Friday, July 13, 2018

Adventures in Malawi: On Safari in Liwonde National Park

Over the first two stories I've written about my recent trip to the African country of Malawi I've done my best to stress how different this destination is compared to the other places found on the continent. For instance, I found the people of Malawi to be exceptionally welcoming and friendly, even by African standards. The country certainly lives up to is moniker for being "the warm heart of Africa," making it easy to recommend to travelers looking for new adventures. Beyond that however, I also shared my experiences on Lake Malawi, a massive lake that provided tranquil waters, warm beaches, and a sense that you had left Africa behind for the Caribbean. That was certainly an unexpected detour that truly helps this country stand out from some of its neighbors.

All of that said, Malawi also offers some traditional travel experiences you would expect when visiting sub-saharan Africa, most notably a true safari experience. And while I was absolutely delighted by my early days in the country, I also couldn't wait to get into the bush for some encounters with the wildlife that Africa is so well known for. I found that, and so much more, Liwonde National Park, a game preserve located not far from the Mozambique border.

Established in 1973, Liwonde is located just south of Lake Malawi along the Shire River. It covers roughly 548 square kilometers (212 sq. miles) and is home to an abundant amount of wildlife, including elephants, antelope, baboons, warthogs, monkeys, and crocodile. Over the past few years, black rhinos have also been added to the mix, and last year cheetahs were reintroduced to the park as well. And just a few months ago –– in May, 2018 –– lions were brought back too. The big cats remained elusive while I was there, but we did hear them roaring in the forests and other travelers did catch a glimpse of them on their game drives.

One creature that isn't in short supply in Llwonde is the hippo. The banks of the Shire River are swarming with them, with dozens to be spotted at any given time. The creatures thrive in the environment found there and it was not uncommon to see six or eight of them huddled together in the water, escaping the warm sun. At night, they'll wander up on to the shores as well, sometimes even sauntering into the safari camp itself. On all my trips to Africa, I've never seen so many hippos in one place and if you have a particular affinity for these creatures, Malawi has to be on your list of places to visit.

While in Liwonde National Park we stayed at the wonderful Mvuu Lodge, which sits right along the banks of the Shire itself. The lodge offers a number of different options for travelers, including traditional safari tented cabins and the option to bring your own tent and camp out yourself. There are also communal dining areas, a cultural education area, and meeting center where visitors were gathering to watch the World Cup matches unfold.

My own cabin overlooked a water hole that was prone to attracting wildlife. In fact, within five minutes of settling into my room, I wandered out to my front deck just as a half-dozen antelope wander in for a drink while a couple of baboons frolicked in the nearby trees. Not long later, a massive crocodile slithered out of the water to sun itself on the bank. Over the course the following two days, hippos, warthogs, monitor lizards, monkeys, and mongoose all put in appearances. It was a wonderful African experience and I didn't even leave the lodge itself.

But of course, while on safari you want to go on game drives and Liwonde didn't disappoint in that aspect either. One of the the wonderful things about a visit to the park is that you can view wildlife on foot, by 4x4 vehicle, and by boat. Each of those experiences is unique and exciting, and its tough to decide which method of transportation I preferred. Spotting wild game was never a problem, as there is always so much to see, but there is something to be said about watching the sunset while driving on the Shire River as hippos wade in the water nearby.

As is usual in Africa, there were more than a few memorable experiences with the animals while there. For instance, on our first game drive aboard a boat, we accidentally startled a hippo that was resting on the bottom of the river. Fearing we were some kind of encroaching enemy, the creature burst from the water in a flurry of water and noise. The very large hippo then proceeded to take a bite at our boat, although we were swift enough to avoid its angry chomp.

The other amazing encounter came on our final morning in Liwonde. We got up early to take a Land Rover out into the bush, eventually parking it and wandering on foot into the dense forest. Along the way we spotted a number of impala, kudu, and waterbucks, along with monkeys, baboons, and warthogs. But at one point we could hear something absolutely massive coming our way, which generally meant only one thing –– elephants! We took up position out of the way and well concealed in the bush as we heard the creature getting close. But it turns out it wasn't just one elephant, but a whole breeding heard, with a young baby in tow. From our hideout we were able to watch the magnificent animals wander by before we beat a hasty retreat back to the vehicle. Encountering elephants on foot can be very exhilarating, but dangerous too.

With that, our visit to Liwonde and the Mvuu Lodge was over and we were heading back to civilization. Our visit to Malawi was quickly coming to a close and we only had one more night before heading home. We spent that night in Blantyre, which we would be flying out of the following day. But before we wrapped things up, we had one last activity to take part in.

Our last stop was a place called Huntingdon House, a lovely lodge and working tea plantation with absolutely stunning views. In fact, during our visit we took a 4x4 ride up to the estate's "picnic area," which overlooked the surrounding valleys in dramatic fashion. The breathtaking landscapes stretched out in all direction and in the distance you could even spot the very end of the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind. It was a peaceful and serene place, and although we had already had our lunch for the day, I could see why it would be an ideal spot to stop and taking in the scenery.

While at the plantation, we also had a chance to test some tea and see how the plants are grown, harvested, and processed. Here in the U.S., tea is a popular drink, but not nearly on the same level as it is in other parts of the world. Sampling the various blends and styles was surprisingly fun and gave me a new appreciation for all of the different flavors.

After that, it was back to Blantyre for a final nigh, followed by flights home the following day. It was a long journey back to the States and my time in Malawi went by far too quickly. It is certainly a place I'd love to return to at some point, as there is a lot more to explore there given more time. But I am grateful for the opportunity that I had and a chance to sample the African hospitality once again.

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