My COVID Birthday – Liwonde National Park Getaway

Liwonde’s riverside savannah at dusk

Earlier in the year we had a great plan for August with our friends from the U.S. Of course, the best laid travel plans have a habit of being disrupted in a pandemic and these were no different. Like many travel and tourist related companies caught in the pandemic spiral with cancellations right and left, I was issued a credit, not a refund, on our deposit.

As Embassy domestic COVID-19 restrictions eased and we could again travel outside the capital, stay overnight in lodges, and dine in limited exposure situations, I began to plan a trip. After days and weeks morphing into months (six of them) doing nearly everything — working, schooling, cleaning, reading, writing, eating, sleeping, child care — in my home, I was incredibly motivated to not spend my birthday weekend in yet another COVID staycation, if I had options to do otherwise. So, I contacted the travel company and booked two nights at the Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park using our credit to cover half the costs.

Ulongwe Village entrance to Liwonde National Park

Liwonde is an approximately 4.5 hour drive from our part of Lilongwe, despite what my map app said. First, its always surprising to me that it takes about half an hour winding through the warren of narrow, overused roads of the capital til finally breaking free at the round-about on the M1 south from the city. I had just barely emerged from the capital’s chaos when I had to take a pre-arranged call. It is early in the official bidding season, when those of us transferring the following year are taking interviews with potential future posts. The hiring manage had one day and one time available, so I had to make it work. It was hardly ideal having an interview while on speakerphone in the car, but the pandemic has turned everything upside-down, so I gave it my best. But the interview helped the first half of the drive go by quickly and once it was over, we cranked up the tunes and sung our way south for another hour.

At Balaka, where we turned off the M1 and headed east on the M8, we moved into unfamiliar territory. So often driving in Malawi requires just going along the same roads again and again and again, but as we headed down a new-to-us road — even one as pockmarked with potholes and with sides eroded significantly that in some places the two lanes became one as this one — and drew closer to the park, I could feel the stress of the past several days (weeks? months?) ebbing. We spent some 20 minutes on a new, nicely paved road named after the President who lost the landmark court-mandated new election in June, and then meandered through dusty dirt roads through small villages until we reached the end of the village of Ulongwe and the back gate to Liwonde National Park.

Our ride across the Shire River from the Ulongwe side to Mvuu Lodge arrives

Liwonde National Park is neither Malawi’s oldest or largest park (both of those honors go to Nyika National Park), but it is Malawi’s most accessible, and thus most popular. Just five years ago, Liwonde was a park in extreme decline; decades of poaching had left more wildlife snares in the park than wildlife. That year, 2015, Africa Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organization (and whose President is Prince Harry), took over the management of Liwonde. Africa Parks has turned Liwonde around, cleaning up snares, developing a top ranger force, and providing key community awareness to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts. In 2016, Liwonde was the source of one of the world’s largest elephant translocations when Africa Parks moved over 300 elephants from the park to another of its Malawi parks, Nkhotakota. And in 2017, predators were re-introduced, first with lions and later cheetahs, as Africa Parks works to restore the park and animal populations. C and I had visited Nkhotakota and Majete and had saved Liwonde for the last of Malawi’s Africa Parks’ run national parks.

To reach the park from the Ulongwe side we registered at the park ranger lodge and notified the manager of Mvuu Lodge of our arrival. We drove a short distance further to the banks of the great Shire (pronounced “sheer-eh,” not like the homeplace of the Hobbits) River, which is the only outlet of the massive Lake Malawi and flows to the Zambezi. There Chifundo, our guide, met us with a small boat to pilot us ten minutes across the river to our accommodation. The exchange from car to boat had to be made quickly, as almost as soon as we parked, we saw antelope, monkeys, and most ominous, a troupe of baboons emerged from the brush to circle the clearing. Chifundo would take my car keys and after dropping us off at Mvuu Lodge, return to drive our vehicle back to the ranger station (you do not want to know what baboons might do to your unattended vehicle).

