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On Safari in Malawi, Africa

Malawi offers good value safaris that don’t skimp on the wildlife.

by Rupert Parker
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Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa that is bordered by Mozambique to the east, Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west, and Lake Malawi to the south. Named Lake Nyasa by David Livingstone, he was the first European explorer to map its shores. His legacy lives on as Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, is named after the town of his birth in Scotland.


It’s a small country with a population of just over 18 million people, but has a diverse range of landscapes and wildlife. It’s also an affordable country with accommodation, food, and activities relatively cheap. In particular safaris represent good value compared with similar camps in nearby African countries.

I arrive in Lilongwe, the capital, a low rise sprawling city with a population of over a million people. It’s worth spending a night or two here, if only just to relax after the long flight, but I’m soon on the plane to Blantyre in the south. It’s the dry season, the best time to visit, which runs from April to October. That means the two hour journey to Majete Wildlife Reserve, which includes a final stretch on dirt roads, is relatively painless. The other benefit is that the vegetation is less dense, making it easier to spot animals.

Majete Wildlife Reserve

Majete Wildlife Reserve is a remarkable success story as in the early 2000’s the reserve was brink of extinction. It had been drained of wildlife by decades of rampant poaching, one of the consequences of the long civil war in nearby Mozambique. Only a handful of antelope were left, the staff were down to twelve and there were no tourists.

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

To date 3,200 animals from 16 different species have been reintroduced including the big five – leopard, elephant, buffalo, black rhino and lion. Other mammals include eland, sable, waterbuck, nyala, hartebeest, impala, zebra, warthog, bush pig, giraffe and cheetah. Majete is now home to over 12,000 animals, making it one of the most biodiverse reserves in Malawi.

Thawale Camp

From the entrance to the reserve, it’s only fifteen minutes to Thawale Camp, one of only three lodges here.  It’s set on the edge of a pristine waterhole that regularly attracts a wide variety of wildlife, and is completely unfenced to give guests a unique experience in natural surroundings

There are only six tented chalets, each with a private veranda, plus a family chalet with two en-suite rooms, a kitchen, and a small living area. As I sit and enjoy my welcome drink in the thatched shared lounge, impala are engaging in mock fights right in front of me. It’s the mating season and there’s vigorous competition for the females. I watch, fascinated, before taking a nap before the evening’s game drive.

Suddenly, I wake from my afternoon siesta to the sound of elephants trumpeting. Outside my door, in the trees just in front of me, two young bucks are going head to head in what looks like friendly joshing. They’re just 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. It’s dangerous to go out so I sink back into my bed and continue my slumber.

The evening game drive is a ritual that happens in every African reserve. Very soon we spot giraffes and a whole host of antelope – impala indulging in their mating rituals, waterbuck, nyala and kudu. We make our way down to the Shire River which forms the eastern boundary to Majete. It’s a fast flowing torrent, 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.

This is the place to stop for a sundowner, in my case a beer gazing across the river into Mozambique. We spot a herd of elephants on the other bank, a long way away. But on our way back we find one of the beasts blocking our path. It paws at the ground, throwing up dust and trumpets loudly. After all the excitement it turns off the road into the bush and we make our way safely back to the camp.

Meals are taken outdoors, on long communal tables right next to the waterhole. There’s a relaxed atmosphere here and the meals are hearty rather than gourmet. At night there’s just the grunting of warthogs, drinking by the waterhole, and the occasional hoot of owls. The obliging staff have lit a campfire for us to huddle around and swap stories of our day’s experiences.

Next morning we’re up at dawn for another game drive. The bird life is abundant but I’m looking for bigger beasts. There are more elephants crossing the road but as we make our way to the river, we can see things moving on the beach. Getting closer, it’s obvious that three lions are patrolling the shores – a mother and her two cubs, both fairly good sized.

They seem to have just woken, their movements slow and deliberate, sitting and standing as they go. Or perhaps they’ve just feasted on a kill. We watch them as they wander along the river bank, just passing the time, with hippos bathing in front of them. One of them sits and yawns, exposing rows of sharp fangs. It’s a remarkable sight, one well worth savouring. They’re aware of us watching but don’t seem to mind.

I could stay here all day but all too soon we’re rushed back to the lodge for breakfast. Apparently the lion population now numbers thirty so there’s always a good chance of spotting them. More tricky are the rhinos and those elusive leopards and, if I want them to add to my list of sightings, I’d have to stay longer. Sadly my time is up but Majete has certainly delivered – sightings of lions, elephants, crocs, giraffes, hippos and a whole host of antelope.


GO: Ethiopian Airlines flies from London via Addis Ababa to Lilongwe.

INFO: Visit Malawi has information about the country.

STAY: Thawale Camp costs from $210 per person per night including all meals and two activities. There is also a Majete Reserve fee of $30 per night.


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