The kids had a week off school for mid-term break so we decided to see another part of Malawi. We booked a two-night stay at the lodge in Ntchisi Forest Reserve, which contains one of the last two remaining patches of evergreen montane forest in Malawi. It's a three-hour drive from Bunda, and we left Thursday morning. We'd been warned that the roads were even worse than those to Dzalanyama, so we stopped in Lilongwe to pick up a rented a 4x4 double-cab Toyota Hi-lux to save our Polo a beating. We were glad of it by the time we got there! After we left the pavement, the road wound through rolling hills stripped of forest and covered with a patchwork of little cornfields...reminded us of parts of Honduras, except for the thatched roofs of the little houses in the villages.
All these cornfields are ridged by hand. People are working on that now to be ready to plant when the rainy season starts. In this picture you see mango trees scattered among the fields, and a stand of Australian eucalyptus trees planted on the ridge. (Professorial aside: Eucalyptus is tough, grows quickly and straighter than many of the native tree species, and resprouts from the stump when you cut it down. These traits have made it attractive as a plantation tree for firewood and timber, and it has been widely planted in many parts of Africa. However, there is now some backlash with the recent awareness of invasive species, and worse it is now believed to suck up a disproportionate amount of water. It's hard to get rid of once established, though, because of that habit of resprouting.)
It was easy to tell where the reserve was as we approached: it was the only hill in sight that wasn't completely deforested for agriculture.
The lodge is one of the oldest buildings in Malawi; it was built in 1914 as a summer residence for the British district governor. It's now under private management (by concession leased from the government) and has been refinished very nicely, and is set in beautiful grounds with watered green grass and all kinds of flowers. There are gardens too, where they raise food for the lodge kitchen. It's a step or two up from the Dzlanyama lodge, where you bring your own groceries; at Ntchisi they serve a three-course meal every evening! (By candlelight, of course; there is no electricity, and their solar generating system isn't working at present.)
Another difference from Dzalanyama: we had no entourage of curious village children on the lodge grounds here. It was refreshing to spend a couple of days not feeling conspicuous!
We set off for a hike the first afternoon, first driving up the road to a parking spot near the jungle so we'd be back by dark (6 p.m.). The kids seized the opportunity to ride in the back of the truck - Joel had a big grin on his face the whole time! He said, "You can see so much more back here!" Emma liked it as well but decided it was too bumpy, so she dived back into the cab through the back window. (Eric said to reassure the grandmothers that he drove extra-carefully and didn't even go out of first gear with them back there!)
The climate is seasonally dry here so I think the evergreen montane forest can't technically be called a rainforest, but it is certainly verdant. Massive trees with big buttress roots, strangler figs, vines, huge ferns in the undergrowth, baboons and samango monkeys, bird calls, huge butterflies... We were in awe. Ntchisi is famous for its orchids as well but they won't bloom until after the rains start. My little camera didn't capture the colors and shadiness very well, so hopefully Eric will put up some of his pictures soon in another post.
The birding was a little more difficult than at Dzalanyama because of the denseness of the forest, but we still managed to see some interesting birds on our walks and around the lodge, including European Bee-eaters, Crowned Hornbills, White-Starred Robin, and Schalow's Lourie. The Red Twinspot sn't new to us but it's one of my favorites.
Friday we hiked up along a ridge through what is called miombo woodland. This is similar to what we saw at Dzalanyama: shortish, widely spaced trees with flat tops and fantastically twisting branches. Emma and Joel couldn't resist the twistiest climbing tree they've ever seen.
Crossing over a ridge sent us back into the jungley montane evergreen forest, and right before we came back down to the road we walked through pine plantation. A highlight of this walk: Eric had just led the way from the miombo into the montane forest. Emma, who was just behind him, yelled "SNAKE!" There was a 6-foot python moving slowly across the path, completely ignoring us. Eric must have stepped over it without even noticing! Its coloration blends perfectly into the dead leaf litter on the forest floor. We were enormously excited and circled cautiously around trying to get a good picture, but the snake was not interested in stopping to pose... and we weren't really interested in trying to persuade it! We didn't realize how fortunate we'd been to see it until we were back at the lodge, talking with the Malawian guide who'd been taking a German couple on a hike that morning. He told us that he's been going up and down that mountain for years, and has never seen a python. The lodge manager, Innocent, showed us the skin of a 9-foot python which has been killed in the area a few years before.
That was definitely the wildlife-spotting highlight of our stay, but we also enjoyed baboons, samango monkeys, and the range of unusual insect life. Joel, of course, kept a keen eye out for lizards and geckos.
More than once during our stay we heard the sound of axes. Innocent said most of that is illegal cutting (you can get permits to cut in the eucalyptus and pine plantations), but the forestry officials in charge of patrolling this national forest preserve don't do much to stop it. The people who have the lease to run the lodge have been trying to encourage them with things like providing warm jackets so they can do random night patrols. The lodge managers are also trying to enlist community support. Innocent told us about a soccer league they've organized. Each of the surrounding six villages has a team, and the lodge provides uniforms and organizes tournaments. In return each team member is required to make a promise to not engage in illegal cutting, to help with tree planting projects in the village to give people a source of firewood other than the forest, and help fight forest fires. The lodge is also trying to get some money from the government to take out the eucalyptus within the reserve. Innocent thinks that will be a huge project and will create a lot of local employment, if they can only get the money.
Both evenings we walked to some big rocks not far from the lodge to watch the sunset. The first time we were left alone, but the second evening we were followed by a giggling group of village children who found watching us far more interesting than the sunset. The oldest girl had a little bit of English and introduced herself as Sofili. I asked if I could take a picture and she said "Yes", so I did...and then they all crowded around to see the picture on the back of the camera.
After a leisurely Saturday morning and a bit more hiking around we loaded up and headed back to Lilongwe. I snapped a few pictures on the way back. We were traveling on the main highway that goes north of Lilongwe - it was busy, but not the way you'd expect! (The highway that goes from Lilongwe south to the other major city of Blantyre carries a lot more vehicle traffic.)
I was struck by the beauty of this roadside tree, the tallest for miles around. I don't know why it was spared the fate of so many other trees here destined for firewood or timber, but I'm glad it was.