A White Headed Black Chat captains our boat; Malawi’s national bird the Fish Eagle surveys the river

Immediately, we could spot wildlife from the boat. Hippos lurking near the river’s edge. Elephants on the shore or in a bath party in the river. Antelope grazing on the river banks. And birds swooping alongside the boat or perched on branches – from slim reeds to massive boughs — nearby. A crocodile lazily swished through the water.

We disembarked after a 20 minute ride, including a short detour to see elephants, then climbed aboard a jeep for a short drive to the lodge. We were served lunch in the main building, built above a beautiful spot with views over savanna, marsh, forest, and the river, where in a lazy woman’s safari we could already make out seven types animals without any effort — warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, waterbuck, striped mongoose, and a crocodile.

After a lazy lunch and an even lazier layabout in the room for an hour, it was already time to head out on our sundowner game drive. It was just C and I, our guide Chifundo, and a park ranger. It took literally seconds to spot more wildlife. Impala, bushbuck, warthogs, and baboon were the most plentiful, but the occasional rarity such as a southern ground hornbill or a tree squirrel, would make an appearance. It is October now, the tail end of the dry season, and the daytime heat is intense. But driving in late afternoon to evening in an open safari vehicle, feeling a delicious breeze as the African sun dips and the air is suffused with a rich, golden light, is magnificent. It was hard to believe that morning I had been in the capital. We felt a world away.

The next morning – my birthday – we were up at 5 AM. C and I have not seen that time of day in a long, long time. We are natural night owls, and the COVID experience has accentuated and cultivated our late evening tendencies. Amazingly, both of us, refreshed by an undisturbed sleep beneath a large white mosquito net canopy, the lulling sound of the ceiling fan, and the sounds of nature, woke up easily.

We were on the hunt for predators — cheetahs or lions or both. Cats are naturally a big draw for game drives, but even in a well stocked park like Kruger in South Africa, catching sight of the big cats is never a guarantee. Liwonde has a total of eight lions (though ten were introduced in 2018, battles for dominance among males has already reduced the population). The cheetahs — seven of whom were introduced in 2017 — have fared better, with cubs born each year more than doubling the population.

Monkeys, lions, and bushbuck, oh my!

We spotted the usual suspects, but also hippo grazing on open savanna in the early light, a herd of sable, another of eland (the largest antelope) some hartebeest (the fastest antelope), and zebra. And as luck would have it, the eagle eyes of our ranger caught sight of a lion in the distance. We arrived at the bank of a dry riverbed where two lionesses were snoozing. It was exciting to see two of the eight, though they made sure to be as absolutely boring as possible, and C quickly asked if we could drive off. But wouldn’t you know it, a male was lurking nearby, behind a dry ridge of earth in the riverbed. He popped his head up a few times to give us a look–Who had disturbed his nap? And then he rose majestically, standing on the ridge, his head raised as if sniffing the air, and began to saunter with purpose in our direction. And that is when C lost it. She began saying in a stage whisper “Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, its coming, its coming, let’s get out of here!”

Of course, that lion lost interest in us very quickly, and languidly stepped over to the ladies and flopped down beside them. The excitement over. We drove for another hour or so, enjoying being together away from home, with our reverie occasionally interrupted by a wildlife sighting, but there were not more cats.

We had a light breakfast and lunch, and several more hours of lazing about in our room or sitting on our balcony, which faced a marshy plain backed by tall trees and attracted all manner of wildlife. I felt more content than I had in a long while. Then in the late afternoon we headed out on a sundowner boat safari.

A safari from the water is an entirely different thing from a game drive. The pace is slower (and far less bumpier — as my very first Malawian game driver called it “The Malawian Massage”). There is just as much a sense of excitement with a lick of danger — just as C was sure the male lion intended to leap across the ravine, up the bank, and dive into our jeep to eat us, she was wary of crocodiles and hippos, sure they would upset the boat. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t) Again, an abundance of hippos, crocs, and bird life, including, unexpectedly, four wayward flamingos, on the water and elephant and antelope on the banks. And as the sun set on my birthday, we were treated to the quintessential swift but deep red African sunset; I felt as if I were in the movie the African Queen.

Sunset from the Shire – A very happy birthday to me

The following morning we opted not to take advantage of another included game drive as we had seen so much wildlife and preferred to a lazy lie-in along with the sounds of the African bush. I wanted to hang on to that languid relaxation as long as I could before making our way back to Lilongwe.

