I left early Saturday morning for a nice drive down to Liwonde National Park for my first African safari.
My classmate, Julie, invited me along with her group since she happened to be in Malawi this summer too! I was picked up by the guide who owned a lodge in Lilongwe on his way to pick up Julie’s group in the village they were working in. The guide, Mick (a Brit who was born and raised in Malawi and whose family has been in Malawi for almost 100 years!), arrived with a fleet of 3 Landrovers about an hour and a half late with no hint of an apology. I could tell from our first interaction this guy was hard-nosed and didn’t consider anyone else’s perspective. When one of the Landrovers broke down a couple hours into the trip, I was really starting to wonder if this trip was going to happen. Luckily, one of his Malawian staff happened to be an ex-Landrover company mechanic and when he sprung into action, diagnosed the problem, and had the entire alternator out of the engine bay in the time it took me to get out of the vehicle and stroll over – I knew I was in good hands. He jumped into one of the other Landrovers and took off for a replacement part. We continued on our way to Julie’s group and shuttled them to a nearby gas station to wait. The other guys had the car fixed and met us not more than an hour behind. Where he found replacement parts in the middle of nowhere Malawi that quickly is beyond me but this was clearly a man who had been in the business a long time and had probable broken down all over the country!
We finally made it to the campsite not too far from the park entrance in time to unpack and head off for an evening safari drive. We used the two Landrovers that were modified with extra seats and completely open (read: the roof and doors had been removed - and we these were the vehicles we drove hundreds of kilometers to and from the safari with!). I was praying we didn’t break down in the middle of the safari with large animals staring at us. Mick wasted no time, I made sure to sit in the passenger seat next to him in the front vehicle – something told me this would be good. It turned out that although he was logistically challenged (and that’s being polite) he was one of the best safari guides in the business. We entered the park and he proceeded to point out all the different species. He managed to pick up tracks of snakes and porcupines while driving and stopped to point them out – they were quite subtle. He was quickly reminding me of the crocodile hunter, only with a British accent. What happened next in our first encounter with elephants only strengthened my image of the crocodile hunter in my head. As dusk fell, we approached a herd of elephants. Of course Mick knew the park officials so he took us off road – something expressly forbidden. He drove right up to the walking path of the elephants and after some hesitation, they continued along their way less than a hundred feet in front of us. Once they had gone, we double backed and intercepted them as they were crossing the road. The herd crossed but one of the larger elephants stayed behind next to the road. She slowly turned and backed into a bush at which point I was hearing Mick mumble something about her being grumpy. He mentioned she was pregnant and being extra territorial. She emerged from the bush and walked right out onto the road to face us. I saw Mick tense and the tension in the air was palpable as everyone in both cars was completely silent with gazes locked on the elephant not more than 50 feet in front of us. All of a sudden the elephant let out an incredible scream (you know the one, like air being forced through a balloon as you stretch the opening, forcing the air through a narrow slit) with her ears flapping perpendicular to her head making her appear much more frightening. All I could think was “Crikey!” as the elephant began to charge. Mick quickly threw the Landrover in reverse while signaling the car behind us to follow suit. He slammed on the gas and after we had backed up a few hundred feet, the elephant stopped her charge and after staring us down for a minute, continued after the herd. So my first hour on a safari and I nearly pissed myself, I loved it! I felt safe with Mick, he clearly had good judgment and a knack for knowing how far he could push things and still get away with it – my kind of guy!
We returned to camp, which was secluded in the bush. It turned out the camp was built and owned by two gentlemen, one Dutch, and the other, South African. The South African explained how his car broke down on safari 5 years ago so he never left. He met the Dutchman a little while later on safari and they decided to build a campsite and so they started building the next day. They were quite the characters and proceeded to share many amazing tales around the campfire while they downed whiskey and smoked cigarettes like it was their last chance. I slept remarkably well at the camp despite being able to hear all manner of wildlife including hyenas and hippos mere meters from our tent. In fact, we were told if we were to wait up at night and peer from our tents, we would see hippos and elephants strolling by right in front of us. Needless to say, I kept inside and waited for first light to empty my bladder!
We went on a morning and evening driving safari the next day and saw many animals. I use downtime to enjoy an isolated, elevated deck at the camp to read and enjoy the sounds of nature. I couldn’t believe the sheer quantity and diversity of sounds radiating toward me from every angle. I pondered the very spot I sat in and the thousands of years of evolution that had taken place all around me, perhaps I was sitting where Homo sapiens first appeared. I felt at home.
The rest of the group with us was mostly from University of Rochester and in Malawi for an anthropology elective (Julie had attended U of R and decided to repeat the program this summer). They were an impressive bunch of undergraduates and a pleasure to travel with. We enjoyed amazing home cooked meals and socialized in the bar and around the campfire.
On the drive back to Lilongwe we stopped in Dedza, famous for its pottery. We ate lunch and shopped at the pottery factory. I ate with the 2 drivers Mick had brought with him and decided to partake in my new favorite activity in Malawi – introducing Malawians to the itouch. I played them the Bob Dylan song Mozambique since we were on their border. I asked the driver, who was the expert mechanic, about his limp and he told me the detailed story of how he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident five years ago. It was a gruesome story, his leg completely severed below the knee at the accident site. He was remarkably self-reliant and I had observed him all weekend get around well, especially for someone with an old, ill-fitted, and poorly functioning prosthetic. I found myself feeling what I had felt constantly since I arrived and was confronted with poverty and injustice – the desire to help. I wished I had the resources and ability to provide everyone with what they needed, whether it was education, healthcare, or a new leg.
I’ve noticed a recurring theme from other times in my life when I’ve traveled - I struggle being in a foreign land, as an obvious outsider and living with other outsiders. I haven’t felt comfortable with the arrangement of having Malawians wait on me hand and foot while they sleep in lesser accommodations and eat lower quality food (I noticed, while camping, the staff members sleeping on old couch cushions they had brought with them, while we enjoyed comfortable beds, and eating Nsima (the staple of Malawian diet – basically cornmeal since their largest crop is maize), while we enjoyed all manner of fruits, vegetables, and meat). It’s something that seems to be commonplace – expats living here, most with Malawians working as staff in one form or another, but the line drawn between societies stood out to me, even if the staff shared a roof with their employers. Is it freedom if you have to be at the beck and call of another with no choice because there are no other jobs available? Are the people I’ve seen on both sides viewing it the way I do? Are the Malawians in these situations happy? I don’t know the answers yet but perhaps I will start to gather some while I am here. I can’t say as of yet if this all comes down to my perception of things and has no basis in truth but I’ve always been an idealist and an infinite optimist so my view on things and the inherent assumption I often make of the way things should be is not necessarily what someone else wants. My heart aches when I perceive this lack of equality, whether real or not, and I only hope I provide some semblance of help while I am here, even if it's not readily apparent to me if the people of Malawi want the help.