Malawi Safari – Liwonde National Park
Liwonde became a National Park in 1973 and is the most prolific wildlife area in Malawi. Despite its modest size, only 548 Km2, there is a broad range of habitats with a correspondingly broad range of birds and animals. The Shire River, which is Malawi’s largest river and Lake Malawi’s only outlet, forms the western boundary of the park, and is a permanent source of water. Nearly a kilometre wide in places, with floodplain extends to three times this width making Liwonde a magnet for wildlife.
The park is named after Chief Liwonde who was the driving force behind establishing the park. The habitats include: relatively dry mopane woodlands covering the eastern half of the park,interspersed with unworldly candelabra trees; patches of miombo woodland occupy the hills in the south and east; palm savannah and mature baobab trees run down to the floodplain of the Shire River where dense riverine vegetation adds a tropical feel to the habitat.
Such diversity means that Liwonde has some of the best game viewing in Malawi and probably the best birding in southern Africa.
Game is abundant with a healthy population of elephants, hippos and crocodiles, who are best viewed from a boat on the Shire River. Waterbuck wade in lagoons and marshes, while the open savannah and hills of the interior attract antelopes such sable, impala and bushbuck. Rhinoceros were re-introduced from South Africa and although doing well, are often hard to find. Predators include leopard, serval and jackal. There are no lions in Liwonde.
A keen birder once recorded 266 different bird species during a two-night stay, so the area deserves its reputation as being an exceptional birding spot. Rarities include Pel’s fishing owl, palmnut vultures, ospreys, and Lilian’s lovebirds.
The lodge and the Camp provide safari vehicles with driver/guide and the most popular safari trip is to meander along the river bank watching for animlas approaching the river to drink. Two activities, usually a game drive and boat safari, are included in the tariff. Additional activities including visits to local schools and villages as well as a game drive in the Rhino Sanctuary can be requested and attract a small additional extra charge. Guided walks can also be arranged and are accompanied by an armed ranger and wildlife guide. Boat trips on the Shire are particularly good and highly receommended: game isn’t as wary of boats compared to vehicles and you are able to approach so close that you can hear animals breathing! Brilliant photo opportunities.
Where to stay?
Mvuu Lodge and Mvuu Camp, about 5 Km apart, are the best options if you wish to stay within the park, each one overlooks a broad stretch of the Shire River (pronounced “Shiree”).
Mvuu Lodge nestles discreetly on the banks of a lagoon just off the Shire River. It is in the vein as well-appointed lodges in other Eaast African countries. The main lounge sits high above the water with good views over its own lagoon and the Shire River.
“Mvuu” means “hippo” in Tonga and the name is appropriate for the setting: crocs and hippos are all around. The surrounding bush attracts a broad range of wildlife and guests must be escorted back to their rooms after dark because of the throu-flow of big game. It’s not at all unusual to lie in bed at night and hear elephants grazing on the surrounding trees.
at Mvuu Lodge consists of eight spacious tents for a maximum of 16 guests, each with en-suite bathroom facilities and a private viewing platform looking out on the lagoon. Lodge facilities include a dining room, pub, lounge area, extensive wildlife library, a hide overlooking the river and a natural rock swimming pool.
Activities at Mvuu Lodge revolve around boating trips on the Shire River and game drives (morning and afternoon/evening). Nature walks and bike rides are also popular.
If you’re a birder, the action is just about non-stop!
The Liwonde National Park is surrounded by rural villages and a visit to Mvuu Lodge isn’t complete without experiencing local life in one of the nearby communities.
Mvuu Camp is larger than the lodge, more accessible and presents various options: camping, self-catering and full board. The activities on offer are the same as those offered at Mvuu Lodge, but the camp is better suited to independent travellers, families and people looking for reasonable rates.
Mvuu Camp is a clever mix of stone and canvas chalets (18) and specially-designed family tents (12 units or 48 beds). An impressive thatched dining and lounge area is the hub of the camp and has a magnificent view over the Shire River. Dinners are sometimes held under the stars in a specially constructed boma (= thatched shelter).
A particularly rewarding way of arriving at Mvuu Camp is via the boat trip from Liwonde town. This river trip is 30 km long and provides an excellent chance to see big game and birds amongst the ever-changing vegetation.
At both the Lodge and the Camp activities revolve around boating trips on the Shire River and game drives (morning and afternoon/evening) along its banks. Guided walks and bike rides are also popular.
The Rehabilitation of Liwonde
Liwonde National Park has extraordinary biodiversity and significant conservation potential. It is therefore the focus of many NGOs and non-profit organisations, as well as Malawi’s National Parks office.
Previous decades of poaching and habitat encroachment have meant that the Park deteriorated considerably and the Malawi government was obliged to seek assistance. South African National Parks and the Frankfurt Zoological Society assisted in the development of much of the infrastructure (wildlife, building structures and border fencing). Local Malawian businesses, as well as the J&B ‘Care for the Rare’ circle also became involved in this effective programme.
In 2006 and 2007, helicopter aerial game censuses identified that the elephant population was too high and other species too few. Some elephants have been translocated to other parks in Malawi and herbivor species introduced to rebalance the population.
The highest profile project has been the re-introduction of six black rhino to Liwonde Park. The fence around the sanctuary was removed in 2012 and the rhinos given access the whole park. Two of the chalets at Mvuu Lodge sponsored the rhinos and 20% of all income is donated to their care.
Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, Cape buffalo, Burchell’s zebra and roan antelope are other species that have been re-introduced.