Expert Reviews – Malawi

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A charming slither of a country with Africa’s third largest lake and fast-developing safari parks
Overall rating
4/5

Split by the Great Rift Valley and enormous Lake Malawi, and bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, Malawi has a lot going for it thanks to the legendary friendliness of the people and a distinctly chilled vibe. I’ve explored extensively here from relaxing at a resort on a sandy beach next to the impossibly clear fresh waters – so lovely to swim, snorkel and kayak in – to hiking in the pretty forests on the lofty Zomba Plateau. It’s hard to know where to start listing the highlights but the lake itself is the drawcard for all visitors. As it covers almost 30% of the country, there are numerous choices from budget thatched resorts to more upmarket beach hotels, but at all, feet-in-the-sand with a cold Malawian beer is the norm. The lakeshore towns and villages are relaxed and offer rustic cafés, vibrant markets and unpressured souvenir shopping – my favourites are Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear – and inland, towns like Salima and Mzuzu, and even the capital Lilongwe, have unhurried laidback atmospheres.

Malawi is home to nine national parks and wildlife reserves. Lake Malawi National Park at Cape Maclear covers part of the shoreline, numerous rocky islands and the lake itself. Wildlife present includes baboons, small antelope and rock hyrax, while fish eagles, cormorants and hamerkops soar overhead. But to see the main attraction of Lake Malawi National Park you must get wet, and with a mask and snorkel you can observe glittering shoals of endemic and beautifully multi-coloured cichlids. Even when I’ve been kayaking here, looking down into the crystal-clear water is like peering into an aquarium.

While the terrestrial parks haven’t historically compared to neighbouring Tanzania and Zambia as safari destinations, things are changing rapidly and there has been much development in recent years. The flagship park is 580-sq-km Liwonde; with the Shire River on its border it features ancient baobab trees and borassus palms, floodplains, dense woodlands and lagoons. These sustain zebra, antelope, leopard, hyena, crocodile and hippo, and Malawi’s largest populations of elephant and black rhino. African Parks assumed management in 2015 and have since greatly impacted on the park’s conservation. They have fenced it (reducing human-wildlife conflict), have reintroduced cheetah, and from 2016 (now famously), have translocated more than 500 elephants along with other game animals to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Majete Wildlife Reserve to reduce habitat degradation in Liwonde and restock these other burgeoning safari destinations. Additionally, new accommodation of international standards has opened up in all of these. I for one am excited about my next visit to Malawi, and I’ll brush the sand off my feet and enjoy visiting these newly-rejuvenated parks and reserves which are firmly putting Malawi on the safari map.

An emerging safari destination
Overall rating
4/5

When I first visited Malawi 24 years ago, it was essentially a backpacker destination. There were very few facilities for upmarket tourists. However, the combination of Lake Malawi’s beautiful sandy beaches, cheap living and chilled atmosphere made it easy for long-term travelers to hang out indefinitely in this small country, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’.

Although Malawi is still slightly off-the-beaten track and refreshingly low-key, its tourist industry has come a long way since then, and the country is now a recognized safari destination.

This transition is largely thanks to the involvement of African Parks – a highly successful conservation non-profit organization – in the management of some of Malawi’s main parks, namely Liwonde National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.

Liwonde is my favorite park in Malawi. The Shire River, the park’s lifeline, is one of Africa’s magic waterways. Hippos and crocs are abundant, and the palm-dotted floodplain attracts a steady stream of thirsty animals. Boat trips are highly recommended, especially in the late afternoon, which is the best time to see elephants drink and play in the water. And in recent years, African Parks has helped curtail poaching by erecting fences and removing snares, whilst restoring the natural balance of the ecosystem with the successful reintroduction of lion and cheetah.

Where Liwonde needed a helping hand to return to its former glory, Majete needed rebuilding from scratch. Fifteen years ago, when African Parks took over Majete, the reserve was depleted of wildlife as a result of decades of neglect and poaching. Since then, more than 2,500 individual animals have been reintroduced to Majete, including several black rhino, and the reserve is now a proper Big Five safari destination.

More recently, African Parks acquired Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Although this vast wilderness still needs further development to become a viable tourist destination, the historic relocation of 520 elephants and another 1,500 other animals has been the first step towards putting it back on the map.

