Encountering strange beasts and inspirational conservation in Malawi
12 Aug 2018
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A family adventure holiday in Malawi - tales of unusual wildlife and inspirational conservationists.
Venturing on a Malawi family holiday with my 3 boys aged 1, 3 and 5 yrs old, and my friend with her two kids was always going to be an adventure but from the off we had managed the kids' expectations in terms of the wildlife they would be seeing out there.
Malawi is an incredibly poor country but one rich in people and vision. Ask anyone who has gone there and they will tell you what warm and welcoming people the Malawians are. However the wildlife in the country has been hugely impacted over the years by poaching and human wildlife conflict. Without any national coffers available to protect the 9 parks, outside assistance has been brought in, and in recent years the pioneering organisation African Parks have taken over the management of 3 of Malawi’s parks, Liwonde, Majete and Nkhotakota. The results are becoming evident with wildlife numbers growing, poaching being controlled and key mammals including elephant, lion and giraffe being brought in from South Africa to help build populations.
On our trip we were lucky enough to visit 2 of these parks, Majete and Liwonde. Both are entirely different and I have to say personally Majete was one of the prettiest parks I have ever experienced across Africa. Rolling hills, rocky kopjes, and the best thing, no one there. I appreciate in saying that it has mixed meaning, to support Malawi you need tourism to flourish but on a selfish level with areas like the Serengeti being so incredibly overrun with tourists, it was a huge treat to feel like the park was exclusive for our wee group.
Before we set off on our first drive in Majete we were conscious to manage the expectations of our little adventurers in the vehicle. Children, like many safari goers, of course focus on the big bold predators and were talking about seeing lions from about 5 am. We had to tell them they would probably not see any (which was indeed true) but they settled with fresh paw prints instead.
What makes an experience like Majete so powerful is the guiding. We travelled with Robin Pope Safaris and our guide for our time in Majete was Dave Westbrook who is one of the best guides I have ever met. The magic with people like Dave was engaging us all, adults and kids, into the wider ecology of the park. Educating us about the stunning ghost-like Star Chestnut trees, the towering baobabs with their almost mythical status, the butterfly trees and how the ecosystem is being regenerated in Majete seemed to captivate us all. We all settled in to enjoy the slightly sparser wildlife and seemed to look harder at the landscape and what it had to offer. Even the children got into spotting the trees and became experts in identifying the wildlife we did see. Lots of nyala, impala, baboons and vervets as well as crocs and hippos lazily lounging on the stunning Shire River that rushed over rapids in front of our beautiful lodge, Mkulumadzi.
We all felt fulfilled with our day of sightings and soaking up the park as we headed off for our sundowners on a cracking rocky kopje at dusk but on arrival we had the privilege of meeting an animal I had always dreamt of seeing but never thought I would – a pangolin. At the start of our day, looking at our mammals list, I had joked to Dave how I wanted to see a pangolin, he had laughed in the knowledge that a guide like him might, if he was lucky, only see a pangolin twice in his 40 year career.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to the pangolin, but if you imagine a 50 cm long brown scaly anteater that would be pretty close. The pangolin was happy to lounge stretched out on a rock, hiding its wee head with its rather cute paws. Pangolins curl up into a tight scaly ball when they're surprised, to avoid being eaten, but this one seemed highly relaxed. Standing there, in the dimming light we all felt so privileged to have seen one of these prehistoric looking creatures.
We left him quietly to head up on top of the looming rock behind us to enjoy a celebratory sundowner overlooking the vast expanse of wilderness. It was quite a moment to sip on a G&T and reflect. Having met the scaly creature the children of course were full of questions and we spent our time on top of the rock trying to explain why these docile looking creatures were so incredibly special. Trying to explain about wildlife trafficking to a 5 year old is a challenge and when you say, it is because some people like to grind down their scales to eat them, their confused faces said it all. Apparently people would also take them to Robert Mugabe as a sign of respect and as a result Zimbabwe’s pangolin numbers are even more critical than other countries.
We had glimpsed something incredibly special that day and in time hopefully our kids will properly understand this. It is these precious little creatures which I feel represent the fragility of our natural world, how man in all our futile greed can be so incredibly destructive. And yet whilst on that same rock we glanced down to a plaque engraved with the words below.
““Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood, ”
“And probably themselves will not be realised. ”
“Make big plans, deep into the future. ”
“Aim high in hope and work.”
“Have faith remembering that a noble plan once recorded, will never die”
“ But long after we are gone will still be a living thing.”
In memory of Dr Anthony J Hall - Martin, a visionary and giant for conservation and co-founder of African Parks.
Yes man can be incredibly destructive but we also have the power to do great things and so we must celebrate the incredible vision and dreams of pioneering people like Dr Anthony Hall Martin, and organisations like African Parks. They are doing fantastic work to protect our world’s remaining wild places and as such if you do one good thing today, visit their website and see what great work they do. A few dollars might help save another pangolin from poachers so next time in Majete you too might enjoy the little bit of magic we did!
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