Zambia and Malawi 1999

Having been enthralled by my safari experience in Kenya in 1987, I finally got back to Africa in 1999. This time, my mother went along for her first Africa experience. It was a two-week trip, with a week each in Zambia and Malawi. We would enjoy wildlife safaris in Zambia and then spend time at Lake Malawi, home to some of the aquarium hobby’s most colourful freshwater fish.

Sadly, all of the images that I took on the trip were on photographic slides, which I no longer have. I only have a few low resolution images that I had previously scanned from those slides.

Zambia offered a very different safari experience, in comparison to my Kenya trip. In Kenya, when arriving at a lion kill, we found many other safari vehicles circled around it. Zambia offered a more exclusive safari experience, as the government limits the numbers of tourists that can visit its national parks at any one time. Zambia was also one of the few African countries that permitted walking safaris, which was something that I wanted to experience.

Our week in Zambia was spent with Remote Africa Safaris, operated by John Coppinger. It was split between two of their camps – Tafika Camp in South Luangwa and Mwaleshi, a temporary camp in North Luangwa.

Tafika Camp was situated on the bank of the Luangwa River and was a semi-permanent facility. If I simply said that we stayed in grass and pole huts, it would sound very rustic and basic, but we were certainly not roughing it at Tafika. My mom and I had our own individual ‘huts’, that were constructed on brick foundations. The walls were indeed made of grass (or straw) and they had thatched roofs. The shower was open to the sky, but still private. There was hot running water, thanks to a water heating system that included a wood fire that heated up a metal water tank inside a brick construction (see photo below), and was kept burning by the staff. Each hut had a private toilet and the beds were large and comfortable, with mosquito netting.

There was a larger, open-sided communal building that overlooked the river. It was where meals were served and was also where we could all meet before and after game drives. Just sitting there at breakfast, looking out over the river, was a magical experience. Interestingly, after dusk each evening, the hippos would come up from the river to feed on the grass within the camp. Hippos can be very dangerous if surprised, so each night after dinner, we would be escorted to our huts by a member of staff holding a lantern and making noise to ensure that the hippos knew we were coming.

When laying in bed, I could hear the sound of hippos munching on grass, on the opposite side of the somewhat flimsy grass wall of my hut. That took a while to get used to, but it was thrilling nonetheless, to be so close to wildlife.

An optional extra that was available at Tafika was an early morning microlight flight. John, the owner, was a microlight pilot and, for a fee, would provide these dawn flights. My mom and I both decided to take what might be the opportunity of a lifetime. She went up first, and I like to joke that I sent her first to ensure it was safe, before I gave it a try. It was quite an experience to be buzzing around, over the heads of elephants and getting a different perspective of the grasslands around the camp. The photo below shows my mom, just before take off. The flights had to be conducted early in the morning, before the sun was strong enough to create thermals, making flying the small craft less safe and more uncomfortable. We had experienced the impact of thermals when we flew into camp to start the trip. After flying a commercial jet into the main airport, we had to transfer to a small prop plane to take us to Tafika Camp, landing on a bush runway on an open field. Because we had to take that small plane flight in the afternoon, the thermals had the plane going up and down like a yo-yo. I felt sick for hours after we had landed!

The game drives from Tafika were amazing. Whenever we went out, we only saw another vehicle once, and that was only briefly, as we were headed in opposite directions. It was a very different experience to the crowded game parks in Kenya. Our drives were in an open top 4×4, which made for interesting game viewing experiences – especially when we got close to a pride of lions. But the unobstructed views were great for photography.

We also visited a local village and school and got to see how the village huts are constructed. Two of the women demonstrated how they pound millet to make flour. We also saw a large 55-gallon drum with a local type of ‘beer’ being made in it.

After our luxurious experience in the South Luangwa Park, we headed to Mwaleshi Camp in the more remote and protected North Luangwa Park. The camp is located next to a bend in the Mwaleshi River, in a remote area where there are no roads. The government maintained even stricter control of this pristine environment. That meant fewer tourists were allowed – and there were only a small number of huts in the camp. It also meant that the seasonal camp must be a temporary structure, and must be totally dismantled and removed at the end of every tourist season. It was certainly a more basic operation than Tafika – but it was also where we would enjoy some remote walking safaris.

