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douglaswise

2 weeks at Majete, 1st to 14th November

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douglaswise

This is the start of a report of a solo trip I made to Majete.  The purpose was to learn about African Parks' past, present and intended future conservation plans for this, its first Reserve.  I stayed at Thawale Lodge, originally built and run by AP, but now leased to Sunbird, a Malawi hotel group.  While essentially staying as a tourist, I was also lucky enough to have been able to arrange meetings with several of the Reserve Management team which were invariably helpful, open and highly informative. 

 

Majete is a Reserve of 700 sq km in the southern part of Malawi some 2 hours by road to the south west of Blantyre.  It is surrounded by a perimeter fence of 140 km length.  Permanent water is available from a 10km  stretch of the Shire River in the north eastern section and from some 12 artificial water holes (water from bore holes).  Only the north eastern quarter of the Reserve (about 175 sq km) is developed for tourism.  Of this, 75 sq km has access restricted to visitors at the Robin Pope Safaris' luxury lodge, situated in the extreme north east.  Thawale Lodge is situated inside the Reserve, 3 km from the main gate.  It has an adjacent water hole about 150 m from the Lodge verandah which is well visited during the dry season by many species of mammalian wildlife (I saw 11).  Very close (about 15 m) to the verandah is a raised circular tank into which clean water flows. This overflows into a muddy ditch.  Individuals or groups of many of the species using the water hole to bathe in move up to the clean water to drink.  In addition, some drink from and bathe in the ditch as do a large selection of birds.  Thus, the Lodge itself represents an excellent game viewing area as do the two outlying hides reached by vehicle and each overlooking their own waterholes.  I spent most of my activity time on game drives and hide visits, but took two boat trips on the Shire River upstream of the hydroelectric dam.  Two post sundowner night drives were undertaken.  Walking trips were available, but it was hot and I disqualified myself on grounds of infirmity and old age.

 

The Reserve was more or less bereft of mammalian wildlife when AP took control in 2003 because of very heavy meat poaching.  It has now been re-stocked and is reaching or has just reached capacity for herbivores.  Predator numbers are still lower than targeted (e.g. currently 11 lion against a target of 30).  The area is unsuitable for agriculture.  The ground is very undulating and stony.  Along the river, there is very attractive riverine woodland which gives way to mixed and then to miombo as one moves south.  There are well-maintained roads in the tourist zone and ,in addition, a couple, less used, that head south east and south west.  It takes a one way drive of 2.5 h to reach the southern boundary from Thawale Lodge, but I only ever got halfway.

 

My enjoyment of the trip was much enhanced by meeting up with other Safaritalkers for some of the time.  @Bugs and his friend, Ted Newton, flew up from Joburg and arrived more or less simultaneously with my flight on Ethiopian from Addis.  We were able to share a taxi to the Lodge, pre-arranged for us by Sunbird Thawale.  @Bugs and Ted stayed for 6 days.  @Soukous was also present when we arrived and we spent the whole of the following day with him, but he thereafter departed, but not before laying down a challenge which @Bugs found irresistable. @Soukous had just come from Zambia and, when he left, he had amassed a bird list of 122 from both countries.  @Bugs was determined to beat this from Majete alone.  With extremely able assistance from our excellent guide, Jimmy, and armed with Robert's Bird Ap(p? - I don't own a mobile phone, nor know whether aps have one or two ps), he managed to accumulate 134.  This was an education for me - mainly enjoyable.  Bohm's bee eaters and twinspots were very pretty and I was delighted when they were pointed out to me by the others, but I was somewhat underwhelmed, albeit relieved, when the long search for rock pratincoles was fulfilled.  Of course, once they had found one, they popped up like London busses.  Anyway, for serious birders (and I doubt you could get more serious than the lot I travelled with), I can state that we clocked 67 on day 1 and 100 by the end of day 2.  In my second week, focusing on mammals and trees, Jimmy and I added 6 further bird species to reach a total of 140.  My mammal list summed to 31species, with which I was happy, particularly as it included five firsts (suni, grysbok, tree squirrel, Lichtensten's hartebeest and, surprisingly, nyala - which were prolific in the Reserve. 

 

I will mention the weather because my visit fell within what is sometimes described as suicide month. I was somewhat dreading the expected high temperatures and humidity that typify the build up to the rainy season.  I was lucky in that I dodged the worst of it and only had one day of 45 deg C.  Most were below 40.  The rains came slightly early and Jimmy demonstrated that his weather forecasting wasn't on a par with his many other attributes, having elected to put us in an open boat and take us way upstream just as a thunderstorm dropped about 12mm of rain on top of us - certainly cooling.  The greening of herbage within 2-3 days of this first rain was dramatic.  By the second week of the trip, many animals and most birds had stopped coming to the Lodge, though one of the water holes serviced with a hide continued to produce.

 

I am not intending this to be a day to day account of the trip, but I will attempt to show potential visitors what they might expect to see on a stay of more typical duration than mine.  I will, therefore, conclude this section of the report with photos of what I saw from the Thawale Lodge verandah.  I would also like to refer readers to @Africlan's excellent Malawi trip report.  His photography is infinitely superior to mine, but I would have to say that his description of the raised circular tank near the Lodge verandah as a birdbath was inaccurate. The only bird visiting on my trip was a pied crow!