But all good things come to an end. And just as the sense of calm had increased the closer we got to the park, the stressful feelings returned the further we drove away. Liwonde was wonderful, but a short weekend away was not never going to be restful enough to reverse the past seven months of pressure, frustration, and melancholy. We were still in Malawi. And we love Malawi, but it can still be a challenging place. And as I drove home, I could feel my irritation grow with the piles of bricks lying unused by the sides of the road in villages where people work hard yet barely eke out a living, with maddening drivers (too fast or too slow or too), with the poorly maintained roads…and when I was pulled over by the police (for the first time ever in Malawi) and the traffic cop tried to extort a bribe, the weekend’s spell was completely broken.

Still, there are certainly far, far worse places to be, and Liwonde was a great birthday getaway. I have also used up one of my COVID travel casualty credits, only three more to go.

Zim & the Lake Part One

4Following our glorious four week Home Leave full of fun, American comfort food, and functioning traffic patterns, coming back to Malawi was a bit of a shock.   On top of missing our friends and family, lamenting the loss of string cheese purchases at the Super Target, and just an overall in-our-faces realization of the drastic differences between life in the U.S. versus that in Malawi, the summer transfer season was upon us.  Its always an “interesting” time at Embassies across the world as seasoned officers transfer out, new ones transfer in, gaps form and those left cover two or more other positions, and Washington realizes that it is getting close to the end of the fiscal year (ends Sept 30) and thus decide they want to use the money to travel to you — just when staffing is at its most precarious.  In Malawi, the political situation too had been less than stable since the election, and an umbrella group for governance civil society organizations and activists had been holding demonstrations on average once a week.  Some were canceled by the group itself, other times they were forced to postpone due to government court action, but every time we had to prepare nonetheless.  And even when not transferring, others are on vacation, and C missed her Malawi friends and struggled in the weeks leading up to school.  At last C  started upper primary school and there was the usual flurry of preparations for a new school year.  Whew.  Within a week or two of our return, I already found myself fantasizing about the next vacation.

About a year ago my good friend JK1 had moved to Zimbabwe to take up a position at the U.S. Embassy.  C and I had previously visited her and her family in Chiang Mai, and we were excited to have them relatively close to us again.  Soon after they arrived in southern Africa, I began to plot our visit.  I also wanted another chance to see Harare given my only other trip unexpectedly coincided with the overthrow of the long-time president Robert Mugabe, and thus I had been largely confined to the hotel.  Given our different work schedules, JBK and her husband JK2 were unable to take any days off, so we would have to make do with a three day weekend with them and Little JK.

Fall break arrived and our trip to Zim at last!  What a breath of fresh air to fly only one hour, direct, and just be at our destination.  JK2 picked us up at the airport and within 30 minutes we were at the beautiful JK homestead.  About an hour later we were at a Harry Potter-themed birthday party.  It was likely the birthday party of the year and Little JK was not about to miss it.  It was a wee bit awkward for C and myself as we did not know anyone other than who we came with (and I happened to know the hostess as well, but she was very busy hosting) but hey we are diplomats, so we made do.  That night the JKs took us out to dinner at the fabulous Queen of Hearts, which is on the order of an upscale food court, with Italian, American, and Japanese food on hand.

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C and the Tower at Great Zim – Nothing like this in Malawi

By now I was already busy comparing Zim with Malawi.  The two countries are geographically close, have similar climates, flora and fauna, a shared history (both British protectorates and part of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and similar culture.  Both countries struggle with governance and their economies.  But there is something very, very tricky about playing the comparison game, especially as a short-term tourist.  Though I noticed both countries had the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees in bloom and both were struggling with power cuts of some kind, the nagging deja vu feeling was less a mirror of Malawi as it is now, but as it might have been or could still be; a same-same, but different.   Malawi does not have the long lines at the petrol stations (except during the recent two-day trucker strike that blocked the delivery of oil and gas) and the power cuts seem more a function of mismanagement than a deliberate policy, and yet the existing structures of Zimbabwe – the airport, the roads, the Embassy housing, even the range of restaurants – all seemed more modern than in Malawi.  Zim seemed both better, and worse.

