Liz knows that for many of the friendship team participants (including me) this is their first trip to Africa. Because of that, and as a little break from their emotionally and physically exhausting week, Liz always sends the friendship teams on an overnight safari. When Liz told me that I would be accompanying the team my heart leapt. Elephants are some of my favorite animals, but I have only ever seen them in zoos, where they have always struck me as melancholy beings, looking out sadly at the people observing them and seemingly wondering how it was that they came to be trapped in these enclosures. So I was very excited to be able to see them roaming free in their natural habitats. On Monday morning, the 8 of us, Jordan, Tom, Sydney, Randa, Susan, Jennie, Jim and I piled into the Landcruiser with Kondwani at the wheel and started the two hour drive to Liwonde National Park.
As soon as we turned onto the dusty, rutted road at the park’s entrance we noticed the changes. Large proud trees towered over us, providing shade and food and shelter for the abundant wildlife. After a drive of about 15 minutes we reached the banks of the Shire River, which cuts through the middle of the park and we looked across to the Mvuu Wilderness Lodge, where we would be spending the night, possibly the best safari lodge in all of Malawi, and one that ranks among the best in all of Southern Africa. We said goodbye to Kondwani (Liz often sends VIP staff to the safari with the team and he may get the chance to go sometime in the near future) and loaded our bags into a small boat waiting for us at the dock and made our way over to the lodge.
As we maneuvered our way across the river we began calling to one another in excited voices as we started picking out the wildlife, “look at the hippo!” “Check out the size of that croc!” Liwonde is known for its incredible bird-watching and as we glided into the dock on the opposite bank we saw a tree that had gone completely white from the guano that covered it from head to toe. White aquatic birds perched in the upper branches or circled just above the tree, called out to one another in melodic voices. We were greeted at the dock and made our way up a set of wooden stairs onto a long raised walkway which overlooked a marshy area full of grazing hippo. We were led to a raised and covered viewing platform with excellent views of the marsh and river with low hills just visible in the distance. After an introduction to the park and the lodge as we sipped on our ice teas and cooled ourselves off with wet towels (there had also been banana bread, but that had been stolen by a particularly mischievous monkey) we were led to our rooms. We would be staying in 4 luxury tent suites, with wrap-around wooden decks, complete with chairs and hammocks. But after a week of being covered in the dust of the village roads, and never being able to get fully clean in the shower stalls at N’amangazi Farm, everyone was most excited to see the large showers, complete with large rainwater shower heads and matching bath robes.
After washing up it was time to meet our guide, Matthews, and follow him into the large truck for our first safari, which would stretch from the late afternoon into the night. As we drove out of the lodge my excitement mounted. We met up with the river and drove along it for a while, taking in the hippo, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs and crocodiles who were busy eating, drinking and sleeping along its marshy banks. After 15 minutes we caught our first glimpse of what I had been waiting for: elephants! A family of five was making their way through the light tree cover and Matthews positioned the truck along a route he thought they might take. He couldn’t have chosen a better spot. As two juveniles passed along the tree line 15 feet from us, a much larger female came over to see what we were. Elephants are very near sighted and as she approached closer she shook her mighty head to let us know that she had seen us and to test whether we would run from her. Elephants are so large that they find the safest way to deal with a potential threat is to approach the threat head on and see how it reacts. When we made no move (other than to frantically take pictures) she circled around our truck, pausing at the rear, where Sydney, Randa and I shared a bench. She then came closer to the truck, less than a body length away, so close that I could look into her tiny eyes, and see every wrinkle in her gray skin. So close that I felt as if she could reach out her trunk and effortlessly pull Sydney from her seat. She stayed there for over 20 seconds, silently considering us, and wondering if we were worth the effort to chase away. It was a twenty seconds that seemed to both stretch on for several minutes and end far too quickly. Eventually she must have decided we were innocent enough and turned away from us and went back to grazing. I realized that I hadn’t breathed in quite a while and let it out in a long sigh, my heart pounding in my chest and a smile on my face. Matthews told us that he hadn’t had an elephant approach that close since his initial training over ten years before.
We followed the elephant family for a few more minutes before heading off to see what else we could find. As we drove the sun sank beneath the low lying clouds on the horizon and glowed red as it slowly sank behind the lazy Shire River. We parked the truck and took pictures and enjoyed the view while we had a small picnic and drinks. Matthews and his spotter kept an eye out for any potential threat, particularly hippo, who will attack (and generally kill) anything in between them and the safety of the water’s edge. As night descended in typical rapid Malawian fashion we got back into our truck and started the nighttime portion of our drive. As we drove through the darkness listening to the sounds of nocturnal animals we told stories we had heard of close encounters with African predators and we convinced ourselves that we would be attacked by one of the park’s rare leopards, or perhaps a hippo that we stumbled upon in the darkness. As the tension mounted and we discussed who would be eaten first if we were attacked, some of us half wished that something would happen, while the other half wished for dinner and our warm beds. Ultimately the rest of the ride passed uneventfully and we rode back to the lodge where we enjoyed a lovely open air dinner with two European families, one of which had a daughter who would be spending the year in the villages of Zomba teaching English!
