Having travelled regularly to many of the countries in Africa for over 25 years, it had always been an embarrassing admission that, apart from the odd visit to the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls, I had never actually been to either Zambia (one of Naturetrek’s bestselling African destinations) or Malawi, a country bizarrely devoid of tourists despite being one of the most beautiful and topographically diverse in all of Africa. So, it hasn’t many Lions? But Zambia’s South Luangwa Park, just a 40-minute flight away, is full of them! Combine these two countries in one holiday, as any glance at a map will indicate is eminently logical, and you have the best 2-week holiday in Africa. So now I may excuse my own embarrassingly long delay in visiting these two wonderful countries with… “it’s always important to leave the best until last!
To settle in to the continent, fly first to Lilongwe, one of the smallest, quietest and most hassle-free of all international airports. If peace and tranquillity is what you are after on a holiday, you’ll get it from the moment you touch down at Lilongwe! A scenic 4-hour drive to the south-west, through the hills along the Mozambique border, brings you to Liwonde National Park. On such a drive, as on most in Malawi, a number of things strike you. The roads are, by African standards, generally in good condition. They are pleasingly free of other traffic. But they are, though, thronged by smiling and colourfully dressed villagers who, amazingly, all seem to be going somewhere, on foot or by bicycle. Malawi is full of friendly people; it is also – for now at least – almost as full of environmentally friendly bicycles!
Liwonde National Park is Malawi’s top gameviewing destination. Situated on the palmlined Shire River, which flows south from the southern end of Lake Malawi into the Zambezi, its riverine forests and bush, backed by a scenic range of hills, offer a range of scenic habitats to explore and a pleasing variety of options (including boat trips, bush walks, night drives and daytime safaris) by which to do so. You are unlikely to see a Lion or a Leopard here, it is true, but a host of creatures includes an abundance of Hippos and Nile Crocodiles, Elephants, Warthog, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, and two of Africa’s finest antelopes, the Sable and the Greater Kudu. Such a variety of habitats also hosts a rich birdlife, with Palm-nut Vulture, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Böhm’s Bee-eater amongst the specialities. The delightful Mvuu Wilderness Camp is our base, its comfortable tented chalets and thatched bar and dining area all overlooking the peaceful Shire River and the wealth of birds and animals that it attracts.
Lake Malawi National Park was the first park in the world to be set aside for the protection of freshwater fish. Set around the rugged, mountainous Cape Maclear peninsula that reaches out into the clear calm waters of Lake Malawi, it includes the idyllic and uninhabited off-shore islands of Domwe and Mumbo – a must for those wishing to visit this vast and unique lake. The scenery here is truly spectacular and, combined with the splendid isolation of the exquisite tented accommodation that we use on these pristine, forested off-shore islands, it is hard to believe that you are not in the middle of the Pacific! Though limited in variety, the birds, mammals and reptiles here can be peacefully enjoyed both on forest walks and by kayaking gently around the islands. But, it is the amazing Cichlids that make Lake Malawi so special – a thousand or more species of colourful tropical fish species from this one genus that congest the clear inshore waters of these protected parts of the lake in their billions! Whether or not you have snorkelled before, you simply must give it a try!
For a dramatic change in scenery, climate and habitats, a visit to Ku Chawe Inn on the Zomba Plateau should be included. The plateau rises dramatically from the surrounding plains to an altitude of over 1,500 metres, and is accessed via a small winding road that snakes its way up from the old colonial capital of Zomba to the Ku Chawe Inn which perches on the rim of the plateau and commands spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. The cool mountain air here is refreshing, and the walking and birding opportunities from the inn are rewarding.
So, still no Lions. It’s time to take that convenient 40-minute charter from a small ‘international’ airport (Lilongwe) to a tiny one (Mfuwe)! It’s not often that one is blessed not only with the luxury of a private charter flight for an international journey, but also absolutely no border hassles or congested terminals at either end. Bliss!
And the wildlife of South Luangwa National Park? This is indeed one of Africa’s finest wildlife havens. There’s certainly no better place in which to find Leopards and Lions and, amongst the bush and woodlands of this part of the Great Rift Valley, through which flows the seasonal torrent of the great Luangwa River with its numerous attendant channels and ox-bow lakes, an extraordinary wealth of mammals and birds are found. Further, the fact that tourist exploration of this national park extends beyond conventional daytime safaris to night drives and bush walks, all of which can be enjoyed (in the dry season at least) from small but comfortable ‘bush camps’ situated in isolated private concessions in the heart of the park, means that the wildlife experience offered in South Luangwa is second to none.