 

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This is more or less the best I could do for the waterhole with my camera.  It needed a longer lens to do it justice.  (I was using a Nikon D3200 with 70-300 lens).  @Africlan's visit was in June and there's much more green vegetation in his shots.  I did have one dusk sighting of a serval at this waterhole.

 

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These 3 female nyala were much closer and drinking from the muddy ditch formed from the overflow from the circular tank as was the waterbuck (below).P1100817.thumb.JPG.28c01f7079db1282ae8c7d9e5473f607.JPG

 

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Nyala mother and calf at the circular tank (birdbath!)

 

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This waterbuck is wearing a very pale jacket.  Jimmy explained this on its having been forced to exist on browse rather than the typical grazing diet, something of which I'm a bit sceptical.

 

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The strategy of emptying the tank to encourage inflow of even cleaner water from the tap failed on this occasion.

 

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The tap had been turned off.  Much sucking at the point of inflow probably resulted in a stomach full of air and much subsequent belching.

 

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This nyala wasn't going to let a couple of buffalo stop it from drinking - well, only temporarily.

 

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The path to my tent (5), from which there was also a good waterhole view, often had a sentry on duty.

 

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We occasionally had company in the dining area, but the baboons were generally quite respectful and only raided when no people were present.

 

 

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AfricIan

I'm looking forward to hearing more of this "behind the scenes" trip @douglaswise and that Jimmy was able to help @Bugs smash his bird sighting target - your 31 mammal species is non-too-shabby either, from what is a relatively small park.

 

I'd like to defend myself on my use of 

5 hours ago, douglaswise said:

birdbath

- the only mammal we saw there was 1 waterbuck, not the wide variety you saw - nor did I see any evidence of the middy ditch overflow that seems so popular in your photo's.  Perhaps it is only allowed to overflow when it gets really dry - as you say, it was much greener in June.  I also agree that you do need a long lens to get the best images from the waterhole, I was using a 80-400 which was at it's limit for the smaller antelope species & the like.

 

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Atravelynn

Malawi--you get around!  Your investigative approach is to be applauded, along with your stats.  5 firsts and 100 birds in 2 days is impressive. 

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douglaswise

When AP took over management responsibility for Majete in 2003, a 150 page management plan had already been produced by Dr Rowan Martin for the Malawi authorities.  Craig Hay, the current AP manager, very kindly supplied me with an e-copy of this document, which I found to be extremely useful.  Pages 20 -22 set out the principles upon which the Reserve should be run. The first priority is to protect a sustainable wildlife population (plants are included in the definition of wildlife for this purpose).  In addition, water catchment areas are to be protected (not least by protecting top cover riverine trees) to reduce erosion and top soil loss.  No type of use, consumptive or non-consumptive, is barred so long as uses are sustainable.  The reserve should break even financially and, ideally, demonstrate that wildlife represents the most profitable land use. (AP aim to be into profit by 2028).  The Reserve should be co-managed with the local community who should derive benefits from it. 

 

In one of the annexes to his plan, Martin provided a list of mammals down to vervet monkey size that were either present or which had been present in the past or which could be introduced ab initio. He guessed at what the numbers of each would settle at after a good period of time, but, obviously, there was a large margin for error because, elswhere, he said total mammalian biomass might vary from 2-7 tonnes//sq km.  There were 41 species on Martin's list.  Of these, white rhino, giraffe, wildebeest, roan, cheetah, caracal, wild dog and samango monkey have not been added by AP and are not present.  I understand, however, that it is likely that giraffe and cheetah soon will be.  There are thus probably 33 mammalian species of vervet size or above currently in the Reserve.  In my two weeks, I saw 25 of them and an additional 6 below vervet size (scrub hare, tree squirrel, 3 species of mongoose (dwarf, banded and slender) and small spotted genet.)  I failed to see spotted hyaena (heard them), bushpig, aardvark, leopard, honey badger,pangolin and jackal. 

 

Martin's species list was strongly criticised by Dowsett and Dowsett-Lamaire in 2005.  They also stated that fencing of the Reserve would be prohibitively expensive and impractical despite its having been erected by AP before the publication date of their paper (at a cost of US $10000/sq km).  In my view, these authors are impractical purists.  Majete is closely surrounded by subsistence farmers living at a density of 80/sq km.  One can't envisage a decent stock of wildlife in such an area without a containing fence.  The authors were concerned about the possible stockings of giraffe, white rhino and wildebeest, which they claimed were non-indigenous (although the Reserve is close to the periphery of their known range).  They also were extremely critical of Martin's suggestion that 700 impala could be carried because they considered that only small parts of the habitat were suitable.  They would, therefore, be surprised that the 2015 count for Majete mammals included 2500 impala.  The extent to which this is desirable and whether it is attributable to creation of artificial water holes can be discussed.  In fact, all of the herbivores but the Lichtenstein's hartebeest had done as well or better by 2015 than Martin predicted, sable and waterbuck in particular.