Early on our second day, we loaded up the JK’s larger vehicle, with suitcases, snacks and several jerry cans of extra fuel, and we made the 4 1/2 hour drive south to Masvingo, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe.  I could not help but find the long drive similar to ones we have encountered in Malawi – distances between villages with little else in-between but scrub brush, static police roadblocks, and seemingly random road works.  We were all grateful to pile out of the car at the far end, in a gravel lot in front of the canopied tourist entrance to start a tour of the ruined edifices of a former ancient Shona kingdom.

Great Zimbabwe is actually the largest of approximately 200 similar sites across a part of southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and Mozambique (Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in the Shona language).  The earliest known mention of the once-great gold trading city was in 1531, by a Portuguese garrison captain based in what is modern-day Mozambique.  At a certain time in history, colonialists and white settlers ascribed to the view that the ruins were of Semitic or Arab origin, i.e. could not have been built by Africans.  It is perhaps of little wonder that nationalists selected the name Zimbabwe for their independent nation.

Lodge at the Ancient City bungalow

Our fabulous rondavel at the Lodge at the Ancient City – outside and in

With our knowledgeable guide we enjoyed our several hour-tour of the ruins through the Great Enclosure, with its five-meter high walls of interlocking stones, fashioned without mortar, the mysterious conical tower, and naturally air-conditioned passageway designed for the king to secretly visit his highest of queens, and then into the Valley Complex, where the lesser of the elites, king’s concubines, and such would have lived.  These structures were in a far more ruined state, piles of grey stones in places, in others palm trees growing through the middle of walls, with baboons, monkeys, and the occasional cattle frolicking among them.  Then we headed to the museum.  And finally, we herded our bedraggled, and yet oddly energized selves (there was something really special about Great Zimbabwe and our tour), back to the car and continued on to our lodging for the evening.

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Inside the Lodge’s main building

Although we all found the food options to be somewhat lacking, the ambiance of the Lodge was fantastic.  They had designed the main building in the style of Grand Zimbabwe, perhaps at its grandest or at least an imagined magnificence.  The simplicity of the outside of our rondavel, a traditional round African-style dwelling, belied the roomy and attractive inside.  C and Little JK parked themselves in our room for a bit to play, but with our long drive and then the two-hour walking tour at the site had us all yawning early on.

JK1 and I woke up at the crack of dawn – literally – and made our way back to the Great Zimbabwe site for its 6 AM opening sans JK2 and the kids, with plans to employ another guide to lead us up the Hill Complex.   The sky was already light, blue and clear; the sun bright but the air crisp.  It was a good time to do a little bit of climbing.  Unfortunately, although the stated hours indicated a 6 AM opening and the gate was open, there were no guides yet on site.  And thus we waited.  Monkeys snuck past the ticket building and scampered across the field toward the Hill Complex as small groups of children began to stream out on their way to school.  And grey clouds began to roll in over the Great Zimbabwe complex, the wind began to pick up, and JK1 and I began to regret not having a light jacket.  Although October is the warmest month for both Zimbabwe and Malawi, we were not feeling the heat.

Close to 7 AM the guide arrived and we set off.  It turned out one does not really need a guide to climb up to the Hill Complex, as the trail is well marked; however, once at the top, we would have had no idea of what we were looking at without our guide Loveness.  According to our guide, the Hill Complex was the abode of the king from which he could look over the Great Enclosure, where his number one queen resided, all of his approximate 18,000 subjects, and the entirety of the Mutirikwi valley.

Hill Complex

The view from the Seat of Power; JK1 and I on top

As we wound our way up increasingly narrow steps framed with stone walls, which then suddenly terminated at the citadel, I was reminded of the rock fortress at Sirignya in Sri Lanka.  Standing below the hill nothing can prepare you for the size and intricacy of the fortress atop.  In Zimbabwe, there are large igneous boulders strewn across the landscape, some balancing precariously on top of others.  At Great Zimbabwe, such boulders are stacked atop the Hill Complex and were cleverly integrated into the compound.  Although I had hoped for blue skies at the summit, the swift-moving grey clouds evoked a sense of history and atmosphere that clearer skies would not have.  And at a very few intervals, the clouds granted us cobalt blue.

