Trip report: Liwonde National Park in Malawi
Liwonde National Park in Malawi is a low-key contender in the safari world because it lacks big predators, but that only adds to its charms as it rewards the visitor with abundant wildlife, such as hippos, elephants and yellow baboons, close at hand and unafraid says Graeme Green.
Titus is on the move. Danger Chipino, my guide in Liwonde National Park, stops the jeep and points to a recent paw print in the sandy road.
“It’s very fresh,” he says. “He mustn’t be too far away, moving towards the river to drink.”
Danger’s confident it can only be Titus; Liwonde NP has only one known lion, a solitary male.
“I’ve seen him only once,” Danger tells me as he steers off the road and along the river bank, scouring the trees and long grass. We see fat hippos waddling back to the river, carrying white egret passengers. Warthogs, impala and bushbuck graze. An adult baboon sits perched on a tree trunk, like an old man on a bench. It’s a peaceful scene, the animals far too calm to have a lion among them. Titus is either hidden or gone. But to have seen signs of the only lion within the 548 sq km park counts as a good spot.
Liwonde NP is Malawi’s most prolific wildlife area, with large numbers of hippo, elephants, crocodiles and around 365 species of birds. The park’s relatively small, condensed – good for wildlife-spotting. The Shire (pronounced Shiri) river that runs through the park is the only outlet from Lake Malawi, and the nutrient-rich waters and surrounding riverine swamps, woodlands and grasslands are filled with wildlife.
It takes around four hours to reach the National Park from the airport in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. It’s evening when we first arrive at the Shire’s edge. Mvuu Camp and Lodge is on the opposite bank, the word ‘Mvuu’ meaning hippo in the national language, Chichewa. Hippos snort, bray and splash on the other side of the river. Cormorants fill the tops of tall palm trees. Noisy Hadeda ibis, known locally as ‘flying vuvuzelas’, travel in pairs across the water as evening’s first stars appears.
I find it strange at first, to be in a safari destination without the exciting prospect of spotting big cats. With one lion and a reported three leopard, it’s unlikely. So on my first night here, I try to figure out what it is about Liwonde that draws people here. One wildlife enthusiast who’s been here before describes Liwonde’s ‘gentle rhythm’, which neatly sums it up. Liwonde isn’t as grand or dramatic as other parts of Africa, like the Zambezi or Serengeti, and there are better places to see the Big Five or big cats, including Malawi’s own Majete and Nyika parks. But there’s something special here: a calm atmosphere, rich wildlife and no crowds. On game drives and boat safaris we rarely see another vehicle.
The absence of big cats could even be part of the chilled-out feel.
“Because there are no predators, that’s why the animals look more relaxed,” Danger suggests as we drive out on the first morning past baobob and mapone trees into palm savannah. “We used to have leopards and lions in the 1990s but many left because of poaching. Poachers hunt for animals like waterbuck and impala that are good to eat. They used wire snares to catch antelope, but often caught lions.”
Without those predators, other species have the run of the place. Immediately out of camp, we see families of trotting warthogs, herds of impala and waterbuck. Yellow-billed storks and noisy Egyptian geese gather at the edges of water pools. Down by the river, the glistening backs of hippos are visible. Elephants move through the long grass to drink at the river – two adults, two infants and a baby. White egrets follow them or ride on their backs. Yellow baboons sit contentedly and groom each other out in the open without fear.
“If there were more predators, they’d stay in the trees,” says Danger.
On an afternoon boat ride, the hippos are so numerous that rather than searching them out, Danger has to steer around them. Small ears, huffing nostrils and pink-grey faces sit above the water, eyes watching us. A toothy scuffle breaks out between two adult females.
Wire-tailed swallows weave around and through the open boat. I spot an egret flitting from hippo to hippo, standing and sometimes surfing on their backs and heads.
“When hippos come out, the egrets pick the leeches off and eat them,” Danger explains. “The leeches suck the blood and annoy the hippos, so they’re very happy to have the egrets.”
The head of a croc reverses in the water and disappears under.
“They can stay under for 10 minutes,” says Danger, so we don’t wait. We see plenty of others in the river or basking on the sunny banks. A vervet monkey saunters along the shore. White-breasted cormorants fly overhead, carrying twigs to nests. Fish eagles, Malawi’s national bird, line the river, too, in good vantage points high in the trees.
However abundant, though, animal numbers in Liwonde are threatened by poaching.
“Poaching is a big problem,” Danger tells me. “In March, we swept an area and found 280 wire snares in one hour. Poaching is getting worse. There’s a shortage of rangers. It needs more investment.”
We head back out in the boat next morning, the mist still to burn off the river. There’s a hippo chorus, a Piet kingfisher sitting on a low branch and open-billed storks stalking through the marsh. Up ahead, Danger spots a fishing boat with four men in it. Fishing’s illegal in the National Park, but there’s a bigger concern.
