Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Endowed with spectacular highlands and extensive lakes, it occupies a narrow, curving strip of land along the East African Rift Valley. Lake Nyasa, known in Malawi as Lake Malawi, accounts for more than one-fifth of the country’s total area. We took a 10-day tour of Malawi that included visiting two wildlife reserves, a high-forest plateau, a beautiful island on Lake Malawi an stopping on a tea plantation. It was an amazing journey and one we will never forget.
We reached the gates of Liwonde National Park, which had nothing like the gatehouses of Masai Mara or Serengeti. These were just a simple set of gates that a lady popped out of the adjoining building and opened for us. We drove on about a kilometre and arrived at the Shire River, the same river we’d seen in Majete. The river here in Liwonde is very different from Majete, it is wide but slow flowing. We parked the car and unpacked our bags with the help of a very nice young lady who called across to Mvuu Camp to get them to send the boat across.
When the boat arrived, we were introduced to McCloud, our guide for the next two days. The ride across the river took about five minutes, but we took a couple of detours on the way to see hippos and one particularly large croc who slipped into the river as we approached, which we miserably failed to capture on video. We docked the boat, our bags were unloaded, and we headed into the main building onsite for our briefing on the camp, after which we had lunch (it was getting quite late in the afternoon by now), which was delicious and vegan.
As planned, we headed out with McCloud in the launch around 3:30 pm, initially going south on the Shire River. As we passed along the river, we got to see plenty of hippos, both in the water and grazing on the bank. We’d already seen one large croc on our way to the camp when we arrived, but we found some more who were quite shy as we approached and launched themselves into the water. This time we were ready with the camera and phone to capture it. The Shire River is the main river in Malawi, flowing from Lake Malawi into the Zambezi and then onto the Indian Ocean. Along its banks in Liwonde it has formed marshes and wetlands which are a great attraction to wildfowl including white-throated cormorants, ibis, egrets, cranes and storks among others. We also got to see lots of pied kingfishers in action and African fish eagles. On the eastern banks of the river, the land was flat and open, a great environment for the grazing antelope and hippos. It was also dominated by towering termite mounds that made the landscape look like it was filled with South-East Asian temples. After a while of heading downstream to the south, McCloud turned us around and we headed north, spotting lots more birds and hippos and we chugged upriver. By now the sun was rapidly setting, and at the same time, we found a great spot to enjoy our sundowners next to a marshy area where a mother elephant and calf were happily feeding. What could be more perfect? We drank our beer and chatted with McCloud about every subject under the setting sun. It was a wonderful time and so relaxing. Darkness was falling so we headed back to camp for dinner.
At 5:15 am we were rudely awoken by our alarms, and 15 minutes later we were in the main lodge sipping our coffee before heading out on a dawn game drive.
We had not gone far from Mvuu camp when met another game drive vehicle, who had come across a pride of lions. There was a male and two lionesses. One lioness had two cubs that were around a year old, the other lioness had four cubs, two about two years old on the other two, about a month old. We were one of the first people to see these young cubs as the mother had only just come out of the bush with them (the lioness and cubs hide for a month or so after birth to protect the newborns from the rest of the pride). They were close to the road, so we had a great view of the frolicking cubs, who were into everything and everyone, seeming to get pleasure out of teasing the older lions. We sat and watched these lions for at least 30 minutes before they slipped quietly into the jungle.
For the next hour or so we drove around the park, which was stunning in the early morning sun. The park is dominated by trees, mostly mopane trees, but there are also other trees such as the yellow fever trees (from which quinine is extracted) and the impressive baobab trees. Lots of trees, including the baobabs, have been badly damaged by marauding elephants. The colourscape of the forest is brown and green, but there was a pop of colour from the bright pink Savvis Lily (also known as the Christmas Rose). The undergrowth is not too overgrown, so as we travelled, we got to see plenty of antelope, including impalas, bushbucks, reed backs and the lovely kudu.
We had decided to take breakfast with us on the game drive. McCloud selected a spot near to the river where there is a massive baobab tree. When we arrived, there was a large group of people waiting under the tree, some on foot, some on bicycles. They had with them goats, piles of wood and other goods. Just along from them was another group, hanging out on the bank of the river. What they were waiting for was a boat to take them across to the other side of the Shire River. McCloud found us a parking space a little further down the river, where we unpacked our breakfast on a handy little table that unfolded on the front of the Landcruiser. We had McCloud check with the chef on the radio what was in the wraps (it looked like chicken a bit). While we waited for the answer, we poured our coffee and tucked into the rest of the food. As we ate breakfast, we could see the boat approaching from the other side of the Shire. On the front of the boat was packed many bicycles. It was not a large boat, and it was full of people, dangerously full. We approximated that there was about 30 people aboard and it sat very low in the water in a river full of hippos and crocodiles! This boat did not have a motor – it was being rowed by four people. The people on our bank waited patiently, looking on at us with some disdain (at least that is how we interpreted their look). Eventually, the boat arrived, and its passengers piled off and left on their business and those waiting got on and the boat set off back to the far bank. This gave us the opportunity to visit the baobab tree. It is a very old specimen, estimated to be about 800-years old. It is not just a baobab tree; it has been overtaken by massive strangler vine. The inside of the tree is now hollow, and there is a narrow opening in the tree trunk so you can climb inside. McCloud went inside to check for snakes and spides, before Karen went in. There was no way I could get in there, and I was also starting to feel unwell, so I went back to the Landcruiser While I was sitting in the vehicle, McCloud gave Karen a bit of the history of the tree and the area. Rumour has is that David Livingstone visited the spot where this tree stands. There is also a darker story about this area, as Arab slave traders operated in this area, raiding the local tribes to take prisoners who would be taken up the river and Lake Malawi to Tanzania where they would be sold into slavery. Those captured who were too weak or old were sometimes just thrown into the river to drown or possibly eaten by crocodiles.
