I have now gotten the opportunity to visit two separate national parks—one in Malawi and one in Zambia—for two very separate experiences of game and wildlife viewing.
The first was back in October, when Peace Corps Malawi was asked to provide assistance for the Liwonde National Park Annual Game Count. The first portion of the game count was concentrated in the Liwonde Rhino Sanctuary. We worked in teams of two in rotating 4 hour shifts for a straight 72 hours. Our job was to stake out the water holes from quiet tree houses and record what we saw on a simple written spreadsheet. I was equipped with my camera and blissfully photo-documented the thirsty buffalo, kudu, sable, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs, impala, bush buck, zebra, hartebeest, elephants, birds, and roan antelope that visited the water holes in the day time, while at night I watched the family of rhino we spotted in the dark through binoculars, straining to make out each shape. In between our shifts we cooked our food camp-style, napped by the lodge’s pool, or slept on the hot ground in our stuffy tents.
The next portion of the count consisted of transect walks. We were sent all over the park in teams to walk designated paths and count the game we spotted. The night before we began, one volunteer’s voice came from his tent: Did you guys hear that?...Was that a lion growl? We had had many warthogs in our camp along with baboons and monkeys and even elephants which nearly stomped the volunteer’s tent behind mine. Hippo were also said to plod through the camp at night, but it was well-known that there was only one lion in the park and that he roamed in the southern portion. Still, our liaison replied: Yes. Yes. Yes, that was a lion. That was a lion. Wow, that was a lion.
The next day the girls and I discovered the tracks on our transect walk during a brilliant sunrise. They were giant prints, almost daintily stacked in a path leading back from our camp. Our guide (who, incidentally, guessed I was only 18 years old!) wouldn’t let us deviate from our GPS coordinates to follow the tracks though, as was my silly girl instinct. We completed our walk along the river, watching water buck and studying sun-bleached and hyena-scattered bones. My next day’s walk was very different. I was dropped in very northernmost part of the park with my partner and two guides. We didn’t see much in the way of game—a sable and a dyk dyk—because this area of the park has been heavily encroached upon. I got to learn what happens to a park with very little funding; fences are dismantled, farms appear on national land, houses are erected. The majority of land we walked through had been systematically burned for cultivation and we even walked through a trading center with a booming church service in progress. Later, deeper in the bush, we used my leatherman to cut down wire poacher snares meant to capture various antelope along a dry creek bed. Winding through farmer’s fields took us on a meandering path that added several kilometers to our originally planned 10.8, and we arrived back dusty and black from char, sweaty, dehydrated, and late, just in time to jump in a truck for the great Peace Corps exodus from Liwonde for another year.
The second park I’ve visited is South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Jon, Christina, and I booked a tour out of the capitol of Malawi and discovered that the rest of the crew happened to be mainly Peace Corps Malawi! We ended up in a PCV-filled bus heading into Zambia, where we stayed at a nice lodge in pre-erected tents that actually had beds and even a light inside. We had 16 hours of safari—4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the evening—for two days. Wake up call was unnecessarily early (4:45) for a 6 am departure, but I guess it only seemed unnecessary to us Peace Corps volunteers that are accustomed to rolling out of bed, putting on a hat, brushing our teeth and then stepping out into the world. We were promptly on the road into South Luangwa National Parks and it was immediately clear that this was going to be intense game viewing. We instantaneously came upon a large family of elephants and then watched another family wade across the river just behind the crocodiles, hippos, and fishermen in their canoes. Zebra, hyena, wildebeest, giraffe, buffalo, bushbabies, and dozens of other exciting creatures awaited us.
I had a few major animal-based highlights from this adventure. Here is my top ten:
1. Approaching two young hyenas in the day time as they posed for us and showed off their seemingly-electrocuted fur.
2. Watching as one by one the hippos exited the river in the evening for their nighttime chowin down session.
3. Witnessing a baby elephant wallow in a puddle of mud, then trip and struggle and stretch his trunk trying to stand back up, just to happily and clumsily slip and fall again.
4. Watching a gigantic male lion try to swat down a low-flapping vulture like a kitten chasing a fly.
5. Coming around a turn to discover a pack of wild dogs, one of my favorite animals, then getting to “run” with them in the car as they terrorized herds of impala and terrified mother zebras.
6. Catching just a glimpse of a young leopard’s tail as he darted into the bush.
7. Watching a young bull elephant demolish as tree, stuffing trunkfuls of greens into his mouth. The best part was when he noticed us watching and charged the vehicle, trumpeting and flapping his ears in anger (and what I interpreted as binge eating guilt).
8. Stopping in the road in the night and turning out the lights to absorb the sheer darkness, the stars above, the lightning in the distance, and the 10 million fireflies lighting up the bush in tiny blue green bursts.
9. Photographing the same storks that I used to photograph when I lived in Spain, now on winter vacation in Africa until spring.
10. Getting within mere feet of a lioness working on a well-shared buffalo carcass. She ripped out what I think was the gallbladder then chewed it mightily as green-brown bile ran down her chin and she locked eyes with me, daring me to try to steal her meal.
I think the best part of this Zambian Safari Adventure was that it was the first real vacation I have taken in Africa. I’m really fatigued lately so it was so lovely to have someone else making my plans and cooking my meals for me while I got to sit back and chat with Jon and Christina and the other volunteers and RELAX. It was much too short!