“Often, they pretend they’re coming fishing but then they go on land and set snares,” says Danger.
He phones in the sighting to rangers who protect the park from poachers, then pulls alongside the boat. He discovers there are two other boats and three dugout canoes on the river. On the bank, two teenage boys run. Further downriver, we find the other boats and canoes. Distrustful of Danger, they work their way into the long reeds and try to hide.
“Those will be the ones setting the wire snares from the canoes,” Danger explains. “Those dugout canoes would’ve been working with the boys on the bank. They would have been waiting to transport the meat they caught.”
Some of the men pull into the bank and run away, abandoning their boat. Poaching in the park can result in a fine of 25,000 Kwacha and two years in prison; they’d rather lose a boat than be caught. We wait for more than two hours, but the rangers never come. At least 15 probable poachers got away.
For people in the villages that surround Liwonde the Park’s animals are not always a blessing.
Around 100,000 people live in the villages close to the borders of Liwonde National Park. I stay overnight in one of them –an excellent, incredibly friendly community project at Njobu Village Lodge in Ligwangwa Village.
A train of children follow as project leader Enock Chidothi shows me around, explaining how people live, the crops people grow such as tobacco, cotton and maize, and how they dig bricks from the mud, bake them and build houses. There’s even time, after dark, to visit the rowdy village ‘pub’ where inhabitants drink locally brewed maize beer called sogum.
Poverty is a major issue in the region and people in the village face many problems, Enock tells me, as we sit talking under the stars. Some of those are connected to living so close to a National Park.
“The elephant is the major problem in the village,” says Enock. “It can destroy houses. It can kill people. We’ve had two killed in the village. A lot of people are leaving their houses and going to other places where it’s peaceful.”
Errant hippos also come into the village, and civet cats try to get at the chickens. But the main problem is the elephants. “Other animals are easy to chase away,” Enock explains. “With hippos, you make a lot of noise and they run away. The elephants come to the village to get food. Elephants eat a lot, 220kgs for one elephant for one day. When they’re in the village, people try to chase them away but the elephants get angry.”
The villagers do see benefits from the National Park, including jobs, selling handicrafts and a school part-funded by Wilderness who run Mvuu Camp and Lodge. Enock wants to see more done, starting with the National Park fence. “It needs to be fixed,” he says. “That would stop elephants coming through. They’re fixing it now but there’s a problem: the government has very limited numbers of workers.” He suggests training and employing local people to fix the fence, creating jobs and helping to keep the villages safe. Sounds like a good idea, if the resources can be found.
You have to sympathise with the situation – the poachers obviously need to eat and earn money, but live animals bring much wider benefits to local communities than their short-term value as meat. Danger’s clearly frustrated.
“It’s annoying. You see the problem. You report it to the right person, but nothing happens. No one comes. I care because of the wildlife, but also it brings more jobs and I understand how the community benefits. Children now walk only a short distance to school because of money from tourism.”
Poaching wiped out Liwonde’s rhino population. A pair of black rhino from South Africa were re-introduced here in 1993; more have followed and some have successfully bred, taking their number to 16. Last year, though, two were lost to poachers. I go out early next morning with Kristian Gyongyi, a Hungarian ecologist and rhino expert. We are accompanied by two expert trackers, Patrick Ndalawesi and Ian Kambala, both armed with rifles, to track rhinos inside the park’s 40 sq km sanctuary.
“Black rhino are a critically endangered species,” Kristian says quietly, as we hike through the scrub.
Rhino horns are highly valued, of course, used for Jambiyas (daggers) in some Middle Eastern countries and for traditional ‘medicine’ in Asian countries, including China and Vietnam. A kilo of ground rhino horn can fetch US $60,000.
“All for nothing,” says Kristian, bitterly. “It has no medicinal properties, but in China they think it can cure 200 ailments, from leukemia to impotency. With the growing middle class in China and Vietnam, demand for rhino horn is increasing.”
However, the two killed in Liwonde (including a bull) weren’t hunted for their horns but caught accidentally – like the lions, previously – by snares laid by poachers hunting other animals. With the Park having so few, and with some predicting black rhino could be extinct within 30 years, it’s a big loss.
“It’s very sad,” says Kristian. “Villagers came in to get impala or bushbuck. But wire snares are like landmines, they kill indiscriminately.”
Rhinos are easily spooked so we walk silently through the trees and around waterholes, where there are fresh rhino prints. Patrick and Ian work from almost imperceptible markings, crushed grass or twigs recently munched by rhino teeth. We follow, lose and pick up again the trail of a mother, Namatunye, and her infant, Christopher. Patrick gestures for us to be silent. Through the trees is the large grey bulk of the adult rhino.
