As a kid I often dreamed of going on safari, seeing the ‘big five’, and experiencing a land so drastically different from my own. For a very long time, Africa has been high atop my long (and growing) list of places I’d like to visit; however, it always seemed like a longshot that I’d ever make it. That’s why, when a friend, Tom Pickering, told me he would be serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi for two years I jumped at the chance to visit. So Constance and I are here now, to see some of the landscapes, people, and wildlife of southern Africa. Since internet access is so spotty, the blog posts will be added several at a time, but I will try to limit individual posts to the events of a single day, to make it easier to follow. I hope that you will enjoy following us on our first African adventure! --- Quand j’étais petit, je rêvais de faire un safari, de voir les grands mammifères terrestres et de découvrir un monde drastiquement différent du mien. L’Afrique a longtemps occupée une des premières positions de ma longue (et toujours grandissante) liste de région du monde que je voudrais visiter, sans vraiment croire que j’aurais véritablement l’occasion d’y aller un jour. C’est pourquoi quand un de mes amis, Tom Pickering, m’a appris qu’il partait pour deux ans au Malawi pour faire du bénévolat pour le Peace Corps, j’ai sauté sur l’occasion. C’est ici, au Malawi, que Constance et moi nous trouvons présentement afin de découvrir les paysages, les gens et la faune du sud de l’Afrique. Étantdonné que j’ai accèsà internet de manière très sporadique, plusieurs entrées de blogs seront ajoutées en même temps. Je vais tout de même faire un effort pour raconter les anecdotes dans un ordre chronologique pour faciliter la lecture. J’espère que vous aimerez suivre les péripéties de notre première aventure africaine!

Climbing Mt. Chipata

Sunday, July 17 2011

This morning we had an early breakfast and head out to the nearby trading post, a cluster of mud and brick huts near Tom’s village, to meet Nico, a park guard at Nkhotakota Game Reserve. Nico agreed to accompany us to the top of Chipata peak, a mountain of about 1400 meters in the southwest of the park. Nico would guide us to the top, and would carry a machine gun as protection from any animals or poachers that might cause us trouble. Crosby, a local villager, and member of the village Natural Resources Committee with whom Tom works closely, also came along. Together, we hiked down a small dirt track, past several villages, until we arrived at the border of the park. We entered, and immediately the landscape turned from dusty, open cropland, to some of the most beautiful habitat I’ve seen so far in Africa. This was miombo woodland, an open forest type dominated by short trees with broad, flat crowns, rather reminiscent of Acacia. We walked uphill, up a narrow path, spotting scat from reedbuck, porcupine, and civet. We also stopped for a few minutes to observe a troop of baboons going about their business. The miombo was absolutely beautiful, and we walked through it for a couple of hours until reaching an open field, at which point the hike grew steeper. After crossing the field, we arrived at the edge of a tropical forest that capped the top of Chipata. It was amazing how quickly the habitat transformed – in literally one step we had entered a different world entirely. The climate instantly grew cool, and the rainforest trees almost completely blocked the sunlight. Above our heads, a troop of blue monkeys foraged in the treetops. After a delightful hour-long hike through this tiny patch of rainforest, we arrived at the peak of Chipata, and we enjoyed an incredible view of the surrounding landscape, including Nkhotakota Game Reserve and adjacent villages and farmland.

This evening, the chief’s wife, Catherine, showed Constance and I how to make nsima. While we seem to have gotten the main idea, she almost certainly made it look easy, and it remains to be seen how well our first batch will turn out when we return home…

Village life...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

We’ve spent the past two days soaking up as much of Tom’s village life as possible. This has meant meeting people – lots of people. The immediate village consists of his local chief and his family, as well as several other families under this chief’s ‘rule’. We met all of them. We also met families in adjacent areas, which can be considered part of the same greater village, but are quite a distance away on foot. Meeting people is a very formal affair here in rural Malawi, and it is considered respectful to seat one’s self before introductions. By now, Constance and I are veritable experts in Chichewa – at least in saying ‘Muli Bwanji’!

