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Malawi dreaming

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11 July 2012 by Alison Nicolle

Wexas Africa specialist Alison Nicolle details her recent trip through Malawi.

Day 1

Happy to be reunited with my rucksack on arrival at Blantyre, Chileka International Airport I made my way out into the heat and chaos outside the arrivals hall, where I was met by Warren Baty - Operations Manager of Wilderness Safaris in Malawi and our driver and guide Abasi Jana (who turned out to be an expert ‘Twitcher').

Having arrived straight from a cold and rainy London I was finding it quite warm and humid (although our local hosts were wearing jeans and saying it was a bit chilly!), so I was happy to be whisked away from the airport and out of the confines of the city and into the surrounding countryside where we stopped for lunch at a lovely, shady picnic stop with a fine view of the fertile valley floor below.

I was on a ‘Whistle-stop' tour of Malawi. It was to be a very comprehensive tour of the country staying at five properties in six nights and visiting a further four, so we were on a hectic schedule.

It would be fair to say that Malawi is a country with a fairly low profile on the international stage - only known by most in the UK as the country where Madonna adopted one of her children. Recent events such as the fuel crisis and the death in April of the country's President have barely had a mention on the BBC.

I was merely aware of the country's reputation as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa' and of Lake Malawi from recent TV documentaries. The Lake is in fact the third largest body of water in Africa and takes up almost a third of this narrow, otherwise land-locked country. So I was excited to learn more about what the country has to offer for potential visitors.

Malawi's geography is sculptured by Africa's Great Rift Valley and the beautiful scenery of towering mountains and lush valleys was quickly evident as we made our way down the winding roads, being passed every so often by heavily laden trucks making their slow, laborious journey piled hire with sugar for export.

We were travelling by road on a two-hour journey to Majete Wildlife Reserve, where we were to stay the night at the beautiful new luxury Mkulumadzi Lodge, which is owned and operated by Robin Pope Safaris.

As we approached we were treated to fine views of the beautiful Shire River. The lodge itself is situated at the confluence of the Shire and the smaller, but equally scenic Mkulumadzi River in a 7000 ha private concession.

The lodge is bright, fresh and modern in design with spacious bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms with large outdoor showers and private viewing decks.

To enter and leave the lodge one must walk over a long rope swing bridge over the river, which adds an additional air of excitement, before setting off on a game drive in the late afternoon sunshine. While out we saw a couple of the park's elephants and some interesting birds such as the racket-tailed roller, before stopping for sundowners in a hide where we were treated to the sight and sounds of a 50 strong herd of Buffalo coming down to drink at a waterhole bathed in the light of a near full moon. A great start to our African experience before a fine dinner on a terrace overlooking the fast flowing river below.

Majete is a thriving example of best practice conservation management at work. When African Parks took over the management of Majete Wildlife Reserve in 2003, the park was almost non-existent. Malawi has suffered greatly in its recent history from poaching , problems resulting from the influx of refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Mozambique and a recent population explosion.

Elephant in the park had been poached to extinction by the mid 1980s and almost all other species followed shortly thereafter. By 2003, only a few crocodiles and a handful of hippos were left in the Shire River.

In 2003 African Parks erected a 40km long fence around a 14,000 ha section of the park (the sanctuary) and began restocking the park with all the species previously indigenous to Majete.

The entire park was fenced in 2007 and subsequent introductions include black rhinos, elephant, buffalo, zebra, waterbuck and others. To date over 2,550 animals have been re-introduced to the park and all have flourished.

In late 2011, four leopards were introduced to the reserve and now the park staff are eagerly awaiting the arrival of lion due in August 2012.

Their arrival will complete this USD10 million restocking project and will mean that once more Majete will be a "Big Five" game reserve hoping to attract international tourists with a top quality lodge, beautiful scenery and great game viewing. All this without the crowds and vehicle numbers found elsewhere in Africa and with the huge socio-economic benefits it will bring to the area.

Malawi

Day 2

This morning I was up early (this was to be very much the pattern of the week!) for a walking safari through the reserve. Our knowledgeable guide taught us a great deal about the smaller residents of the park, such as the bugs and insects, varied flora and fauna and the huge land snails that could be spotted in the trees.

It was fairly warm, so it was nice to take a relaxing coffee break (accompanied by tasty flapjacks) by the banks of the fast flowing river.

Full of flapjacks we decided to skip breakfast and were transferred the two hours by road to Huntingdon House for a lovely lunch on the terrace.