“The mother’s always very alert with a baby,” Kristian whispers just a little too loudly and Namatunye bolts. There’s a mighty series of rhino farting noises, thudding feet and breaking branches as the startled animals thunder through the trees. “That’s a lot of power, a big animal,” says Kristian, admiringly. Although a few days previously they’d observed a rhino in the open for over an hour, we see little more than a disappearing grey blur.
“This is sometimes how it goes, just a flash,” shrugs Patrick.
Still, it was an exciting glimpse and fascinating to see how the animals are tracked using traditional methods.
There’s no shortage of other animal sightings. On the drive back, we see a herd of more than 100 water buffalo, a family of zebra and three sable with their long, gracefully curved horns. Just sitting in the lodge’s restaurant for breakfast, I see a croc basking on the river bank, easily 5m long and with a plump middle, most likely digesting a big meal. Impala, warthogs and monkeys gather at the water’s edge to drink. A monitor lizard moves through the swamp.
On an afternoon game drive, we venture out to a big, hollow baobob tree under which David Livingstone is said to have given sermons. We catch an elephant shrew, one of the ‘Small Five’, in our headlights at the start of a night drive, followed by a few mongoose, a duiker (small antelope) and a hippo. The drive ends with a surprise ‘bush dinner’ around a campfire with guests from the lodge and camp.
One of my favourite sightings comes on the last evening, nearing sunset. It’s a big male kudu. With a graceful, expressive face and long, artfully curling horns, it’s a strange-looking, fantastical beast, like something from Narnia or a Guillermo Del Toro film.
As darkness falls, we pass a family of elephants, three infants among them stuffing their mouths with leaves. Close to the lodge, a family of warthogs sleep bundled together under a tree. I sit outside next to an open fire, under brilliant stars, accompanied by the sounds of cicadas, frogs, birds and hippos, all clicking, chirping and honking together to Liwonde’s gentle rhythm.
INFO: Graeme flew from London Heathrow to Malawi, via Nairobi, with Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com, 020 8283 1818). He stayed at Mvuu Camp and Lodge (www.wildlifeworldwide.com/accommodation/mvuu-wilderness-lodge-camp) in Liwonde National Park and Njobu Village Lodge in Ligwangwa Village (www.njobuvillage.org), just outside the park. He also stayed at Mumo Island on Lake Malawi (www.wildlifeworldwide.com/accommodation/mumbo-island). For more information about Malawi, visit the website of the tourist office at www.malawitourism.com, or contact them on 0115 972 7250.
SAMPLE PACKAGE TOUR: Wildlife Worldwide has a 7-day Malawi Bush & Beach itinerary, covering Malawi’s major national parks including Mvuu Lodge, with game drives and boat safaris, and Mumbo Island – a beautiful beach paradise. Trip prices from £ 1,955 pp (land only) or £3,125 pp including return international flights with Kenya Airways. An optional night at Njobvu Cultural Village community project can also be booked for an additional £45.
GETTING THERE: Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com, 020 8283 1818) fly daily from London Heathrow to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, via Nairobi, with returns from £686.65. Liwonde National Park is approx 4-5 hours by car from Tuvalu airport. Kenya Airways has also just launched flights from Heathrow to Malawi’s second city/commercial centre Blantyre, also via Nairobi.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FROM THE UK: UK passport holders don’t require a visa
TIPS & WARNINGS: Three to five days is about right for visiting Liwonde National Park. Many travellers combine a visit to Liwonde with time in Lake Malawi and other areas of the country, such as Majete NP and Nyika NP.
There is a risk of malaria in the country and medication is recommended. Mosquitoes are present, although they’re not a major issue, but take tropical-strength repellent, plus sun cream and a sun hat.
There’s also a risk of contracting the water-borne disease bilharzia in some parts of Lake Malawi, though the risk is very low in many of the major tourist areas. Immunisation against polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A is recommended. Yellow fever immunisation can be required by visitors who’ve travelled through any yellow fever zones prior to visiting. US dollars are accepted at lodges, hotels and tourist restaurants, though in smaller establishments, and in rural areas, only Malawi’s currency the Kwacha is accepted. Withdraw money in big cities, as ATMs are hard to come by in more remote parts of the country.
WHEN TO GO: Between May and November. May/June are Malawi’s winter, so temperatures are pleasantly warm and wildlife opportunities are good. October and November can be very hot, around 40ºC, which can be too hot for some, but this is an excellent time for wildlife-spotting, when water sources are fewer. December to March is the rainy season, a bad time to visit, with some roads washed out.
Tel: +44 (0)845 130 6982 or +44 (0)1962 302 086;
Tel: +44 (0)115 981 0943 or +44 (0)115 870 017;6