Wildlife of Malawi: A ride on the wild side

From amateur twitching to hair-raising elephant encounters, get up close and personal with Malawi's furred and feathered creatures

6 mins

Most of us can do silly voices. My "wow'nd the wagg'ed wock, the wagg'ed wascal wan" works just fine. I get as far as 'wock' and my friends - well, at least the drunker ones - are already giggling. "Oh, yeah, Jonathan Woss," they laugh, "...excellent."

And you're probably the same. I bet your Tommy Cooper or your Tony Blair take-off is 'excellent' too. But, in the African dawn, we just couldn't get the impersonation - or, more accurately, the 'im-animal-ation' - thing right. Gill threw her head back and gave vent to a wild gargling and retching sound. "It was a bit like that," she said, looking round at us all defiantly, "though, maybe a bit deeper."

Actually, 'it' had been nothing at all like 'that'. I knew because I'd been woken the previous night, my first in Malawi, by the same sound. Slipping out from under the mosquito net I'd walked out onto my veranda and stared into the surrounding darkness. We'd arrived at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve earlier that day and I'd listened obediently to David Foot of Nyika Safaris, our host and guide, as he explained camp rules. "Don't wander around after dark, and if you're going from here..." (we were under the high thatched roof of the open dining 'room') "...to your cabin, then use your torch because elephants and buffalo will come up into the camp and you won't see them... not until it's too late."

So, I was awake but the night had fallen back to near silence. Insect noises. A rustle of leaves. Then a deep reverberation - not particularly loud - but as if somebody was sawing their way through a plank of wood, right next to my cabin. And at breakfast, I was trying to recreate that sound. I tried for a deep, stop-start rumbling from my chest. David was unimpressed. "You almost sound like a lion, but lions are very unlikely here. You probably heard a baboon or an elephant. In fact, from the noise you're making, it's bloody difficult to know what you heard."

Walk with the animals

Once breakfasted we set off to walk along the shore of Lake Kazuni. This was our chance to see hippo, elephant, kudu and hundreds of bird species before heading up to the totally different fauna and landscape of the Nyika heights.

That first night, over drinks around the campfire, we had watched as a group of elephants drifted past the camp in the dark. Totally silent and no more than the blackest of shapes in almost pitch blackness, silhouetted against the slightly less black waters of the lake, there was all the excitement of Africa in the elephants' ghostly movement. Now, in the daylight, we were coming across less mysterious signs of their passing. Balls of dung like strawy footballs, and footprints, each no more than the faintest dimple in the dust, as if a heavy but soft sack of grain had been plumped down for a moment.

In walking the bush with David, I soon realised that the elephant and other 'big' species were merely the most visible part of Africa - the 'LARGE PRINT' version of the smaller fauna. So, whereas even Alan (a keen ornithologist) dismissed whole drab and sparrow-like species as LBJs - 'little brown jobs' - David's genius lay in firing up our interest in even the smallest of creatures with his enthusiasm and knowledge. "My favourite bird ever!" he'd explode as his Zeiss's caught some scrap of feathery rareness trying to sneak past without being spotted, "did you see it? Look, in there." All of us would swing round to stare into the indicated tangle of leaves and twigs, and then suddenly feel the thrill of spotting the jeweller's colours of an orange breasted bush shrike, or a plum coloured starling. Or even an LBJ.

Not that the bigger mammals lost their attraction. As we stepped from the bush back into the camp after that first morning's walk, our guide suddenly beckoned us over "Here! Lion prints. Two of them, last night - they stopped at the back of the cabins." Gill and I caught each other's eyes, looked smugly across at David, and immediately reprised our chorus of deep, coughing gargles that had so unimpressed him at breakfast.

On our last day in the Vwaza we experienced far more tuneful noises at Chigwere Cultural Lodge. Women in bright chitenjas hymned a welcome to us, while a spirit dancer - a red-eyed, Jagger-esque strutter in a head-dress of exotic feathers - kicked and pouted his way to the sound of thrumming drums.

'Pure Lady Bracknell'

Arriving back to the calm of camp we set off in the jeep for an evening game-spotting drive. As we rounded a corner we were suddenly, unexpectedly, amongst elephant. Seven of them. The largest cow was a tetchy and amply proportioned beast with a down-turned tusk and, it would seem, a dislike of jeeps disturbing her evening browse. Or possibly just a dislike of everything. As David stopped the jeep, she looked over. I could clearly see the elephant's expression - pure Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. "A jeep!" she trumpeted, "a JEeee'eeeEEP!" and trundled into a stately but horrifyingly swift trot towards us, trunk raised like a truncheon and ears flapping.

Then, less than a baboon's leap away from us, the elephant stopped dead. Giving us a last look;, she flounced round and stalked off with an air of contented bad temper as if she was a narky woman who'd just successfully argued a cash refund on a faulty kettle.

