Welcome to the show notes for Episode 2 of the Just Go Places Podcast. Episode Two is titled A Family Road Trip in Malawi.
In this episode, I speak to Rachel Heller, a blogger and travel writer, who took her family on a road trip down memory lane through the tiny African country of Malawi.
Rachel’s tagline on her blog, Rachel’s Ruminations, is a line from that famous poem by American poet, Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled. Rachel is ‘taking the road less traveled by.’ I’d say a road trip through Malawi is definitely a lesser travelled road.
Rachel’s family trip was inspired by her time in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the mid-1980’s where she met her future husband, a Dutch dentist also working in Malawi. So some 20 odd years later, the couple returned with their kids to introduce them to a country which holds a special place in their heart.
Listen to Episode 2 below:
Things Mentioned in the Podcast
The first site you should explore if you are interested in visiting Malawi is the official tourist website for the country. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world where almost 3/4 of the population of 13 million lives on less than $1.25 a day. On the other hand, Malawi is a safe and peaceful country to visit which has been nicknamed the ‘warm heart of Africa’. Efforts to encourage tourism to Malawi are slowly succeeding but they still don’t have the profile of the big boys in African tourism (Kenya, Tanzania, etc.). More tourism in Malawi can make a big difference in the lives of its people.
A mother and child stand near a mobile banking vehicle in Michinji village, approximately 120km west of the capital Lilongwe, Malawi. Image credit: Gates Foundation
Livingstonia is a town in the North of Malawi established by by missionaries of the Church of Scotland. Rachel mentions this pretty Victorian-era town for its beautiful architecture. The ecocamp the family stayed at was the Lukwe Ecocamp in Livingstonia.
Lake Malawi is a national park which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is one of the Great Lakes of Africa created by the African tectonic plate shifting discovered by the explorer, Dr. David Livingstone (after which Livingstonia is named) . Estimated to be anywhere between 40,000 to 2 million years old, this lake is the highlight of any visit to Malawi. The largest part of the lake is located in Malawi but a portion is also in neighbouring Mozambique. Cruising around Lake Malawi Cruising around Lake Malawi is a popular way to see the area.. Monkey Bay is a tourist resort on the Southern shores of Lake Malawi.
Nyika National Park makes up most of the Nyika Plateau in Northern Malawi. The park spans 3200 square kilometres (1250 square miles). I guess when Rachel says this is a small safari park suitable for families, she is definitely thinking in terms of African sizes! It’s got lots of wildlife such as lions, leopards, elephants, antelopes and zebras as well as a rich variety of birds and plant life.
Rachel and her children volunteered at the Malawi Children’s Village is located in Mangochi in Malawi. It is a village-based centre which helps extended families care for their orphaned and vulnerable children. They provide family support for 37 villages in the area including medical clinics and schools. The children they played with were at the Open Arms Orphanage which takes in babies and toddlers whose relatives are unable to care for them. The aim of Open Arms is to nurture these children until they are old enough to return to their relatives.
After Malawi, Rachel and her family flew through Tanzania and stopped to visit, Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its luxury safaris.
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In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
I hate to ruin your 60’s song nostalgia but, actually, that song is wrong for two reasons.
1. A lion isn’t the king of the jungle because they don’t live in jungles. No one is sure why jungles came to be associated with lions. Lions like to live in grasslands, scrub country and plains. They use the vegetation to creep through the landscape and pounce on unsuspecting prey.
2. Lions primarily hunt at night and sleep during the day.
Thanks to a safari in South Africa, I now know lots about lions.
Garden Route Game Lodge
Although the rest of the Garden Route Game Lodge is an open safari, the lions we saw were in a separate enclosure. Our guide explained to us that lions are natural hunters who kill even if they are not hungry. If the lions at the safari were let loose, they would need to replace yearly many of the other animals we saw such as the springbok, impala and zebra.
On the plus side, we could see the lions every day and watch their behaviour. After having seen The Lion King a million times, my children could sit and watch actual lions. Mostly the lions slept but occasionally they would wander around.
It was fascinating to watch the dynamic between the male lion and his little harem of three lionesses. There was clearly a Chief Wife who kept a wary eye on us. She was quite protective of the male lion. From what we could tell, she couldn’t care less how close our jeep got to the other lionesses.
At one point, the one we called Chief Wife was clearly wary of us and moved up closer to the male.
Lioness on the watch
7 Surprising Facts About Lions
Our guide was very knowledgeable about lions. Did you know these 7 surprising facts about lions?
