4am, 4.01am, 4.03am, 4.10am , 4.12am, 4.15am – I was banking on a shotgun approach to my morning wake-up ahead of my Malawi Safari. I’d hoped midnight marimba x12 would do the trick; the African bush is unconditionally unforgiving when it comes to hitting the snooze button.

“Just set the alarm on your phone” the welsh couple sat opposite me said as we tucked into our roast chicken with mixed vegetables and some posh sauce I wouldn’t even try to spell. The next morning I was off on my walking Malawi safaris in the Liwonde National Park. Celebrating ten years of a highly successful conservation program driven by Wilderness Safaris, I was there to find out just how much there was to see when it came to wildlife. We were off to track Rhino, but on my first ever safari I didn’t mind what I saw, as long as it didn’t try and eat the pale Brit amongst the group (me!). My guide Nick sat at the end of the table, seemed relaxed at the thought of a pre-‘not even a flippin’ sign of the sun’ start. The others laughing, simply relished in their own 8am ‘breakfast in bed’ arrangements.

 “We’ll bring you morning tea at 4.15am… give you time to get ready,” he said.

Balls to that I thought – skip the tea and I’ll take an extra 15 minutes unconscious. I was already disgruntled; Sarah the lodge manager had said 5am, which had already filled me with horror.

Mvuu Lodge

Hippo visits Mvuu Lodge Malawi SafariI’d arrived at Mvuu Lodge on day 5 of my trip to Malawi and was there for two nights. The short yet rewarding trip across the river from the car park (small clearing in jungle) quickly told me that I was somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The bobbing hippos and sneaky looking crocs beckoned me into the water as I knocked on the side of the boat, checking for rot, loose planks, holes or any other weaknesses; it passed with flying colours.

“How many people get eaten by hippos?” I asked my boatman.

“Non”, he said as I, feeling more relaxed, leaned further over the edge. I’d heard horror stories of people being swallowed whole by angry hippos with a bee in their bonnet about ‘territory’ or something. “They’re vegetarian”.

“The hippos…they tend to capsize the boats…knock the fisherman into the water, and then the crocs get them…”

My backside quickly re-found a comforting level of suction to the decked seats as the tick-tock of Captain hook’s alarm clock echoed in my ears. Apparently, the boat we were in was too big to be capsized by a hippo – and most attacks happen at night when fisherman, simply trying to feed their families, venture too close to what looks like nothing more than a rock. I held on tight – just to be sure!

By the time I arrived it was late in the day, It was 6pm and the sky was already a thick velvet black, pierced only by the paint splattering of stars that swept up from the faint, feathered tree line . Twelve foot above the ground the lodge was surrounded by a boggy marsh, regularly frequented by elephants, waterbuck, and of course crocodiles. With just candles and lanterns to light the look-out, my senses grew stronger as I relished in the sounds of my Malawi safari, unhindered by a 4×4 engine or the rattle of an outboard motor. I sat, listened, smelt, and inhaled an air never before breathed, before walking down the sandy, tree-lined path to my chalet looking out over the river.

Mvuu Lodge BedroomThe next morning, awoken by repeat number 11 of midnight marimba, I leaped out of bed with a thousand times more energy than 4am deserved. As my polyphonic ring tone reverberated through the impassable jungle, I spared just a moment’s thought for the other peaceful sleepers I’d also woken.

Nick arrived at my tented cabin and, surprised to find me conscious, led me to the 4×4 waiting to take us into the bush. As we left my room he suddenly stopped, and I panicked. Any sharp movements or people of authority looking even remotely surprised sends shivers down your spine when you’re in Africa.

“Elephants”, he whispered.

There are often elephants around the camp, crashing through the undergrowth and breaking down trees. On this occasion Nick was referring to what was below our feet; big, round, fresh elephant footprints. They’d visited my room in the night and had plodded no more than three metres away. I was ecstatic, but at 4am had to swallow the buzz of adrenaline and, ever more aware of the smells and sounds, carried on.

Once at the vehicle we met up with our scouts Fariq and Samson, who would lead the trek. With guns slung over their backs, there was an exhilarating sense of danger, but I was reassured the firearms were only for warning shots. No gun expert myself, the long wooden riffles seemed as though plucked straight from a 1st world war re-enactment, and clearly could only fire one shot at a time; well at least the animals were safe…

Impala on Malawi Safari

My Malawi Safari

> Up to this point I’d only seen one other elephant in Malawi, and that was from a distance. As we pulled out, looking over the bushes from the safari vehicle we spotted a bizarre site in the distance; it was our first wildlife sighting! Just fifty yards ahead there they were, strolling past without a care in the world. A pair of almost fully grown, confused looking, Chinese men. Not exactly what I’d come to Africa to see. As we glanced over we also saw in the distance a female elephant along with her calf grazing on a bush. The foliage was acting as camouflage and it seemed that the two, rather lost tourists, couldn’t see them. Nick threw a whisper has far as he could and finally grabbed their attention. It seemed that the international action for ‘elephant’ was widely known (arm waving as if like a trunk) coupled with a, sharp stabbing, point, and the two gentlemen changed direction – and on we went!

