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.
For our visits to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania we’d had tour guides who had collected us from airports and border crossings and ferried us around. For Malawi I had rented a car and we were on our own. A little bit worrying, but after a month of being driven around I felt more comfortable as to what we might encounter and also was relieved to have some freedom to control what we were doing. So, with some trepidation we headed out of Blantyre towards our first stop, Majete Wildlife Reserve – about 80km from the airport. I had printed off directions, got sent instructions by Majete and had a GPS so I felt confident we’d find our way there okay. The road was tarmacked and in a fairly good condition, so things were good. Blantyre is located on a high plain, and is surrounded by some very impressive looking mountains, and to get down to Majete we had come down the escarpment, which involves a steep descent and sharp curves. It was not too bad, and being Sunday there were not too many trucks to negotiate. We got to Majete at lunchtime without any issues along the way!
The Majete Reserve is run by African Wildlife Parks, who took over the place when it was in a dire state. The animal population was in severe decline and poaching was rife. They have turned things around with professional ranger training programmes and restocking the wildlife. Today, there are healthy populations of antelope, elephants, giraffe and lions. You can also see rhinos, zebra, leopards, cheetah and African wild dogs.
We were staying a Thawale Tented Camp and were warmly greeted by Jen the camp manager with hot towels to clean up and a delicious fruit drink. As were getting our briefing a large male elephant turned up at the water hole right next to the main lodge building and started to spray himself with water – it was a very cute display and an excellent welcome for us. We were then shown our tent, which was lovely, with a great view of the water hole, and so well equipped.
At 4 pm we met up for our evening game drive. The game drive vehicle was on open-sided LandCruiser, which I was excited to try out. We shared our ride with three others, an older gentleman and two ladies. The park at Majete is covered in dense undergrowth, which is great for the animals, but makes views a bit tricky, but nonetheless we got to see plenty of antelope including impala, water bucks and nyala, which we had not seen anywhere else. The weather was not perfect, and the light levels started to drop quickly, but not before we got the chance to see a group of ten Thornicroft giraffe, a genus we’d not seen before on our safari drives. A part of the afternoon game drive was to have a sundowner and snack, so we stopped at a beach along the Shire (pronounced ‘she-lay’ by the locals) River – which made me think of the Hobbit, to have a drink. The Shire River is wide and fast flowing and is a tributary of the mighty Zambezi River. In the river was a solitary hippo, who seemed happy in his isolation. Darkness comes quickly in this part of the world, especially on a cloudy day like today, but this is also a good time to see animals. So, on the way back to Lodge, our driver used a torch to shine into the bush. We came across a couple of elephants who were re-arranging the landscaping of the jungle – they can be very destructive – and saw a genet, which is a small nocturnal member of the cat family. By the time we arrived back it was just about dinner time.
Anyway, we set out full of hope for a great morning on animal viewing. One of the first things we came across were some baboons, including a mother and baby, which was extremely cute. The baboons at Majete are the olive-coloured baboons which are lither and more delicate than the darker ones – and a lot more photogenic. Moving on we went to the airstrip – which we had visited the day before and seen some antelope and interesting baboons. As we travelled down the airstrip, our driver spotted the pack of African Wild Dogs at the end, so off we went to see if we could get closer. These dogs had only been introduced in the last few years but had in the last three months had had a litter of eight pups – so there is now a total of 14 in the pack. The dogs are nervous of people, so we didn’t get to see them for long, but we were on the second group of visitors to see the pups. What a great start to the day! The rest of the game drive was uneventful, but we did get to see zebras and the hippo was still in the river, but a lot more animated than the night before. On the way back to the lodge we were travelling along the road where we’d seen the elephants the night before, they had gone but not before pulling a tree down right across the road – so our driver took us on an off-road drive to bypass the fallen tree. Those naughty elephants!
For the evening game drive, we decided to sit in the back seats of the LandCruiser and for a long while things were quiet on the animal spotting front. We took one of the loop roads and came across one of the Ranger vehicles on the side of the road. As we approached a middle-white man came out of the bush and asked if we’d like to see a cheetah up close. A bit of a silly question! He said it was okay to leave our vehicle and come with him. This man, a South-African, was John who runs the Park on behalf of African Wildlife. He took us over to where his daughter was standing close to a young cheetah who had just gorged itself on a large male impala. This cheetah is one of a handful that roam Majete. It had two siblings, one was killed by lions (who don’t like sharing their space with other predators and will kill them) and other died, they are not quite sure how. They have had to help this surviving cheetah adapt to the habitat of Majete, including providing it some fresh carcasses but it had now four kills of its own, so they hoped it had now turned a corner. The cheetah had a tracking collar, which communicates with a satellite and also has an VHF transmitter. This way they can easily find its location in the vast area of the park. John also showed us, via an app on his mobile phone, he could track the cheetah, lions, wild dogs and rhinos. This got the Israeli ladies excited as they thought we could use this app to find the animals. John explained that they only got the satellite info twice a day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon so it was not for real-time tracking. Anyway, back to the cheetah! It was about 3 years old and large specimen. We were able to get within about 10-feet of it as it had got accustomed to people – it was still a wild animal – but tolerated us. It was also full from feeding on the impala, and was rolling around to help it digest. For 20-minutes we were able to ask John questions about the Cheetah and the work that is going on at Majete. He recommended watching a video on Majete on National Geographic that documented the recovery of the park. Karen was interested in finding out more about his daughter, Louise, and as usual managed to get her whole life story while I asked questions about the animals!
