Heading North: Malawi and Tanzania

Leaving Tofo Mozambique was difficult for us. As Lucia noted, we spent longer settled in Tofo than any other location outside of our home in Nevada. We had made new friends, learned new skills, and became familiar with the community. It was a wonderful experience which we were sad to see end. However, the definition of traveling is moving from place to place, so we embarked on a road trip north through Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania. Driving away from Durban in our truck was our first experience of independence in Africa, but it was only for a few days and mostly in South Africa. Our new South African friends, Graeme and Malcom, had prepped us well with insider information – where the best places to stop were, where to watch out for speed traps, how to handle any police checks you encounter, etc.The night before we left Tofo, we stayed up in to the wee hours of the morning chatting about life and drinking far too many glasses of rum and whisky with the owners of the lodge.  Malcom and Graeme had organized a lovely beach braai (barbecue) for our going away.  As we watched the sun set and the moon rise on the bay – “God’s torch” they say – we shared tales of adventure, adversity, and the infinite power of family. One of the best aspects of travel is the ability to connect to people with which we seem to  have so much in common despite being raised quite literally the opposite sides of the planet.The first challenge on our own for us was negotiating the Mozambique-Malawi overland border crossing. Unlike when you arrive at an airport and only have to follow the herd and have your passport stamped, overland border crossings are often chaotic, confusing, and incredibly stressful. Frequently the buildings are not marked so you are not really sure where to go. Floundering your way through, hoards of touts/runners/con-man-cum-money-changers/fixers pounce as soon as they see the confusion on your face and the color of your skin. Negotiating your way through them without being rude is an art form in itself. While not wanting to turn down genuine offers of assistance, too often this assistance comes with a “price” later on in the process. As an introvert, these situations stress me out.Once through getting our family into the country, we then have to import the truck; another challenge as the requirements vary by country. In some countries you must purchase third-party insurance specific for that country, but in others it is included in the road tax. Some countries have a road tax which you must pay up-front, others do not. Some countries charge an import tax on any extra fuel or food you are carrying, others do not. Unfortunately there is not a clear “this is what you need to do to enter our country” document available so we must rely on the kindness of officials to let us know what is needed. As the primary logistics researcher, I scour as many sources as possible to find out the requirements before entering, but still ends up a hot mess when it is all done.After negotiating the Moz-Malawi crossing on my birthday, we purchased the biggest pile of ripe red mangoes you can imagine for a little more than a dollar, and headed to Liwonde National Park for a few days of game viewing. We were warmly welcomed to our camp on the outskirts of the park, set up our site, and participated in the African tradition of a sun-downer cocktail before dinner. A quiet night’s sleep was welcomed after the stress of the border crossing. Game viewing the next day was eventful in a mild way. Early rains had washed out the main road which penetrates the park so we drove through areas we could access. Along the way we saw many elephants, bushbuck, fish eagle, hippos, impala, etc.One of the benefits of self-driving a safari is that you can stop where and when you want for as long as you would like to be there. We had left camp early to have the best chances of seeing predators so by 10:00am we were hungry. We found a large open area on the edge of an oasis, unpacked our breakfast and enjoyed watching the natural world move around us. An impala was hiding in a bush about 200 meters way. A hippo lumbered across the open space looking substantially like a waddling propane tank. The vervet monkeys came out of the near-by rock pile to see what we were doing. A bushbuck swaggered somewhat lazily as it grazed on the green grass in front of us. In the distance, the water hyacinth lined oasis rippled with the activity of hippos, egrets, and fish eagle. It is an image I will not forget as it was the epitome of peacefulness – no planes, no cars, no cell phones, no construction – just quiet African life.Our afternoon safari was a boat trip up the Shire River (pronounced she-ray). Before we even boarded the 20’ public launch, we were surrounded by buffalo, hippos, a fish eagle and even a lone elephant munching on the tall grass. The guide quipped, “Well, guess you’ve seen everything now so we don’t need to go anywhere!” Heading up the river we were enchanted to see many more hippos, herds of elephants including a young male group frolicking in the river, crocodiles, a fish eagle hunting, and of course, more hippos than one can count. All-in-all it was an extremely successful 24 hours of game viewing despite the absence of predators.

