Malawi is a paradise for naturalists, offering a rich variety of large mammals in many of its parks and reserves. Most species of big game are now restricted to game reserves and national parks owing to an increase in poaching over the past decade. There are three types of protected areas in Malawi: national parks, wildlife reserves and nature sanctuaries. They cover an estimated 11 per cent of the country’s total land mass.
Kasungu National Park, stretching along the Zambian border, 175 km north of Lilongwe, is Malawi’s second-largest park. The park is located in the central region about 1,000 metres above sea level. It consists mainly of miombo woodland and also has grassy river channels known as dambos. Flowing through the park are the vitally important Dwanga and Lingadzi rivers, the main water sources that support its ecosystem. Some of the best game viewing in Malawican be found at Kasungu, especially in the warmer months of August to November, when water levels begin to drop, forcing the animals to stay close to the park’s remaining waterholes. During the annual heavy rains of March the park closes for the month – perhaps earlier if the rains begin in late February – as tracks are washed out and become inaccessible. Large populations of elephant can be found roaming the plains, although the increase in poaching over the past fi ve years has reduced their numbers. In addition to elephant, Kasungu is home to other intriguing wildlife including various species of buck (sable, roan, kudu and impala) as well as buffalo and zebra. Hippo can also be spotted on the Lifupa River, in particular where it dams at Lifupa Conservation Lodge, a peaceful retreat next to the dam. Predators such as hyena and wild dog are most active in the evening and their signature laughs can be heard as they roam the park.
Lake Malawi National Park has been a World Heritage Site since 1984 and is the only park in Malawi to be created for the conservation of fish and aquatic habitats as opposed to most parks that protect wildlife. Considered Malawi’s touristic jewel, this landlocked freshwater lake is second to none, with a length of about 600 km and a width of 75 km. In the north, the lake is an extraordinary 700 metres deep. Looking almost like the ocean itself, this huge expanse of blue water is a breathtaking sight. The lake is filled with brightly coloured fish and aquatic wildlife unique to the lake. Lake Malawi is located between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania and for this reason it is also referred to as Lake Nyasa. Fishing villages scattered along the shore have also contributed to the naming of Lake Malawi. As the fishermen set out each evening they often set adrift many lanterns, which from a distance look like stars, leading to the fond nickname of ‘Lake of Stars’. The national park offers an unmatched experience, blending a classic beach holiday with adventure, sport and wildlife. The southern and central areas of the park contain the most popular sites for tourists. These are the areas where most of the lakeside accommodation can be found. There is an impressive choice of accommodation for visitors, ranging from lodges to hotels to backpacker establishments. Mangochi Lakeshore and Monkey Bay have the highest concentration of lodges and hotels, with popular resorts such as Makokola Retreat and Sunbird Nkopola Lodge. Nkhata Bay, located in Nkhata Bay District, is ideal for both couples and families and is especially popular with honeymooners. The bay has golden beaches and the resorts and lodges offer romantic settings.
Lake Malawi offers great yachting adventures through Danforth Yachting, which has named its fleet of boats after characters in ‘The Lion King’. For visitors wishing to experience the lake, the ‘Mufasa’ – the only live-aboard yacht on Lake Malawi – is highly recommended. Dining experiences on the yacht include dishes prepared by local and international chefs using only fresh local ingredients. Alfresco dining is available for families. Lake Malawi offers a freshwater scuba diving experience like no other. Danforth Yachting has a fully equipped PADI resort scuba diving centre. Divers can enjoy the warm, clear, fresh water with no tides or currents or salt water and a chance to see the brightly coloured tropical fish known as cichlids. Dive spots are easily accessible and with PADI certifi ed scuba divers on hand, the experience is quite magical. In addition to diving, Lake Malawi offers kayaking, sailing in Laser dinghies, Hobie Cat sailing, water-skiing, wakeboarding, tube rides, mountain biking, hikes and nature walks in the hills around the national park.
