I’m lying on hot wood. Cormorant droppings stain the edges and the occasional insect scuttles past. The sun is high in the sky, but the hippos in front of me are unconcerned. Working their way across the lagoon, a mother and her calf munch on weeds with an almost mechanical rhythm. Cattle egrets perch on their backs, as they splash through shallow water. Peering through my camera, I focus on the mother.
Then, suddenly, action erupts. A nearby male strays too close to the pair. The mother launches a furious attack. She surges forward, jaws wide apart. The male responds with a lunge and their heads clash. He is larger, but she is angrier. The waters splash and torn weeds fly up and out, as they trade snapping thrusts with their enormous heads. Their long curving teeth strike glancing blows, threatening to gouge dark-pink skin.
After a few vicious seconds, the male retreats, clearly not relishing the fight.
At a distance, they lock eyes for several minutes, their bodies tense and glistening, ready for the next round. Eventually, all three relax and slowly return to filling their rotund bellies with weeds.
Calm embraces the lagoon, as the hippos once again masquerade as peace-loving herbivores.
I’m at Mvuu Lodge, in Liwonde National Park, in Malawi. In Chichewa, the local language, “mvuu” means hippo. And the choice of name could not be apter. Beyond the recent battleground of the lagoon lies the Shire River, where countless more pods of hippos float just beneath the surface, only eyes and nostrils protruding.
This spectacular scene has unfolded right in front of the lodge, just before I set off by boat. Stepping aboard, it feels anticlimactic. The serenity and beauty of the riverine landscape are captivating, but they hardly compare with the adrenalin-fuelled clash of minutes earlier.
But the fight is forgotten as I head upriver. Tall palms line the banks and David, my guide, says, “There are two palm species here – one native and one introduced by Arab traders. The white staining that you see on their fronds is from roosting cormorants. They always use the same trees, so their droppings build up over time.”
This bright white deposit coats the leaves of numerous trees along the river, not just palms, and it contrasts vividly with the lush greens of this verdant park.
As the boat heads further up the river, the sun slowly begins to set.
Turning the rippling water golden orange, it is squeezed between a ceiling of cloud and the Rift Escarpment. The engine of the boat cuts out and we glide over the fiery, dancing water. Dragging my eyes away from the beautiful sunset, I look towards the east.
My vision takes a few seconds to adjust, but my ears pick up the sounds of splashing and tearing.
As the lights dancing over my eyes fade, I spot the source of the noise. A vast herd of elephants – at least 60 individuals – is positioned in the reeds beside the bank. Stationary, they are slowly ripping out huge clumps of vegetation with their trunks. Still dripping wet, these are skillfully deposited into their mouths.
The boat slides into the reeds, almost noiselessly coming to a stop. By now, the last light is fading. Photography impossible, I sit there watching the nearest elephants at work, with the sounds of dozens more filling the darkness. It is both relaxing and compelling. But slowly night descends and even the closest elephants become little more than dark, shifting outlines.
The following morning, we swap water for wheels and I head out on a morning game drive, into the interior of the park.
David is again at the wheel, as he guides our 4×4 down a succession of winding tracks. We pass between invasive palms, through dense mopane woodland and beneath ancient baobabs.
Eventually, we come out on a beautiful savannah, punctuated by pinnacle-like termite mounds, dark brown against the rich green. Male impalas roar and clash horns, fighting over a harem, as a family of warthogs dart for cover. We drive over the grassland and towards a large, isolated tree with a pale, almost greenish trunk.
Stepping out of the vehicle, David places his palm on the tree and brings it away. “Look at that.” He says. And I see fine, yellowish dust coating his hands. “This coating protects the chlorophyll found in the tree’s bark. Unlike in most trees, photosynthesis occurs in the bark of the fever tree and not in the leaves.”
He pauses, “Do you know where it gets its name?”
I shake my head and David continues, “The first explorers in Africa used to think that camping beneath these trees caused malaria. They were wrong, of course. The problem was that fever trees mainly grow near water, where mosquitoes breed. In fact, the bark of the fever tree contains quinine and can actually be used to treat malaria.”
Absorbing this flawed colonial logic, I stare out across the savannah and wonder what the first visitors to Liwonde would have made of it. Fever trees aside, the beautiful scenery would have surely have amazed them. Even now, looking around, I feel a sense of isolation and privilege. David and I have this sight to ourselves.
Of course, things are changing; Liwonde is now under the management of African Parks. An NGO redefining conservation in Africa, African Parks is ambitious in its holistic, rejuvenating approach to park management. Already, cheetahs have been re-introduced to Liwonde and the first pair of lions arrived just a few weeks before me.
With the return of these predators, the park’s profile will increase. And African Parks will get the plaudits it certainly deserves. But part of me – a very small, selfish part – does not want the secret of Liwonde to get out. Because here there is a luxury that is incredibly precious. In this beautiful, undisturbed landscape, I don’t feel like a tourist; I still feel like an explorer.