Our tour at the top took approximately an hour; our guide knowledgeable and thorough.  We literally left no stone unturned, historically speaking that is.  JK1 and I even had the guts to climb to the top of a balancing rock above a natural auditorium, where supposedly the ruler would sit looking down upon his court, rather a la Lion King and Pride Rock.  Getting to what I guess could be termed the Seat of Power was deceptively easy, but once on top, neither JK1 or I wanted to get too close to the edge.  The spot afforded incredible views across the valley but the stronger winds and, frankly, the edge and space beyond left my knees a wee bit shaky.  (I am not afraid of heights, only afraid of falling from them!)  We returned to the parking area via the easier pathway and then headed back to rouse the troops, pack up, and begin our long drive back to Harare.

Once back in Harare, JK1 needed to do some work, so their wonderful nanny took C and Little JK for a playdate next door, while JK2 took me for a short spin around the neighborhood.  That night we headed out to a Thai restaurant for dinner.  Let me repeat that, a Thai restaurant.  And it was authentic and delicious.  It was so good I almost wanted to cry; we definitely do not have any Thai food in Malawi.

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A little piece of heaven – Imire Lodge

On Tuesday morning we said farewell to the JKs.  I had arranged for a driver to pick us up in Harare and take us the 90 minutes southeast to the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Lodge.  C and I have been on a few safaris but C had not yet had the chance to see rhino; I wanted to change that.

We arrived before the 9:30 AM game drive, just in time to partake in a mid-morning tea before departure.  We were divided into two jeeps for the day-trippers and the overnighters and headed out into the conservation area.

The upside of a place like this over going to a National Park is the guarantee to see certain animals.  At Imire we would see four of the Big Five–elephants, buffalo, rhino, and one lonely, old male lion.  The animals were somewhat conditioned to associate the safari vehicle with snack time, giving us up and close personal time with all but the lion (he killed his partner about a decade before and he resides by himself in a large enclosure).

We drove for about 2 1/2 hours and then had a lunch set up in the bush near a reservoir, with benches and tables carved out of rock facing the water.  Then another 45 minutes after lunch before heading back to the lodge for afternoon tea and relaxing in the beautiful surroundings.  A cheeky monkey grabbed cookies from the spread and headed up as high as he could go into the tallest nearby tree.  While normally we might have both got on our devices, the lodge had no power during the day, with the management only switching on the generator at 5 PM.   So we had to find non-electricity related activities.  There was a pool but the winds were cool and picking up, so we just enjoyed some relaxing time.  I sat outside the rondavel, reading and writing in my journal.  C made friends with one of the resident dogs (she really would like me to get her a dog) and ran around the lawn and climbed trees.   Then in the late afternoon, we went out again for a sunset game drive and sundowner.

Imire animal montage

We were served a delicious four-course meal in the dining tent that evening.  The wind had picked up more, whipping through the tent flaps.  I had a hard time believing it was October and wished we had packed sweatshirts or light jackets.  With our drive out to the lodge that morning and two bumpy safari drives (in Malawi we call these bouncing around on bad roads the “Malawi massage”), so we had no problem turning in early.

The next day, after a lovely breakfast, a driver transported us from Imire to the airport for our return flight to Malawi.  And the second part of our Fall Break.

Majete for Christmas

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A pool with a view

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.

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Hippo, waterbuck, and impala by the banks of the Shire

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).

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Baby yellow baboon

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.

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The bridge to Mkulumadzi

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.

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A friendly neighborhood bushbaby

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.

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A view of our chalet

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.

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C watches the warthog family from our deck

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.

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Shire river bend and lush rainy season foliage

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.

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Mom and baby impala

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.

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Elephants along the Shire

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.