A ferry trip across Lake Malawi is highly recommended. This can be experienced on board the 620 tonne ‘Ilala’, which has recently been fitted with new engines. The ‘Ilala’ has a passenger capacity of 400 and provides an essential means of travel both for tourists and for local people, who transport goods for trading. The ‘Ilala’ goes to the Mozambican territory of Likoma Island as well as to Ulisa Bay Lodge, Kaya Mawa and Mango Drift. The ferry operates on a weekly schedule between Chipoka and Chilumba, with nine other stops en route including Nkhotakota, Nkhata Bay, Likoma Island and Metangula on the Mozambique shore. It travels northbound Saturday to Monday and southbound Tuesday to Thursday.
Accommodation on board the ‘Ilala’ is charming, with five double cabins (one en-suite) and two single cabins on the upper decks for tourists. The top deck above the cabins is reserved for cabin-class passengers except when in port. There is a spacious recreation area with a covered bar.
FISH FARMING AND CONSERVATION
Salima, on the shore of Lake Malawi, is the site of one of the region’s largest fish farms, operated by Stuart M. Grant Ltd, which focuses on the professional fishing and transport of cichlids both locally and internationally. The lake contains hundreds of species of fi sh which are in demand by enthusiasts around the world. The cichlids are collected by professional local divers and the fshing sites are carefully monitored to ensure there is no overfshing or destruction of the aquatic ecosystem. The fish farm also reintroduces cichlids on the brink of extinction through various breeding projects carried out on the farm. Working closely with the Department of Fisheries, the company releases the fi ngerlings back into the lake. More and more tourists have shown an interest in close interaction with the cichlids. It was for this reason that Red Zebra Tours was born, offering picnic and hiking excursions and lake safaris as well as accommodation at the Red Zebra Lodge with its views of Lake Malawi.
Lengwe National Park, about 50 km from Blantyre, is different from most parks in Malawi as it consists of dense woodland. Man-made pools assist game viewing as wildlife congregate around the water catchments, especially in the dry season. It is also a paradise for birdwatchers, with over 300 bird species. Guests on game drives can easily spot Livingstone’s suni, bushbuck and impala as well as baboon, monkey, warthog, bush pig and buffalo. At the entrance of the park is the ‘Tisunge!’ heritage centre (meaning ‘Let us preserve!’ in Chi Chewa), formed to preserve Lower Shire culture. Various artefacts are on display at the centre’s museum.
Liwonde National Park lies on the east bank of the Shire River in southern Malawi. With scenic views and a hippo-filled river running through it, the park is a true reflection of beautiful African bushland. The environment of the park is untouched and less travelled than most parks in Africa, thus enhancing its beauty and tranquillity. There are several lodges in the area that allow visitors to take full advantage of the surroundings. Wildlife on view here include elephant, lion, leopard, warthog, greater kudu, vervet monkey, baboon, impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, mongoose, crocodile and monitor lizard. The black rhino has been introduced to Liwonde and the population has now grown to 10 as the result of a conservation project in partnership with the government. These animals usually steer clear of the beaten track, so it can be a challenge to spot them.The park is ideal for birdwatchers, with nearly 300 species of birds. And there are opportunities for beautiful photography, with orchids and lilies in full bloom just after the rains.
Nyika National Park, 500 km north of Lilongwe, is Malawi’s largest national park, covering 3,200 sq km. The park covers the entire Nyika plateau and is one of the country’s most important catchment areas. ‘Nyika’ means ‘where the water comes from’ and this is the wettest area of the country. It has an incomparable ecosystem that supports the local wildlife and the surrounding environment and is perfect for the traveller seeking to experience both these aspects in full. The landscape is breathtaking, with rolling hills and grasslands as far as the eye can see, dotted with over 200 species of orchids when in season. Over 400 species of birds thrive here, including the rare Denham’s bustard. Large populations of antelope reside here owing to the vastness of the grassy plains and perhaps it is for this reason that the park has the highest population of leopard in Central Africa. Visitors can also expect to see eland, roan, zebra, elephant and lion. Activities in the park include trekking, mountain biking and 4x4 excursions as well as horse-riding safaris with beautiful views. Waterfalls, trout pools and even the famous ‘magic lake’ of Kaulimi are a ‘must see’ for visitors, who will fi nd accommodation in one of the lodges dotted around the park. Initiatives are under way by various government ministries to conserve wildlife and the environment. These include development of the national park infrastructure as well as administrative support. Trans-Frontier Conservation Area (TFCA), Peace Parks Foundation and the Norwegian government contribute significantly while joint government initiatives with Zambia form institutional frameworks to manage the protected area.
