The Safari of all Safaris?
When most honeymooners or holiday goers decide they want to set out into the ‘wilds’ of Africa on safari, generally destinations like Kenya and Tanzania spring to mind. Such destinations that offer a nice sugary beach, on which you can spend most of the holiday sipping on cocktails, with perhaps a 2/3 day excursion to a national park thrown in for good measure. Agreed…this sounds pretty idyllic and something all of us could do with right now in the midst of this UK weather bitterness, but it doesn’t quite scratch the surface of what Africa and the best safari experiences have to offer. A trip of a lifetime where you can truly say, “I have been to Africa!”, requires a slightly more adventurous spirit.
Malawi remains a relatively undiscovered destination. It’s still one of the poorest African countries, but over the last 10 years both its economy and popularity have gradually started to grow. When I first researched Malawi, I was surprised to realise quite how much it has to offer and its exciting cultural and political heritage. Whilst not an immediately obvious choice for those who want to safari, that’s where Malawi is seeing the most exciting developments presently, making it a destination not to be overlooked. Here are just some of the reasons why.
Travel editors started to get quite excited over this small landlocked country following a lion reintroduction programme in 2012. But more recent events are what makes Malawi so enticing to visit right now in 2016.
African Parks has recently taken over management of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park (totalling 225 000 hectares in size). With significant international funding, African Parks is investing into a huge wildlife translocation programme and what is believed to be the largest relocation of elephants Africa has ever seen. Commencing this summer, various species, including over 500 elephants, will be translocated to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Visitors on safari may be lucky enough to observe some of the move and be present for what will be making wildlife history, as the animals are reintroduced into the sanctuary of their new home.
But that’s not all Malawi and this little known area has going for it. Variety is really something to be discovered here. For example, Nkhotakota is also home to a vast array of over 280 different types of bird and many keen bird enthusiasts seek out some of the specials that can be sighted here.
What immediately struck me, when I first visited, was that the reserve is still so untouched and quiet; you truly feel that you are alone with nature. Compared with some other popular safari destinations, the animals can be a little shyer, but this simply builds the sense of anticipation and enjoyment of each sighting, as you watch without a throng of other vehicles around you. This sense of tranquillity and being at one with nature is further heightened by activities being primarily done by foot or canoe at Nkhotakota.
A keen fisherman? Once again you are spoilt for choice in Malawi. Armed with a sumptuous afternoon picnic tea, we took to the banks of the Bua River. Whilst trying our luck, our guide told us fishing tales and of how keen anglers have visited the area for decades, reportedly catching Catfish up to 30kg. Just watch out for the crocs, I sighted at least 2 opportunists, which added a different dimension to the experience.
For those who are particularly energetic, the mountains Malawi has to offer can only be described as a trekker’s paradise. From the longer trails of the Mulanje Massif, with dizzying heights and spectacular views, to the ridgelines of the Great Rift Valley and the cool, forested Zomba Plateau. On our hike up Kasukusuku, our extremely knowledgeable Tongole guide pointed out indigenous plant species, describing their medicinal properties and cultural uses. Aside from enjoying the nature en route, the view out to Lake Malawi from the summit was something else to behold.
If you’re seeking accommodation where you are right in the heart of the reserve and would like to indulge in a little luxury, I would recommend Tongole Wilderness Lodge www.tongole.com. On the banks of the Bua River, this small and welcoming lodge offers riverside suites with the most divine sunken baths. Nestled in to the treeline, from our balcony we could enjoy the peace and take in any wildlife that ventured down for a drink. The food was exquisite, a real dining treat, blending the best of local and international cuisine and the staff catered for our every need.
On our last day at the reserve we paid a visit to the local community. Via the winding dirt track we drove through the deep wilderness until we reached a small village on its boundary. What made this was that it was not a tourist show, but an insight into rural life, with villagers going about their daily routine – farming, cooking, as well as some local trades, such as basket weaving. We even got the chance to visit one of the local schools, supported by the Tongole Foundation, where the students were excited to greet us and show us their work. Malawi is renowned for its warm and welcoming people and this was a great way to spend some time in their company.
If you also want to enjoy a few days R&R on a beautiful beach after all that adventure, well Malawi just happens to have that covered too! I would strongly recommend a visit to what is described by Malawi’s tourism guide as ‘The jewel in the crown’ and Africa’s third largest lake – Lake Malawi. Golden sand beaches, twinkling waters and a myriad of colourful fish create the perfect combination for relaxation. But, if like me, you just can’t sit still for long, there is kayaking, diving, snorkelling, sailing, to name just a few of the activities on offer.
Experiencing elephant spotting to bird watching, fishing and canoeing to hiking and climbing, adventure and relaxation, whilst meeting some of the warmest people in Africa, on my first visit to Malawi I knew I would be back many more times. Now I’m looking forward with anticipation to my next visit to Nkhotakota and the chance to witness the incredible wildlife translocation and transformation of this already spectacular reserve.
~ Marc Crouch
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