 

South Luangwa, Zambia: The First Safari

3Safaris.  African animals large and small.  It’s one of the reasons I bid to come to Malawi.  My daughter is at an age where she loves to run and explore outside and she loves animals (When I ask her what is her favorite animal she replies “all of them.”)  Shanghai was good for us in many ways, but playing outdoors was not one of them.  However, given my daughter’s age, there are actually not that many safari experiences she can participate in.  But there were opportunities in Malawi.

Soon after arrival I learned the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) had organized a 2 1/2 day safari to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia for the Columbus Day weekend.  I signed us up immediately.

Departure day arrived.  Two months into our Malawi sojourn.  I wish I could say we were settled, but we are not quite there yet.  The house and yard are still works in progress as is my gradual learning about all things Malawi.  In this frame of mine I really needed a change of scenery, a new perspective, and some quality Mommy and C time.

We met our fellow Embassy safari enthusiasts at a central location bright and early at 7:15 AM on Saturday morning and from there boarded our Kiboko Safaris shuttle van for the trip.  The 90 minute drive to the border went quickly.  The scenery repetitious – two lane road, bicyclists, walkers, goats alongside.  Occasional village scenes.  And then we arrived at Mchinji and disembarked for immigration proceedings.

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Our South Luangwa camp accommodation

It was dusty and colorful.  There were lots of large trucks idling and parked in the space between the two immigration buildings.  Lots of people moving seemingly unencumbered between either side.  This was C’s very first land border crossing and at first she seemed annoyed to have to get off the bus for the formalities.  She has been through passport control many times in her young life, but never by land, and never quite like this.  As I already had my visa and C, as an under-16 minor did not require one, we completed immigration rather quickly on both sides.  At the Zambian immigration office I presented our World Health Organization immunization cards to prove we had been vaccinated for Yellow Fever.  Though not really an issue in either Malawi or Zambia immigration officials nonetheless ask and one can be denied entry or fined.  But on this day the official told me her Yellow Fever certificate colleague was not at work and thus it was not required. Of course not.

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A beautiful bee-eater in the park

The next three hours too were not eventful, which when you are careening down shoulder-less paved roads where goats and bicyclists and villages come out of nowhere is how you want your trip to be.  The smooth drive was punctuated by stops for random traffic police checks and poorly marked speed bumps, both of which Zambia has in common with Malawi.  The big surprise though was the Zambian border town of Chipata. Just 20 minutes from the border, Zambia’s fifth largest city is about half the size of Lilongwe, but it stood out in developed glory.  Parking lots with clearly defined parking spaces and no pot holes!  Four lane roads!  With curbs and sidewalks and even bike lanes!  My eyes bulged in wonder.  It had already been two months since I had seen such order and it seemed strange and foreign and magnificent.

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Neighbors

We arrived at our camp just outside South Luangwa National Park around noon.  C picked out tent, one of the closest to the river bank, and we unpacked and relaxed.  We had a few hours before 3:30 tea time and the 4 PM start to our evening safari drive.  C enjoyed the pool and I caught up on some reading.  We also met some of the other guests at the camp, which included antelope, monkeys, baboon, and white frogs.  In the river sSeparating our camp from the park, which at the height of the hot and dry season had shrunk a good 100 meters from the bank, wallowed several hippos and most likely hid more than a few Nile crocodiles.  On the other side of the camp, several bachelor hippos stood submerged in a grass-chocked pond.  At our 3:30 tea break we were informed that upon return from the four hour evening and night drive, we could no longer freely roam the camp.  Flashlight wielding sentries were posted outside our tents to escort us to and from the ablation block and cafe/bar because hippos, elephants, and other wildlife have been known to wonder through the camp at night.

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He stops on the hunt to pose for pictures

As we headed out on the first drive both C and I were giddy with excitement.  About seven years ago I had spent five days at Kruger National Park in South Africa, so this was only my second safari experience.  I had been looking forward to doing this with C for quite some time.  Within minutes we saw the hippos and elephants and antelope and baboons and cranes.  We passed over the bridge to the park and spotted more hippo in the river, then a warthog and giraffe.  All within ten minutes of starting.  Thirty minutes in and our driver’s radio sparked to life.  A leopard had been spotted!  We picked up speed and bumped over the dirt roads and across a grassy plain to a ravine where he lay out of sight of several zebras, antelope, and waterbuck.  He picked his way through the ravine, alternating between stealthy runs, picture perfect poses, and languidly laying about.  Though we had hoped to watch a kill, or at least a chase, he could clearly wait us all out.