Last night for dinner we wanted to do something special, so we arranged for Tom’s chief to purchase a chicken from one of the neighbors (even though there are chickens all over the village… I’m told these are for eggs, although we haven’t seen any since we’ve been here). Constance had the privilege of slaughtering the chicken, which was done by stepping on the wings and cutting the head off – pretty gruesome, but probably one of the better ways a chicken can go… Just yesterday we were startled by a commotion in the early afternoon; a group of chickens in front of Tom’s hut suddenly caused an uproar, and when we looked, a falcon was taking off again after having swooped down to grab a young chick. Luckily for the chick, and for the egg lovers of the village for that matter, the falcon returned to the sky empty-taloned.

On our way to the village from Kusungu, we noticed something particularly strange. There were lots of young boys with what looked like charred mice wedged between small slivers of bamboo, patrolling the roadsides and waving their wares at the bus windows as we stopped to let people off. It seemed they were trying to sell them, and while I couldn’t imagine for what purpose, Tom confirmed my worst fear – they were for eating! We didn’t buy any, but for some reason, I became more and more curious what the tiny mice might taste like. So today we asked Ambrosi, the chief’s 9 year old son, if he might be able to score us a mouse or two. In the afternoon, Ambrosi and a friend found a mouse burrow, and we set off with the two boys and the friend’s older brother to try and dig them up. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, and we found an impressive network of subterannean tunnels, but no mice. Hopefully when we head on to our next stop in Malawi there are still mice to try - I wonder if they’ll taste as disgusting as they look.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Yesterday we met Tom at our hotel in Lilongwe. I was very impressed – whereas Constance and I only bumble along in English here (luckily for us, many people speak at least a little), Tom greeted the hotel clerk in Chichewa, the language spoken most commonly in Malawi. Not only could Tom greet in Chichewa, but he was having a full-on conversation with the clerk, and it seemed like he was even making jokes! I was very jealous – this is the first trip I’ve ever taken to a place where I am 100 percent unable to communicate with the people. Of course, pointing and using body language and hand gestures helps one to get by, but I want to learn more. So, as we walked about Lilongwe this morning to visit the bank, eat lunch, check out the market, etc., I was busy asking questions. For instance, it bugs me that people greet me in Chichewa, and although they’re almost certainly saying ‘Hello’, or something else like ‘How are you?’, it’s not entirely clear how to respond. So I learned the basic greeting, ‘Muli bwanji’, which means ‘How are you?’ The standard response is ‘Ndili bwino’, which means, literally, ‘I am good’. The ‘n’ is basically not pronounced. I haven’t yet learned how to respond if you are not, in fact, good, but let’s not get crazy just yet. Another very important word is ‘Zikomo’, which means ‘thank you’, but also seems to be a polite way of ending an encounter. We also learned the meaning for ‘Mzungu’, which is ‘white people’, as in ‘Mzungu trap’ (the name for the deep, uncovered ditches filled with rotting garbage and fetid water that swallow unsuspecting tourists in larger cities and towns such as Lilongwe). I have heard that term quite a bit, and was relieved to learn that it is not at all derogatory. There are many formalities and rules in this language; for example, there are different greetings that should be used when meeting someone you haven’t seen in, say, two or three days, versus someone you’re seeing for the third time in a single day. I only hope that in the short time we have here in Malawi, we are able to grasp better the intricacies of communication, but I’m not expecting much… I’ll be happy if I can just get ‘Hello’ right!