There are several other reserves worth visiting, not least Nyika National Park, with its green rolling hills, reminiscent of the European countryside. Its high-altitude plateau is a wonderful place for walking, and perhaps the best place in the country to see the elusive leopard.

Malawi: More than ‘the warm heart of Africa’
Overall rating
4/5

Malawi is well known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ because of its welcoming, friendly people. While that moniker is certainly true, there’s much more to this tiny country than meets the eye, and its people are just one reason to visit.

Lake Malawi, the 10th largest lake in Africa, dominates the country and until recently was the main attraction for tourists. One of my fondest memories of our nine-month trip across Africa was spending five days on the MV Ilala ferry, which journeys the length of the lake. It’s by no means luxurious, but if you want a true glimpse of local life and soul then jump on board and enjoy. Around the lake, Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay are great places to stay and have superb snorkeling to see cichlids – with 875 different species, there are more species of this fish here than in any other lake in the world.

But beyond the lake, Malawi is now getting a name for itself as a wildlife destination, thanks to the hard work of conservation organisation African Parks, which now manages three of the country’s reserves. African Parks was first successful with Majete Wilderness Reserve, which within 10 years was transformed from a poachers’ paradise to a thriving Big Five destination. It followed suit with Liwonde National Park and is now restoring and restocking Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. All three are beautiful reserves in their own rights, but together they tell an inspiring conservation success story.

Malawi is also home to Central Africa’s highest mountain. Mulanje is a huge, isolated granite massif that rises steeply from plains of tea plantations, with 20 peaks of over 2500m jutting into the sky. Sapitwa, the highest peak, translates as ‘Don’t go there’ and it shouldn’t be underestimated. You don’t need technical skills, but be prepared for robust scrambling and negotiating challenging boulders – the reward of fabulous vistas of Zomba Mountain to the north and Mozambique to the south makes it all worthwhile. If you want to climb it, first check out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice pages (https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/foreign-commonwealth-office) – there have been incidents of unrest in the area.

More than just a lake
Overall rating
3/5

Malawi is one of Africa’s poorest and most densely populated countries but, though it might sound like a cliché, it really does have some of the friendliest people. The country is dominated by the eponymous lake, and there are lots of associated lake-based activities – with beach resorts, snorkelling, kayaking and island-hopping trips.
But there is much more to Malawi than just the Lake. In the south are great hiking options on the peaks of Mt Mulanje and the Zomba Plateau. There is also good hiking on the Nyika Plateau in the western highlands, with its rolling grasslands, eland and roan antelope, and more than 200 orchid species.
Malawi is a rewarding and varied birding destination, with localised specials including the green headed oriole, brown breasted barbet and white winged apalis. Until recently Malawi was dismissed as a safari destination. However, this is changing rapidly, thanks to the new management of some key Malawian National Parks by the inspirational NGO, African Parks. They now manage Majete National Park, where they have reintroduced lions, and they are eliminating poaching and illegal fishing in the beautiful Liwonde National Park. On one afternoon’s boat trip at Liwonde I saw elephants, hippos, Pel’s fishing owl….and African skimmers. Most recently African Parks have translocated 500 elephants from Liwonde to Nkotokhota Wildlife Reserve – Malawi’s oldest park, and one of the country’s largest conservation areas. The future is looking bright for Malawi’s national parks…

Land of the Lake…and some wildlife too!
Overall rating
3/5

Traditionally, Malawi has never been much of a safari destination. Widely and justifiably regarded as one of the friendliest and most likeable countries in Africa, it is centred on the gaspingly beautiful 585km-long Lake Malawi, lined with palm-fringed sandy beaches and hemmed in by the sheer walls of the Rift Valley. In the 1990s, tourism amounted almost exclusively to a steady trickle of backpackers chilling out on the lakeshore en route between eastern and southern Africa. Today, Malawi still attracts plenty of backpackers, but it is also rapidly emerging as a worthwhile off-the-beaten-track safari destination, offering visitors a trio of well-managed and contrasting reserves. Now managed privately by the admirable African Parks non-profit, Majete Wildlife Reserve is a fully fledged Big Five reserve that supports almost 500 elephants as well as growing populations of lion, leopard, buffalo, black rhino and several antelope species. Less strong when it comes to Big Five sightings, Liwonde National Park is notable for its evocative location on the Shire River, dense numbers of elephant and hippo, and peerless birdlife. Finally, the lofty Nyika National Park supports a majestic highland plateau whose grasslands and forests support a wealth of large mammals and birds. Overall, Malawi is too small and its circuit too fragmented to compete with the likes of Tanzania or Botswana as a top-drawer safari destination, but it will appeal greatly to those who want to get off the beaten track, and to supplement a diet of conventional game drives with riverboat trips (in Liwonde and Majete) and guided walks (in all three parks).

