The first time someone told me that a hippo was the most dangerous land mammal on Earth, I laughed. Now, having watched one fight off two crocodiles to decide who would get to devour a third, already dead croc, the statement seemed more believable. And the oft quoted “fact” that hippos are vegetarian also went out the window. They will, it seems, tuck into pretty much anything that takes their fancy, including semi decomposed flesh.
In Malawi, you get close to this kind of action, be it on foot, by 4x4, or in this particular case, by boat. The country’s tourism destination is years behind that of the safari hotspots in East Africa, but the upshot of its underdevelopment is that more often than not you’ll be the only one on location when something exciting happens. I for one can imagine nothing more depressing than witnessing the a highly emotional killing of a baby impala by a lion only to look up and realise that half a dozen other vehicles have made a circle around the kill, the tourists onboard happily clicking away on their cameras. The wilderness only stays wild when there are hardly any people in it.
The richest game viewing in Malawi is in the south of the country, in the Liwonde National Park. I stayed at Mvuu Lodge on the bank of the Shire River. Mvuu means hippo in Chichewa, the local language, and indeed the hippo are close enough to the tented suites that you can often hear them bellowing to each other at night. It’d be inadvisable to go outside for a closer look after dark; hippo are exceptionally territorial, and if they think you are in their space, they will charge. A fully grown male can reach 1,800 kg in weight, so it is best to keep out of their way.
It was not Liwonde’s hippos but the elephants I’d come to see. Whereas other parks and reserves across Africa have a declining elephant population due to habitat destruction and poaching, Liwonde has the opposite problem. The elephants are so happy and healthy that they’re breeding like proverbial rabbits, and overpopulation is a serious concern. Some of the elephants have already been moved north to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve to start a new life there, but Liwonde still has hundreds and hundreds.
My first encounter with an elephant was not actually with the elephant but with the exceedingly large pile of dung it had left outside my tent. I’d slept soundly throughout the night, completely unaware that just the other side of the canvas walls an elephant was also dozing. I’d woken up in the morning and performed my ablutions in the en suite; he (or she) had taken a giant crap on the path and then wandered off in search of breakfast.
As with the hippos, you don’t want to get too close to an elephant when you’re on foot. The noise of an engine can spook them, too, so guides and rangers tend to keep their distance even when they are in a 4x4. The safest way to get an intimate encounter is by boat when the elephant come down to the water’s edge to drink from the river.
With wildlife guide Angel at the helm, we motored out from the little wooden pier at Mvuu and headed south. We zigzagged back and forth across the breadth of the Shire, avoiding the pods of hippos but also checking out the banks for sightings of crocodiles and birds. It was then that we came across our bloated crocodile corpse and the hungry hippo. It was fascinating to watch, but too gruesome to linger long.
The Shire is wide and deep in Liwonde; not too much further on, it flows into the mighty Zambezi. Meanders and occasional sandbanks break up the expanse of water, and it was on one sandy and grassy spear jutting out into the river that I saw the silhouette of my first elephant. In fact, there were two, a mother and her tiny calf just standing and looking out. They looked majestic, and I’m not being overly dramatic if I say that I wanted to cry.
But the best was yet to come. Angel’s eyes were sharper than mine and more accustomed to spotting telltale signs in the bushes. He manoeuvred the boat from its course in the centre of the river towards the bank, and as we draw closer I realised why. The mother and calf we’d sighted on the headland were just the advance party; dozens of other elephants from their herd were coming out of the trees to drink.
At first these elephants were cautious. They could see us clearly -- as the only boat on the water, we were impossible to miss -- but we didn’t resemble any known threat. Angel had switched off the engine and let us gently drift with the current parallel to the bank, so there was no noise to startle them either. A few minutes passed and it seemed we’d passed whatever checks on us were being made, as more and more elephants came forth.
I failed to count all the elephants that morning. I’d guess that there were more than 40 moving back and forth between the water and the thicket of trees and bushes behind. The smallest of the calves barely came up to the armpits of their mothers. They could only have been a few years old, and they embodied all the baby like charms of Dumbo, including the ungainly moves. Elephants can swim, and well for that matter, but these hadn’t come to the river to cross or cool down; they were drinking their not inconsiderable fill before turning tail and going back to the grass and trees to munch. If there’s one thing that an elephant isn’t short of, it’s appetite.
Mahlatini offers a five night stay in Malawi, including return flights to Lilongwe with South African Airways via Johannesburg, for £2,900.