Land & Lakes Safaris, who operates the lodge, assured us that we could make the trip in our little VW Polo and gave us a map showing which roads to be sure to avoid in that car! We were soon off the pavement and onto dirt roads, and the further we got from Lilongwe the worse the roads got. They were never so bad we felt we couldn't make it, but bad enough to slow us down to an average speed of 20 km (12 miles) per hour.
Roads like this are why zip ties on hub caps are standard procedure here; it keeps them from falling off.
On the way we passed through lots of small villages, most of which seemed full of children just waiting for the chance to jump up and down shouting "Azungu! Azungu! (White people!)" We felt like quite the spectacle. In between the villages the fields lay dry, empty of everything except a few parched weeds, waiting for planting time. A bit of green in the landscape is provided by some trees that keep their leaves in the dry season. Mango trees are especially common; it seems each cornfield includes at least one mango tree. The green, forest-covered mountains we were slowly approaching seemed a welcome contrast to the hot, dry, dusty fields and villages.
We got an early start hiking the next morning. There is a waterfall 11 km from the lodge but that was a longer hike than we wanted to tackle, so we just set off with no particular destination in mind. Despite the name which translates to something like Place Full of Animals, there are not many mammals left in the reserve. The real attraction is the bird life. We all enjoyed catching glimpses of things like the vivid yellow and green Little Bee-Eaters, the African Paradise-Flycatcher with the impossibly long tail, and the Plum-colored Starlings whose dull plumage turned a brilliant purple when they moved from the shadows into the sunlight. Of course, I found a few plants to look at too.
Emma found a very interesting dry seed pod, and immediately thought what to do with it:
We soon realized that this picturesque rocky stream also serves as a laundromat. (This photo was taken early, before the laundromat opened.) Saturday must be a big laundry day for the families of reserve employees who live in the area; when we stepped out on the deck after lunch we saw a couple dozen kids of all sizes, up to maybe early teens, with laundry spread on the rocks to dry. Apparently watching azungu is more interesting than watching laundry dry, because we soon had an audience. Some of the bolder little boys even climbed a tree on the edge of the lodge's yard to look chattering and giggling through the windows. I wished I didn't feel so awkward about getting a photo of them, all lined up on a branch like the vervet monkeys we saw at South Luangwa! The photo you see here is a group of boys that introduced themselves in passable English and asked us to take a photo, so they could see it on the camera screen.
We figured we were going to have an audience no matter what, so the kids and I went down to wade in the creek for a little bit, and Joel found some wood to carve.
When it cooled off the kids at the stream packed up their dry laundry, and we went for a short hike/bird walk before supper. While this is a legally protected reserve, we noticed human impact everywhere. The understory had been burned in many places to encourage a flush of new plant growth for the cattle and goats which are grazed in the forest. We also saw some places where we think charcoal might have been made. Lucius, the lodge housekeeper/cook, told us that you can get a permit to collect dead wood in the forest for firewood, which many people do to sell. We've been told that Dzalanyama is the source of much of the wood we see on bicycles heading toward Lilongwe. However, when live wood is cut it's not dried out and is too heavy to transport that way, so it is made into charcoal. This drives off the water and makes it lighter and easier to transport, but it's illegal. Obviously that law isn't enforced very well, judging by all the bicycle loads of charcoal we see on the roads.
The good thing about having to get up insanely early on school days is that it doesn't feel so painful to get up really early on a weekend to do some hiking and birdwatching before it gets too hot. Eric was up at sunrise on Sunday morning to go for a run. But after only a couple of kilometers he came face to face with a fully-grown hyena in the road! After they stared at each other from a distance of maybe 50 yards, they both cautiously went on their way. Eric decided at that point that his way was back the way he'd come. His comment: "Seeing hyenas from the seat of a safari vehicle is a LOT DIFFERENT than seeing one on foot and alone!"
Once everyone was up we followed the stream up that rocky ravine, with some detours into the surrounding woodland for glimpses of Golden-tailed Woodpeckers and Greater Scimitar-bills.
When we came back it seemed that the streamside laundromat was closed for Sunday, but the group of boys who had stopped us to talk the day before came up to the edge of the lodge's yard and called for Joel to come. They were inviting him to join them for a swim where they'd dammed up the stream to make a swimming hole, so off he went. Emma felt a bit wistful and left out, I think, but there weren't any girls in the group. No girls came looking for Emma. It seemed to us that the girls didn't speak much English; we're guessing that if anyone has to miss school to work at home it's the girls, and as the men are considered the breadwinners it's more important for them to learn English to get a job. We also wondered if the girls have more house work and don't have as much time to play. At any rate, Emma still had overdue homework to finish so the whole question was kind of moot.
The drive back to Lilongwe was a bit more nerve-wracking than the drive out, because early on an alarming clunking sound began to issue from the left front of the car. Eric stopped to check it out at a safe distance from the shouting, waving crowds of kids, but still ended up being supervised. He wasn't sure what it was, but there was really nothing to do but hope for the best and keep going. His comment: "Every time I hear that clunk I see dollar signs." But it turned out to be just a loose bushing which was quickly (and cheaply) secured on Monday when he took it in to the mechanic.