 

I think I might have overdone the theory so far and so will lighten up with a few photos, preceded by some discussion of my impala and wart hog experiences.  The aerial survey of 2015 demonstrated clearly that the tourist area of the Reserve (north east quarter) has the greatest mammalian density  and this applies in spades to impala and wart hog.  On my arrival, there were significant numbers of very thin specimens, particularly of these two species.  In fact, there were also dead bodies of each in evidence.  We saw a dead wart hog by the river one day and, next,  we saw drag marks and the body bobbing on the water and being spun and rolled by a couple of crocodiles.  Some of the impala, typically males of the previous year, were displaying sub-lingual oedema (bottle jaw).  This is typically associated with anaemia, the most likely cause of which is parasitism.  It was very interesting to observe that 3 days after the rain, not only had the vegetation sprouted, but the impala and wart hog looked a lot livelier.  Moreover, both species started birthing in surprising numbers.  Subsequent discussions suggested that the cause of death, mainly confined to immature animals - most likely to have little resistance to parasitism, was attributable to a fluke of which snails are the intermediate hosts. This, rather than high stocking density alone, probably explains why deaths are associated with proximity to the river.  I will just make one other observation.  Although impala are almost always found close to a water source and I have seen them drinking, my water hole observations suggested that they drank a lot less than many of the other antelope species (eland, kudu, sable, bushbuck, waterbuck).  I discussed this with Kayla Geenen, a researcher at Majete studying waterhole use.  She concurred with my observation.  Impala don't move about much and, in the wet season, like to graze short grass.  Perhaps they're near water because this is where most "lawns" will occur in consequence of heavy grazing pressure by bulk grazers and, notably by the river, hippos.  While the impala may be restrained in their drinking habits, wart hogs are most definitely not.  In fact, it is highly entertaining to observe their cavalier approach to water which is in marked contrast to the much more diffident approaches of antelope or even rhinos. 

 

 

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Emaciated impala pre-rains 

 

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youngster with bottle jaw

 

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Response to rain - 3 days

 

 

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Baby arrives almost immediately

 

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Ditto for wart hogs

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A vote for the Chairman of the Ugly FiveDSC_0727.thumb.JPG.6f8a07ea4c23cfbc84e7c31d1ad575ea.JPG

 

This one is not even close - almost handsome

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Bugs

Thanks, @douglaswise for getting the trip report up. It was great to hook up and chat along with @Soukous and Ted. My only regret was not buying a bottle of whiskey at the duty-free when we left SA. 

 

My fascination with Majete is along the same lines as yours. I am a great fan of African Parks having visited Bangweulu earlier this year and passed through Liwonde en route to Niassa two years ago. At the time Liwonde was in transition from its previous management to the hands of African Parks. The principle of the African Parks concept is to take the management of these reserves over and get them to a point where they can sustainably pay their own way. After chatting with Micheal Eustace a few times, he has admitted that it may be more difficult than we think.

 

I only wish that some South African parks would outsource their management to NGO's like AP, and privatising their camps. 

 

I will leave you to get on with the report. 

 

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douglaswise

Majete received some 8000 visitors last year.  The money generated from entry fees, activities and lodge contributions was sufficient to cover about 30% of the operating budget.  It is hoped that, in future, it may be possible to double this percentage.  Some tourists use the community-owned campsite at the Reserve entrance (with restaurant and swimming pool), but the financial benefits gained obviously accrue to the community and not to AP.  In my opinion, it is impossible to have a useful view of optimum ways to conserve African wildlife without having some understanding of underlying finances.  AP manages just over 2% of the protected area of sub Saharan Africa (circa 60000 sq km out of 2.7 million).  It wishes to expand its area of land under management.  Currently, it is pumping US$ 30 million/annum into the continent from first world donors.  To expand, it will obviously have to increase donor income, cut its operating costs, increase revenues earned internally or a combination of all three.  AP currently spends an average of US $500/ sq km of land under management.  At Majete, the current figure is nearer US $ 2300/sq km because it is a small reserve with high infrastructure costs.  However, the high inputs at Majete allow more opportunity to maximise the internal returns through sustainable use.  In my view, this will not be achieved by non-consumptive tourism alone, but should easily be attainable from a mix of ecotourism and hunting, particularly as the southern part of the Reserve has little tourist potential.  Martin, or example, describes the south east lowlands as harsh and unattractive, characterised by scrub and having a low carrying capacity.  The southern parts, nevertheless, do contain reasonable numbers of buffalo and sable. 

 

One is left to ponder about the motivations underlying the purpose of conserving wildlife and undisturbed habitats.  Clearly, one could consider "ecosystem services" as a prime reason or may just think of it as a moral imperative (more likely to be felt by those with affluent lifestyles than by locals struggling to cope).  Tourism, consumptive or non-consumptive, may provide a means of providing income to pay for conservation, but, of itself, cannot reasonably be claimed as the raison d'etre (or can it?).  This brings me to a question I have been pondering and to which I don't have a satisfactory answer.  Majete will soon be full up with animals if it isn't already.  It will then be necessary to move them (very costly), cull the annual surplus (income generating), use contraception in the case of those species where it is applicable (quite costly) or provide more room.  It is the last possibility that I'm questioning.  The 700 sq km Majete Reserve is quite close to the 900 sq km Lengwe National Park and a linking corridor has been proposed.  Would this be desirable?  Should AP consider this undertaking?  If not AP, then who?  Where would the money come from?  The combined habitat would be essentially similar (but obviously larger) than either one alone and Lengwe currently has a much lower mammalian density due to poorer levels of protection.  However, it is very difficult to believe that tourist income would expand greatly as a consequence or, certainly, no more than if facilities at Majete were enhanced.

