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.

January 7 & 8, 2011

I am sitting in our camp/cabin at Mvuu Camp writing this while the wind and the rain storm around me. The cabin has a brick foundation, a porch and a roof – between the foundation and the roof are vertical beams between which are strung screens – the screens have curtains hanging in front of them. During the day the camp/tent/cabin has electricity provided by generators for a few hours and in the evening the solar energy is used to provide electricity from 7 until 9 p.m. So lets hope the light lasts long enough for me to write this post.

It has been the most incredible two days.

Yesterday started as normal at the Sun ‘N’ Sand with an early breakfast - same food as every other day with even less concern for service. Margaret and I met with the 14 participants that were still on site and worked through a debriefing exercise that Margaret had devised. Then I asked the participants to answer a few workshop evaluation questions for us to take back with us for the project administrators. Then the fun began – a few speeches closing the workshop and handing out participant certificates. The VP pointed out that certificates were important because they can be used during job interviews – just like the one he had this past Wednesday!!!

We checked out trying to pay with a Visa but the brand new Visa machine didn’t work and no one knew how to get it to work. So I am supposed to pay someone in Blantyre – I’m not really sure who I am supposed to pay but I am sure someone will ask eventually.

Fredson was waiting for us and we packed the car and headed for Liwande and the Hippo View Lodge to catch the boat to Mvuu Lodge.

Two men greeted us there – the first was the admissions officer to the Park (750 Kwachas per person per night please) and the other man was the man with the receipt book. Getting the receipt and signing all the different copies took quite a bit of time but we were eventually on the boat.

The boat was sent by the Mvuu lodge (Mvuu means hippo) and is the first step to our luxury weekend ($225 per person per night – food and safaris included). This was a motor boat with a shade cover covering 8 metal and plastic bridge chairs. It was actually quite a comfortable ride.

After a safety speech and putting on our life jackets the boat fellow told us that the trip would take 45 minutes but we should ask him to stop if we saw something we wanted to see – this is Africa – time is never a problem.

No sooner did we get out into the river that we encountered a raft of hippos. Nothing can prepare you for seeing these things live and up close. The boat fellow knew his stuff and gave us tons of information. It took us over an hour and a half to get to the Camp because we insisted he stop and let us look at and take pictures of the hippos, crocodiles, fish eagles and other birds.

The hippos have skin that dries out very quickly in the direct sunlight so they spend their days immersed in the water. They have family groups called rafts – one dominant male, young males, females and babies. They can hold their breath for up to 8 minutes and come out of the water exhaling through their noses causing a spout. They also make moaning types of noises. They submerge, move around, emerge, sit there with only their eyes, nose and ears visible and sometimes they jump out of the water sort of frolicking.

We reached Mvuu camp where out luggage was taken out of the boat and we were greeted by the manager. This is a very well taken care of resort, well managed, well manicured and concerned with customer service. We were given a late lunch in the dining area. There are virtually no enclosed spaces (other than bathrooms) in this place. This is an open camp (no fences so the animals wander in and out) in the Liwonde National Park. It is owned and run by a South African company and they cater to their clients very well. Rustic but well maintained, simple but just enough – clean large soft towels in the stone and marble bathroom for instance.

After lunch we were shown to out chalet - #6 and were told to be at the staging area at 4 for our motorized safari. Henry and Patrick were both there to greet us in their immense 4 wheel drive Land Rover. We headed out into the park.

Impalas, Water Bucks, Wart Hogs, Baboons, a million types of birds, the wildlife was constant and Henry and Patrick knew everything about the big game, the small animals, the birds and the vegetation.

We would spot a group and Henry would turn off the motor and then let the Rover drift over towards the animals.

There is one Rhino in this park as it was expelled from the protected area by its Daddy – too much competition. We found its tracks but couldn’t spot him.

We did, however, see Elephants which evidently is unusual for the rainy season. There was lots of evidence of elephants as they knock down Acacia trees in their efforts to eat its branches and we found dung and tracks. But we didn’t see them for quite a while.

Just before dusk we spotted a young male feeding off a tree just on the right. He seemed to disappear but in a few minutes 2 large females with two very young elephants emerged and slowly, very slowly passed by us, crossed the road and wandered into the distance with the teenage male following them. It was an unbelievable sight. Something that its not likely we’ll forget soon.

We stayed out until well past dark – close to 7 p.m. – looking for night creatures – not very successful there. Dinner was at 7:30 – pork chops, mashed potatoes, etc.

And then lights out and I do mean lights out – the power goes and we had a candle and a ‘torch.’ So we got into bed. Bed is two camp beds side by side with mosquito netting on a frame around each – fortunately there was a crawl hole between the beds.

The mosquito netting is important as …..

My writing was just interrupted by a family of baboons that came to play and feed around our place. I hope I got some good video through the screen.

The mosquito netting is important as there are gaps between the screens and the wood frame. I also discovered that any kind of light attracts a variety of night life. So I couldn’t even read my Sherlock Holmes on the iphone. And it was dark – pitch black. No light whatsoever. (The baboons are still climbing and jumping around on our roof as I write – one just ran down the tree on other side of the screen behind me)

One of the things we notice here is that it is so still – hardly ever any wind – except right before it rains. Last night the air was filled with everything from Monkey calls to warthog snuffles to hippos splashing into the water just below our porch. All of that on top of the various insects, birds and other assorted night creature sounds.

Given that our walls are screens it goes without saying that we don’t have air conditioning. No wind, no air conditioning and it was likely around 30 degrees when we went to bed. It was also preparing to rain so the humidity was off the charts. Helene’s skin is reacting to the heat (making her prickly) and I was reminded of the attic I used to sleep in on Rupertsland when I was young. Needless to say we only slept a bit.

It is becoming a habit to text the kids each night to let them know we are ok – there is no internet here (well actually there is but they didn’t get the cards to sell this week – or last week – maybe next week) and as it turned out I couldn’t text for some reason. We eventually used the iphone to call Stacey to let her know we’re ok and to write the boys. Stacey has a cold and heard some bad news a few days ago about a friend of hers. I felt bad that we couldn’t have talked longer. This is a wonderful adventure but I miss my kids.

We finally fell asleep to wake up to all hell breaking loose. This morning they said it was only a shower but during the night it sounded and felt like a hurricane. Back to sleep again to the background noise of thunder, animals and any other kind of sound you could imagine.

Margaret went on the 5:30 a.m. walking safari. Helene and I gave it a pass. Breakfast at 7 and then off for a two hour water safari. This was a different boat – sun shade over benches on the side of a relatively small motor boat – couldn’t have fit 4 more people besides the three of us and the driver Henry (same guy as the motorized safari.)

We drifted up the river stopping to look at Impalas on the shore, hippos and crocodiles on the shore and in the water and innumerable birds and trees. Helene’s favourite is the sausage tree with its long thick hanging fruit.

We got back mid morning and then were taken on a tour of the ‘lodge.’ This is an area of Mvuu for those who want luxury (basically one step up from our camp) and seclusion – nowhere close to anything else.

We have just finished lunch. If the rain stops we’ll go for the 4 p.m. motorized safari again.