Huntingdon House is a luxury lodge full of colonial charm and history situated in the highland area of South Blantyre. Mountains dominate the area and we heard about how it is possible to arrange a three-day trek up Mount Mulanje, an impressive inselberg standing at over 3000 metres above sea level. It is the highest mountain in tropical southern Africa.

Huntingdon would make a lovely spot to relax for a couple of days - surrounded as it is by tea estates and rainforests. Activities available range from croquet on the lawn to quad biking and clay pigeon shooting.

From Huntingdon we continued on the road for a further three or four hours towards Liwonde National Park. While the journey was quite long there was always interest along the way and this is the case wherever you go in Malawi.

Villages cluster along the roadsides offering local colour and the driver needed to have his wits about him at all times as people carrying huge bundles of firewood and animals all use the highways. We even passed roadside vendors offering the local delicacy of ‘Mice on sticks'!

Liwonde National Park is Malawi's premier wildlife destination and here again there is a huge conservation project in progress with a black rhino sanctuary in the centre of the park. These rare creatures became extinct in Malawi in the 1980s have now been brought back. Only one known lion remains in the area who goes by the name of ‘Titus', but again there are plans afoot to bring in female lions to keep him around and to fence the border with Mozambique, as the park has suffered badly from poaching on the Mozambique side in the past.

We were staying at The Wilderness safaris owned property Mvuu Lodge. Mvuu means ‘Hippo' in the local Chichewa language and there are certainly huge numbers of hippo pods in the mighty Shire River which flows through the park.

There are also many large crocodiles and before boarding our boat for the 40-minute transfer to the lodge we were greeted by a large sign, which read ‘Beware of Crocodiles - Swimming in the river is not allowed'. I felt the second part of this sign somewhat superfluous, especially when I heard about the number of local fishermen who are lost each year on this stretch of river.

En-route to the lodge we were treated to a stunning sunset and something I had not witnessed before, the rise of a huge full moon tinged orange by the glow of the setting sun.

Mvuu is a fine wilderness camp with eight beautifully designed tents, each with a private viewing platform and a unique outdoor shower from where I could watch impala grazing by day and crocodile eyes in the water by torchlight at night.

After a fine dinner in camp we headed out on a night game drive, where we were lucky enough to see a small spotted genet and a spotted eagle owl.

Malawi

Day 3

Today I awoke early to the sounds of the bush, ready for a very busy day trying to fit in as many of the lodge's programme of activities as humanly possible. First off was a beautiful early morning walk through the bush. The area is great for birding with nearly 400 bird species in the park.

We were lucky to have such special sightings as the bohms bee-eater and the only population of lillians lovebird in Malawi.

After walking for a couple of hours we came out at a beautiful spot on the river where we were picked up by a small boat for a river safari. This is a highlight of the park with lots of hippos, crocs and fish eagles to be seen along with a huge colony of noisy cormorants.

A full cooked breakfast was prepared for us onboard the boat moored up in a tranquil reed bed.

Once back in camp our next activity was a bike ride to nearby Njobvu village and onto Nanthomba school. This was a real highlight for me - a chance to see village life and meet some of the local children. I even got a chance to attempt an English lesson at the school where the subjects included English animals, weather and of course football!

During a lovely lunch back at the camp we were treated to a swim past by the largest croc in the area, nicknamed ‘The President'.

Afterwards an interesting ‘Back of House' tour of the camp illustrated the eco credentials the camp is renowned for. We then set out on our evening game drive, where we had some lively interaction with some of the many elephant which populate the park before we were treated to a ‘Surprise Bush Dinner', which was a magical evening under the stars. We had heard the haunting call of a hyena during dinner and were lucky enough to see him on the drive back to camp, as well as some porcupine and a genet up a tree.

Malawi

Day 4

I got up early once more to squeeze in one last game drive - a beautiful morning in the bush with all the animals enjoying the early morning sun. First we saw a troop of baboons and then a family of waterbuck posing for pictures by the river. We even saw a few hippos late in the evening returning back to the river from their nocturnal feeding.

Next we set out on the three-hour drive to the southern end of Lake Malawi - romantically called ‘The Lake of Stars'. We had a couple of properties to view in the area, starting with Pumulani Lodge on the Westside of the Nankumba Peninsula. Here I had my first view of this mighty lake and it took my breath away. This is recognised as one of the most beautiful shores of the lake and borders the Lake Malawi National Park, which was established to protect the area's unique cichlid fish and was declared a World Heritage site in 1984.