Today’s journey from Lilongwe to Tom’s site in central Malawi began very well. We caught a mini bus from the old town, near our hotel, to the main highway that runs north towards Tanzania, and got dropped off at a busy stretch. From here we hitched, and after not even 10 minutes of waiting were picked up by a very nice Afrikaaner man in a pickup. As it turned out, he was going all the way to Kasungu,a medium sized town north of Lilongwe where we would need to take a second minibus to Tom’s village. Thanks to the hitch, we arrived ahead of schedule in Kusungu, so we decided to pick up some supplies and have lunch in town before finding a minibus to take us to the village. As usual, after boarding the minibus, we had to wait for it to fill up, and, as usual, just when you think the bus is full, they find space for an entire additional row of people. This time, they piled people into the trunk space of the bus – 6 people in the trunk! By far the most uncomfortable minibus yet. Making it worse, a fuel shortage has caused gas prices to soar, well above what they are in the U.S., and so the driver, in an effort to save fuel, was traveling at about 20 kph, almost a crawl; there were old men on bicycles overtaking us! The driver was even shutting off the engine going down hills – this was going to take forever! And of course, at one point, to make matters worse, we ran out of fuel, or the engine overheated, or both (actually I think it was both, and I think so because the driver both purchased fuel from a passing motorist and poured one of our water bottles over the engine block).

Nevertheless, we finally made it to Tom’s village, just a kilometer or so off this main road. The walk from the road to Tom’s hut was amazing. The scenery was absolutely stunning, with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, and even of the nearby Nkhotakota Game Reserve, which I learned is home to a decent number of animals, including elephants and even a few lions. We passed some of his neighbors, and said our awkward ‘Muli bwanjis’ and ‘Ndili bwinos’, and as usual passed tons of children who are almost flabbergasted when a ‘mzungu’ waves to them (actually, Malawi is chock full of children, with over 50 percent of the population under 15 years of age). Finally, after a typically exhausting day of travel in Africa, we arrived at Tom’s mud hut.

This evening we dined with the chief of Tom’s tiny village, and his wife. Their names are Ambros and Catherine, respectfully referred to as ‘Amfumu’ (father) and ‘Amai’ (mother), respectively. Catherine prepared nsima for us, which is the staple food here, and is served invariably at all meals throughout the country (and region). Nsima consists of maize (corn meal) and water, which is boiled and cooked until it reaches a consistency of thick dumplings. One eats nsima with the right hand, so before the meal a bowl of water is passed around for washing. With right hands washed, nsima is passed around, followed by bowls of sides, usually pumpkin leaves or mustard greens, and often beans. Meat is almost never eaten, although tonight we prepared some instant ‘Tasty Soy Pieces’ to supplement the meal. Small chunks of nsima are taken, rolled into a ball, flattened, and used to scoop up bits of the sides and then eaten. This is a practical, if messy way of eating, and we enjoyed it very much. The chief and his wife were very friendly and welcoming hosts, and we had a nice time asking about their house, children, etc., with Tom of course doing his best to translate. This was one meal I’ll not soon forget. The chief’s wife agreed to show us how to prepare nsima tomorrow, hopefully we’ll pick that up quicker than we have Chichewa!

Back to Lilongwe

Monday, 11 July 2011 – Back to Lilongwe

This morning we arrived in Lilongwe, after an exhausting journey from South Luangwa National Park. We began, for some mysterious reason, at around 9:30 at night from our camp, in a minibus (basically a beat-up minivan), the standard mode of transport in this part of Africa. After driving around Mfuwe village to fill up the bus, we finally set off on our uncomfortable, cramped journey back to Chipata, the town in Zambia nearest the border with Malawi. The road is in a state of utter disrepair, as was our minibus, and any attempt at sleep was basically pointless. At one point, the bus stalled, and we had to push it to a rolling start in the middle of the bush. We arrived in Chipata in the middle of the night, and needed to go to the immigration a few kilometers nearer to the border, so we found a taxi driver to take us. Maybe it was the darkness, or my lack of sleep, but I didn’t notice until we were on our way that the driver was about 12 years old! He could barely see over the steering wheel, and I thought for sure this would end badly, as the kid was driving like a total maniac, speeding despite being roundly warned of the danger posed by goats, etc., when driving in Africa at night. We made it safely to the border post, although it was 2:30 in the morning. We heard loud snoring behind the counter, so we decided to follow suit and sleep on the bench inside until daylight (the border is extremely sketchy at that hour). Unfortunately, all the windows were either broken or missing altogether, it was absolutely impossible to sleep with the biting wind blowing right through the building…

We’re now back in Lilongwe, waiting for Tom to meet us after a trip to Zanzibar. In a couple of days we’re off to see the countryside in Malawi, we can’t wait!