Heading north from Liwonde, we stopped in Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi as all of the guide books claim that it is one of the best places to see cichlids, the brightly colored freshwater fish often found in home aquariums. We had arranged for two dives – one during the day to see the cichlids and another at night to see the dolphin fish hunt the cichlids. The daytime dive was nothing short of a huge disappointment. As a freshwater lake, there is little cleaning of the water that occurs so basically the bottom is an aggregation of years of fish poo. Although there are more than 1,000 different cichlid species, they come in basically three different forms; blue with yellow, yellow with blue and some combination of black and white. It was interesting for about 10 minutes then we spent the rest of the time trying to amuse ourselves. When it came time for our night dive, the first for all of us, we were again excited to see something we had only seen happen on Planet Earth, dolphin fish hunting the cichlids. As we entered the water, the visibility was suboptimal but soon the dolphin fish were following us and our lights. As we rounded the corner of a jumble of fish-poo covered underwater granite boulders, through the haze we saw the edge of a fishing net. Doing our best to stay away from the hooks on the net, we picked our way along the boulders only to find out that the net encircled the entire area we were supposed to be traversing. Aborting the dive, we rose to the surface, once again disappointed in our freshwater diving experience.Continuing our progress north, we exited Malawi and entered southern Tanzania, once again braving the touts/fixers/money-changers. This border crossing ended up taking us much longer than anticipated so we found a campsite in the field of a welcoming local farmer for the night. The next day we proceeded to Kisolanza Farm for a couple nights of respite in a guest house. The farm is run by Nicky Ghauy, a dynamic woman probably in her early 70s, and members of her family. She runs a complex operation of cattle, Masai herders, growing her own feed, running a guest house, and supporting the local community members. On our last night as we finished a candle-lit dinner in one of the mud barns from the original farm, she asked us where we were heading to next. We told her that we planned on going to Ruaha National Park. She told us to be cautious as the lions there have recently become “quite cheeky” about campers. Neither of us asked more about what she meant by “cheeky” but we both had “oh my, what are we doing” feelings later that night.It had rained a few weeks before so the predators in Ruaha had all moved to the more remote regions of the park so we were the only visitors who entered that day. We knew that we should be in camp by dusk as driving on the roads after dark can be dangerous. However, some of the best activity happens just as the sun is setting and we wanted to maximize our chances of seeing lions so stayed out as long as possible. Arriving at our site on the bench above the bend of a large dry sand river, we set up camp and started cooking as twilight faded. With only a small solar lantern to light our area, we were using headlamps to cook and move about camp. As Mac was putting the finishing touches on our tent, he cautiously said, “do you guys see the eyes out there?” We used our brightest flashlight to see what was out there. All we could see were a set of green reflections about 100 meters away. From that distance it is difficult to determine the size of the animal by the eye-width, so we moved our table and chairs closer to the vehicle and simply kept watch as they came closer. By condensing our camp, the bugs which are attracted to the lantern started falling in our veggie stir fry as it cooked, aggravating everyone. Bugs are not high on the list of our favorite proteins. The eyes moved closer to the point where they were just 50 meters off but had been joined by two more pairs. At the closer range we could see that the animals were not large – perhaps hyenas or jackals – so that anxiety reduced but was quickly replaced by the grunting sounds of hippos in the distance. As the stir-fry finished, the hippos got closer and the bug intensity reached a high, we decided that the only reasonable option was to eat in the truck. So, we quickly moved our meal inside, turned on the air-conditioning and planned what to do if the hippos came in to camp. Hippos, despite their comical proportions and awkward gait, are surprisingly quick and one of the more dangerous animals in Africa.Recalling Nicky’s warning about there being “cheeky lions” and ready to not be prey, we simply locked the dirty dishes in the back of the truck and headed up to bed. As we drifted off to sleep in the bug-less safety of our nest on top of the truck, we could hear lions grunting far off in the distance. While lions do roar, they also make a low, guttural grunting sound that they also use for communication. A few good hours of sleep were then interrupted by the grunting coming closer. Every 30 minutes or so we would hear them, each time just a bit closer than the last. Colburn, Lucia and I would doze in between grunts but would awaken again to determine the new location. This went on for two or three hours until they finally were almost directly across from us on the other side of the sand river. We could not see them, but could tell that they were relatively close – maybe 200 or 300 meters away. Again, we wondered if this is what Nicky meant by “cheeky lions”? Would they come in to camp? If they did, would the lions try to get up on to the roof of the truck to get at our tent? We waited anxiously to see if they would cross the river, but they never did. The grunts became more distant and we were able to settle back in to a much more restful sleep. Restful that is, until a hippo or rhino (we never actually saw it) started munching on the vegetation around our car. As with the lions, eventually that animal moved on and we awoke to a lovely sunrise early the next morning. Somewhat nerve-wracked, I openly doubted the sanity of what we were doing. Are we making an irresponsible choice by camping in such conditions? Is this the type of situation that could become a news event? We discussed the viability of our future plans for camping in Selous and the Serengeti. If all nights were going to be this stressful, it is a situation not worth enduring. In the end, we decided that we had made some rookie mistakes that substantially raised the stress-level. First, we did not arrive in camp early enough to set up before the sun went down. This meant that we were moving about camp during some of the more risky times. In the future, we would cut our game viewing short to be in camp before the sun set. Second, we were preparing a meal that took a great deal of time to prep and cook. If we had made an easier meal, we could have been ready to eat in 15 minutes, not an hour. To avoid this in the future, we would alter our meal choice and plan to cook anything complicated as a mid-day meal then simply have a sandwich for dinner. Third, we did not have wood for a campfire so we were not only working with a dim solar lantern. A large campfire would have provided a greater circle of light for safe walking and fewer bugs being attracted to the only light source in the area. In the end, we decided that one sleepless night should not deter us when we had made so many poor decisions which could easily be avoided in the future. The process itself was wonderful, but we had not prepared fully. We could do better and would try again in the Serengeti.

1 response to Heading North: Malawi and Tanzania

  1. Robin Hollen says:

    I have been thinking about your family. Your Spring 2017 FNP group was at immersion and a conference together this week and spoke so highly of you and miss you greatly. We all remembered you gently helping us, and also building us up. I enjoy you sharing your experiences, reminding myself that living through another in Africa is as close as I get. Thank you for your adventures.

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