 

I will now get back on course and attempt to explain the likely visitor experience at Majete.  Most visitors (more than 70%) are self-drivers. Thawale Lodge is better considered as a full service hotel because all Reserve activities are organised and run by AP employees and charged separately.  This is possibly similar to arrangements that apply in the Kruger.  Activities (guided drives, boat trips and walks) are officially of about 2h duration.  This arrangement is suitable for self-drivers who can get themselves around and visit hides when not on an official activity.  For international tourists staying at Thawale without their own transport, the package price of roughly US$ 180/ppn covers 2 activities./day  In my opinion, this provides insufficient time out.  Having said that, the package price is very modest relative to those charged in many other parts of Africa, particularly as the food is very reasonable and copious in quantity and the tents are large and comfortable.  I was lucky in that Jimmy was usually in a position to provide activities of much longer than 2 h duration and appeared very willing to do so. I do think, however, that AP and Sunbird should liaise to provide better arrangements for international travellers who arrive without their own vehicles, if ,of course, they wish to attract this type of clientele.  For self drivers, a 4WD would be a  distinct advantage as this will provide access to most of the 300 km of roads/tracks available that elephants haven't blocked by tree felling (even with a 4WD, it is sometimes difficult to drive round fallen trees as the ground is often stony and steep). 2WDs would suffice for, perhaps, 70% of the tracks/loops in the main tourist zone.

 

I will try to convey some impression of what one can expect to see on game drives.  On any drive one can hardly miss seeing waterbuck, impala, nyala, wart hog,  baboon, hippo and crocodile.  However, the habitat is not ideal for viewing and I was disappointed and surprised at the lowish numbers of kudu, sable, eland, zebra and even elephant that I saw relative to the numbers known to be present.  However, the probable reason was the major translocation of animals taken from the Reserve that had occurred 3 months previously.  They had almost all come from the tourist zone, leaving a vacuum yet to be filled from elsewhere in the Reserve.  (@Africlan saw a lot of sable when he was there prior to the translocation.)  Despite the above disappointment, I was still impressed with numbers of bushbuck, reedbuck, grysbok and duiker that I saw, but, by no means, on every drive.  In some respects, my game driving at Majete reminded me somewhat of Kafue (without the tsetses). The traffic was very light and there was never a sighting shared with the occupants of another vehicle although we very occasionally got passed while @Bugs peered through his binos at a nondescript specimen of avifauna. 

 

I will end this section  with photos of antelopes (in ascending size and excluding impalas) encountered on game drives.  Interestingly (well, for me, but probably not for other readers), I never saw an eland on a game drive (circa 300 in Reserve) nor a sable at a waterhole (circa 1300 in Reserve).

 

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suni

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grysbok

(no klipspringer picture, but 1 sighting and grey duiker photo rubbish and not shown)

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bushbuck

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DSC_1150.thumb.JPG.c72dbcc8061025de6660490ffae43491.JPG Majete bushbuck are darker and more sober than those in Kafue

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reedbuck in typical retreat from vehicle

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rare confiding specimen

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ditto

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nyala males

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nyala female and calf

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Lichtenstein's hartebeest

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kudu

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sable males in reasonable and poor condition

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sable female

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waterbuck

 

 

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douglaswise

Thanks to those who have made polite comments.

 

I'm afraid I don't know the proportion of AP's Majete income that emanated from the Robin Pope Safari Lodge (Mkulumadzi).  Given that it has been afforded 75 sq km of exclusive driving rights in the prime part of the Reserve and charges roughly double the Thawale rate to visitors, I guess it would be quite a high proportion of the US$ 500000 total.  I do know the annual gross "activity" income is around US$ 20000.  Reserve entry fees vary from US$ 5 and 20/day depending upon tourist origin and there were 8000 tourists last year.  At a wild guess, I'd estimate that annual entry fee income would approximate US$ 80000, leaving a figure of US$ 300000 from Mkulumadzi and Thawale combined.

 

One of the worries I have about Majete is that it is unlikely ever to become a prime destination for wildlife photo-tourism.  Malawi as a whole has a lot going for it as far as tourist prospects are concerned.  It is a smallish, friendly and peaceful country with very diverse habitats, including the magnificent Lake and the Nyika highlands in the north.  The birdlife is extremely impressive with over 600 species present.  People who visit Malawi will probably wish to travel to several destinations.  As AP builds the potential of Liwonde and Nkhotakota, one wonders whether a circuit will develop which will omit Majete because f its less convenient geographic location.  I accept the Majete is a Big 5 Reserve, but it is unlikely ever to be one where one can guarantee to see the Big 5.

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xelas

What are the options for an international visitor to rent a car and do self-driving visit? Is it possible to hire a guide or a ranger for a day or two when inside the park?

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douglaswise

@xelas:  

I've just done a bit of googling.  International visitors can certainly hire vehicles locally (e.g. Blantyre)  Check the following:

www.ssrentacar.com

www.carhireandholidays.com/index.php/car-hire-m

www.carrentals.net.au/car_rental/malawi/blantyre_car_rental.shtml

AP employs 3 field guides at Majete.  It may prove possible to book one of them to travel in your vehicle for a day or two.  You could obviously travel with such a guide in an AP safari vehicle, but whether you'd have to share and whether you could extend the lengths of standard drives, I don't know.  I suggest you e-mail Craig Hay, AP's Majete manager, and I'm sure he'd pass your query to the appropriate person. 

