“How can you tell if it’s an African elephant?” asks Thom, our guide. “Really?” I think. “Because it’s ears…” “Yes!” “… are shaped like the map of Africa.” Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

We are in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park, pottering along the Shire River, dodging pods of hippos and keeping a beady eye on the hundreds of crocs lying on the riverbank. A small group of elephants lumber through the thick bush to reach the water’s edge, sucking up great trunkfuls of river to quench their thirst. One is missing the end of its trunk – the result of a croc attack, says Thom. No doubt they are on their guard. I’ve never seen so many flatdogs in the one place.

As the ellies take a breather, they rest their trunks on one of their tusks, taking the weight off their already overburdened head. It’s a curious sight. The area is a birder’s dream. There is a plethora of cormorants in the trees, their excrement having turned the leaves and trunks white. Fish eagles soar, kingfishers eye the water for food, storks strut, yellow baboons race around, warthogs snuffle, waterbuck jump, crocs slide into the water at surprising speed, hippos wallow and elephants rip up branches – all in one scene.

The wildlife in Liwonde may be sparse, compared to, say, South Luangwa, but they seem to congregate close together. The magnetic pull of the Shire drawing them in.

Thom allows my six-year-old to steer the boat, and we immediately go in a different direction to the way Thom was planning. We zigzag across the river to get a closer look at some baby crocs and spy a terrapin – the crocodile’s primary food source here.

The boy then decides to steer us straight at the bank, and Thom has to quickly take evasive action, grabbing hold of the rudder and slamming the engine into reverse. As we cruise near a large gathering of hippos, Thom, thankfully, reassumes control of the steering.

Back on dry land we head through the park into a 50sq-km rhino sanctuary. Rhino were poached out of the park in the ’70s and ’80s, but were reintroduced in 1993. But it’s slow progress: there are still just nine in the park – six in the sanctuary and three outside (having escaped when elephants trashed the fence).

This is proper off-roading country, sliding down steep gullies, slipping as we go up sandy inclines and pushing branches out of the way as we wind our way through the trees. We come across a group who have been tracking rhino on foot. There’s one about 1km away deep in the forest. But try as we might, we can’t penetrate the bush far enough to find him… Still, it’s good to know he is there.

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