The scout we were with was wearing the trousers, and as he directed Nick left, and then right, and then round tree number 468, I wondered how on earth he knew where he was going. That said, it didn’t matter how long it took, we were surrounded by wildlife. Vervet monkeys, impala, waterbucks and a vast array of bird life including fish eagles, ospreys, owls and even a quick glimpse of a Lilian’s love bird were just a few things that offered us their company. The scout though was looking for one particular thing; Black Rhino tracks. In the space of five years the population, although modest, had doubled in Liwonde. A unique program of conservation, physical protection, and most importantly education, had made this a true success story.

Pulling to a stop we jumped out and crowded round a 30cm square peace of ground, staring as if watching clouds trying to make some sort of shape. There was nothing there, well that’s what I thought. I stood corrected however as Fariq pointed to each individual protrusion of a black rhinos foot. It was fresh, and this told us that we were probably just 30 minutes behind it. His name – Leonard; named after the X-head of the department for conservation – I tried not to read too much into this!

In convoy (me, two scouts, Nick, and two Brits tagging along for the ride) we headed through the bush. An orchestra of sounds followed us through the jungle and, as each twig snapped, I flinched with the thought that I may be being followed by something big! We walked for an hour and eventually got our first sniff of success: a fresh Rhino dung still oozing with steam as it sweet aroma dissipated through the bush. It was half an hour old, which from my own quick calculations suggested that it was travelling at the same speed as we were, and travelling in the same direction!

Tracking a Rhino is all about the wind. Samson and Fariq would stop every few hundred yards, swabbing the inside of their cheek and holding a finger up to the breeze. Down wind of a Rhino and you’re fine – with limited sight if they can’t smell you you’ve got every chance of getting just a few metres away. Sadly with the wind blowing from behind us our only hope was that Leonard was walking on a full stomach, taking his time!

Rhino Dung MalawiAs we walked through the bush, with the hope of finding Leanord slowly slipping away, I started to consider exactly the situation I was in. I was in Africa, walking in the bush, home to so many different animals all of whom whilst beautiful to see, could crush, eat, break, me with the drop of a hat. I was in their territory, and whilst I felt safe surrounded by my guides and the Brits who’d joined me (who I figured that since walking behind would be eaten before me) there was still a great sense of overwhelming. What an opportunity though!

It was  time for Plan B; Fariq reached into his blue, hand stitched shoulder bag and pulled out a radio! The radio in my 4×4 didn’t work, so the opportunity to listen to some music was great – I’d wanted to hear what Malawi music was like. I did quickly realise that I’d got the wrong end of the stick. Taped up with electrical tape and running off a battery stolen from every clock in the lodge it was a rhino tracker! Flat packed with instructions Fariq pieced it together, switched it on and tuned into the x-director of conservation…I mean Leonard. A constant blip could be heard. It was loud, and as he moved the aerial it was clear that it was right in front of us. It was so exciting. My heart pounded, the guides licked their fingers (checking the wind), and our clumsy trollop through the bush changed into a quiet glide. An hour later though and still no rhino – the dung there was – in the tonnes. It was a disappointment but 3000 calories later and a stunning bush walk I’d had a fantastic time. The animals I’d seen, the sounds I’d freaked out over, and the places I’d seen inaccessible by those opting to stay in the vehicle was priceless.

We drove back via a large natural waterhole. Liwonde is a thick dry jungle, and waterholes are rare, so act as a natural magnet for any wildlife. The eye-site of the scouts in Malawi is incomparable to that of anyone ‘normal’. From 200 yards they could spot a group of 6 elephants, warthogs, and vervet monkeys all competing for their own spot at the waterside. Pulling alongside we could see for ourselves – and what a treat! A young female elephant was just 10 metres away, drinking and parading around, marveling in our admiration. Who needs rhinos, I thought!

For more information about Malawi visit www.malawitourism.com


Malawi Travel Resources

Accommodation:

[eafl id=”1697″ name=”Lilongwe Accommodation” text=”Lilongwe”] – a great place to base yourself from as the city’s airport is very centrally and has good (ish flight connections)
[eafl id=”1698″ name=”Blantyre Hotel” text=”Blantyre”] – the second largest city in the country (still a town by most standards). Great access to Majete from here.
[eafl id=”1699″ name=”Majete Accommodation” text=”Majete Wildlife Reserve Accommodation”] – this is where you have chance to spot the big five.

Mvuu Camp – Where this story is based, and one of my favourite places in the world.

Travel Guides:

Click here to read my Malawi Travel Guide >