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Frances Reports Back From Malawi

Malawi is an exciting country, full of diversity and known as ‘the warm heart of Africa’. For me, it was an entirely new destination to discover. For anyone, it’s a country that offers a diverse off the beaten track experience with a variety of experiences, landscapes, wildlife, birdlife and culture.

The population of the country has almost doubled in the last decade. As you drive through the country, you’ll see the villages, the markets, the chickens, the goats, the donkeys, the school children, the interesting array of snacks on sale (barbecued blue waxbill anyone?) – it’s a country that you get to know intimately as you journey around.

I was travelling with a group of travel agents from around the world. For some it was a return trip to Malawi; for others, it was their first trip to the continent of Africa, and it was fascinating to see the country through other perspectives.

We were visiting two major game reserves (Majete Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park), the Satemwa tea estates and finally the Lake. We began our trip in Majete Wildlife Reserve, a couple of hours’ drive south of Blantyre. Majete has an inspiring story – it was the very first wildlife area looked after by African Parks, who have since gone on to manage over 20 parks across the continent. Twenty years ago the wildlife in the reserve had been poached to almost decimation with just a few antelope remaining, a few staff members left and not much else. African Parks have worked hard and the wildlife population is now thriving – with rhino, wild dog, lion, cheetah, and even pangolin doing well.

We spent two nights in the reserve and while the game was not as abundant as other more well-known parks in Africa, we had a great sighting of wild dogs who turned up to our morning coffee stop. An impala crashing through the bush and baboons alarm calling alerted us and the next minute we had a pack of 14 dogs running right behind the vehicle. We all hopped into said vehicle, leaving our coffee and muffins behind and spent the next 20 minutes watching the pack as they enjoyed the shade of a huge tree. During our stay we also saw two different prides of lion, including some very playful cubs snacking on a kill made by their diligent mother, and three different sightings of beautiful sable antelope. Majete is one of the best places in Africa to see sable.

Mkulumadzi Lodge has a wonderful location right on the banks of the Shire River – the water rushes past you and it’s a lovely outlook from camp. We ate dinner under the stars on the banks of the river. I also loved African Parks’ Thawale Camp which has much more of a ‘bush feel’. The simple tents look out onto a couple of lit waterholes, so I spent all night waking up hopeful that something would be there (alas no luck that night!). They also have a rather interesting “bio-swimming pool” full of fish that are ready to nibble your toes – not for everyone, but definitely memorable.

The drive between Majete and Liwonde would be a long journey in one day and there are a couple of places you can choose to stop in between. One is the Zomba Plateau, known for walking, mountain scenery and birding. We however headed further east and spent a night at Huntingdon House on the Satemwa Tea Estates, which was gorgeous, green and lush, such a contrast to the dry heat of the bush. The higher altitude meant we had a break from the hot temperatures and the estate was just beautiful to drive through, with rolling tea fields everywhere you look. The house is over 100 years old. It has a colonial feel to it and we had a delicious lunch served in the shade of the wrap around verandah, overlooking the lawn. We enjoyed a tea tasting, trying over 20 different teas before enjoying a tour of the factory, and learning about the whole process. We then drove up through the estate to enjoy a tea themed sundowner with a “G and Tea” cocktail with beautiful views. It was a Friday night and we could hear the gentle humdrum noise from the surrounding villages and the cheers of the evening football matches being played all around us. A charming way to experience another side of Malawi.

From Huntingdon, we drove back to Blantyre and headed north towards Liwonde. Liwonde is a really beautiful park – especially the floodplains around the Shire River, with big majestic baobab trees and sausage trees dotting the plains and striking palm trees lining the river. We enjoyed an afternoon boat cruise from Mvuu Lodge with many hippo heads bobbing up and down around us, some seriously impressive crocodiles slipping into the river from the banks, and some colourful birdlife, kingfishers and fish eagles abundant. We even got lucky enough to see lions from our boat cruise. As we got back on land and drove back to camp after sunset, we enjoyed one of the better night drives I have experienced in my safari career. We saw lions mating, we had lions roaring across the plains, the sound reverberating all around us, there were many hippos out of the river grazing, herds of elephants crossing the plains after their evening drink, as well as the nocturnal species making an appearance with porcupines, white tailed mongoose, civets, marsh mongoose and genets.

A trip to Malawi would be incomplete without some time spent at the Lake. So large, it feels like the ocean, it’s possible to snorkel, scuba dive, sail, kayak, swim, stargaze and of course, just completely relax. We spent a night at Pumulani with its impressive elevated position giving a beautiful outlook over the water. We enjoyed a sunset cruise, and watched as the local fisherman set out to fish for the evening.

Next we took a boat transfer to Nankoma island to stay at the charming Blue Zebra Island Lodge. The island is small enough to walk around in an hour or so, with excellent birding (African pitta nest there every year – for anyone interested!). It has a rustic and natural feel to it, coupled with excellent food, the opportunity for a massage in the open air spa, and comfortable accommodation (in particular the executive chalets). I spent the afternoon snorkelling – we got a boat to a nearby uninhabited island and jumped in the clear water. The colourful cichlids were just beautiful – flashes of bright blues, oranges and yellows darting around the rocks. I looked up from the water to hear a fish eagle cry above us and got completely distracted from the snorkelling for a while, watching a pair of pied kingfishers about to plunge into the water. It was a unique perspective from which to birdwatch!

Finally our stay in Malawi ended on the magical Likoma island, an hours flight from Lilongwe. It’s an amazing place to fly into – it feels like you could almost be landing into an island in the Indian ocean – the waters are so blue, and the golden sand of the beaches shining in the sun. We were staying at Kaya Mawa and drove through the island in an open air vehicle to the lodge. Life on the island was busy and fascinating, we saw the silver fish laid out and being sold from the previous nights catch, we drove through the school near Kaya Mawa conveniently during breaktime, and the vehicle was absolutely surrounded by happy smiling faces of the school children, jogging along next to us to keep up with the vehicle. A pretty joyful welcome to island life!

Kaya Mawa is a very special place – full of quirkily designed individual cottages, each with their own charm, with light white washed walls, and pops of beautiful colour in the decor. The beach is just stunning and the water so inviting. You can explore the island on foot or by using an e-bike. We had two nights there and I was able to snorkel directly from my cottage (what a treat!). We climbed a view point to enjoy a magical sunset, we visited Katundu, which is a local organisation that employs woman on the island to make incredible hand-made home interiors from local materials, and we visited Likoma Cathedral, Africa’s third largest cathedral on this tiny island. It’s much more than a beach destination if you want it to be – you can do as much or as little as you like during your stay on this charming little island in the middle of Lake Malawi.

Malawi was a real adventure – it was much more than a wildlife safari destination. We travelled through so many different landscapes, saw different aspects of Malawian life and enjoyed so many different activities in one trip. The game viewing was certainly good, but the trip was memorable for so many other reasons as well. It’s a rewarding and fascinating country to discover. It’s also worth remembering that Malawi offers relatively good value for money in comparison to neighbouring countries where costs are rising more and more these days.

Fran stayed at Kumabli Country Lodge, Mkulumadzi Lodge, Thawale Camp, Huntingdon House, Mvuu Lodge, Kuthengo Camp, Pumulani, Blue Zebra Island Lodge and Kaya Mawa.

Fran visited Kefi Hotel, Mvuu Camp and Pure Likoma.