Sadly, we had to say goodbye to the cheetah and John and Louise had to go home to get dinner ready. We went a little way down the road and pulled over to have our sundowners and snacks. It was chilly, so we had bought a flask of rooibos tea instead of cocktails! Just as we poured the tea our driver got a call on the radio from John saying there were lions on the road just a short distance from where we were. The tea was poured back into the flask in a flash, and we were off. Five minutes later we had caught up with John and Louise, and about 50-yards in front of where they were parked was a large male lion, right in the middle of the road and just behind him to the side of the road another, slightly smaller male. We pulled alongside John’s truck. He asked if we’d like to hear the lions ‘sing’ and pulled out his mobile phone and started playing a recording of lions calling. A minute or two later the large male in the road started to move, he got up and started roaring – it was so loud that it reverberated in our chests – it was like nothing we’d experienced before. It was truly amazing. He then started marking his territory in a bush which started to vibrate violently as he continued to call and ward off the other non-existent lions and walk towards us. I was a little concerned he might jump into the LandCruiser but he just walked passed us. John and Louise headed off to get their dinner whilst we moved up to see the other male lion. We pulled right up next to him, no more than 10-feet away. It was dark but our driver used his torch to light the lion up. The other male lion was still calling away in the distance, so this lion joined in. It was incredibly loud and impressive. In between the calling he cleaned his paws by licking, like a giant pussycat. After, about 30-minutes we had to leave the lion and return to the lodge for dinner.
Before leaving Majete we had one more early morning game drive planned, so it was an early rise and finish our packing. Karen went off to clean out the flask we’d used the night before in the main lodge, whilst I was still sorting things out. I heard a commotion outside and went to look, and incredibly saw the adult African Wild Dogs close to the waterhole by the Lodge. I grabbed my camera and went outside but they didn’t hang around long enough to get some decent photos and disappeared into the bush behind some of the other tents. The dogs started making their calls, which is frightening sounds, and an adult kudu antelope burst through the bushes with one of the dogs in pursuit – it got nowhere near the kudu and quietly slinked back off into the bush. What a start to the morning!
We all collected at the LandCruiser for our morning game drive, reclaiming our front.. It was an interesting drive, andwe got to see some eland, elephants and for the first time sable and kudu antelopes. The light was perfect for photography for the first time during our time at Majete, so we got some great sightings of birds including vultures (who were working on the impala carcass the cheetah had left, auroras, red-headed weaver birds (who were working on their nests), crowned hornbills and bee-eaters. Everyone was happy by the time we got back for breakfast
About Majete Wildlife Reserve
Majete was once a prolific wildlife refuge but by the late 1990’s most species of large game, including elephants, had been eradicated. Remnant populations of a few resilient species remained but they had been reduced to very low, and in some cases critical numbers. Law enforcement teams were ill-equipped and underfunded, illegal encroachment, agriculture and hardwood logging were all occurring inside the reserve and the resource was diminishing. In 2003, African Parks Majete (APM) a non-profit organisation, in partnership with the Malawian government and local communities, took total responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of the reserve. The restoration of Majete since then has included significant infrastructure development (142km of electrified perimeter fence, 300km of roads, water holes, scout camps, fence camps and complete tourism infrastructure), wildlife restocking and a complete overhaul of the law enforcement and scientific monitoring function.
The mass translocation of wildlife began in 2003 and by March 2012, 2,559 animals from fourteen different species had been reintroduced including the famed African ‘Big Five’: leopard, elephant, buffalo, black rhino and lion. Other mammals reintroduced were eland, sable, waterbuck, nyala, hartebeest, impala, zebra, warthog and bush pig and in late 2018, Majete received its first-ever population of giraffe (thirteen in total). The introduced animals have been thriving and breeding well and current estimates put the total population of mammals over 11,000.
Planning your visit to Majete
For those who would like to drive to the park, vehicles are available for hire in Blantyre. From Blantyre, take the road to Chikhwawa and follow the signs to Majete Wildlife Reserve. In Chikhwawa, turn right at the T-junction. The all-season dirt road from Chikhwawa Boma to the park is about 20 km, and can be driven throughout the year, although a 4×4 vehicle is recommended during the wet months. The journey takes about an hour and a half.
For those who prefer to fly, Majete has an airstrip, and charters can be booked with a local provider. Prior permission is required before an aircraft can land at the park’s airstrip.
|Hours:||06h00 – 18h00|
|Admission Fees||Adults: $30|
Under 7: Free
Best time to visit Malawi
Although Majete is open all year-round, the weather conditions vary considerably depending on season. The wet season occurs from November to March and is when Malawi receives most of its seasonal rains. It is hot and humid with thick lush vegetation. In contrast, the dry season runs from April to October when the bush gets increasingly less green and temperatures are mild to very hot come October. Rain is unlikely from June – October. Temperatures range from 11 to 40 degrees Celsius, with July being the coolest, and October/November being the hottest.
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.
There are two lodges inside Majete Wildlife Reserve, Mkalumadzi Lodge and Thwale Tented Lodge. We stayed at Thwale which is set on the edge of a pristine waterhole that regularly attracts a wide variety of wildlife, including a family of elephants that often frequent the area. Within the reserve boundaries, the lodge is completely unfenced to give guests a unique experience in the natural surroundings. There are six tented chalets available – four twins, and two doubles – that look out onto the waterhole. The common areas consist of a central dining and restaurant lapa as well as a birding platform.
Thawale is a family-friendly property and a very accessible safari stop. For families, a purpose-built chalet is available, which includes two en-suite bedrooms, a lounge, and veranda. The lodge does not accommodate children 3 and under.