Realising that I'd been far more worried than seemed to have been necessary I tried sounding as if elephants ran at me every day. "For a mock charge," I gasped at David, "that seemed pretty half-hearted." David looked at me as if he'd finally established that I really was an idiot. "No, no," his voice was steady, "for a mock charge, that was very full-hearted." From everybody else there was stunned silence as we watched the group of elephants, peaceful now, disappear off into the dusk.

The climb up to the Nyika Plateau the next morning was an ascension to another world. As the jeep ground its way up the red dirt track we left behind the heat and the tangled bush of the lowlands. Climbing higher, the brachystegia woodland thinned from a thick, matted gloom to a mere scribble of trees and then faded away altogether. At nearly 2,000m above sea level the grasslands of the plateau rolled on before us until they dropped off into Zambia.

It's popular to compare the Nyika highlands to Scotland's heights. Or to Exmoor. Or to the South Downs. And there are bits like all of them. Benign and curvaceous landscapes fuzzed by bracken, verdant undulating hills or slopes of golden grasses running to the horizon. But it's like Europe's prehistoric landscape; a primeval country, almost untouched by humans, seemingly floating high above and separate from the rest of Africa.

With most of the plateau's 3,000sqkms only accessible to travellers on foot or hoof, David brought his first horses up onto the plateau in 1993 to run camping safaris; later, he and his wife, Robyn, took over the running of the newly built Chelinda Lodge. We pulled up at the lodge just in time for lunch.

To merely produce a sardine sandwich up on the Nyika, where the nearest shops are many, many hours of off-road driving away, requires a significant amount of forward planning and a fair bit of skill in the kitchen. But Robyn and her staff had produced a high-piled buffet table. It was hard to imagine greater comfort in a remoter place. But the food, the wines, the luxury of our cabins with their log fires, comfy armchairs and huge beds only made the next morning's early start harder.

So we were already running late when we arrived at the stables. Drew Williams, who'd spent 12 years in the Household Cavalry before coming out to the Nyika, allocated us horses with a practised eye. I was riding Phinga Nvula – 'Rainbow' - one of a bunch of well-bred horses that used to run wild on a farm in Zimbabwe.

Phinga retained plenty of independence from her years of freedom, making her an effortless ride. Specifically, she wasn't about to fall into holes hidden under the bracken, wander into a bog or merely trip over her own legs, so I could relax and look across the landscape.

A landscape that gave me a strange feeling, because I was finding it hard to come to terms with the untouched naturalness of the Nyika. My mind kept trying to see abandoned fields in the Nyika’s plains, Stonehenges in its rocks and overgrown orchards in the scrubland. It was one of the most human-free worlds I'd ever experienced. Even the paths we were following had been laid down, not by generations of jogging bipeds, but by the movement of eland, duiker, bushbuck and zebra. "As well as by elephant now," David pointed out, "since a herd moved up onto the plateau a few years back."

It was late in the afternoon when we came down into the camp at Lutete. A row of large, cream canvas tents overlooked a small yellow-grassed valley. "It's just like a village fête," Michael announced as we rode the horses to a rope corral, "though without the bouncy castle."

A village fête wouldn't have had camp beds with sheets and blankets though, nor hot-water bottles. But a fête might conceivably have had the same range of cakes that Joe, the miracle-working camp cook, had conjured up from his wood fire, and laid out on a table. Right next to the Jameson's whiskey, Malawi gin and cooled beer.

As the sun set and the evening chilled we gathered around the log fire with drinks, while one by one, people slipped off to shower in hot water tumbling from a Heath-Robinson bucket and sprinkler system behind a screen. After dinner talk was a relaxed chewing over of the day's ride.

Diana was enthralled by the landscape; "I've ridden in Kazakstan, Finland, South Africa, Mongolia..." the list went on, "...but there's nothing to compare to the scenery here." Alan was singing the praises of his horse Emma; "I couldn't believe her stamina - 32km and then a 2km gallop." Gill was bullying us to bring the 'bird list' up to date.

Hooves in the highlands

The following days of riding drifted away from clock time and, rather, were measured out in stops for Thermos tea, and taking our 'sundowners' around the fire at the new campsites. Or marked by an explosion of blue monkeys through the trees of a small valley, or a long gallop above the western escarpment where the Nyika dropped straight down into Zambia and the smoke from fires far below poured upwards like airy waterfalls. Or counted off in swimming and climbing through the tumbling waters of the Chisanga Gorge.

And, always, the horses allowed us to get closer to the wildlife than we could have done on foot. So, we drifted close to herds of Crawshay's zebra, rode past more than a hundred grazing eland and stood immobile as a group of the rare and nervous roan antelope gave in to their curiosity and approached us.

In these close encounters and dramatic surrounds we were fulfilling a dream that Laurens Van der Post recounted in his 1949 Venture to the Interior. Unsettled by the primeval 'Englishness' of the landscape, he dreamt himself mounted on a black horse in a field of irises and setting off 'at a fast thundering pace across the purple folds of the Nyika.' And he added, 'I seemed as content as it is possible to be'.

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