Friday afternoon we began the trek from Lilongwe to Liwonde Safari Camp. Our car, small but mighty, was filled with road trip essentials – snacks, beverages, and a collection of road worthy tunes. The spaces between the snacks and luggage were filled by the five of us who decided that the best way to spend our weekend was sardined with new friends on a road trip covering hundreds of kilometres of the Malawain countryside.
Once we left the Lilongwe city limits, the driving was as straight forward as possible; travel south on the same road until reaching Liwonde Safari Camp. The road, potholed and worn, was full of accidental speedbumps, several makeshift police speed checks, and incredible views of mountains, farmlands, and seemingly endless expanses of Africa. We passed small villages and markets stuffed full of people buying and selling fresh produce, lumber, and various other wares. Bicyclists and pedestrians shared the streets with small herds of goats. Slowing down as we passed through particularly populated stretches of the road, we were greeted with big smiles and waving children.
We arrived at the camp just as the sun was beginning to set. Even with the failing light we could tell we had picked an exceptional camp. Our first stop on our tour was the bar where we needed to check in. The bar, open to the surrounding wilderness and lit by candlelight, was extremely inviting and cozy. A mountain of books were shelved next to the bar, with several oversized cushion covered benches almost begging me to plop down and read for a few hours.
Sleeping quarters were next on the tour. On the short trek to our room we passed the kitchen and eating area (also lit by candles), the amply sized showers with extremely hot water, the bathrooms, and the observation deck where we would spend most of our evening. Finally, located on the edge of camp was our five person hut. Inside were five very comfortable single beds adorned with mosquito nets, and sufficient blankets to keep me warm and mosquito free all night long. Justeen and Sarina (who are here as student interns with WUSC) took the two beds to the right, while me, Dylan (Justeen’s South African friend, and our driver for the weekend), and Jon took the remaining three; a half wall dividing the room by gender.
After settling in we made our way to the observation deck where we met five other travellers – Tom, Donovan, Chloe, Kasey, and Steph – whom had been in Malawi for several months as part of the Engineers Without Borders program. With introductions complete, our group of five quickly became a group of ten. As we learned more about each other, we discovered that all but one of us were Canadian (although Dylan had studied at the University of Victoria), Tom and Jon worked in the same office here in Malawi, and Chloe and Sarina shared the same very good friend back home in Ottawa, and yet had to travel around the world to meet in Malawi.
Later in the eve after our bellies were full, we returned to the observation deck on recommendation of one of the camp staff. We were told to approach the deck quietly and carefully as elephants were close by. At this point the sun was long gone, so my ability to see anything more than grey was quite limited, even despite the light the moon provided. As we stood on the deck straining to see beyond what our eyes would allow, we could hear from several directions the sounds of numerous elephants munching on tree branches and leaves. With every branch being ripped from the trees, I would attempt to refocus my eyes in the direction of the noise. Eventually the rest of the group was pointing in various directions, identifying individual elephants they could see. I still saw nothing, but I could hear them and that was incredibly rewarding on its own.
As the minutes ticked by it became clearer that the elephants were heading in our direction. I waited, anxiously hoping that they’d get close enough that I could see them. And then, just like that, an elephant came into view maybe 25-30 feet away. It stopped in its track, very clearly sizing us up. Shaking its head and snorting, it decided we were either not a threat or not worth its time. It turned and continued munching away. I stood there in awe watching it, the light of the moon making its tusks shine brightly against the relative darkness of the trees on which it was dining. I stood there in disbelief that I was so close to such a beautiful and majestic beast. I stood there overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and fortune that I was afforded the privilege of this experience.
I fell into bed last night very happy, reminding myself for the millionth time that I’m actually in Africa. I’m still not convinced that it has really sunk in.
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