Zambian bush, pt. 3

Sunday, 10 July 2011 – Bush, day 3

This morning we had a wonderful morning game drive, spotting of course tons of grazing animals, birds, and other creatures (saw my first African snake, although didn’t get a good enough look to see just what it was). We got a particularly good view of a pair of warthogs, certainly one of the most interesting animals in the bush to watch.

Back in camp, Constance and I were sitting on a log watching the Luangwa River flow past. Suddenly, a group of about 10 hippos or so on the opposite bank charged into the water, causing quite a scene. I assumed they had had enough of the hot sun, and decided at once to go for a cooling swim. When I inspected, however, I realize that the hippos were escaping something entirely different – they were fleeing a leopard! The leopard was walking along the steep river bank, scaring off everything in its path. Hippos fled to the safety of the water, as did a number of large lizards, and birds fled by wing. Crocodiles stood their ground, and the leopard just ignored them. We watched as the leopard walked about a half a kilometer or so along the bank, bothering just about every creature it passed, even pouncing at one point, apparently unsuccessfully, at an animal hiding in a bush at the water’s edge, until it climbed back up the bank and disappeared into the bush. There was no mistaking it this time, we had seen a leopard, even watched it on the hunt! That is, without question, one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen, and I felt very lucky to have witnessed a few minutes of its life in the African wilderness.

Zambian bush, pt. 2

Saturday, 9 July 2011 – Bush, day 2

Well, yesterday’s game drives certainly set a high standard for today, and I wasn’t sure if we would be able to match that experience. The morning drive started off as it had yesterday – there were plentiful grazers munching the grass, lots of birds and waterfowl in the rivers and lagoons alongside the many hippos lazing the morning hours away. I was fascinated with the fact that hippos seem to be almost fixed to one position in the water or on a bank, and the guide explained that they feed at night. That must’ve been what I was hearing next to our tent last night (actually, it was, I later learned). Apparently, that is why hippos are the most dangerous animals in the African bush – not because they capsized fishermens’ small canoes and attacked them, as I had envisaged, but because they trampled and gored people who stood between them and their precious water source, baby, etc. When you see one of these massive, toothed animals upclose, it’s not hard to imagine some serious, if unintentional damage caused by even the briefest altercation.

Around 10:00am or so, we made our way a spot on the Luangwa River, not far from our camp, and parked the truck after spotting an elephant on the opposite bank. The elephant, a large female, was making her way down to the water, and right behind her followed another, tiny elephant – her calf. Behind the calf followed several more, until an entire herd stood in single-file fashion before us, forging their way across the river. This was a spectacular sight, as 11 of these magnificent beasts made their way across, surrounding the youngest members of the herd from crocodiles and other predators. Two younger males fell behind before reaching shore, and began to roughhouse one another – these were two young boys clearly driven by rising testosterone levels. Eventually they rejoined their matriarch, and disappeared into the bush on their way to their favorite feeding ground.

After breaking for the afternoon heat and making a trip to Mfuwe, the nearest village, we set out on another afternoon/night game drive. After watching one of the most beautiful sunsets on the Luangwa, we set off in the truck with a spotter to search for nocturnal wildlife. Just as it was nearing blackness, I spotted a medium-sized shadowy figure making its way slowly into the bush in the distance, and shouted ‘Lion!’ We watched the figure for a minute or so, as it disappeared from sight, and when we asked why such a small lion would be alone in the bush at this hour, the guide told us that that had been no lion – we had been watching a leopard! It was hard to see the leopard’s spots, in fact it was hard to see anything but the general cat-shape, it’s spots helping the animal to blend so well with its surroundings, especially at this time of the day. So in theory, I have seen a leopard, but I don’t really feel like I have seen a leopard. I suppose there’s always tomorrow…

