Stalked by a croc – a unique Lilongwe experience
‘Go down this trail,’ says the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre guide, ‘and keep an eye on the river bank, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot a crocodile. But they’re very rare.’
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘Okay? You mean you’ll go?’
‘Yep. Why not?’
‘Alright, but you probably won’t see any crocodiles; they’re very rare.’
This is happening just outside the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, not far from the centre of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi.
Advisory signs, just outside the wildlife centre, warn of the presence of crocodiles and hyenas. Hyenas too? I take a few cautious steps along the trail, scanning the creek below with interest.
There are animal tracks all along the sandy creek bank. They appear to have been made by a large animal, or many large animals, dragging themselves across the ground.
‘Can’t be crocodile tracks,’ I say to myself, ‘there are too many of them. They’re everywhere. Whatever it is that’s making them is clearly not a rare animal.’
I continue along the creek bank, walking quietly, slowly; hoping not to scare away the rare, timid crocs. The same animal tracks are present all along the trail.
It’s only a short track, just a few hundred metres in length, terminating in a random point above the creek. I reach the end of the track, turn around, and there, next to the path, just a few metres away from me, is a croc. It wasn’t there a second ago; the animal has quickly and silently pulled itself up the creek bank, ready to snatch whatever happens to being passing by. It isn’t a timid little reptile; it’s a full-grown, inherently-dangerous, Nile Crocodile.
I’m a little alarmed, but I know crocs are stealth hunters, and this croc is looking me square in the eye. It knows I know it’s there. Any opportunity for a stealth attack is long gone. Even so, passing in front of those teeth – it’s a one way track, so I have to return the way I came – is a nerve-wracking experience. I’m on high alert during the return trip, keeping well away from the sandy river bank. I walk straight into the guide’s office.
‘What do you mean the crocs are rare?’ I say, ‘there are tracks all over the creek bank.’
‘Did you see a crocodile?’ the guide enquires politely.
‘Yes, a big one, it pulled itself up onto the trail behind me.’
‘Really?’ his eyes go wide.
‘Yes, but why did you say they are rare? There are obviously lots of them down there. If I’d known I would have been more careful.’
‘We didn’t know.’ He gestures to his colleagues, including them in his statement. ‘We never go down that trail.’
‘There are crocodiles down there,’ says one of the colleagues. ‘Crocodiles are dangerous. That’s why we put up the signs.’
Lilongwe – what’s it like?
Lilongwe is a small, sleepy capital full of leafy boulevards, many lined with delightful, red-flowering poinciana trees.
The city centre consists of a few short streets of modest, low-level shops and offices. There’s also a marketplace selling brightly coloured handicrafts, and several surprisingly large supermarkets (South African chains).
For the tourist, Lilongwe has little to offer in the way of sights. There is the wildlife centre, and not much else of note.
Lilongwe Wildlife Centre
The wildlife centre was established in 2008 to care for rescued, sick, and injured animals. Its inhabitants include a one-eyed lion rescued from a European circus, several tail-less baboons – also rescued from European circuses (their tails were cut off to allow the baboons to be clad in cute costumes) – a resident python, a number of monkeys, and an orphaned hyena.
The entry fee includes a one hour guided tour of the wildlife centre. At the end of the tour you are given the option to walk along the creek bank next to the grounds and look for crocodiles. Take the warning signs seriously.
Is Lilongwe worth a visit?
If you were considering flying into Malawi for the sole purpose of visiting Lilongwe, then I would say it is definitely not worth it – there is not enough to do here to warrant the effort.
If you happen to be travelling around southern Africa though, and are transiting through the region, then Lilongwe is a pleasant enough stop over point on your way on to Lake Malawi or South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.
Practical information and how to reach Lilongwe:
Lilongwe has an international airport with regular flights to South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. The airport is a 40 minute drive outside of the city. More info here.