1. Male lions are not good hunters. All that mane gets in the way. The mane protects the lions though when the males get into a fight. A male lion only gets to keep his pride for 2-3 years before a stronger male lion comes along and takes over. Hence, they do a lot of fighting.
2. Male lions pretty much spend their time eating, sleeping and mating. If you add in beer and a sports channel on television, that would seem an ideal lifestyle for many men I know too.
I think this lion could use a cigarette don’t you?!
A lion ‘romp’ though doesn’t last very long (less than a minute) but they can ‘romp’ up to 40 times a day. No wonder the Chief Wife lets her man have a harem.
3. The female lions at Garden Route Game Lodge got yearly vaccinations to prevent pregnancy because any lions born in captivity would need to be sent to a zoo or a safari park with other captive lions. Captive lions can not be released into the wild because they lack hunting skills.
4. What do male lions do? They defend a pride’s territory. The male lion we saw on safari has the easiest job ever since his pride is the only one in the safari park and his territory is protected by a fence.
5. Although the females are the hunters, the male lion gets to eat first. The lionesses also raise the children and teach them hunting skills.
6. A lion could sleep up to 20 hours a day. Although they look kind of sleepy and dopey, don’t be fooled. A lion can spring into action and run up to 50 miles per hour in short bursts.
7. You can tell a male lion’s age by the colour of their mane. The darker the mane, the older the lion. A lion in captivity can live up to 25 years presumably because they don’t have the stress of protecting their pride and their territory.
My children were fascinated with this gentle introduction to Simba and his friends. Next time we are planning on a safari at a larger national park so that we can see a slightly less molly-coddled version of lions in the wild.
I have found some really useful tips for taking the kids on safari – such as keeping them interested with their own binoculars and alternating safari days so the early morning wake up calls aren’t so terrible. Especially with my children now moving onto the tween/teen morning slumber stage, I will found that advice particularly useful. We packed a lot into 3 days because a safari experience can be expensive. However, when you are travelling with children, perhaps 6 days would be a better option. After all what’s the point of a cool and expensive holiday if your family isn’t enjoying it?
My children loved our trip to South Africa. Of course, the extra bit of summer sunshine and pool time in the middle of an English winter was a big hit. There are lots of places in the world you could get that though.
What made it a cut above the rest of the winter sun destinations? Pure and simple – the wildlife in South Africa. It was such a treat seeing so many different types of animals in their natural habitat doing their thing.
Seals at Seal Island
We took a boat to see the seals off the coast of Hout Bay on a nature reserve nearby. There were hundreds of seals just hanging out playing in the water.
Penguins at Boulders Beach
The visit to Boulders Beach was hands down the favourite thing we all did on our entire holiday. The penguin colony nearby regular wander over to the beach and walk and swim alongside humans.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect on a beach popular with penguins. To my surprise, the beach was clean, penguin poop-free and didn’t smell. Moreover, the water was fairly shallow which made splashing about fun for young children.
Baboons at Cape Point
We saw baboons in several places most notably at the Cape Point reserve but also wandering along the highway. They are considered pests but we kept our distance and enjoyed watching the young ones play.
Animals on Safari
Our 2 day mini-safari experience was a fabulous introduction to a full-blown safari. The children loved seeing all of the different animals up close and personal.
We had the elephants who spent their time munching on leaves and playing with each other.
We chuckled at the young giraffe who insisted on walking a certain distance away from his parents. He was not ready to wander off on his own but he also wanted his space.
Did you know that a giraffe has really long eyelashes?
We felt sorry for the white rhinos who had to be under constant surveillance because of the threat of rhino poachers coming to hack of their horns.
The lions just hung around looking majestic. The male lion was fairly complacent with his little harem of female companions.
The springboks were beautiful to watch especially when they were running.
We discovered that zebras are actually black with white stripes. They can also be pretty bad-tempered and kick smaller animals.
We saw several skirmishes between the cape buffalo males who were constantly butting heads (literally) for dominance.
We caught only a glimpse of a cheetah in the underbrush. He had just feasted on a small antelope and was passed out in a food coma. The children were remarkably sanguine about seeing a half-eaten antelope on the ground.
Other Animal Interactions
Much to my dismay, my son was desperate to go in a shark cage tour. Frankly, my husband wasn’t enthusiastic either because my son assumed his father would go with him. We managed to pacify him by saying he could go when he was older (in his mind, that meant aged 10 but I’m thinking closer to say… oh, never!). Right about that time, too, I’ll let him go bungee jumping in South Africa too.
