – we’d call them a series of significant potholes) will be too wet to navigate. They’ll also stop these safaris because it will be very difficult to spot the big mammals. Both Patrick and Henry have mentioned this – apologizing in advance for not having much to show us.

They needed have worried. It has been days since they have spotted elephants and we saw them yesterday. Today, although we were looking for the single rhino in the park, we spotted the only four Zebras in the park. They are quite unbelievable in the flesh. Patrick assured us that they were white with black stripes as the inside of their thighs were solid white.

We saw many of the same animals but this never gets old – watching impalas stand stock still waiting to see what the truck will do and then either going back to feeding or bounding off with acceleration that is not to be believed.

The evening safari is broken up with refreshments (we chose water – others chose gin and tonic – as medication of course given the quinine in the tonic) and then as it gets dark Patrick goes into the ‘offering’ seat. That is the seat over the left front headlight. As Henry said he is the offering to the large animals if we happen to come upon them in the dark. In reality Patrick has a strong lamp with a red filter – a white light will temporarily blind the animals but the red filter doesn’t. He shines the lamp into the bush and up and down trees looking for animal eyes. We saw a number of mongoose and feeding hippos. The hippos only come out to feed (expect for the guard hippos – another story) when the sun is down so that their skin doesn’t dry out. Most of the time we saw the hippo’s face – ears, eyes, nose and mouth – sticking out of the water – or we saw them jumping through the water. A hippo on land is an imposing sight – they are massive.

We were told that god made the hippo’s head too heavy for its body so the hippo alternates sides of the river for feeding. They keep the grass short and drop their saliva which is a great fertilizer. They eat the short shoots on one side one night and then go to the other side to eat the short shoots there – never having to pick their heads up to reach tall grass.

The other really interesting group of animals we saw was the baboons. We rarely saw any alone – although the occasional one would be sitting in the middle of a field chewing the succulent roots of the grass. Mostly they were in ‘troops’ youngsters, oldsters – clearly in a social structure. They were very interesting to watch – playing and testing and grooming each other.

We were coming close to rutting season for the impalas and we saw quite a number of the young males practicing their fighting skills – they would head butt each other and then race around and do it again. Sometime it almost seemed like it was scripted just for us.

It was a little easier to sleep last night. We knew what the sounds were, we expected the heat and humidity and we were both exhausted. The electricity at the camp is provided by generator from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. and then by solar energy from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. The first night we sat around after dinner in the breeze on the terrace where we were served dinner and stayed until after 9. At 9 our server brought a candle and a torch because at 9:00 p.m. the electricity disappeared and it was pitch black. We actually needed a guide to get back to our cabin.

Last night we went back before 9. We had discovered the night before that insects were attracted even by my iphone’s light so we operated in the dark – in bed by 9:15 and dead asleep within 10 minutes. Only to wide awake by 5:30 a.m.!!

After breakfast we were supposed to go on another water safari but henry said there had been reports of rhino tracks and he suggested we take the Rnge Rover and see if we could find the rhino. We did find tracks but never did see the rhino – we’ll have to come back for that. We saw many other animals and my head is still shaking – not believing that I was actually doing all of this. But the most interesting thing was watching Henry handle the vehicle. The trails were terrible, rutted, holey and often water covered or being overrun by water running toward the river. He seemed to know the ‘shape’ of the road even when it was covered in water. He would slowly allow the front wheels to enter the water or bump up against the obstruction. Then he’d give it a bit of power letting the other tires push the vehicle over or through. Many times I thought I’d be out in the mud pushing – but he made it through every time.

Back at the camp we finished packing, checked out and loaded onto the boat that would take us back to Liwonde. An hour later, after seeing many hippos in the water, we arrived behind the Hippo View Lodge to find our driver Fredson waiting to take us back to Blantyre,

We were passing through Zomba on our way back so we asked Fredson if we could go up to the Zomba Plateau to the Ku Chawe Hotel to see the view and have lunch. It was a 20 Km climb up the mountain but by the end we had looked over a large part of the valley. It was quite beautiful. Lunch at the hotel was a buffet (if you ever feel the need for a buffet come to Malawi – there are a lot of buffets here!!!) serving (no surprise here either) fish (Chambo) chicken and beef with rice and nsema (a maize chunk of stuff).

We finally finished all of our sightseeing and we made it to Blantyre in the middle of a hard rain. Fortunately by the time we got to the hotels the rain had stopped. We dropped Margaret off at the Mt Soche (poor girl) and Fredson dropped us off around the corner at the Protea Ryalls – a few dollars more per night but light years ahead of the Mt Soche in terms of cleanliness and service.

Tomorrow Max from Jambo Africa is taking care of our tourist needs for the next two days.


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