We returned to Mvuu Camp, by which time my innards were in full motion, so I decided to skip lunch and hang out back in the chalet. The plan was to do a late afternoon river safari – so I hoped to feel better for that.
Luckily, after a sleep and some medicating I felt much better, so we went to meet up with McCloud for the late afternoon river safari, which also meant sundowners! We asked if we could do Malawian gin (which we had developed quite a taste for) and tonic – for medicinal purposes only – and the answer was of course. This time our river safari took us downstream, south of Mvuu Camp. Again, we saw lots of antelope, hippos, crocs and wildfowl. Something new on this trip was a small herd of zebra, who ran off as soon as they saw us. The herd of zebra in Liwonde is still quite small. As the sun began to set, we pulled across the riverbank and poured the gin and tonics. Again, we set the world to rights with McCloud with the backdrop of an incredible sunset
About Liwonde National Park
Situated in Malawi, the ‘warm heart of Africa,’ Liwonde National Park has been host to some significant wildlife translocations and reintroductions. When African Parks assumed management of Liwonde, in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) in 2015, the park was riddled with tens of thousands of wire snares – more snares existed than large animals – and it had some of the highest human-wildlife conflict levels in the region. Liwonde was a park in decline, teetering on the edge of total collapse, almost to the extent of not being able to be revived at all.
But since then, Liwonde has established one of the most effective ranger forces and training grounds in southern Africa; integrated the most advanced technology to protect and monitor wildlife and management activities; removed more than 40,000 wire snares; and orchestrated historic animal reintroductions. In 2016 the park was at the epicentre of one of the largest elephant translocations in history. A total of 336 elephants were relocated from Liwonde to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi to reduce pressure on Liwonde’s natural habitats and help address human-wildlife conflict situations around the park
Best time to visit Liwonde
The ideal time to visit the park is during the dry season from April to October. During this time, the bush is dry and open, making game easier to spot.
There are three distinct seasons in the area:
November – March
When the rains begin, the conditions are generally hot and wet. Humidity peaks during January and February, and the bush is thick, making it difficult to spot game. However, Liwonde is magically turned from a dust bowl into an emerald paradise during this time, and is particularly beautiful.
April – August
Temperatures are cooler and rainfall drops during this period. It is advisable to take warmer clothing for activities during the early morning and evenings or on the river, particularly in July and August.
September – October
Temperatures are extremely high and it is very hot and dry during these months. The landscape is sparse and dry with limited vegetation cover, but game viewing is amazing.
Malawi – Month-by-Month
Visiting Malawi December to March
These are the wettest months, characterized by torrential downpours in the afternoon. Afternoon temperatures are around 29°C/84°F and the humidity is high.
Visiting Malawi in April
Rain is dwindling and so are the temperatures. Daytime temperatures still reach 27°C/81°F but evenings and early mornings can be chilly.
Visiting Malawi in May
This is the end of summer and the rain has stopped. Temperatures are relatively cool, typically 16°C/61°F in the morning and 26°C/79°F in the afternoon. Nighttime temperatures start to drop.
Visiting Malawi in June – August
The average morning temperature is 14°C/57°F. Bring warm clothing for the cold morning game drives in open vehicles. Afternoons will be more pleasant, with temperatures around 25°C/77°F. Nyika Plateau with its high altitude is much colder.
Visiting Malawi in September & October
he heat gradually builds, and the first rains bring relief from very dry conditions. Daytime temperatures will be around 29°C/84°F in September and 31°C/88°F in October, the latter being the hottest month. Peak temperatures can be much higher.
Visiting Malawi in November
This month is unpredictable – the rain starts in the afternoons. Temperatures are between 20°C/68°F in the morning and 31°C/88°F in the afternoon.
The Mvuu Camp consists of five twin chalets, five family chalets and three rondavels, all of which are comfortably and simply furnished.
The chalets are built on a stone basis with canvas roof and stone-walled en suite bathroom. The camp has a central dining and bar area in a large thatched roof building also including the main reception and a small curio shop. The main lodge overlooks the beautiful wide Shire River where you can see pods of hippo and elephant herds playing in the water.
The restaurant serves tasty food and your activities here include walks (with armed scout), game drives and also boat trips on the river. Located near to the camp is also a rhino reserve which is home to around seven black rhino, and while sightings can never be guaranteed it could just be the highlight of your trip. The guides at the camp are excellent; they are well trained, knowledgeable and informative