After dinner Jennie and Jim went to bed early, though their plans for a good night’s sleep were disrupted by the giant hand-sized spider that they found on the inside of their mosquito net that prompted them to beat the drum in the cabin calling for help. They were told that regardless of its size, spiders in Malawi did not constitute an emergency. While they slept fitfully (they lost track of where the spider had gone after their initial shock) the rest of us spent the next few hours around a campfire, looking at the stars, listening to the sounds coming from the impenetrable blackness just over the low wall that separated us from the marsh, and talking with one another. We talked about our lives back home and about what we had seen that day. We talked about what we had experienced in the villages and what we planned to do to help when we went back home. One thing that we left unsaid, though I am sure that it was as present in everyone else’s thoughts as it was in mine, was how different our experience at this ultra-luxurious lodge was from life in the villages. Most of the people we had met the past week would never experience the things we were now enjoying, some of them couldn’t even imagine them. Plush pillows, warm showers, private decks, all you could eat buffets and waiters attending our every need were all so far removed from the daily experience of the villagers of Sakata as to be unknowable to them. It did not leave me with feelings of guilt necessarily, but more a profound uncertainty and sadness over why I had been given so much when millions, or rather, billions of other people had been given so little. It is a question I will continue to wrestle with in the days and months ahead. Perhaps Liz had other reasons besides our enjoyment when she sent us out on Safari.
The next morning we woke up early, even by Malawian standards, so that we could make our 6 AM river cruise on the Shire River. As we motored out into the sluggish river the air was alive with the sounds of thousands of birds and it was the birds that first caught our eyes as well. We saw swallows dancing back and forth around the boat, some balanced for several minutes on the ship’s bow, serving as temporary mastheads. We saw delicate white cranes wading in the shallows of the river and kingfishers perched in the low branches of trees. We saw heron, storks searching for their morning meals among the reeds along the river bank. Just as we reached the middle of the river we watched as a beautiful African Fish Eagle glided through the air just twenty feet above our boat. Over the next two hours we saw many more birds (including a fight between two more eagles as one had ventured into the territory of a nesting pair) and dozens of hippo, wading into the shallows and scattering whenever we came too close. The highlight was again the elephants and we were able to observe two different large family groups coming down to the water for their morning drinks as Matthews floated the boat along the palm fringed banks. We were able to get so close, especially when we approached from down-wind, that we could hear the elephants drinking the water that they sucked up with their trunks. We ventured too close to one young male and he backed away into the reeds and stayed there for several minutes, satisfied that his three ton body was safely hidden from view by the thin grasses that grew along the banks of the river. All too soon it was time to dock the boat, enjoy our breakfast and rest before our final drive.
For our final excursion we decided to go into the rhino sanctuary, which also contained four cheetah and several herds of zebra. Black rhinos are critically endangered throughout Africa, with one sub-species having been officially declared extinct. The last native black rhinos had disappeared from Malawi in the 80’s as the already rare species succumbed to the pressures of poachers who killed them for their horns. In the early 90’s a breeding program was begun in Liwonde to try to bring these rare creatures back to the warm heart of Africa. Though with poaching still a major threat, the small rhino population in the park remains in grave danger. We did not see any rhinos as we made our way through the reserve, or cheetah for that matter. But we enjoyed the ride through this tranquil section of the park. The reserve is surrounded by a low electric fence which helps keep the rhino in and the elephants (generally) out. The relative lack of elephants has allowed the trees to grow much thicker in this section of the park and we found ourselves driving through beautiful forests and glades that were so different than anything else we had experienced in Africa. In some of these glades we glimpsed the black and white bodies of zebra, but it was always a quick encounter. The zebra would hear the engine of our car and would dart off further into the woods seeking the peace and security of the trees.
The ride itself was also quite an adventure, as Matthews led us on to rarely traveled roads in his attempt to find the rhinos. We had to dodge tree branches and thorns and hold on as Matthews guided the truck up and down steep hills that had to be taken at speed in order to avoid getting stuck. Finally Matthews admitted defeat and headed back to the lodge, but on the way out we were given one last treat. A herd of a dozen or so elephants that had crashed through the electric fence was preparing to cross the road on their way from a nearby water hole, just as we were heading out. Matthews parked the truck and we watched as the herd crossed in front of us, a large male standing watch in the middle of the road as everyone else crossed behind him. A tiny baby, less than 6 months old, was barely visible as it crossed next to its mother, hugging her close in the presence of these strange creatures. After the family had crossed, a small juvenile male, barely more than a baby himself, doubled back, crashing through tree branches as he shook his head at us belligerently. When he sadly realized that he wasn’t quite as threatening as he thought (or as much as his thousand pound body probably warranted) he followed the rest of his family back into the forest to fight another day.
Soon it was time to go back across the river and to return to the villages of Sakata, before our team flew out the next day. We were so grateful for the chance to go on Safari and to see these beautiful animals in their stunning home by the picturesque Shire River and sad to have to say goodbye to the people that had made the past week so memorable.