Zomba plateau towered in the distance as we got ready to board the boat, tied to a rickety wooden pier on the banks of the Shire (pronounced Shee-reh) River at the back of the hotel. Our small run-about had a plywood canopy that needed a haircut, the outboard motor started with a piece of string.
The Shire was the drainage outlet of Lake Malawi, collecting its overflow and funnelling it down to the Zambezi further south, which then finished its east to west run through southern Africa through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean. It was thus a conduit from a great lake to a great river.
The section of the shire north of Liwonde formed the centrepiece of Liwonde National Park. This was Juliette’s best chance to see some African fauna while she was with us so I hoped it turned out well for her. It was also Malawi Independence Day, and it felt appropriate to be seeing one of the country’s jewels on such a day.
Local fishermen dotted the river, using handlines out of dugout canoes or nets out of small fishing boats. The river, more than a hundred metres wide, flowed in a steady stream, lined by papyrus, reed grass and the floating flowering hyacinth. Behind the grass walls, the baobabs, candelabras and the grasping snake trees sat under the Chinguni hills, the home of so many of the animals of the park. Off in the distance, the massif of the Zomba plateau was adorned by a necklace of white cloud.
Hamerkop, pied and malachite kingfishers, and black-billed heron filled the reeds and glided over the silky waters. Fish eagles circled above. An open- billed stork tip toed in some shallows near a large crocodile. Hippos bobbed up and slid down on the river edges, their pink ears flicking, nostrils snorting, and eyes fixed on the noisy craft in their patch.
Sam liked the hippos. Sam always liked the hippos.
He followed his impersonation with a raspberry; hippos probably did fart a lot. Juliette and our guides laughed.
We reached the turnaround point for the boat; this would be as far into the park as we would venture. I had hoped to see some elephants. We soon spied two near the bank. As our boat approached, it became evident there was a herd of a dozen, which all proceeded to drink from the river right in front of us, decorated with argo egrets, the birds’ white feathers contrasting with the deep grey hides. Sam giggled, Juliette gawked, and I was happy for both their sakes.
That evening Jules, a terrific football player and big fan, and I sat in the bar of the hostel and watched a game between the Malawi Flames and Uganda, being held to celebrate the national day. Sam chilled in the room with his DS. Malawi pulled a win out in dramatic fashion with a goal in the final minutes.
The crowd in the bar went nuts, and the crowd in the stadium did likewise, but went nuts in such a Malawian fashion, swaying in unison and dancing, each row swinging in turn in opposite directions. How do they do that? The pitch was invaded by thousands and celebratory flares were set off in the stands. It had been a good 51st Malawi Independence Day.
The next day, driving up through the national park, the riverbank was scattered with impala, warthog and waterbuck. Yellow baboons stopped beside the road, incredulous at our vehicle, and furious at our presence. A giant ancient baobab, scarred by elephants who had feasted on its bark, spread its beams across the canopy, defying all to challenge its authority.
‘What do you think of the big baobab Sam?’
‘It’s in Lord of The Rings.’
Really? I had to think, but then realised. He was referring to the Ents, the talking trees.
A forest of mopane, green, gold and auburn, its delicate foliage rustling in a breeze off the river, gave way to a landscape brutalised by elephants, with the fractured remains of everything but the Ents scattered on the mud. A battlefield under the baobabs.
Sam quizzed Jules about Super Mario Brothers; she was a new recipient of his rhetorical questions. We discussed whether we would throw Sam in the river with the hippos.
‘But Sam, you like the hippos.’
‘But I don’t want to swim with them.’
The next morning, looking over the river at breakfast we said goodbye to the Shire hippos and lugged our backpacks up the dirt road. The three musketeers sang the theme song to Harry Potter as we trundled along, up to the God Is Wonderful hardware store to minibus our way to Zomba.