Expert Reviews – Malawi
Harriet is a zoologist with more than 20 years’ experience. She has the privilege of working with the world’s top wildlife photographers and photo-guides.
More than just a lake
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…
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
Land of the Lake…and some wildlife too!
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).
James is a travel writer and author of many Lonely Planet guides, including senior author of the guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Emerging safari destination
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.