May 25, 2005
A Walk in the Park
One of the things that the Waynesburg group wanted to do while here in Malawi was see some of the natural beauty, so we scheduled a stop at Liwonde National Park. We stayed at Chinguni Hills Camp for two nights. The camp had only one beat up Land Rover, so we split the group in two for our night safari. Five went out the first night we were there and spotted hyenas, jackals, a civet cat, a hippo out of water and a meerkat. These were very unusual sightings, and the students were thrilled, but a bit disappointed that they did not see any elephants. (They did spot some the next day.)
I was in the second group of explorers. We climbed into the vehicle at around 9:30 p.m. We drove around the park with our guide and spotter (he swept the savannah and forest with a bright spotlight). We saw a mongoose and several gennet cats (which look like a cross between a raccoon and a housecat). There were also a few nightjars (nocturnal birds) flying around and impalas munching grass. Other than that, the Park was very quiet. Every once in a while the guide would stop and shut down the car. While his assistants would put water in the overheated radiator, he would point out constellations in the sky to us. There was a crescent moon shining, but it sank below the horizon as the night progressed, leaving a very dark night, and a spectacular view of the Milky Way. During one 15 minute period we saw five shooting stars.
Finally, at about 11:15 we found a small herd of elephants. We watched them tearing branches and eating for a few minutes and then turned off the lights of the car, and just listened. Researchers have discovered that the growling sounds of an elephant’s stomach are words and phrases that the pachyderms use to communicate. The sound can carry for as far as 10 miles. We sat enthralled, listening to the gurgling, and the sounds of the elephants tearing down low hanging branches, uprooting grass, and chewing noisily. It was fascinating. At one point an elephant trumpeted loudly, very close to the car, and we jumped in our seats. It was a remarkable experience.
After that, we began to head back to the camp, but about three miles from our destination the vehicle ran out of gas. We tried to rock the rover to get the remaining fuel into the engine, but it did not work. One of the first things you are told when entering a National Park, is never to leave your vehicle, so you can imagine our consternation when the guide said, “Okay, everybody, climb out of the truck and we will walk back to the camp. If you have a torch (flashlight) DO NOT turn it on! I will take it away from you if you do. (It makes the elephants angry.) I will walk 15 meters in front of the group. You must be absolutely quiet so I can hear the animals. If I say, ‘stop’ then you must stop immediately. If I say ‘retreat,’ then run in the direction we just came from as fast as you can. Do not talk at all or make noise.”
Well, we were in a state of shock as we climbed out of the car. Only one of the five of us had runners (sneakers) on. The rest of us were wearing flip flops and sandals. It was pitch black out. I glanced overhead and could see the stars twinkling brightly. The Southern Cross was like a beacon, but it was so dark that when I held my hand up about a foot from my face, I could barely see it. Fortunately the road was covered with white gravel, and we could make that out. The trees and bushes were grey blobs, as were the elephants - and there were elephants all around us. Almost as soon as we started walking, we began to hear them munching along the sides of the road. At one point, Katie, a senior elementary education major, jumped when she heard a loud noise about five feet from where we were walking. Fortunately that elephant was more interested in the tree he was tearing apart than in us.
The road was littered with fresh elephant dung. We knew that there were large numbers of animals all around us. Several times Darren (the guide) would shout, “Halt!” We froze in our tracks while he engaged in a shouting match (using elephant sounds) with one or more of the huge animals. When the elephants had moved out of our way, he would say, “Walk!” and we would hurry along again. At one point, after telling us to stop, he said, “Okay, now move quickly through this area.” I don’t have to tell you that we practically ran for the next half mile. We could hear elephants on both sides of the road.
One of the other girls was terrified and cried quietly the whole time. I held her hand as we stumbled along. The rest of us were frightened, but we, as strange as it sounds, enjoyed the adventure. I tried to remember every detail. One of the things that I will always remember about the walk, was the strong, earthy smell of the elephants. It would come at us in waves as we passed the animals. The dung, which we somehow managed to avoid in our open toed shoes, also filled the night air with a pungent fragrance, but it was very different from the elephant’s breath.
Finally, we could see the paraffin lanterns glowing at the lodge (there is no electricity). At that point, we turned off the road and hiked up several hundred yards along an elephant path (what else?) through the bush. Our guide permitted us to turn on our flashlights at this point.
When we reached the campsite at 12:30 a.m., we stopped to catch our breath. Our guide left, and we thought that we should have a group hug and say a prayer of thanksgiving before entering the dormitory where we were all sleeping. To say that we were all still feeling an adrenalin rush is an understatement. We briefly recounted the experience with each other before going into the dorm. One of the students said, “And I thought the nature walk was scheduled for the morning!” Another quipped, “It is morning.” As we began to wake up the others in our group to tell them about our adventure, they noted, “You all smell like elephants!” We believed it.
Some of us did not sleep well that night. Not only were we still recounting each moment of the walk in our heads, but the elephants must have followed us, because all night we could hear them very close to the cabin. I don’t know how to interpret elephant sounds, but they did not sound too happy about the fact that we had invaded their turf.
By morning the herd had moved miles down the valley and we watched them through binoculars grazing on the river grass.
All of us agreed that it was an experience that we would remember for the rest of our lives.