I’ve been itching to get out of town and explore the rest of the country more, so last weekend 2 Baha’i friends of mine and I set off for Kasungu National Park. A safari company had wanted $100 per person to bring us to and from the park and drive us around for an afternoon, but I knew we could save a lot of money by getting there ourselves. In the States I’ve taken for granted that listed telephone numbers actually WORK, but after lots of calls to unworking numbers I finally got hold of a park ranger who said he could take us around the park. So Saturday morning we crammed into a minibus and for about $4 each, took the 3 hour ride to the town of Kasungu. These vans – which should hold 9 people but at the peak of our trip squashed in 23, plus a goat – can be unsafe depending on how reckless the driver is and whether it’s so old it’s barely holding together, but ours actually looked quite new. Each time we stopped at a little town, vendors would swarm the van, trying to sell everything from bananas to milk to live chickens. A whole new way to do your grocery shopping…
When we arrived at the town of Kasungu, the driver left us at a remote part of town where there were three pickup trucks. Normally 20+ people would hitch a ride in the back of a pickup, but one guy said he’d take the three of us alone for a few bucks. All well and good… perched in the back, we got a nice breeze, excellent view of the surrounding mountains… until, about 5km out, the truck’s engine grinded to a halt. We got out and pushed a few times, but the thing was dead; so the driver headed back to town to get someone else, leaving us on the side of the road. He said he’d be back, but given that “soon” can just as easily mean 1 or 3 hours, we started flagging down other potential rides (with the exception of the giant eighteen-wheelers holding hundreds of pieces of furniture all somehow tied together). Finally, a guy and his wife picked us up, and it turned out he was a well-known Malawian businessman-turned-philanthropist who’d been to the US a lot and glorified Indianapolis to no end. So after lurching down the dirt road for another 40km, he dropped us at the park entrance gate.
It was already almost 3pm so I wasn’t sure how many animals we’d see that day. But just as we approached the lodge, which is next to a beautiful expansive lake, a herd of 15 elephants came out for a drink! I’d seen them before in Tanzania but they’re such majestic creatures that it was still a huge treat.
We met up with Duncan, the park ranger, and realized we just happened to arrive on the weekend of a wildlife count! So all these wonderfully-geeky and passionate biologists were there tracking how many of each animal they saw so they could compare population numbers over time. Duncan was helping too, so we piled into his Landrover and set off on his afternoon safari. We saw a handful of animal species (the numbers have been decimated by poaching but are slowly making a comeback), including hippos, duikas (tiny deer with small horns), a fish eagle, a giant mouse that hopped on kangaroo-like hind legs, and a herd of about 10 sable, which are in the antelope family and are apparently very rare in Malawi.
Each time we saw something, we’d mark down the number, location, time, etc., taking me back to biology field-work days 🙂 And we saw several types of giant termite mounds that just blew me away – the column-like ones made of hardened mud include carefully-placed air vents so the termites can regulate the temperature inside the nest, and some non-descript large mounds turned out to be “super-colonies” which could be hundreds of years old!!!
We had to carefully scan the bush for the animals (Duncan said even elephants can blend in so well and quietly you wouldn’t know they were there!), so even though this wasn’t like a zoo where you’re guaranteed to see lots of animals, I really enjoyed the suspense of not knowing what might emerge from the thick grass. The animals were in their natural habitat and weren’t catering to us wanting to see them. And even though we might have seen more animals at a big game park in Zambia, the wildness and un-touristy feel of this place was lovely.
And the three groups as a whole had seen quite a lot that weekend, including zebra, leopards, roan antelope, etc. There were just 15 of us total in the park so you really felt like there was little between you and the wildlife. And compared to the fancy parks which are hugely overpriced, we got a small dorm room with a few beds for $10 each. There were also camping facilities, making me wish I’d brought a tent, though Duncan warned us and the campers to be very careful walking to the bathrooms at night, because hippos would wander around nearby and if they were startled, they’d barrel through anybody in their way! Duncan showed us some fantastic footage he’d gotten from some night-vision cameras he’d set up outside his house, about 300 feet from the lodge, where a whole host of creatures had walked by: leopards, elephants, wild dogs (apparently different than hyenas), owls…
We took another drive early the next morning and watched the sun rise over the vast savanna. In addition to seeing the sable again, we saw a mongoose, a family of warthogs (who trot off with their long tails sticking straight up so they can follow each other in the tall grass!), and more birds. Then we got a ride back to Lilongwe with some of the biologists. So ended a totally awesome weekend.