Twenty-four hours on the Shire River

Stepping onto the “M.V. Mangunda” was like being absorbed into an other-worldly bubble.Though the road from Lake Malawi’s shore at Mangochi town to Liwonde was nearly empty of cars it was a nerve-wracking, two-hour drive as wandering dogs and goats, unpredictable ox-carts and overladen trucks, darting children, weaving bicyclists, preoccupied vendors and reckless mini-buses criss-crossed in front of us.

Turning left through the noisy market just before the bridge and roadblock at Liwonde, we followed the old dirt road that runs along the west bank. Years ago we’d take it to the old Hippo Hotel to drink warm cokes and watch the scores of hippos that lolled in front of the bar. Now with revamped hotels along the river, the road has regular travel and pedestrians and bicyclists who access the villages north along the river.

On a weekday morning in mid-May 2011 we took the dirt road a few hundred meters to the “Shire River Camp and Lodge”. Over-hung with trees and nearly devoid of people, it is where the “Mangunda” has a dock. We drank coffee and waited for the boat. Sitting beside the river we watched it carry fishermen and floating islands of Water Hyacinth (the scourge of East African lakes) downstream.

Emerging from Lake Malawi the Shire (pron: Shir-ee) heads south from Liwonde, off the escarpment beyond Blantyre, through falls and 2 hydroelectric plants, into the Zambezi River and eventually the Indian Ocean. At 10am the “Mangunda” made itself known with a shrill whistle. It docked and disembarked a half-dozen passengers. Various tours are available on this “Shire River Safari”, depending on the amount of time you have: these visitors had taken an early morning game-park cruise while we had booked the boat for twenty-four hours.

Malawi’s Liwonde Game Park is one of the largest in a country not known for its wildlife. It has been revitalised in recent years by entrepreneurial game- and hotel-managers, and now is home to rhino (in a sanctuary still), lion, monkeys, buck of various kind, as well as the many indigenous residents of the river: crocs, hippo, elephant, and birds. It is the birds for which the river at Liwonde is famous, and we were not disappointed.

Boarding at 11, we quietly motored north toward the park, which spans both sides of the river. Villagers are meant to stay off the river in that stretch, but in a country where work and land are scarce, riverside residents will fish. We saw a number of locals in dug-out canoes during our cruise and none seemed out of place: each lazily cast his single line into the river and waited quietly for something to bite – a cat fish or perch most likely.

The “Mangunda” has recently been fitted to carry tourists. It has three bedrooms, two toilets and (hot) showers, an inside sitting-dining area, a kitchen and crews’ quarters, and an upper deck with table and chairs below a large awning. The licensed Captain – named Silence – is a Zimbabwean who trained on Lake Kariba and in the Okavango Delta. He not only knows how to pilot a boat, but he is a good cook and knows his animals, including birds. He and my traveling companion had binoculars and the bird-book at hand throughout the trip, identifying a wide variety – storks, egrets, heron, fish eagles, kingfishers, etc.

We lazily headed north till we entered the park and continued through the afternoon till we reached the northern boundary. Somewhere along the way we had lunch on the upper deck. The river meanders slowly through the reeds, which float during the rainy season and take root and become islands later in the year. It was still too wet – the rains having finished just a few weeks before – for large animals to reach the river. So while we saw Water Buck and Impala, they were in the far distance up against the tree line. Much closer were crocodiles, who slid silently from one side of the river to the other in front of us, or laid sleepily on the bank, one eye watching as we motored past. Hippos were everywhere, in and out of the water. In fact, we were told that unlike most places the hippos in the Shire leave the water during the daytime, secrete a special protective oil, and graze along the banks because there are so many in the river.

As the sun began to disappear behind the distant mountains the boat turned around and headed downstream. The Captain had spotted what he considered a good mooring – a break in the reeds really – on the west bank. It was in fact, the exact place that earlier in the day we had seen a huge croc lying in the mud with egrets standing guard. Here we pulled in to berth for the night. ‘Sundowners’ were served on the upper deck as we watched the light fade. Soon hundreds of fireflies emerged in the reeds off the starboard bow as the sounds of the night rose out of the bush a bit further away. Luckily there was a slight breeze that kept the biting-insects at bay. We saw the Southern Cross rise to port, and were told how to find Due South by lining up several nearby stars. We broke off to have our steak dinner indoors.

Dawn comes early on the Shire. My travelling companion rose to watch the sun come up while I snuggled deeper in the covers and slept till 6.30. I climbed to the top deck then to drink coffee and take advantage of the rare opportunity to listen to a day begin. With the boat’s engines deliberately turned off, you could hear the reeds rustle as the Weaver birds moved amongst them. Vervet monkeys played in the trees, while long-legged birds glided close above the water in search of their breakfast.

Another hour of quiet then the generator was turned on for hot showers, and to cook. After making us a hot breakfast the Captain headed south downriver once again.

We went at a leisurely pace, turning off the engines to drift and watch a herd of elephant on the west bank. We came upon hippo and crocs again, and the ubiquitous birds. We skirted the islands of reeds and saw some smaller boats skimming along the water with early-morning tourists going north.

Soon we saw fishermen in their canoes, paddling along the croc-infested banks in search of good fishing grounds. In the next hour we re-entered rural Malawi, marked by river-side cultivation, with scarecrows propped on long sticks next to the water and new mud-brick huts being constructed a few meters back from the river. Then came the tourist hotels, without so many hippos as years ago.

With a long loud whistle the “Mangunda” announced our return to Liwonde and the hustle-bustle of life in Malawi.

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