Text and photographs: Stephen Cunliffe
With a loud crack the tree snapped and crashed to the ground. A gigantic elephant bull used his dexterous trunk to pluck a large branch off the recently toppled tree and nimbly popped it into his hungry mouth. I was crouching quietly behind a bush while, barely 20 metres away, the elephant devoured his chosen foliage. I could hear a loud crunching and chewing as his molars ground bark off the branch. My heart thumped wildly at the thrilling experience of viewing six tons of elephant on his terms, although round about now I was really missing my Hilux!
After the exhilarating elephant encounter I felt I definitely deserved some of Malawi’s finest amber nectar to sooth my jagged nerves. As I cracked open an ice-cold Carlsberg green and took a long swig of the chilled beer, I had a chance to reflect on where I was and how I had ended up on foot in the bush with an elephant!
It all began when some Zambian friends recommended a visit to what they claimed was Malawi’s greatest reserve: a place called Majete Wildlife Reserve. I had never heard of it, but the more I researched and asked around, the more attractive the place began to sound. Finally, after hearing it described as Malawi’s greatest success story and then being told it was home to arguably the country’s greatest game viewing, I decided I had to go and investigate these claims firsthand.
Upon arrival in southern Malawi we drove to the region’s largest city, Blantyre, where we replenished our food stocks and filled the vehicles up with fuel. After a couple of days in the big smoke we were chomping at the bit, eager to move on and investigate the so-called Majete miracle.
We set off along a well-signposted route down the escarpment and into the Lower Shire Valley. An hour into the journey the tar gave way to a decent gravel road that continued right up to the park gate. After hearing so much about it, I was excited to enter the reserve and discover if Majete really was the success story that people claimed, or whether it was just another little-known, under-funded and neglected slice of Africa.
Just inside the gate, with a pleasant location on the edge of a dry riverbed, is the recently constructed Majete community campsite, which offers a bar area, braai area, toilets and hot showers at a very reasonable price. However, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights in the comfort of unfenced Thawale Camp.
With its location deep inside the Majete sanctuary, overlooking a perennial waterhole, the camp was visited by a never-ending procession of animals. On the very first night we were treated to a great spectacle when a herd of 200 buffalo arrived in a cloud of dust and visited the floodlit waterhole. From a comfortable chair in Thawale’s open-sided lounge, we joked about whether it would even be necessary to take a game drive around Majete the next day.
Majete Wildlife Reserve was actually proclaimed as a protected area way back in 1955. However, due to a lack of resources, scouts were poorly equipped and unable to deal with the heavily-armed poachers of the 1980s. By the late-90s virtually all wildlife had been exterminated and Majete became, to all intents and purposes, a “paper park”.
Then, on 28 March 2003, African Parks Network (APN) made a 25-year commitment to manage the reserve and took over responsibility for the park from the Malawian government. Their goal was to resurrect the reserve and, in the process, return it from just a green spot on the map to a bona fide conservation area. The reintroduction of roughly 4000 animals (including elephants and black rhinos) fast-tracked Majete’s recovery and rapidly transformed it into one of the premier wildlife viewing destinations in Malawi.
If the quality of our first game drive was anything to go by, then the APN project appears to have been staggeringly successful. We drove a loop that skirted the edge of the Shire river before swinging west along the
Mkulumadzi river and then back south down Njati road. This gentle-paced, half-day game drive yielded the greatest diversity of herbivores that I’ve encountered on a single drive in many a year: buffalo, eland, zebra, sable, kudu, hartebeest, waterbuck, nyala, bushbuck, impala, duiker and warthog, not to mention plenty of honking hippos and a breeding herd of elephant frolicking in the river!
If at any stage you tire of game-viewing, take a drive across to nearby Kapichira falls where a well-located viewpoint overlooks a stunning section of cascading water on the Shire river. Nearby, a colossal baobab marks the spot where famous Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, erected his camp when he first visited the valley.
Our Land Cruiser and Hilux found all the roads and river crossings easy to negotiate and the 250km network of well-maintained game-viewing tracks would be accessible to any vehicle with reasonably high-clearance.
On arrival we were given a photocopied map of the sanctuary section of the reserve. Due to Majete’s position in the Shire valley, the terrain is rugged, and undulating, and the driving conditions could best be described as fun rather than challenging. The roads throughout this area are also well signposted to ensure self-drive 4×4 enthusiasts can find their way around without the necessity of taking a guide or the concern of becoming temporarily disorientated!
For the more adventurous, a day-trip to Majete hill in the heart of the reserve is highly recommended. It is mandatory to take a wildlife scout with you on this excursion. Once you leave the well-maintained and signposted roads of the sanctuary, he acts as a guide and also allows you the opportunity to stretch your legs with a one-hour climb to the summit of the hill for what are (apparently!) unparalleled views over the reserve.
We departed Thawale camp long before dawn with the plan to climb the hill at sunrise. The first hour of our journey was spent enjoying an early morning “night” drive, and we passed a hyena just outside the camp and also saw genet, civet and porcupine. The roads became a little more challenging as we entered the hilly terrain approaching Majete Hill, but nothing too serious. Elephants had also succeeded in blockading the road with uprooted trees but we managed to detour around the obstacles with relative ease. Unfortunately, a starless sky hinted at the fact that the weather gods might not be on our side, and the day dawned grey and overcast, robbing us of the much-vaunted view.
While we sat on the misty, damp summit, our wildlife officer cum guide, Tizola Moyo, tried valiantly to describe the spectacular views that lay obscured beneath the clouds. After an hour, without even a glimpse of what lay below, we decided to give up – we’ll just have to take your word for it, Moyo!
After this brief, and somewhat unsuccessful, taste of bush walking, I decided that I wanted to give it a second chance. Moyo’s suggestion of tracking elephants sounded exciting, as well as a little terrifying, and I opted to join five other brave souls for the pulse-racing opportunity to track an elephant bull on foot!
Our two armed-guides used a radio transceiver to help them pinpoint the location of a specific elephant, while we attempted to sneak through the bush as quietly as possible for a better view of the behemoth.
Nobody would disagree that elephants are huge animals but when you are on foot and a long way from your beloved vehicle they appear absolutely enormous. Watching and listening to that elephant strip nutritious bark off branches truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.