Our Christmas was not your usual snowy yuletide affair. Though if I recall correctly, in the past twenty years I have spent only four in the U.S. and if given the choice I have a tendency to choose warmer climes over cold. Still, I do not remember a Christmas quite like this – hot and humid, yes, been there and done that, but absent the African animals.
I knew being the new colleague on the block would likely mean a shorter holiday. That I was prepared for. The requirement to stay within Malawi though threw me for a loop. Initially.
Then I realized this was a wonderful opportunity for C and I to spend some time exploring Malawi. I settled on Majete Wildlife Reserve located in Chikwawa District, in the far south-west of the country. Majete is a Malawian success story. Though established in 1955, by the 1990s the refuge had been poached to nearly nothing, with large game completely gone from the area and only a few hardy animals present, though at critically low populations. Things looked pretty bleak for the park until 1993 when African Parks, an international NGO focused on environmental conservation issues in Africa (they just appointed His Royal Highness Prince Harry as their President), working with the Government of Malawi, took over management and rehabilitation of the reserve. Today the reserve and its animals are thriving with more animals to be relocated to Majete in the next few years. It is currently the only place in Malawi where one can see the Big Five (elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard).
On Friday, December 22 C and boarded our flight from Lilongwe to Blantyre. The 40 minute flight, just twice as long as our 20 minute drive from home to the airport, was probably the shortest flight my daughter has ever taken, one of our closest getaways. C, who usually asks me how many planes we will take to our destination, was very amused that just about the time we reached our cruising altitude the pilot announced our impending landing.
At the airport we were met by a representative of Robin Pope Safaris—a big factor in visiting Majete was the opportunity to stay at their luxury lodge Mkulumadzi. We were driven the two hours from Blantyre to the reserve. We traveled through the city of Blantyre, then up into the hills, finally over a hill into Chikwawa with a breathtaking view of the valley below with the Shire (pronounced Sheer-ray) River snaking through it; then down into the valley, across the Shire, through the provincial Chikwawa capital, and to the park entrance.
From the reserve entrance to the lodge we spot kudu, waterbuck, impala, nyala, three elephants, several warthog and baboon. Then we arrived. Well, not really. We arrived at a parking lot. From there guests of the lodge cross a suspension bridge over the Mkulumadzi river. Once over we jump into a jeep for a short two minute ride to the lodge. This would become routine. Lodge to jeep, two minute ride, cross suspension bridge, board safari jeep. Return and do it all again in reverse.
At the lodge we are greeted curbside lodge management. A short walk down a path to the main building of the lodge and we are received with cold washcloths. C does not know what to do with it but I am grateful. The south of Malawi is warmer and our transport vehicle had no A/C. I was hot and sweaty. The kitchen prepared our lunch. We took a dip in the pool. At 3 PM the lodge served tea and at 4 PM we headed out on a game drive. C and I were the only guests the first day, which meant we had the game drive to ourselves. That was a very good thing as game drives are long. In Zambia, the four hour drives were not only long for C but also for me, especially the afternoon drives that went two hours after sunset. For our first Majete drive we were out only 2 1/2 hours but added hippopotami, crocodile, vervet monkeys, and dung beetles pushing a ball of dung across the road.
Back at the lodge a bushbaby makes an appearance. She is apparently a regular, showing up a few nights a week for some peanut butter. I had never seen a bushbaby before, so this was a highlight. We have dinner. Afterwards it is 8 PM and time for bed. The morning drives begin at 6 AM. Because Malawi is so very, very dark at night, with so few lights. Because we are staying in a reserve with even less light and our chalet is separate from the main building, and we are in a nature reserve with wild animals, we must be escorted at night. Our guide has a flashlight but it barely penetrates the night, we can see only a few feet in front of us. But it is enough light for me to see the scorpion cross our path. Yikes!
Back in the chalet, the mosquito nets have been dropped around the bed and the tented wall lowered. Our chalet is lovely. It’s fancy and simple at the same time. A large room with the bed placed at the center. Sturdy walls on three sides, but the fourth is open to a deck that looks out to the Shire River. From there we actually observe hippos in the river and hear their bellowing throughout the day and night. We see both vervet monkey and baboons in the trees. A family of warthogs walks by the deck. In the bathroom the deep bathtub faces large windows; the shower too is open — though the only prying eyes that might see us are the animals. There is no A/C but instead a cooling unit. The whole vibe is relaxed and natural.
Except at night. It is all too natural and thus a little bit less relaxed. Large beetles buzz around bumping into furniture. Moths, some really quite large, fly around the room. And spiders. A daddy long legs sits by a basket in the room. He does not bother me so much. A two inch rain spider scurries across the floor towards me. There was definitely screaming involved. The spider makes no noise. After he is dispatched I find an inch long black one watching and waiting high above the sink as I brush my teeth. C and I can hardly wait to get inside the mosquito net and turn off the lights.
