Malawi is one of the smallest countries in sub-equatorial Africa, and its good roads and excellent public transport make it the ideal "Africa for Beginners" destination
As I exit the plane at Lilongwe airport, I'm struck by the unmistakeable smell of Africa - a combination of earth, dust and sweet blossom. I'm met by Wilderness Safaris and soon on my way south, through low savannah, past miniature volcanic rocky outcrops and then start climbing. Zomba was the capital of Malawi, until it was moved in 1975, and still retains many attractive colonial buildings. I'm bound for the plateau of the same name, which rises to 1800m, and the road twists and turns to my evening destination of the Sunbird Ku Chawe Inn. There are splendid views across to Mount Mulanje in the South and the city below but I'm too tired to really enjoy them.
I wake surrounded in mist, and there are plenty of hiking and horse riding trails in the forests around the Inn, but I'm keen to get on. After a splendid breakfast including Nsima, the local porridge, I set off for Liwonde National Park. After an hour we turn off the road and hit the dirt, passing tiny villages on our way to the entrance. It's not far to the mighty Shire River which flows from Lake Malawi to the Zambezi River in Mozambique. As I wait for the boatman I can already see Hippos and Elephants basking in the water. It's a spectacular location and my destination is on the other side, slightly hidden in the reeds.
Liwonde National Park
Mvuu Lodge is everything it's cracked up to be. Each of the luxurious 8 chalets, or tents, as they call them, is built out of sustainable materials and lit by solar power. Best of all, just below my veranda is a sluggish creek where Impala come to drink, risking an attack from the basking Crocodiles, and lugubrious Baboons sit and watch. From the restaurant there's a glorious view of the river - Warthogs forage on the shore, Hippos bathe in the near distance and the food is excellent. Later in the afternoon I'm out on a game drive and spot Kudu, Impala, Bush Buck and Sable Antelope. Suddenly in front of us, there's a herd of Elephants. We get close and they're aware of us, but pay no attention and just carry on grazing. It's a marvellous sight.
As the dusk approaches we stop for a sundowner and then join the rest of the guests for a bush barbecue under the stars. Next morning, it's an early start to go out on foot for a game walk. Now, you might think this is slightly risky, but we do have an armed guard and only potential danger is a few distant elephants. What's amazing is the amount of bird life and how tame they are. The enthusiasm and knowledge of our guide is infectious and soon we're all spotting and naming species we've never heard of before this morning. The real treat, though is yet to come.
The best way to see the wildlife on the Shire River is by boat. Crocodiles sun themselves on the banks, Elephants frolic in the mud and Hippos wallow in the shallows. The great thing is that you can get up close and no animal seems to mind. It's also a relaxing way to see the wildlife, infinitely preferable to bouncing through the forest in a 4WD vehicle. Again birds are in abundance and we witness 2 Fish Eagles getting the better of a Goliath Heron in a fight over territory. There are over 1400 Hippos in the park, or should I say in the river as it's only in the cool of the day that they make their way onto land to feed. It's fascinating to see these creatures lumbering on the banks and we run across a couple of 4 year olds playfully chasing each other in and out of the water.
Lake Malawi National Park
It's with some sadness that we leave the tranquillity of the Shire River to journey north to the Southern shores of Lake Malawi. This is also national park and Pumulani Lodge occupies a stunning position overlooking the lake with an infinity swimming pool and its own private beach. My chalet is almost as big as a shopping mall and I can sit on the veranda and take in the vast expanse of the lake, watching the waves lapping on the shore.
The easy option is to sit around and take it easy but I can't resist the Dhow sundowner cruise which runs every afternoon, and an early morning birding walk. The highlight, though, is a speedboat snorkelling trip across the lake. We pick up fish from the local fisherman to entice the Fish Eagles perched on the trees on the bank. As soon as we throw them out into the water, they're in the air and diving to pick them up - they don't miss a trick. Our destination is Otter Point where we anchor. I don my snorkel, jump in the clear water and see thousands of blue, orange and yellow perch-like Cichlids swimming all around me. I can almost believe that I can reach out and catch them, but they're quicker than me.
I can't leave without a spot of exploring myself, so borrow a bike from the lodge and cycle to Monkey Bay. Dr Livingstone would be proud of me pedalling through the dust with the locals. They stop to pass the time of day, genuinely curious about where I'm from, and are gently welcoming. I'm aiming for the harbour where I want to glimpse the oldest ship in Africa, the MV Chauncy Maples, built in 1899, and carried here in bits. It's currently being restored so I'm unable to visit, but the water looks very inviting. It's full of kids and they're delighted to see me jump in amongst them. They even stage an impromptu swimming gala for my benefit. including aquatic acrobatics. I really do feel in the warm heart of Africa.
Kenya Airways operates daily services from T4 London-Heathrow to Nairobi with daily connections to Lilongwe in Malawi. Prices for an economy return from GBP674.99 including tax.
Contact reservations on +44 (0)20 8283 1818.
Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium has tourist information about the country.
Tel: +44 (0)115 9727250
Real Africa offers private, tailor-made itineraries to Malawi, starting from £2,755 for a 10 day highlights tour.
Tel: +44 (0)845 299 0264
The Bradt Guide to Malawi is an indispensable travel companion.