Expert Reviews – Malawi
Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
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A charming slither of a country with Africa’s third largest lake and fast-developing safari parks
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.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
An emerging safari destination
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.
Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.
Malawi: More than ‘the warm heart of Africa’
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.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
Dynamite comes in small packages
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.