Malawi: warm heart of Africa

Find revitalised wildlife and a safari that won’t break the bank in Malawi


I’m wakened from my afternoon siesta by the sound of elephants trumpeting. In the trees outside my door, two young bucks are going head to head, in what looks like friendly joshing. They’re only a few metres away and I worry that they might see me, but they carry on oblivious.

After a few minutes, one slinks away into the bush, but the other stays in the camp. As it’s too dangerous to go out alone, I sink back into my bed and resume my slumber. Despite the chance of these unforgettable sights, my destination of Malawi isn’t one that usually features on people’s Africa wishlist.

Often called the “warm heart of Africa”, this landlocked country in the south-east of the continent is bordered by Mozambique to the south, Tanzania to the north and Zambia to the west.

To its east is Lake Malawi, which was named Lake Nyasa by David Livingstone, the first European explorer to map its shores. His legacy lives on as Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, is named after the small Scottish town where he was born.

Only a small country, with a population of just over 18 million people, Malawi has a diverse range of landscapes and wildlife to discover. Plus it’s affordable, with accommodation, food, and activities relatively cheap. Safaris, in particular, are good value compared with similar camps in nearby countries.

My trip starts in the capital, Lilongwe, a low-rise sprawling city with a population of over a million. It’s worth spending a night or two here, if only to relax after the long flight, but I’m soon on the plane to Blantyre in the south.

The dry season, the best time to visit, runs from April to October; with less dense vegetation, it’s easier to spot the animals but also to get around. My two-hour journey to Majete Wildlife Reserve, sometimes on dirt roads, is happily relatively painless.

And from the entrance to the reserve, it’s only 15 minutes to Thawale Camp, one of only three lodges here. Set on the edge of a pristine waterhole, it regularly attracts a wide variety of wildlife — including the family of elephants that interrupt my siesta later.

There are only six tented chalets, each with its own private veranda, plus a family chalet with two en suite rooms, a kitchen and small living area. And one of the biggest draws is that the lodge is completely unfenced, so guests can experience untamed nature.

As I sit and enjoy my welcome drink in the thatched lounge by the waterhole, impala males are engaging in their own mock fights right in front of me. It’s the mating season and there’s vigorous competition for the females. They dart back and forth, occasionally locking themselves in full horned combat, but it seems it’s nothing more than play.

Only a few decades ago, the story was very different. In the early 2000s, Majete Wildlife Reserve was on the brink of extinction, drained of wildlife after decades of rampant poaching, made worse by the civil war in nearby Mozambique. Only handful of antelope were left, the staff were down to 12 and there were no tourists.

Then in 2003 the Malawian Government partnered with African Parks with a joint vision of transforming an empty forest into a thriving eco-system. This programme included the reintroduction of animals, as well as the removal of invasive species and the improvement of the park’s infrastructure.

The result is a remarkable success story. To date, 3,200 animals from 16 different species have been reintroduced, including the big five — leopard, elephant, buffalo, black rhino and lion — along with others such as eland, sable, waterbuck, nyala, hartebeest, impala, zebra, warthog, bush pig, giraffe and cheetah.

And Majete is now home to more than 12,000 animals, making it one of the most biodiverse reserves in Malawi.

The evening game drive is my first chance to see what they’ve achieved. Very soon we spot giraffes and a whole host of antelope —impala, waterbuck, nyala and kudu. There’s the occasional elephant wandering through the bush, while warthogs wander nonchalantly into the road.

We make our way down to the Shire River, which forms the eastern boundary of Majete. This fast-flowing torrent is the only outlet of Lake Malawi flowing into the Zambezi in Mozambique. Crocs are lounging on its banks and, in the early evening, hippos are bathing in the centre of the river.

It’s the perfect place to stop for a sundowner, in my case a cold beer, gazing across the river into Mozambique. We spot a herd of elephants far away on the other bank but on our way back, find one blocking our path. It stomps on the ground, throwing up dust, and trumpets loudly.

Then, after all the excitement, it leaves the road to enter the bush, and we make our way back to the camp once again.

Meals are taken outdoors, on long communal tables right next to the waterhole. There’s a relaxed atmosphere here and the dishes are hearty rather than gourmet.

The obliging staff also light a campfire for us to huddle around and compare our day’s experience with only the grunting of warthogs, drinking from the waterhole, and the occasional hoot of owls as a soundtrack.

Next morning, we’re up at dawn for another game drive. The bird life is abundant but we’re on the lookout for the king of the jungle. There are more elephants crossing the road but as we make our way to the river, we can see shapes moving on the beach. Getting closer, there they are — three lions patrolling the shores, a mother and her two cubs.

Like us, they seem to have just woken, their movements slow and deliberate, stopping to sit on their haunches as they prowl along. We watch them move along the river bank, just passing the time, before they stop and lie down once more, keeping their distance from the hippos bathing in front of them.

Perhaps theirs was an early breakfast, and it’s time to relax after eating? All too soon it’s time to go back for our own breakfast, thrilled at this wonderful sighting. Happily, with the lion population now numbering 30, there’s always a good chance of spotting some.

A trickier feat is spying the rhinos and those ever-elusive leopards; if I want them to add to my list of sightings, I’d have to stay longer and sadly my time is up.

But Majete has certainly delivered — sightings of lions, crocodiles, giraffes, hippos and a whole host of antelope, quite apart from those lions and unforgettable elephants. After all, when else would you be delighted to be rudely awakened from a nap?

Getting There

Flights from London to Lilongwe via Addis Ababa cost from around £475 with Ethiopian Airlines.

Thawale Camp costs from around £175 per person per night, including all meals and two activities. There’s also a Majete Reserve fee of around £25 per night.

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