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AfricIan

in response to @xelas question, hiring a vehicle & self-driving is perfectly possible.  When we were in Malawi in June, our route was "tracked" by a couple of French travel agents (from Comptoir des Voyages) who were on a route reconnaissance trip to show that it could be done in a standard saloon car (in their case a Toyota Corolla). We first met them on Mumbo Island, then again in Liwonde, on Zomba Plateau and they were also in Majete (at Mkulumadzi but we spotted their car had been left at the main gate so perhaps a standard saloon is not upto driving round Majete), they said it was a perfectly feasible trip and there were no significant issues as self-drivers. At Thawale we also met another couple who, together with their 2 pre-school children had resigned from their jobs in Holland, flown to South Africa, bought a camper pickup and been travelling through southern africa for about 4 months.  At Thawale they sometimes self-drove their game drives and sometimes took an AP vehicle & guide. As @douglaswise has said, you can book a game drive as a day visitor.

 

Like Douglas, my initial thought was that 2 x 2hrs of activities per day at Thawale was not enough (at Liwonde we had 3 activities totalling ~8hrs) however because there was always action at the waterhole it didn't leave us feeling short-changed and the cost of our stay at Thawale was significantly less that Mvuu in Liwonde. In addition, Jimmy was always happy to extend our drives.

Edited by AfricIan
typo

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xelas

Thank you both for your quick and expert replies. I have done some google research already after reading @AfricIan post, Malawi looks like a very stable country in that part of Africa. And cost wise it is also very attractive, IMO.

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Soukous

@xelas Just to pitch in on the car hire/ self drive 

I was travelling alone and I hired a car from Blantyre airport. The rate from Avis was USD100 per day. Avis was the only car hire desk that was open when I arrived. There was another local company with a booth but it was unattended.

The standard daily rate has 100km per day included, you pay extra for exceeding this. 

A normal 2 wheel drive saloon/sedan was perfectly OK for driving to Majete. Only the last 20km or so is on gravel roads and when I was there it was dry. It might be a different story after a bit of rain.

 

I had looked online for car hire before I arrived in Malawi and the rates I could find were pretty much the same. So it is quite an expensive place to hire a car. especially compared to South Africa.

 

I had originally planned to hire a car in Lilongwe and drive to Majete from there, but whilst in Lilongwe I looked online for flights between Lilongwe and Blantyre and found I could get one for just 60 Euros. Air Malawi sell this leg cheaply, presumably because the flight is continuing to Johanesburg and the seat is only empty between Lilongwe and Blantyre, where they pick up more passengers.

 

 

 

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Soukous

In one of his posts @douglaswise mentions the bird bath at Thawale. 

Like him, I did not see many birds using it. 

This may be one of the reasons

 

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I had seen an elephant using before the warthog took his bath, but after the warthog, nothing came near the bird bath. The manager told me that the warthog leaves the water smelling foul and none of the other animals like it. I'm not sure how it could be any worse than a water hole, but the birds and animals did seem to stay away until after the water had been refreshed.

 

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douglaswise

I thought I'd continue the post with photos of animals, excluding antelope and wart hog, that I saw on game drives.  However, I decided to leave elephant to a separate post.  I haven't bothered with a hippo picture, but, every time one drives along the riverside, one will see them.

 

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This is the alpha male of the introduced group of black rhino, which is doing well and multiplying.  However, the group could have been bigger had not this animal killed several of his progeny when they were young.  In an effort to prevent this happening again, his front horn has been shortened and blunted.  This is the only rhino I saw on a game drive and I only saw it once in about two dozen of them. (I did also have a further two waterhole sightings from a hide.)  The presence of rhino on the Reserve adds to AP's costs because it was considered necessary to have increased the ranger force by 9 (to a current total of 40).  AP pays for roughly half of ranger wages and the Malawi Government funds the rest. All but 3 of the current population can be individually satellite tracked.  I had a meeting with Gervaz Thamala, Majete's Field Operations Manager, who is in charge of anti-poaching activities.  He kindly showed me round his awesomely impressive control room, fitted with very sophisticated tracking and communictions technology.  It is unsurprising that no rhinos or elephants have been lost to poaching for several years. 

 

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Zebra are well distributed (570 at 2015 count), though I didn't see them in much more than 1in 3 game drives.  They look very bright as they generally lack shadow stripes.

 

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In the tourist area, most of the buffalo I saw were at water holes with few sightings on game drives.  The photos above were taken half way into the less visited southern section.

 

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Yellow baboons can be seen on all game drives, but vervets appeared to have a more clumped distribution.  I only recall seeing them on 3 or 4 drives, but those I did see were in, to me, surprisingly large troupes.  I admired the youngster's ability to make use of thorns for climbing and balance.

 

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These are the two males, introduced as mature animals in 2012.  Of the two lionesses introduced at the same time, one died quite quickly.  Despite there having been no further introductions, lion numbers currently stand at 11.  One of the above animals has already sired cubs from his own daughter and the pair need to be replaced.  This will be a cause of celebration to the rangers, who patrol on motor bikes which these lions like to ambush and chase.

