Tracing mankind's origins

First published in Your Say

Did you know the oldest remains of the genus mankind found so far were uncovered in Malawi – in Karonga district, in fact?

The jaw bone of homo rudolfensus, two and a half million years old, was found in 1991 by a multi-national team of archaeologists.

Before that, the dig had also discovered a virtually intact fossil of a nine–metre long dinosaur, Malawisaurus, over 100 million years old.

We found out during our Christmas holidays, when we visited the north of Malawi, including the Karonga museum, built with an EU grant.

The area is in the Rift Valley, where many other fossilised discoveries revealing the birth of mankind, and geology has helped preserve many remains. So far over 1700 items have been catalogued though international funds have dried up and the dig is temporarily on hold. We also camped at three of Malawi’s national parks – beautiful scenery but very few animals. People told us the parks are heavily and consistently poached, so animals are few in number and very elusive. Most of the parks are run as a partnership, with private concessions let for the accommodation but the management of the park controlled by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Naturally, the government focuses its attention and budget on making sure people get enough to eat so the national parks are not a priority.

The jewel in the crown, Nyika Plateau National Park, is a wonder. Its high altitude and rolling plains are like nothing we’ve seen before and it is home to many antelope including the rare roan antelope. It was absolutely beautiful, even in a thunderstorm which occur every couple of days in the early weeks of Malawi’s rainy season.

Unfortunately, awarding the latest 10-year concession has collapsed amid allegations of bribery among top government politicians. The existing concessionaire, who failed in his renewed bid and blew the whistle on the alleged corruption, was made to feel no longer welcome and has taken his thriving and reportedly very profitable business to Botswana. The government has made all but 12 of the 200 staff at the park redundant and no-one knows when the concession is going to be advertised again. Meanwhile the top of the range lodge is empty and receiving no maintenance. The medium-priced chalets are still available for tourists as is the campsite.

We actually did see one of the most difficult predators to spot in Kasungu National Park – a leopard appeared from the undergrowth looked at us and then slinked away. Perhaps it was the excitement that made us lose concentration and got us well and truly stuck in the black mud on the track. We’ve been stuck a couple of times in sand on previous holidays in Botswana and now know the laborious but usually successful method of digging out. Mud is worse – especially as we’d forgotten to bring a spade. We managed by using our hands, the jack, to raise up each tyre in turn, and wood underneath each tyre to give a firm foothold. It took us two hours, the last 45 minutes in the rain. The leopard didn’t worry us – but we could tell by evidence on the ground that there were buffalo close. I’ve had to use bleach for the first time to clean our clothes! Oh and even though it’s rainy season, the sun still shines most of the day and the temperature is still in the high 20sCelsius.

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