My daughter would have loved to go horseback riding in the Cape Point area. Unfortunately, the minimum age was 14 years old.
You needed to be 14 as well to go walking with cheetahs at their sanctuary as well. (Cheetahs consider children small prey so there are age and height restrictions). Other interesting wildlife expeditions we would have liked if there was only time were the elephant sanctuary and whale watching. The Cape Venues website has a good list of many different animal-centered activities.
If your children love animals (and most of them do!), South Africa is a great introduction to wildlife in Africa especially for the younger set. You don’t have the worry about malaria. It’s easy to get around and convenient. There are lots of variety of animals to see. You really just can’t beat seeing wild animals in their natural habitat.
Rhino poaching is a serious conservation issue in Southern Africa because without government and public intervention the rhino may be extinct within 10 years.
According to official statistics, three rhinos are killed in South Africa daily. Poachers come by helicopter at night, tranquillise the rhinos with dart guns and then cut off their horns to sell in Asia where they are believed to have medicinal value. The rest of the rhino is left to die a painful death from either blood loss or the effects of the tranquilliser. It’s a really gruesome end.
Rhino horn is just keratin (similar to what makes up your fingernails and hair ) so they really have no medicinal value. The rhino’s horn is of no value to anyone other than a rhino.
Tell that though to the Asians who believe rhino horn improves male vitality and cures a variety of illnesses. The South African government has approximately 25 tons of rhino horn seized from their raids with an estimated value of 16.5 billion South African Rand. Clearly, the selling of rhino horns is big business.
The Kruger National Park is selling off more than 500 rhinos to other safari parks in order to disrupt the effect of poachers. If the rhinos are more spread out, then it will be harder to kill bunches of them at the same time. You will need to buy rhinos in bulk though (at least 20 or more). Considering a rhino is about 275,000 South African Rand per animal at auction, you will definitely need a chunk of change (and a very large plot of land to keep them) which does limit the number of potential buyers.
Rhinos are herbivores who spend their day munching. Adult rhinos have no natural predators except for humans. Combined with their relatively limited intelligence, they make easy prey for determined poachers.
Approximately 1.4 billion South African Rand is spent annually to protect South Africa’s rhinos, both on public and privately managed conservation lands. South Africa contains more than 90% of the world’s white rhino and about 30% of the rare black rhino.
At the safari park we visited, they do not advertise that they have rhino. Their rhinos also have 24 hour surveillance to protect them with two dedicated rhino conservation officers leading the team. It’s not surprising then that the average cost to protect one rhino for one year is a considerable 70,000 South African Rand.
Our safari guide told us that rhino poaching has come to the forefront of conservation efforts because of their dwindling numbers. Elephants are likewise poached for their ivory which is also a major issue. Currently, however, African elephants are not in danger of extinction but that could change too.
The one thing we discovered on our South Africa trip is that animals really do have lots of personality. Before I had kids I thought children were little blank slates and their personalities developed later. Similarly I hadn’t given much thought to the personalities of non-domesticated animals. I’ve already mentioned the meditating penguin who stared at a rock on Boulder Beach for hours.
Now meet Iggy, a 3 year old giraffe at the safari park we went to, Garden Route Safari Lodge. In giraffe terms, Iggy is a teenager. Whenever we saw him, he was near his parents but still apart from them. Either he was in the field across from them or another set of trees nearby, etc. He seemed to be trying to assert his independence while his mother watched from nearby. My children chuckled when he moved away every time his mother moved closer to him.
In this picture you see Iggy sitting down which only young giraffes do. It’s hard for a giraffe to get up and so sitting makes them vulnerable to predators. Most giraffes sleep standing up. They don’t need much sleep – between 20 minutes to 4 hours in a 24 hour cycle. Iggy seemed to have a bit of a cough so perhaps he was feeling poorly!
We were told Iggy means “feet first”. All giraffes are born feet first. The fall down from their mother to the ground starts their heart pumping and clears the birth gunk from his body.
Iggy is ready for mating and the park is looking for a suitable partner for him. Maybe he’ll be ready to hang out with his parents again once he’s got a girlfriend!
Welcome! My family and I love to travel, to learn more about different countries and to experience new cultures. We also like our nice hotels, good food and other comforts. Join us on our adventures!