Many activities are available here including boat trips, snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking and water skiing. Pumulani is a stunning property also owned by Robin Pope, so with very contemporary and spacious rooms.

Next stop was Danforth Lodge in Cape Macclear, again a beautiful part of the lake and a World Heritage site. This property offers a huge range of both water and land based activities, but is particularly child friendly with expert tuition available for all the many sports on offer. It's a small, friendly family run property with bright airy rooms decked out in nautical colours. The lodge operates on a full board basis and our lunch by the lake was exceptionally good.

After lunch we were transferred the short distance to the Kayak Africa Base Camp in Cape Maclear, where we boarded a boat for the 45-minute boat transfer to Mumbo Island Camp. You can choose to kayak to the island, but as the record for this is one hour 20 minutes, it would have taken me quite some time!

Mumbo Island operated by Wilderness Safaris is located on a pristine, deserted island - it's an exclusive camp offering barefoot luxury and eco-tourism at its best.

The camp is tucked away on the rocks and as soon as I had checked into my simple but tastefully furnished tent - complete with hammock overlooking the beach of a serene bay, en suite hot bucket shower and eco loo - I snorkeled out into the crystal clear waters of the bay.

This was my first experience of ‘Freshwater' snorkeling. The water was quite warm and still and many beautiful, colourful fish darted around the rocks surrounding the island. There are in fact over 500 species of brightly coloured cichlids here, many of which can be seen from the island.

Next we headed into the lush tropical interior of the island for a walk and a scramble down to a huge rock - the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy a sundowner beer and a sensational sunset over the lake.

Dinner back at camp was a simple but tasty affair on an outside terrace overlooking the bay. By this time the wind was picking up quite a bit. Although I still slept with my tent open and was gently lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing on the rocks below.

Malawi

Day 5

I was woken by the sound of waves pounding on the rocks below my room, but despite a slight moment of hesitation, decided I still fancied giving kayaking a try.

So we set out early in the morning with the intention of kayaking around the small island. This normally takes about 40 minutes, however with the conditions on the lake being a little on the rough side, that clearly wasn't going to be possible this day.

In fact on turning a bend at the far end of the island the waves became quite high (despite it being a lake, it can get quite choppy when the wind blows!) so we turned and headed back to camp.

It was still a beautiful morning for a swim in the clear, warm waters of the bay before breakfast and our boat transfer back to the mainland.

Mumbo is perhaps one of the most amazing locations in Africa - but you do need to be prepared to embrace the whole ‘eco experience' of solar lighting and bucket showers, etc. It's a real authentic ‘Robinson Crusoe' experience.

After a four-hour drive back to Lilongwe Airport we arrived in time for a light lunch in the attractive airport cafe before boarding a four-seat light aircraft flight bound for Likoma Island at 1330 hours, sharing our flight with the local MP for the island, which provided a rapturous reception on arrival.

Likoma is located in the centre of the lake and on arrival we were cleared to exit Malawi before a short walk down to the beach of this tranquil island to board a boat across the lake to the small town of Cobue to get our passports stamped to enter Mozambique - a process which in theory should have been simple but was in fact a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare. The town was, however, very pleasant
with goats, sheep and chicken wandering around in front of the little church and children happy to pose for pictures.

The waters had still been pretty choppy on the earlier part of the crossing but we were assured they would be calmer for the remainder of the short journey along the coast to Nkwichi Lodge on the quieter Mozambique side of the lake.

So I was tempted by the offer of a beer to celebrate successful completion of our border crossing. However on turning a bend in the lake I was soon left clutching my beer and getting yet another soaking from the waves which always seemed to crash on my side of the boat.

We soon arrived at the lodge looking somewhat bedraggled from the experience.

The lodge is located on a stunning stretch of coastline with 4km of beaches and rocky shoreline, rivers, forest and bush. Birding is apparently excellent in the area.

The lodge offers a range of both land and water based activities, such as snorkeling, trekking and looking for wildlife.

Again the lodge was very much an ‘Eco Experience', made from local materials and built and staffed by the local Nyanja community.

All the chalets are unique and imaginatively built around the rocks and trees, set back from the shoreline so as to be invisible from the lake. It's all about privacy and getting back to nature and is ideal for honeymooners looking for something very different, really remote and romantic.

We were treated to drinks and a fine dinner on a table set out by the water's edge, a perfect setting under the stars.

