The last major phase of our time in Malawi was to play host to Eric's brother Chris and family Angie, Andrew, and Logan. They finally arrived in Lilongwe on Dec. 16, after several delays and a missed connection. Eric had succeeded in selling our little Polo and we'd arranged for a Land and Lakes Safari van to drive us around, so we were looking forward to a relaxing trip letting someone else dodge goats and minibuses.
After several hours of driving, and after the sun had set, we pulled up to a dock along the Shire River where we were met by the boat that took us to Mvuu Camp. Mvuu is the Chichewa word for hippo. This is the sign we passed to get to the chalets:
We actually didn't have to leave the camp to observe wildlife. There were warthogs grazing outside the chalets first thing in the morning, big geckos on the chalet stone walls, monitor lizards crawling across the paths, and a vervet monkey that leaped onto the table one mealtime and stole food right off of Angie's plate. One of the cooks came dashing out with a slingshot, or "catapult" as it's called there - it soon became obvious that the monkeys there know enough about slingshots to be wary of them.
In the heat of the afternoon the pool proved irresistible to a number of primates, the kind with American passports as well as the vervet monkey that made off with a banana.
Once Chris started sizing up the big baobab, however, it became a little more difficult to tell the different types of primates apart.
We did leave the camp, however: over the next couple of days we went on two game drives and two boat rides and a walking safari. We didn't see the variety of animals species we saw in South Luangwa on our trip to Zambia. This was due to the fact that this time it wasn't the dry season so animals weren't concentrated by the river, as well as the fact that Malawi has had far more poaching problems than Zambia. There is one lone lion in Liwonde, who wandered there on his own from Nkhotakhota some years ago and stayed. Apparently there has been some talk of re-introducing more lions, but the fact that the park is also home to around a dozen rhinos - an extremely endangered species - coupled with the ongoing lack of poaching control has so far discouraged that move. While we didn't see the lion or the elusive rhinos, which tend to stay hiding in an inner sanctuary where tourists aren't taken, it was still a magical experience. At South Luangwa we saw lots of different things; here we had the chance to stay put for longer periods of time and observe the animals' activities. We watched elephant families leisurely feeding, and once the guide stopped the boat so we could watch an elephant cross the river. This may not sound that exciting as you read it, but an elephant is such a massive animal that just to see it in the wild is impressive, and to observe it going about its daily activities in its extremely large, unhurried way is something I could do for a long time. We liked the way it held the end of its trunk above the water the whole way across.
Some of my thoughts about the Malawian landscape and wildlife prompted me to ask our guide if what I suspected was true: most Malawian kids have never seen an elephant. He nodded. Liwonde, and possibly the other parks as well, try to engage the local communities in environmental education and conservation, but how much can you do with a school system that doesn't even have enough money to provide its schools with enough teachers? Besides, those efforts would only reach those kids who live right beside a park, and most Malawian kids don't. It's something I noticed in South Luangwa too, that practically all the jeeps were filled with foreign tourists; we only saw one black tourist family in all the time we spent visiting natural areas. The local people may indeed be benefiting from jobs cooking and cleaning for the foreign tourists (myself included), with a handful working as guides in the park. I think kids in general are far more disconnected from nature in the US than in Malawi, where almost everyone has a little corn patch. With poaching and firewood cutting being the serious problems they are I don't know what I would recommend. But I still think there is still something impoverishing in having your only connection with the natural world being to see how much maize you can make it produce, and I still think it's sad that most Malawian kids have never seen and likely never will see an elephant. (I also think it's sad that so many American kids are so clueless about their local ecosystems.)
One of the highlights of our visit to Liwonde was a "walking safari" with our guide. (Would you go on a walking safari with a man named Danger? No kidding. That's his name.) We were accompanied by a ranger with a rifle in case of trouble. (I asked him what he could do with one rifle if an elephant charged; he said the sound of shooting into the air would frighten off any animal that might be posing a threat.) I could have spent all day doing this: looking at plants, insects, birds, animals (sadly, no snakes this time), listening to Danger's explanations of various things. I asked him if he grew up knowing all this but he said no, he had to study a lot to become a guide. This walk was the perfect antidote to the frustration I was starting to feel at being in a natural paradise but not being allowed to get out of the jeep. Everyone else loved it too - except Andrew and Logan, who groaned and snuggled back into bed when their parents got up at dawn for the walk! We were all amazed when Danger pointed out a family of elephants feeding a couple hundred yards behind us: he'd told us that elephants move silently but I don't think we had really believed him. The picture makes it look like we weren't very close to them, but believe me - on foot, we felt like we were probably close enough.
Can you spot the animals in the picture above? In Joel's words, after years of being called a fruit bat he finally met one of his own kind. Several, in fact, staring back at him from under an arch of reeds and vines along the river bank right beside the camp.
Below, a huge termite mound, a "candelabra tree" (actually a euphorb, Euphorbia ingens), and impala.