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I had three game drive sightings of lions (none at water holes).  Given their low numbers, i was surprised I had this many.  However, they like to walk on the roads and Jimmy was good at tracking them.

 

I'll finish this section with some reptile photos taken during game drives (omitting crocodile, sundry gecko and skink).

 

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This twig (vine) snake was on the road.  @Bugs took the photos for me with my camera as I was on the wrong side of the vehicle.

 

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Yellow headed agama.  For me, a nice variation from the red headed which I'm more used to seeing.

 

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soft shelled hinged tortoise.

 

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leopard tortoise

 

 

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ForWildlife
On 14/12/2017 at 2:35 PM, douglaswise said:

Thanks to those who have made polite comments.

 

@Paolo, I'm afraid I don't know the proportion of AP's Majete income that emanated from the Robin Pope Safari Lodge (Mkulumadzi).  Given that it has been afforded 75 sq km of exclusive driving rights in the prime part of the Reserve and charges roughly double the Thawale rate to visitors, I guess it would be quite a high proportion of the US$ 500000 total.  I do know the annual gross "activity" income is around US$ 20000.  Reserve entry fees vary from US$ 5 and 20/day depending upon tourist origin and there were 8000 tourists last year.  At a wild guess, I'd estimate that annual entry fee income would approximate US$ 80000, leaving a figure of US$ 300000 from Mkulumadzi and Thawale combined.

 

One of the worries I have about Majete is that it is unlikely ever to become a prime destination for wildlife photo-tourism.  Malawi as a whole has a lot going for it as far as tourist prospects are concerned.  It is a smallish, friendly and peaceful country with very diverse habitats, including the magnificent Lake and the Nyika highlands in the north.  The birdlife is extremely impressive with over 600 species present.  People who visit Malawi will probably wish to travel to several destinations.  As AP builds the potential of Liwonde and Nkhotakota, one wonders whether a circuit will develop which will omit Majete because f its less convenient geographic location.  I accept the Majete is a Big 5 Reserve, but it is unlikely ever to be one where one can guarantee to see the Big 5.

 

Not so long ago I remember reading the only AP park which was making money was Akagera. But that was before lions and rhinos went in. I can imagine they upped their security level with the rhinos. They do have more of a low cost high volume tourism model and had over 20,000 visitors in 2011 and that has gone up since. The park is bigger, but not that much (abuot 1,100 sq km).

Majete has a wonderful diversity, but isn't that great for photography with all those branches in the background (and sometimes in the foreground). Malawi is small, has good roads and a high population density. I think the approach for the Malawian parks should be to aim at day and weekend visitors. There are many many expats and NGO people in the country and possibly a plan can be deviced to have a visit to the park be within budget of many Malawians too. The South of the park isn't really good for game viewing. Maybe that's where cheaper, and large campsites or even a hotel can be developed. Yes, the gameviewing isn't quite as good as in the North, but the price should reflect that. And if people want they could reach the North, it's only a 2,5 hour drive, so on a daytrip it's do-able.

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ForWildlife

Didn't one of the lionesses die during the translocation? Inbreeding is a concern, but generally not a problem in lions if it's restricted to just a generation.

The leopard tortoise is another hinge-backed tortoise, they can be quite variable in colour and pattern.

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douglaswise

@ForWildlife:

 

I agree with a lot of what you've written about Majete.  It does, indeed, offer excellent biodiversity.  I think, as I stated, that my own photo-opportunities were somewhat restricted by the relocation that had recently taken place (not that photography was that high up my agenda anyway).  Furthermore, the hides and water holes offer more for photographers than drives.  I understand that it may be the intention of AP to upgrade its hides at Majete to world class standards and to add conferencing opportunities for Blantyre-based businesses.  I think that hunting in the south of the Reserve would generate more income for considerably less input than would an expansion of low cost tourism.  Furthermore, it would allow a higher proportion of the Reserve to remain as Wilderness Area.  I'm not that au fait with hunting economics, but I have been told that the fee charged to shoot one buffalo equates to that provided by 50 eco-tourist bed nights.  I accept, of course, that the magnitude of the direct conservation gains will depend upon where the hunting fees end up.

A high proportion of Majete visitors are already expats from Blantyre.  Thus, a hotel in the south of Majete from which visitors could reach the north in 2.5h would seem to offer no advantage over staying at home for the night and taking a day trip to the Reserve, which is but 2h away from Blantyre.  Alternatively, for those more budget-orientated and not seeking first class mammal viewing, Lenge remains an alternative option where the birding is likely to be just as good.

I will not argue over tortoise identification.  All I will state is that Jimmy, my guide, identified the animal in my last picture as a leopard tortoise and pointed out that it was a different species from that shown in my first tortoise photo.  While I have excellent independent verification that he is a very accomplished bird guide, I have none such in respect of his reptile talents. 

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douglaswise

I'll carry on with this post with a few bird pictures and will then concentrate on showing the scenes I saw in one magical 90 minute period of afternoon viewing from the Nsapete Hide.

 

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My birding mentors:  Jimmy and @Bugs.  I haven't shown many photos  of birds because I saw Ted''s, in the truck with us, and mine were crap by comparison.  I did think, however, that I needed to include a few, just to allow me room to comment on the fact that Majete is a good birding destination.