Zambian bush, day 1

Friday, 8 July 2011 – Bush, day 1

Today we woke up at 5:00 for our first safari, or game drive. We left just as the sun was coming up, and it was still absolutely freezing – something we were totally unprepared for. Shivering, we left camp in our open safari truck, turned onto the paved road to the park entrance and right away spotted a small herd of impala. I blurted ‘Look!’, but the driver seemed fairly disinterested. He calmly told me to relax myself, and that there would be plenty more where those came from. Sure enough, in the 1km drive to the gate, we saw maybe 50, plus many other small grazers, and hippos in the river just before the gate.

The next four hours were spectacular. As we drove around the dusty roads of the park, we were seeing wildlife everywhere. More impressive than the diversity of large mammals is the number in which they occur. They were everywhere – herds of impala, puku, bushbuck, and water buck were grazing in the chilly morning air, while giraffes picked at the tops of the trees. We spotted elephants, and even a small group of warthogs.

About an hour into the park, we climbed down from the truck and headed off on foot into the bush with an armed scout, to search for animals, their tracks, and perhaps most of all, their poo. We saw loads of it. After an hour or so we heard lions on the other side of a small dried lagoon bed, so we decided to approach closer in the truck. When we arrived on the other side, we could only see a large troop of baboons on the lagoon (only a troop of baboons!), but after a few minutes, a beautiful young male lion emerged from the bush, lazily walking past the monkeys. Another three lions descended upon the lagoon, and we watched them walk out of sight, clearly in charge of this section of the bush. It was exhilarating!

Later, in the afternoon, we saw something really great. Driving down a path we spotted a lioness with three cubs, and she let us approach close enough to watch her cubs rolling around in the dust before us. Watching her and her cubs was, needless to say, a wonderful experience, but we eventually decided to continue exploring. A further 200m down the path were a number of vultures in the trees, a sure sign, our guide told us, that there was a fresh kill about. Sure enough, a young male lion was guarding a freshly taken buffalo. He appeared to be almost in pain for eating so much, and was laying on his back next to his kill, completely indifferent to our presence and prying eyes. We continued on into the night, finishing off the day’s hunt with sightings of mongoose, crocodile, civet, and a bush baby. Leopards are relatively common in this particular park, so that was something we looked for, although we weren’t lucky enough to spot one. In just one day, I saw more animals than I ever imagined possible. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

Off to South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Thursday, 7 July 2011 – Off to South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

We left Lilongwe at around 6:00am this morning, destination South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Our first destination was the Malawi-Zambia border, and we got there on a minibus that was so crowded, I thought we might have mistakingly boarded a clown car. Once at the border, we had to change some of our U.S. dollars to Zambia kwacha, a job that was made very easy by the large number of hawkers all over. Then we paid our entry fee for Zambia, received our VISAs, and boarded another crowded transport to Chipata, a regional ‘hub’. In Chipata, we located the bus to Mfuwe, which is the town at the border and entrance to South Luangwa, bought our tickets, and boarded. It was a bit unclear at what point the bus would leave, although they told us when it was full. Well, a Zambian’s definition of full apparently is very different from my own, and we left Chipata after three and a half hours of ‘filling’, when the bus was so crowded we were almost two layers thick of people, supplies, chickens, and bags upon bags of dried fish from Lake Malawi. Seven hours later, we finally arrived in Mfuwe, and five minutes later were at our camp on the edge of the Luangwa River. We set up the tent and quickly drifted to sleep to the sounds of hippos in the river just below.