When we set out on our walks, we were accompanied by Stephen, our guide and by an armed ranger, Isaac. On one occasion, as we walked out of an area of tall grass, we found ourselves close to a male buffalo. Isaac quickly ushered us up a nearby mound behind him, and racked a round into the breech of his rifle. Buffalo can be very dangerous and there was a risk that it would charge us, having been surprised by us. Fortunately, everything was okay, but I was glad to be standing behind Isaac and his rifle.

On another walk, Stephen told us to stop and whispered that there was a leopard up ahead. The leopard was laying on the ground and wasn’t moving. Stephen realised that something was wrong. The leopard was either sleeping or it was dead. To be sure, he threw some stones at the leopard. When one of them bounced off the animal without it moving, we knew it was safe to move forward. It was a female leopard that looked to be in excellent condition. There were no obvious injuries, so Stephen concluded that it may have recently died from a snake bite. We paused for some photos and then moved on.

One day, our walk required us to cross a hippo-filled river in a small canoe. We crossed over a section that didn’t appear to have hippos and crossed our fingers that there wasn’t a loner under the water, out of sight. In the photos below, you can see Isaac taking a break, with his rifle beside him, and Stephen being ferried across the river in the canoe.

I just have these few images of some of the wildlife that we saw during the Zambia trip. The photos show lion, elephants, puku, bushbuck, kudu, buffalo, hippos, hyena and a warthog.

We left Zambia and flew to Lilongwe, in the neighbouring country of Malawi. We were met at Lilongwe Airport and driven to Red Zebra Lodge, located at Kambiri Point on Lake Malawi, near to Senga Bay, where we would stay for a week.

Lake Malawi is one of Africa’s great Rift Lakes. With a length of 580km and a width of 75km, it covers an area of 29,600 km². It is the 9th largest lake in the world (when measured by area) but it is perhaps most notable for its dazzling array of colourful cichlids, a genus of freshwater fish that are popular in the aquarium hobby.

For many years, Englishman Stuart Grant had been operating a collecting station on Lake Malawi, and shipping these beautiful fish across the world to be enjoyed by tropical fish hobbyists. In addition to collecting and shipping fish, Stuart had expanded to include guest rooms at the Red Zebra Lodge, to accommodate fish lovers who wanted to experience the lake and to see these magnificent fishes in their natural habitat.

As we arrived at the lodge from the airport, there was a brush fire burning up the grassed areas between the lodge and the lake. I found myself dropping my luggage and joining Stuart and others in an attempt to stamp out the fire. Quite an introduction to Lake Malawi.

Whilst the Red Zebra Lodge had added a block of several newly constructed guest rooms, when we arrived we discovered that they were all fully occupied by a group of Canadians who were there for a collecting trip with Ad Konings, an expert and author of several books on Rift Lake cichlids. As a result, we were relegated to the two older, and shabbier, guest rooms that adjoin the kitchen. I was awakened early every morning by the cook knocking on my window, as he needed to be let into the building to begin preparing breakfasts (there was only one key to the door). Once I had let the cook in, there was no chance of getting back to sleep with all of the banging of pots and pans that was part of the cook’s morning ritual. We had most certainly drawn the short straw with respect to accommodation. I actually entertained the thought of leaving the lodge and spending our time in Malawi elsewhere, but in the end we decided to tough it out.

During our week, we spent some time snorkelling in the lake. I particularly enjoyed a day out at the Marelli Islands group. This group of three islands (the larger Maleri Island plus Nankoma and Nakantenga islands), is reasonably close to Kambiri Point (approximately 3km), so is accessible by one of Stuart’s boats for a day-trip. As a cichlid lover, it was quite a treat to see familiar fish species swimming in their natural habitat.

On other days, I snorkelled or swam around the shoreline, watching cichlids in their shoreline environment. We took a day-trip into Lilongwe and did some souvenir shopping. I also spent several hours wandering around the fish house, looking at the fish being housed in the tanks and vats, ready for export.

A number of evenings were spent socialising and having group dinners with Stuart and his lovely wife, Ad and the Canadians, with whom I formed a few friendships.

I didn’t do any fish collecting in the lake, but I did purchase a nice assortment of cichlids from the fish house that I took back to Bermuda with me.

In hindsight, a whole week based at the lodge was too long. We would have been better served by only spending three days there, and enjoying a longer period in Zambia. That said, I’m glad that I got to visit and experience the vastness of the lake and its beautiful fishy inhabitants.

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