Emerging safari destination
Overall rating
3/5

Often overshadowed by its wildlife-packed neighbouring countries, tiny Malawi is one of Africa’s most exciting up-and-coming safari destinations, largely thanks to the conservation work of NGO African Parks in the Liwonde, Majete and Nkhotakota reserves. Adding to the appeal of Lake Malawi’s laidback beach towns, iridescent cichlids and desert islands, Majete Wildlife Reserve now offers the Big Five, while the stunning Nyika National Park is known for its leopards and Liwonde National Park is one of Africa’s best spots for river-based wildlife watching.

Conservation success stories have included lion and cheetah translocations from South Africa to Majete and Liwonde respectively, as well as the latter’s black rhino sanctuary. The latest news is the translocation of four lions to Liwonde with the involvement of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Lion Recovery Fund. In 2016 and 2017, African Parks broke conservation records with the translocation of no fewer than 520 elephants and 1400 game animals from overpopulated Majete and Liwonde to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, where a 19,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary has been constructed. Even Britain’s Prince Harry, president of African Parks, took part in the historic translocation; the rugged royal spent three weeks carrying out tasks such as anaesthetising and affixing radio collars.

Malawi is really buzzing with this celebrity involvement, and with luxurious new wildlife lodges adding to the existing choice, it duly featured in lists of 2018’s top places to visit compiled by everyone from Rough Guides to Vogue. It’s great news for one of the world’s poorest countries, where tourism contributes over 7% of GDP. With all that said, Malawi remains an emerging safari destination, where exploring the African bush in uncrowded parks, staffed by enthusiastic and welcoming locals, is as much a part of the experience as animal sightings. The bird watching is excellent in the likes of Nyika and Liwonde, while the latter’s lodges offer the novelties of boat and canoe safaris.

Dynamite comes in small packages
Overall rating
4/5

Known as the warm heart of Africa, Malawi is an enchanting and welcoming country that is undoubtedly home to the friendliest people in all of Africa. While it might lack the abundant wildlife resources and expansive protected areas of some its more illustrious safari neighbours, Malawi makes up for this with its friendliness, ease of travel, diversity of enchanting tourist experiences, host of attractive little reserves and rapidly rebounding wildlife.

Lake Malawi (with its enticing Mumbo, Domwe and Likoma islands) leads the way in visitor popularity, but the rejuvenated protected areas of Liwonde National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Nyika National Park are certainly worth exploring. Twitchers will be mesmerised by a species list that tops 650 birds in a fairly small country, while hikers will likely head to Mount Mulanje, Zomba Plateau or Nyika (with the multi-day Livingstonia hiking trail) for their ambulatory adventures.
Since African Parks – the renowned conservation non-profit – first ventured into Malawi and took over the rehabilitation and long-term management of the derelict Majete Wildlife Reserve in 2003, the organisation has expanded its Malawi portfolio to include Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park. The cutting-edge protected area management practices implemented by African Parks – combined with a whole host of wildlife reintroductions – has seen top-quality safari operators like Robin Pope Safaris and Central African Wilderness Safaris expand their lodge offerings in Malawi.

The protected area transformation and wildlife restorations that African Parks catalysed in Malawi catapulted the country from a safari backwater into one of the most popular emerging African safari destinations. Today Malawi is one of the continent’s most complete travel destinations, with wildlife, water sports, diving, hiking, biking, community engagement and lakeside relaxation all on offer. Consequently, the country has been scooping travel awards in recent years, as this exciting and fun-loving destination bursts back onto the international safari scene. This is a country and destination that is very much on the up right now.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.6/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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