Cockerels, Elephants and Baobab trees

by Amy Nicholass, University of Southampton Master Student

My experience of Malawi is of two landscapes, the human settled areas and the wilder Liwonde National Park, protected from human encroachment. The contrasts are evident across all the sights and sounds.

Cockerels seem to me to be abundant in southern Malawi.  The ‘cockadoodledo’ is frequently heard throughout the day. This has become such a familiar part of my Malawian sound-scape that their absence from the time-frozen Liwonde National Park was noticeable. Zomba and village life are full of music from singing, radios, churches and mosque calls. In Liwonde National Park we were responsible for the most noise. Our minibus clunking over the uneven trail accompanied by our excited muffled squeals when we saw elephants and other species we were proud to spot amongst the dense undergrowth or could pick out from their successful camouflage in the soft, fine grasses that hide them as they lie and chew the cud. When the engine stopped, the variety of bird calls and rustling of grasses and leaves were loud and we would listen with concentration hoping to hear hippo or elephants. Experiencing an elephant trumpeting was an intimidating sound, a natural version of the honking minibus and taxi drivers we more commonly experience in civilization perhaps?

In Zomba town, huge trees line the main road, shading the pathways and breaking up their uneven, rusty red surfaces with roots, as if improvising steps for the traveller more accustomed to smooth tarmac. These trees of cathedral proportion are however, the exception. Even massive root balls are dug out of the ground here to burn as charcoal. In the village forests trees over toddler age are hard to come by but shade and fruit producing mangoes are decades old in cropland and by homes. Exotic, fast growing eucalyptus trees oust natives from the forests and provide perfect firewood and building material a stone’s throw from front doors. Driving through Liwonde National Park I was in awe of the diversity of native tree species I had not yet seen, clearly reaching their potential. Full canopies spread wide, at ease with their neighbours of varying shades of green and yellow, interspersed with trees of pure white and naked of leaves, appearing starkly skeletal amongst the vibrant colour. Then there are the majestic, yet clumsy looking baobab trees. Having only seen one in a village, to see them in number sporadically spaced across the horizon like stocky grey sentinels watching out for invasion over the grassland far below, them made a lasting impression upon me.

© Marcus & Kate Westberg – © Marcus & Kate Westberg

I now understand why they are referred to as the ‘upside down tree’. It really does seem like they were dropped from a height and the trunk plunged into the ground crown-first with the bare roots reaching out into the sky. These seemed to me to be the elephants of the tree world and some were copper in colour, slightly iridescent with climbing lianas as thick as a man’s arm connecting them to nearby trees that appear strangled as if by a python. Village trees are often sparse and uniform in arrangement for ease of human use. The wild trees in Liwonde find their own patterns and there is a distinct lack of bananas and citrus trees. Pathways are forced through the undergrowth by elephant brute force rather than sheer numbers of humans or their machete skills. Whereas trees in villages have their bark removed in small patches for medicinal use or are cut in places for building materials for people, in the park baobabs can seem perhaps gutted by scratching elephants that shred outer layers of bark to reveal the pale innards. Colourful flowers are more apparent in the Zomba and the villages, Liwonde perhaps bursting into colour when the rains come again.

As we wound along the Liwonde park trail we passed through several different habitats, some with thick, dense woodland that could hide a family of elephants and you have to double take a large grey rock just in case it moves. Interspersed was an area of more open woodland. Next we happened across a stunning wide, open vista of shimmering lake and wetland with warthogs, wading hippos and distant bathing elephants, perfectly framed with palm trees.  Impressive termite mounds crop up all over the place in the park but are less frequent on the villages as they apparently use the high quality termite-processed soil for bricks. Birds that I did recognise in the towns and villages were the crows, storks, pigeons and many colourful chickens with chicks in tow. In Liwonde park many more exotic birds were noticeable, the prehistoric looking hornbill, tiny green lovebirds, black birds that looked iridescent blue when they flew, black and white kingfishers and tiny songbirds. Far from a pristine environment, people are still present in Liwonde, as park rangers, tourists or villagers passing through. I feel privileged to have experienced a wilder version of Malawi and to have seen what the country would have been like without the current levels of deforestation which make the mountain sides appear bare in some areas.

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