Liwonde National Park, Malawi

In southern Malawi there is a park known as Liwonde.  We drive into the park the night of Halloween, having seen not a single costume that day, but instead: roadside markets with neatly stacked piles of tiny shiny fish, buckets of dry beans, oil in reused plastic bottles, mangoes and custard apples, the Zambezi river, children selling peanut brittle out of woven baskets, and the varied landscapes of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi.  Zimbabwe is on fire, Mozambique has more baobab trees, and Malawi has mountains.  At the roadside market in Mozambique, people stroll along the roads in brightly printed fabrics doing their daily shopping while the soundtrack of an Asian action movie crackles out of a distorted speaker coming from behind a billowy curtain hung on the door of a mud brick house.  A few hours from the Mozambique border we enter Liwonde.

I find it suspenseful to arrive at a campsite at night because of the mystery of the landscape and the surprises one finds with the morning sun.  Tyler, Julio, and I set up a tent while Patrick sleeps outside.  We are amazed with what we can see that night.  We are in hills.  Between the bare branches of trees, moonlight reflects off the white-barked trees (star chesnut) and far below us a flat plain stretches to the horizon.

In the morning we are pleased to have a sharpened view of the vast, dry plain that sandwiches the Shire River, topped with dark blue mountains on the distant horizon.  We go on a canoe trip.  An old man, whose pants are neatly stitched along the seat seam, paddles us out on the river.  He tells us a bit about the wildlife and answers our questions but otherwise remains calm and serene.  Herds of water buck and impala graze in the wetlands and a few clusters of tall palms dot the otherwise flat landscape.  Water buck are husky antelopes with stout bodies and shaggy fur.  They have white circles around their tails that look like the creator had it out for them and drew targets on their rears.  But really, the white circles help them stay with the herd when they run from predators.  White egrets fly by, and a Gigantic Heron stands on one foot, watching us.  I am watching it with utmost anticipation, waiting for a bird that massive to go into flight, but it doesn’t budge.  The old man paddles the canoe down to where the hippos live and we watch the surly beasts bob in the water, eyes and noses peering over the surface.  On our way out of the park we hear about a massively old baobab tree, something like 1500 years old.  Next time, we tell ourselves, to dissipate the disappointment of missing out on such a gem of nature when we are so close.

Luckily enough for me, there was a next time, and even better, it was during the rainy season.  After I finished the project in Nsumbi village, Henk and I hitched a ride out to Liwonde, and would visit Peter and Marisca who live there.  We saw them a couple weeks prior for New Years’ where we sat on the beach in Monkey Bay and watched the moon pass through the sky as the earth turned into 2010.  This time it is Marisca, not Peter, who is sick with malaria and for the 8th time in 8 months.  Peter wants to send her back to South Africa to recuperate but he has to wait until she is well enough to travel.  Peter rushes around making sure the guests are sorted before taking us on a drive to look for game.  Wood smoke plumes into the air from the hot water heater- a fire under a metal drum.  The forest is thick and green.

The wildlife in Liwonde are a bit cagey, as the park is bordered by millions of people.  Malawi is a tiny country, with nearly 14 million people.  Last year, nearly 13 people died in Liwonde, from animal encounters.  Note to self, do not go on the walking tour!  Find an elephant on a bad day and you are in trouble.

This time the green has exploded and the foliage creates a feeling of being enclosed and protected by nature, masking the scenery we saw so easily through the white bark branches in the moonlight 2 months prior.  Peter drives a beat up Land Rover that’s older than he is and which hasn’t had working brakes in over a year.  He’s perfected the art of driving without brakes.  Amazing.  We drive down the hills and out on the wetland plain, this time along the trees and into the forest.  Peter is taking us to the ancient baobab!  It’s not 1500 years old, it is three thousand, eight hundred years old!  3,800 years old, a tree!  We come around a bend and it’s there, holding down the fort while other trees go nearby.  It is alive.  Its arms reach up and out, not incredibly tall, but thick.  Two limbs rest against each other for balance.  Wrinkled skin gathers around the joints but it exudes vitality.  The base of it is 38 meters in circumference.  We spend some time with the tree, walking around it, hugging it, touching the wounds the elephants have scraped which expose its fibrous innards.  A tree is growing from a chalice within it where the limbs grow out from the trunk.  We hug and love it.

JRR Tolkein used to come to Malawi as a child.  He visited Liwonde and saw this tree.  He was inspired by this landscape and it shows in his fantastic, magical writings.

There is another tree Peter wants to show us.  The leprosy tree.  This one is situated in a natural grove of trees, with more open green space in the landscape than around old man adansonia digitata.  This baobab isn’t nearly as majestic as the previous one.  It is oddly shaped as if it is keeled over from a belly ache.  There is a massive slit running up the trunk of it and it bulges around back.  Peter hoists himself up, bracing with his hands, and lowers his head to have a look.  Come see, he tells us, handing us a light.  I climb up and stick my head in.  Shining the light, I see a human skull.  A few bones gather dust next to it.  Peter tells us that people call it the leprosy tree because they used to toss the bodies of lepers into it.  Its trunk bulges from digesting the bodies of many people.  It has lesions and sores on its bark.  This is Liwonde.

8 Responses to “Liwonde National Park, Malawi”
  1. Eytan says:

    10 Meter diameter tree. Wow. Now that puts even the redwoods in perspective…
    And the thought of a tree digesting people. There was this tree near a fence in the neighborhood where I lived in Waltham, MA. They cut a branch off it to erect the fence. Two years later, the fence had been subsumed by the tree.
    I love the power of nature, whether to inspire Ents in a mind like Tolkein’s or inspire stories in the mind of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to stand strong longer than any other living being (like the Baobab you saw or the Redwoods in CA).
    It gives me hope that no matter how much we squander the beautiful natural resources that define this planet, it will eventually reclaim it all from us.

    People have to get away from thinking we are trying to save the planet by keeping climate change down. We are trying to save ourselves. The planet will find its way back just fine without us, thank you.

    Thanks for a great read again. Did you take any pictures of this Baobab?

  2. David Frierman says:

    Me too, I want pictures of that Baobab…

  3. sorry people, i don’t have photos of these trees so you’ll just have to use your imagination (or try googling) until the next time i go. i would’ve photographed them, but my camera broke.

  4. Henk says:

    Somewhere you should find the leprosy tree as well. No, no really, no need to thank me at all… I’m trying to develop a good karma, thats what it is.

  5. thanks for that, henk. um, i think you might want to read up a little bit about karma.

    here’s a link directly to the photo:

  6. Eytan says:

    Thanks for the photo. The trees are even more awesome than I imagined. Wild. I love how that bark is so torn off by the elephant tusks! Wow!

  7. Parag says:

    Liwonde national park malawi is Malawi’s famous rivrerine park situated on the banks of Shire River featuring Africa’s big five. This park is unique as it is the only park that contains population of Lilian’s lovebird in Malawi.

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