Although Elephant Marsh is not classified as a national protected area, efforts are still made to preserve this important catchment area, which sustains both human life and wildlife. Lying in the flood plain of the lower Shire River, the marsh provides water for local communities and their livestock. A revenue-sharing scheme through Wildlife Fund Order allows the government to share revenue gained from tourist fees. Through the Kasungu Treasury Fund and Lake Malawi Treasury Fund, the money goes towards health, education and human welfare. Tackling climate change is top of the conservation agenda and the development of carbon agreements with participating international states is well under way. Private as well as government institutions work closely with local communities on projects to tackle deforestation in protected areas.
Located in the heart of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary is the place where ‘wildlife and people meet’. The wildlife centre, located in the sanctuary, is an award-winning rescue, conservation and education hub. It was the Born Free Foundation that helped to set up the centre in 2007 and this renowned animal conservation body is still actively involved in projects. In partnership with the Department of National Parks & Wildlife and some of the world’s leading international wildlife charities, the centre aims to raise the profile of wildlife welfare and conservation, working with local communities to preserve habitats in protected areas. Education involves working with hundreds of schools across the country and providing information about environmental conservation. The community outreach programmes promote community empowerment and sustainable livelihoods so that issues such as human wildlife confl ict are addressed.
Located just an hour from Lilongwe is Kuti Wildlife Reserve, one of Malawi’s smallest reserves, run by a non-profit trust committed to the conservation and protection of wildlife and the environment. This tiny gem offers lots of activities and sights for tourists. They include horse-riding, bike safaris, birdwatching and, of course, the wonderful sunsets. Giraffe, zebra and antelope are the predominant wildlife here.
The story of Majete Wildlife Reserve is perhaps the most interesting of all parks in Malawi. In the late 1990s most species of large game had been eradicated, mainly as a result of poor law enforcement and an inability to deal with poaching. In 2003, however, a project spearheaded by the government, in liaison with local communities and a non-profit organisation, took control of the situation and turned it around so that rehabilitation of the park could go ahead. Today, as a result of infrastructure development including new fences, tracks and waterholes, nearly 3,000 animals of 13 species have been introduced including black rhino, elephant, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and eland. In fact, Majete Wildlife Reserve is the only protected area in Malawi where the famous ‘big five’ can be seen. Poaching has been reduced significantly as a result of community outreach programmes and government enforcement. There are various lodges offering a choice of accommodation with activities such as game drives, birdwatching and treks.
Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, in southern Malawi, is the country’s smallest wildlife reserve, with only 135 sq km of protected area. The reserve is not easily accessible because it is so remote, thus allowing a large variety of habitat to thrive. Wonderful views of woodland and surrounding environs can be seen in the course of game drives or treks, which can be arranged by the local reserve authorities. Various lodges and campsites have been established, including Njati Lodge, close to Mwabvi Gorge, where guests can admire the beautiful sunsets. This once-empty reserve is exceptional for those wishing to experience the ‘road less travelled’ in Malawi’s tourist circuit.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is said to be Malawi’s oldest reserve, covering some 1,800 sq km of rocky terrain flled with woodland stretching from the Great Rift Valley in the west to within a few kilometres of Lake Malawi in the east. The plateau is dotted with streams and waterfalls and there are great spots for fishing and canoeing. Various lodges have been established within and outside the reserve to take full advantage of this onceinaccessible reserve. Tongole Wilderness Lodge opened up accessibility even further by creating an airstrip that allows visitors to reach the reserve by charter flight. Lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo can be spotted on game drives organised by the reserve’s authorities. For guests staying at a lodge, the management will offer various packages.
Along the Zambian border lies Vwaza Wildlife Reserve, a 400 sq km marsh plain filled with an outstanding number of bird species and a backdrop of woodland that is second to none. Although accommodation is not yet available, tourists can still enjoy what nature has to offer, such as the hippo-filled Lake Kazuni or the numerous herds of buffalo and elephant.