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     Volume 4 Issue 30 | January 21, 2005 |

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Travels in Malawi

Safari Nights

Farah Ghuznavi

On the final leg of the trip, we set off for Liwande National Park, where we had a booking at Mvuu Camp. I was very excited, since this was to be my first safari experience (and the achievement of a long held fantasy). We passed fresh elephant droppings within the first five minutes of entering the park, and waited by the car park, for a boat to the Camp. As we crossed the river, the guide pointed out various birds, and suddenly said, "There is a hippo". I turned just in time to see the ridiculously small, round ears of not one, but two hippos; they were submerging in response to our presence. After arriving at the camp, we checked in and were taken to our "tents", which were actually beautifully appointed cabins, with netting, thatched roofs, low walls and attached bathrooms at the back. Flowers on the pillows, with a welcome message, completed an inviting picture.

After unpacking, I was lured outside by the sounds of loud splashing coming from the river. Our cabin had a lawn out front, and was one cabin away from the river. The river was around nine feet below the edge of the lawn, and I was soon to be very grateful for this! The splashing turned out to be two crocodiles, one a very large, mean looking male, and I quickly understood the emphasis placed in the introductory folder on NOT swimming in the river. It was very exciting to see those animals so close though, bringing home to me that this was indeed a "real" safari experience, however luxurious. Indeed, the Camp brochure emphasised the need to be alert at all times, since there were no boundaries between the cabins in the Camp, and the National Park itself, so that animals might wander in accidentally at any time.

In the late afternoon, we set out on a driving safari, with a total of nine people sitting in the three rows of seats in each vehicle, with the last row being the highest. The driver sat in the front, and to his left, in a raised chair outside the actual car, sat the guide. The vehicle was an open jeep and I wondered how they ensured safety from lions and elephants. It soon became apparent that safety was totally dependent on the expertise of our driver and guide, since neither even carried a gun.

As we set out, we soon passed a herd of the graceful Impala. These golden deer travel in packs with one dominant male, and are easily identified by the distinctive black stripes on their backsides. We were not overly impressed with our driver's rather sexist (not to mention inaccurate!) comment that the Impala family reflects the human family (with one dominant male in charge of the household of females and offspring), but were consoled to hear that the male impala rarely remains dominant for more than a couple of years, and is kept very busy fighting off new challengers. We saw this, because the male Impala repeatedly gave a loud barking cough to scare off any intrusive males. He wasn't too happy about our jeep either… Shortly afterwards, we came across some waterbuck, who can be easily recognised by the round white ring they have on their backsides, reminiscent as one wit pointed out, of someone who has accidentally sat down on a newly painted toilet seat!

As darkness fell, the jungle noises changed, from the earlier chirp of birds and bellow of the male Impala, to a more atmospheric sound of rustling leaves (who was out there?), crickets chirping, distant shrill cries of the monkeys, and the occasional cough of an unidentified animal. Our spotter, Henry, brought out his huge searchlight, and informed us that we would now start looking for nocturnal animals. A long time passed without sighting much. Then, to my sudden shock, came our first break. The light shone on a hippo, barely ten feet away from us, as it crossed the road. My heart stopped at the thought of how nearly we could have collided with it, since it really came out of nowhere, but I suppose Henry would have spotted it long before!

We continued on, passing more herds of Impala. Shortly afterwards, we came across two hippo walking together, presumably to get a late evening snack on the juicy grasses of the jungle. They were both sweating profusely, a reminder of how much harder it must be to drag that bulk around on land, as opposed to their graceful movements in the water. One was also bleeding, not that strange since hippos are very aggressive and often fight amongst themselves. It is also interesting that they often hang out in packs in the river, but are mostly seen traveling individually on land. Henry explained this by saying that while hippos like to be social when they are keeping cool in the water, on land they are unsure of getting enough to eat, so that they like to be on their own and not risk having to share.

Gradually I started noticing that sometimes you could see small yellow eyes glowing in the underbrush. I was reminded that there were leopards and lions in the park, and suddenly the (so far) reclusive hippos did not seem that intimidating. We came across a series of smaller animals, including various cats, and a young side-striped jackal (which was quite oblivious to our presence, enjoying its game of teasing a frog). Then it was back to the Camp, and to the last remnants of Impala. The male Impala was not glad to see us again, and his bellowing warning echoed around the area. The surprises weren't over though. Just as we were about to get out of the jeep, our drivers warned us to be careful. As the searchlight cut a path through the darkness surrounding us, we saw a hippo standing just outside the children's playground! The hippo looked as surprised as we felt, but it held its ground, an excellent illustration of the Camp authorities insistence on being generally careful!

Dinner was a leisurely business, and we were mostly quiet, reflective about the many interesting things we had just seen. I fell asleep quite soon after, but the surprises were not over for the night! I was woken in the early hours of the morning by a strange, rhythmic noise. Looking out of the wire screen just outside my bed, I was amazed to see a large hippo standing there and eating grass. I watched for a long time, as the moonlight shone on the grazing hippo, which moved between our cabin and the neighbouring one. It was a magical time, and I did not even feel worried, as it seemed so totally unaware of our presence...

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