Malawi

Day 6

Up early once again for a swim in the still big waves on the lake which were actually big enough for a bit of ‘Body surfing', before a gentle stroll through the bush for an interesting visit to a community farm project operated by the lodge - all part of their policy of sustainable tourism.

Following breakfast we were back on the boat once more for our reverse journey back through immigration and back across the lake to Likoma Island and Malawi.

By now the wind had dropped and the crossing was a warm and pleasant experience. Once we cleared Malawi immigration (in a hut near a beach where the local fishermen were busily mending their nets on the shore) we proceeded for a site inspection at another Wilderness Safaris property, Kaya Mawa Lodge.

The lodge is located at the head of a crescent shaped bay surrounded by ancient baobabs on the idyllic island of Likoma. The island would be lovely to explore. With the population surviving by fishing and farming, it's like an island that time forgot.

This property again offers lots of watersports on the lake, but also biking around the island. There are seven rooms, all in thatched cottages set around the granite headland with private terraces and direct access to the lake.

This property would make a lovely honeymoon destination and also caters well for families with a beautiful white sand beach.

Leaving the lodge we were treated to probably the best airport transfer ever - a beautiful ride on a jeep across the island to the little airstrip for another light aircraft flight (one hour) up to Nyika National Park in the north of the country.

Nyika is unlike anywhere else I have ever experienced in Africa. It is a spectacular wild area, which reminded me of Scotland. Being at over 2,000m the temperature is much colder than elsewhere in the country and on touchdown we were immediately rummaging in our rucksacks to pull out fleeces and jumpers.

The lodge staff greeted us with hot chocolate at the grassy airstrip, where we were welcomed by a small group of burchells zebra.

The landscape here is very scenic with open rolling grassland and crystal clear rivers and lakes, prolific bird life and mammal species include the rare roan antelope, which I saw for the first time on our drive, as well as leopards and hyena. The vehicles used here are closed because it does get pretty chilly, but they are very comfortable.

We were treated to sundowners on a high rocky outcrop with superb views over the surrounding plains and over the border into nearby Zambia.

The Wilderness safaris owned Chelinda Lodge is unique in Africa, consisting of eight pine log cabins each with its own fireplace where I had a warm bath and a short nap in front of a roaring log fire before a fine dinner in the main lounge, before being handed a hot water bottle to take back to my cabin!

This area is truly unforgettable and like nowhere else I have ever been, offering a great blend of adventure with trekking, mountain biking, fly fishing, luxury and relaxation.

Malawi

Day 7

After an early start on a chilly morning and a quick breakfast we boarded a light aircraft flight for the two-hour flight back to Lilongwe and then said a sad farewell to Malawi before boarding a South African Airways flight back to Johannesburg and onto London.

Malawi is a truly memorable African experience with a huge diversity of habitats, wildlife and experiences on offer. The landscape is beautiful, lush, green and fertile, with towering mountains and crystal clear lakes.

The people as yet seem very unaffected by tourism and are naturally warm, friendly and welcoming.

The wildlife of Malawi has suffered in the past from poaching and other problems but what makes this country so fascinating is the huge conservation project, which is now well underway. Malawi's parks will soon offer Big Five game viewing once again, but without the crowds to be found in other parts of the continent, so it's a fascinating time to visit.

However, if you do want to combine the wildlife of one of Zambia's famous parks, South Luangwa is actually closer and more easily accessible from Lilongwe than from Lusaka, so these countries make a great twin centre, safari/beach combination.

Malawi is probably not so much a ‘Destination safari' in the same as say Botswana or Kenya - it's more about the journey. About taking the time to relax and explore this fascinating and diverse country, from its mountains, to its lakes and beaches.

There is so much more to Malawi though than just the wildlife. The country is already popular with backpackers and it's easy to see why as there is so much on offer, such as the great hiking and trekking, the three-day ascent of Mount Mulanje or the famous Livingstonia Trail from 1800 m up on the Nyika Plateau right down to the shoreline of Lake Malawi some 50 km away.

Then of course there are the beaches on the lake: beautiful white, sand beaches with crystal clear water, with a full range of watersports on offer.

It's a country I would certainly recommend for anyone looking for a totally unique holiday or honeymoon. What could be more romantic than eating or camping out under the enormity of the dazzling Malawian sky? It's somewhere that you can still find total tranquility, peace and seclusion away from the crowds.

Personally I would just love to go back to explore more of this country and see how the lions are settling in to their new homes in a few years time!

Malawi

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