The following morning we are up early, but not too early. We are still the only guests and thus the game drive departs when we want to depart. We slept with the tent side down, but with only the netting and thus as soon as the sun rose the beautiful morning light filtered into the chalet as did the sounds of nature – the rushing of the rain-swollen river, the chatter of insects, lizards, monkeys and birds, and the honks and sighs of the hippos. As I stood out on the chalet deck a rustling in the underbrush revealed a family of six warthogs passing by.
We headed out on the game drive at 7 AM instead of 6. Maybe our late start was a factor, but we saw few animals. The usual suspects – the impala, waterbuck, baboons, and warthogs – were out. We also had the opportunity to briefly see some sable and two eland, the latter the largest antelope. A massive male eland stood majestically in the middle of the road for a few long seconds before leaping into the brush, but I was not fast enough with my camera. Later, we came across a male elephant taking a mud bath. But C began to grow bored, demanding “new” animals. I wondered about this – is my child so well traveled that she is already bored by safaris? “Ugh, it’s just and elephant, mom,” she says, accompanied by an eye roll.
Back at the lodge we enjoy our second breakfast and then retire to the chalet. I read some while C plays with her toys. I lie down for a nap. C protests (she almost always seems affronted by the idea that mom might take a nap) but soon enough she is snoozing on the sofa. It is hot and humid but the breeze and the tiredness that comes from keeping an eye out for animals on a long drive lull us to a delicious sleep. We have a late lunch — its served when the guest wants anytime between noon and 2 — around 1:30. We are dining when the much anticipated family with two kids arrive. As soon as C had heard of their arrival the day before she had been eagerly looking forward to meeting them. They did not disappoint.
A note here. The lodge is really quite the get away. It turned out they had no television, no wifi, no telephone signals. I suspected there would be no television, but the lack of wifi was a bit of a surprise. When our on game drives the adults are not only looking for the rare animals but with phones in hand are trying to catch the elusive wifi signal. Here we were already the second day, with two and a half days still stretching ahead of us, and I wondered how we would survive. Well I had brought my Kindle and my journal. For C I had two books, presents from her grandparents she opened our first day, and she also brought her new Lion Guard set of characters. Also, game driving can be tiring. There was a pool. And the lodge also had a number of board games, a few toys, and paper and colored pencils. Still, I thought I might I have booked one day/night combo too many.
The family, two sisters with two children aged 4 and 9 (C is almost 6), joined us for the afternoon drive. Again, a good combination as we could (and did) decide to head back a bit earlier as the kids flagged in energy and enthusiasm. C was thrilled to have other children along. We saw only one new animal, the bushbuck, but otherwise the same cast of characters: impala, nyala, waterbuck, warthogs, baboons, and hippos. Though almost all of them had babies in tow as it is early summer. Yet, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, I too was growing tired of not spotting new animals. But the weather was good, the skies, blue, the air fresh, and we were in a national park in Africa. Not too shabby.
Our third day, another game drive. Another two minute ride in the jeep. Another walk across the suspension bridge. We drive for long intervals, sometimes for as much as 20 minutes, without seeing a single animal. But we stop for a morning tea break at a viewpoint overlooking a bend in the Shire, the longest river in Malawi. It’s 402 kilometers long from Lake Malawi until it flows into the Zambezi. The greenery and blue tinged hills in the distance set off the brown fast flowing river gorged with rain; it’s beautiful.
It is Christmas Eve and we are slated for a river safari in the afternoon, but instead it pours rain heavily for hours. We nap again and it is refreshing. That day I do not mind. But Christmas Day is the same: a game drive in the morning with few animals and an afternoon downpour that scuttles the planned river safari. I have a harder time shaking it off on Christmas. Though I am not used to Christmases with friends and family, we are away from home, disconnected, and I feel a sense of melancholy. But the lodge puts together a lovely Christmas buffet lunch and includes small gifts for the kids. C happily draws pictures and plays. In late afternoon, as I return from fetching something from the chalet, the rains having finally moved on, I look up to see an incredibly beautiful late afternoon light in the sky and a rainbow. I am restored.
On our final morning we do manage at last to take the river safari. The river is high and swift. We see some fishing birds along the shore hunting, hippos lying low and dangerous in the water, and a family of elephants enjoying a gathering on the banks. We see the Kapichira hydropower station. It was here, at Kapichira Falls, where Dr. David Livingstone’s 1859 expedition halted, being unable to continue further up the Shire. And now there is the hydropower station, which is significant for Malawi as the country generates at least 90% of its electricity from hydropower.
Back at the lodge we have lunch and then it is time to begin the two hour drive back to Blantyre and the flight to Lilongwe. Despite the day before wanting desperately to be home, I feel now a little tug to stay. It was a great getaway for C and I; I hope one she will remember well.