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Immature bateleur

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crowned hornbill

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trumpeter hornbill

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Pair of red-headed weavers beside nest in baobab.

 

I will now go on to  photos of the hide visit, which, for reasons that will become obvious, I have entitled  "social drinking".  These have nothing to do with the fact that we were apt to quaff beers in the hide.  I undertook some half dozen or more hide visits.  Some were quite brief (e.g. 15-30 minutes).  Others were longer and extended into darkness. I was distinctly handicapped when darkness began because I had mislaid my ordinary prescription glasses early in the trip and had to rely on dark glasses or reading glasses.  Thus, the civet we saw on one occasion didn't make much of an impression on me!  On two or three occasions, we shared sightings with other groups.  We only had hassle once - from a Robin Pope Safari group.  This party drove up in darkness, having spotlighted the waterhole on the way to the hide.  They then crashed up the steps, sat down,chatted, got bored after 10 minutes and crashed out again.  We were left to wait for a further half hour before there was any animal action.

 

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The only breeding group I saw (most had gone to Nkhotakota).  Zebra and wart hog also present.  Cow on right has damaged tip to trunk (may or may not be snare damage)

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detail of trunk wound

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elephant, buffalo and wart hog

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4 species.  One wart hog was about to get a shock, not having noticed what was approaching from behind.  This is one of two sightings of immature male rhino on consecutive days (2 animals or 1 twice, not sure).

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A bushbuck arrives.

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An arriving buffalo with oxpeckers - the only oxpeckers I saw the whole trip.DSC_0964.thumb.JPG.4e5c79098ed4a561257e0de722c5d53e.JPG.

Two's company.

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I only saw 2 eland in the fortnight, both bulls at this waterhole on consecutive days.

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inyathi

Very interesting report, my understanding is that giraffes were historically absent from Malawi and there are certainly no natural populations anywhere in the country, whether they were present in the more distant past I don’t know.

 

Here’s a link to the GCF website’s report on Malawi

 

If the habitat in Majete is considered suitable then I see no reason not to introduce giraffes, back in 1986 six Maasai giraffes from Kenya were introduced into Akagera NP in Rwanda where the species was not known to have occurred, although they were found just over the border in Tanzania, now there is a thriving population. More recently the UWA introduced a population of giraffes into Lake Mburo NP which is in a part of Uganda where I believe giraffes were always historically absent, and I understand they are doing well.  

 

Majete is as you say a big five reserve, but then I presume that AP are still planning to return lions to Liwonde NP in the near future and that in time they will establish a third black rhino herd in Nkhotkota once it is suitably secure, in that case these two parks will also be big five parks. I've not visited Majete, I would think, that but for the opportunity to see nyalas in Majete, Liwonde where I have been, once it has lions would have more appeal to most tourists, because of the boat trips on the Shire River. Although you saw a black rhino, I presume they aren't that easy to see in Majete, in Liwonde you can go and track them in the rhino sanctuary (I don't think they've taken the sanctuary fences down yet) but I don't know if you are guaranteed to see one. I don't know if AP do plan at any point to introduce white rhinos, but if they do, they would I assume be much easier to see than black rhinos, which might help to attract more tourists looking for the big five.   

Edited by inyathi

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douglaswise

@inyathi:

I think I'm correct in stating that Craig Hay told me that giraffes were definitely going to be introduced to Majete.  I'm not sure which type - someone mentioned Thornicrofts, but those from South Africa might be more obtainable.

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douglaswise

In my last posting in this report, I'll start by giving a brief account of boating on the Shire River as an activity.  I only took two trips because it was my impression that it offered less "bangs for the buck". Although hippo, crocodile and birds were impressive, they could generally be seen as easily by driving along the riverside tracks as by riding in a boat.  There appears to be a  limited area upstream from the dam before the water becomes either too fast or shallow, resulting in fairly abbreviated trips.  I believe @Africlan regarded the boating at Liwonde to be superior.  However, various species of herons, kingfishers and storks were plentiful as, of course, were darters, fish eagles etc:

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A very small sample of birdlife on the river:  hadeda, lapwing with wattle (?wattled lapwing) and Egyptian goslings.DSC_0749.thumb.JPG.81aff0c599e3167e471bdcbf6d8be825.JPG

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river views  

 

I would like to finish by discussing elephants and the effects they are having on trees in the Reserve.  As I have already mentioned, 154 elephants, mainly family groups, had been removed from the tourist zone of the Reserve in July.  In consequence, most of what I saw were single bulls.  About 200 elephants were originally introduced - they were totally absent in 2003 and this had been the case for over a quarter of a century.  Unconstrained by lack of nutrition, the introduced animals bred at a very high annual rate of 8.7% such that there were about 425 elephants in the Reserve before the latest relocation, leaving 270.  The tentative long term target is 300. ( 0.43/sq km or 1/sq mile) which is or was the recommended sustainable density for this type of habitat).  I think, at this stage, I should mention a bit more about the habitat and its past history (gleaned from Rowan Martin's Management Plan.).  The annual rainfall averages 800mm, but this is somewhat flattering.  Rates of evapo-transpiration are very high, the soil surface tends towards impermeability and slopes result in rapid run off and a lack of natural dams, swamps or dambos.  Thus, apart from the Shire River, there is a severe shortage of dry season water.  If one goes back into the history of Majete, it would appear to have been, in part, quite well populated and agriculturally developed.  A decline in human population corresponded with slavery in the 18th century and was followed by a rise in wildlife numbers.  However, human influence on wildlife was stated to have remained strong such that its distribution was patchy.  Martin quotes Robinson (1973) thus: "Heavy agricultural use since the early iron age may have contributed to the erosion which has taken place", implying that the area may not always have been as stony and waterless as it is now.  I suggest this history may also explain why baobabs are still present in good but rapidly declining numbers.