Arrival in Africa, Zambia pt. 1

Wednesday, 6 July 2011 – Arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi

After a journey of over 24 hours, involving planes, trains, and crowded public buses, Constance and I arrived in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. I love staring out the window of airplanes, and so I was keen to choose a window seat for our flight into Lilongwe for my first, first-hand view of Africa. As we descended upon the airport, I was instantly struck by the disparity between the ground in Frankfurt, the city in Germany from where we were flying, and what I was seeing. The landscape was quite dry, the red dirt being sparsely dotted with clumps of dry grass and small trees. There were small, dusty villages placed fairly regularly along the many unpaved roads, each consisting of a small cluster of thatched huts surrounding a small dirt common area of sorts. There were people going about their business, lots of people on bicycles, women carrying loads on their heads. There were almost no tarred roads, no highways, no cars, no big buildings. Just those tiny quiet villages, exactly as I had imagined it might look.

We’re here primarily to visit a friend, Tom Pickering, who is serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi. Malawi is a country about the size of New Jersey, with about 13 million people. The country is desperately poor, and the AIDS rate is among the highest on the continent. Yet the people are incredibly warm and friendly, and indeed Malawi has rightly earned its nickname ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’. The first Malawian that I met flashed me a huge smile and offered a friendly ‘Hello’. I was shocked – this was the immigration officer! Everyone we encountered along our trip to the hotel in Lilongwe was all smiles, very helpful, and warm. I was honestly a bit shocked at first, but I think this is something I can get used to…

Before we meet Tom in a week or so, we decided it’d be nice to take a side trip to neighboring Zambia, to see some African wildlife before beginning our travels with Tom. While Malawi has a respectable network of beautiful parks, during the 1980s and 1990s many of the animals disappeared from most of them due to poaching, a result of the combined effects of overpopulation, poverty, and poor management. So tomorrow we’re off to South Luangwa National Park, in eastern Zambia, to do some ‘game watching’, as it’s called here in Africa.

Mercredi le 6 juillet 2011 – Arrivée a Lilongwe, Malawi

Après un périple de 24 heures impliquant avions, trains et autobus bondes, Constance et moi sommes arrivés Lilongwe, la capitale du Malawi. J’ai eu la chance d’occuper un siège côté hublot dans l’avion, ce qui m’a permis d’avoir une vue privilégiée du Malawi alors qu’on approchait de la piste d’atterrissage. Le contraste avec Francfort, là où a débuté notre voyage en avion, était frappant: ici, le paysage est très sec, seuls quelques touffes d’herbes sèches et bosquets de petits arbres tachant de vert le sol de terre rouge. Quelques petits villagesconsistant en de simples petit agrégat de huttes étaient situésà intervalle régulier le long les routes de terre. Les gens suivaient leur petite routine, des hommes transportant leur marchandise à bicyclette, les femmes les transportant sur leur tête. Il n’y avait pratiquement pas de routes pavées, d’automobiles, de grand building. Seuls cesquelques petits villages, exactement comme je me l’étaisimaginé.

Nous sommes d’abord et avant tout ici pour visiter un ami, Tom Pickering, qui sert comme volontaire pour le Peace Corps. Le Malawiest un petit pays qui a environ la taille du New Jersey et contient près de 13 millions d’habitants. Ce pays est extrêmement pauvre et montre un des taux de sida les plus élevé du continent Africain. Les gens y sont pourtant étonnamment gentils et chaleureux, et le pays mérite bien son surnom, ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ (le cœur chaleureux de l’Afrique). Tous les gens que nous avons rencontrés alors que nous nous rendions à notre hôtelà Lilongwe étaient souriants et chaleureux. Et çainclut le tout premier malawien que j’ai rencontré: un douanier tout sourire et accueillant! J’ai d’abord étéchoqué, mais je pense bien que je pourrai m’y habituer….

Avant de rejoindre notre ami Tom, nous nous rendrons dans le pays voisin, la Zambie, pour découvrir la faune africaine. Bien que le Malawi ait un bon réseau de magnifiques parcs nationaux, la plupart des espècesanimales ont disparu du pays à la suite de braconnage intensif au cours des années 80 et 90 dûà la surpopulation, la pauvreté et une mauvaise administration. Ainsi, nous partons demain à l’aube pour le “South Luangwa National Park” dans l’Est de la Zambie pour observer les grands mammifères terrestres.