At Vwaza Marsh, Things That Go Bump in the Night

Monday, July 31, 2006 | Vwaza Wildlife Reserve, Malawi

Prey aplenty inhabits Vwaza Marsh.
Our packed minibus flew southward down the highway as the sun rose off to the left, highlighting the mountains of Mozambique which sloped up from the far shore of the lake.

Malawi’s own craggy hills jutted upwards to rival them, and we drove along the cliffs' base, passing through small coastal farming and fishing communities. Thanks to its small size, Malawi was able to maintain a network of smooth, well-sealed roads, something that had been very evidently lacking in Tanzania.

We crossed over several streams trickling down the mountainsides. Children were bathing and women washing clothes—two activities in which, like elsewhere in Africa, Malawi’s men seemed to show remarkably little interest. In every country I have visited on the continent, the women carried much of the burden of caring and providing for their families, hefting full water jugs, bales of
firewood, or baskets of bananas, walking miles with babies on their back. Their toned shoulders are often as muscled as their husbands’, a feature which, rather than tarnishing their almost beauty, actually enhanced it.

In the little one-road town of Rumphi, I bought a few groceries before hopping into the back of a pickup to head the last 25 kilometers over dirt roads to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, known for its large populations of hippos and elephants. I tumbled out of the truck at the park gates and paid my $5 entrance fee before heading to the hut where I would stay. Without a candle, I had nothing to do but sleep once the sun set, so I headed to bed around 7:00 PM.

A hyena’s cackle woke me at 1:30, from the clearing outside my hut, and suddenly the hut’s grass walls didn’t seem so substantial anymore. The four or five thick blankets I had laid over me to ward off the frigid night air would probably offer as much protection from the animals as the rooms’ flimsy walls would, I realized. I lay in bed, listening to the beasts grunt and shuffle around in the underbrush a few meters from me.

My body already well rested after bedding down early, and now charged with adrenaline, I sat tensely in bed for the rest of the night, listening to the hyenas. Around 4:00, from the nearby treetops a leopard let out its rasping call, like a wood saw chewing through a plank.

Soon after the sun rose I set out in a safari car for a guided morning drive. We saw water buffalo, the ever-present impalas, a few baboons, vervet monkeys and two elusive species of large antelope, the kudu and puku. Large families of hippos squatted in the muddy waters like partially submerged boulders, wiggling their tiny ears and spouting jets of water from their nostrils in warning. In the roadway we saw the telltale evidence of several other species: huge grassy piles of elephant manure, the fur-filled droppings of a leopard, and a hyena’s dung, white from the bones on which they feed.

The spacious park adjoined one in nearby Zambia, and that, I was told, was where the elephants had probably migrated in search of more abundant food and water. At other times of the year, the elephants were known to come right into the park campsites and feed within a few meters of visitors. Thus my obsession with elephants had brought me here, but in the end, my closest encounter in Vwaza Marsh was in the pitch black with a few beasts that would be far happier feeding on us visitors than near us.

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