 

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A commonly encountered elephant road block.

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I arrived at Majete believing, naively, that elephants would be able to exist at a sustainable density in any given habitat without damaging the browse available.  In other words, they would take no more and no less than the amount of browse represented by its annual growth.  Obviously, if at too high a density, they would eat more, consuming both interest and capital rather than interest alone.  Of course, if trees are actually killed by browsing or brute strength (and this will depend upon their species - some will coppice or pollard, some won't) death rate ought to equal recruitment rate. Recruitment rate is influenced by many species from rodents, mixed feeders such as impala and elephants themselves and by fire.  Tree death is generally caused by elephants and fire and their interaction.  What I hadn't appreciated was the effects upon top canopy trees of elephant introductions to habitats from which, for a long time, they had been absent.  The effects elephants are having on the better quality woodland, particularly that along the river, seem, to me, to be devastating.  One of the main priorities for Majete, set out in the Management Plan, was the protection of water catchment areas, in part to be achieved by conserving top cover trees.  While I think AP had done and is largely continuing to do a brilliant job at Majete, I think it is signally failing in this particular.  The problem can be rectified (or further deterioration prevented) by blocking access to elephants with fencing that allows other animals to pass under it.  Such elephant-proof fences have been designed and are proving effective in other areas of Africa.  I believe such fencing would be expensive to erect, but, nevertheless, necessary as a priority.

 

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Not all top canopy trees are harmed by elephants and tree species are diverse in the better woodland areas of Majete.  I struggled to come to terms with the huge range (wild mango, figs, shepherd's tree,

arul, ebony, leadwood etc etc).

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wild mango

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The snuff box or fried egg tree (Oncoba spinosa) was one tree that I could come to terms with because it was in flower.

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The occasional baobab was in flower (flowers in this species only last 24h.  Note, also, the fruits.

 

Expert Africa has the following description of Majete:  "Plenty of baobabs are around and the towering forms of large leaved African star chestnuts (Sterculia appendiculata) are particularly spectacular.  I would totally endorse this, but, unless something is done soon, they'll all have been destroyed by elephants.  Below, I will try, with photos, to illustrate the dire consequences of ring barking.

 

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Healthy star chestnuts (sorry about duplication of top photo).

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Star chestnuts with elephant damage.  The two in the top picture have sustained recent damage and both will die.  In the bottom photo, the left hand tree is badly damaged and may die and the right hand one is already dead.

 

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3 Baobabs in top picture.  A good specimen in the second with damage detailed in the bottom one.  Baobabs and elephants cannot readily co-exist.  Although damage takes a long while to result in death, growth rate is glacially slow.  Craig Hay told me that some of the smaller baobabs had already been killed by elephants. 

Equally sad is the almost total eradication of umbrella thorns (Acacia torticolis) from the Reserve although they are common outside the perimeter fence.  The logo of Majete displays a sable under the shade of one of these trees - the elephants are, of course, oblivious to the irony.

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The last Acacia torticolis in the Reserve?

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I have absolutely no wish to suggest a total antipathy to elephants.  In most of the wooded and shrub-covered areas of Majete, particularly in the miombo areas, they'll flourish without causing habitat damage at densities of, perhaps, 0.75 /sq km.  The many species of Brachystegia that dominate this woodland type are well adapted to browsing by elephants.  Thus, if artificial water is made available and elephants are kept out of the riverine areas, all should be well.  There would still be enough area within the tourist zone to allow visitors to enjoy elephant sightings.P1100802.thumb.JPG.7b014ef347d56e2c9bba23cb9546de34.JPG

Brachystegia spp will respond to breakage by re-growing as coppice.  Jimmy informed me that even this ring-barked small-leafed Bachystegia will survive with its current habit.

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Bugs
On 12/18/2017 at 2:21 AM, inyathi said:

but then I presume that AP are still planning to return lions to Liwonde NP in the near future

 

I see Leonardo di Caprio has beat us to it

 

 

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Soukous
23 hours ago, douglaswise said:

@inyathi:

I think I'm correct in stating that Craig Hay told me that giraffes were definitely going to be introduced to Majete.  I'm not sure which type - someone mentioned Thornicrofts, but those from South Africa might be more obtainable.

 

Yes, @douglaswise Jimmy told me the same thing. They are planning to introduce giraffes to Majete.

He told me that although there is no history of giraffes ever having been there, they have concluded that, based on other species that thrive there, the habitat will be suitable for giraffes.

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Soukous
53 minutes ago, Bugs said:

 

When money is no object, anything can be done

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gatoratlarge

Wow---had no idea they had rhino at Majete.  Enjoyed your report!

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