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Safari C.  I could barely hide my pride at how well she handled herself

We went on to see more animals as the sun set over the park, including a herd of Cape buffalo.  In the night our “spotter” stood in front of the jeep scanning the darkness for animals with a spotlight.  Though we did see a few animals C and I were tired and would have liked to return to the camp early.  But the night sky stood clear and bright.  Overhead we could make out the Milky Way, Orion and other constellations, and the International Space Station as it made its way across the night sky.  The radio again crackled, news of a lion far across the park.  C, on my lap, and I, sitting in the back of the jeep, held on to the seat bar and closed our eyes, turning the zig-zagging, bumping, drive into a kid-friendly roller coaster ride.  At last we arrived, the lion far from the jeeps, barely visible in the spotlight even with binoculars.  A bit anti-climactic.  All the jeeps turned quickly and sped toward the park entrance — we crossed the gate threshold at 7:58, just two minutes before the park closed for the night.

The following day began bright an early with a 5 AM wake-up call.  5:30 AM we had breakfast and by 6 AM we headed out on our early morning safari drive.  Immediately after crossing the bridge to the park we were greeted by monkeys and lioness!  We spotted a tree squirrel, a family of warthogs, giraffes, zebras and more.  At a watering hole in the shade of a giant baobab tree we saw massive stork, cranes, guinea fowl, an African Fishing Eagle, hippos, crocodiles, and impala.  As a group, our jeep decided to return to the baobab tree for sunset that evening.

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While C hung out with other kids, I made a friend of my own

Back at camp at 10 am we again communed with other guests of both the two and four footed kind.  C joined with other kids (the next youngest was 11 years old but she wanted to spend some time with them rather than her mom) to play a card game.  We had lunch.  C swam in the pool.  We both took a lovely mid-afternoon nap in the heat of our tent, cooled only with the slow rotating movement of an electric desk fan.

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Sunset at the baobab – storks and their nests in the branches

Tea time and then out again for another sunset and night drive, our third and final safari.  We headed across the park towards the massive baobab tree.  Across a grassy plain we watched impala and giraffe meander together.  A warthog running nearby.  Alongside the river, high on an escarpment, hundreds of brightly colored bee eaters soared and darted from their nests in the bank.  In the water dozens of hippos bellowed and a Nile crocodile cut smoothly through the water.  An old, very tall giraffe later grazed on high branches above our jeep.  And still later a bull elephant stood firmly across the path, and we waited him out.  But soon behind we found his his young male scion and his mate.  Finally we arrived at the baobab for tea and the languid sinking of the African sun.

After dark the safari was uneventful.  Note to self: in the future, when safaring with a young child, see if there is an option for a 2 1/2 hour sundowner drive.  The four hour ones were too long for us.  C fell asleep.  I too might have been able to close my eyes, despite the rough and bumpy road.  I cannot recall eating dinner upon return, just an early lights out.

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My Zambian acquisition – an exquisite wall hanging

On Monday, the holiday, we were able to sleep in until 6:30 AM.  Breakfast at 7 and we were all off for the return to Lilongwe by 7:30.  Thirty minutes into our journey we stopped off at Tribal Textiles (http://www.tribaltextiles.co.zm/), where hand painted batik-style fabrics are turned into beautiful handicrafts for the home.  After a short tour of their processing facility they took us to their amazing shop.  Bright, bold colors and gorgeous designs popped off beautifully crafted fabrics.  I could not help but by something for our new home.

As we headed back to Malawi, C asked me “How long to the border?”  I stopped myself.  Just two days before when I explained the border crossing, she had no understood a land border.  Now she understands, at least in part, the imaginary line that divides two countries.  She took her own passport and confidently handed it over to the immigration officials.  She stood at one point approximating half her body in Zambia, half in Malawi.  She’s five.  We may not quite be settled here in Malawi, but I was reminded of why I wanted to come here, to expand both mine and my daughter’s horizons.  And to safari.