Like most visitors to Malawi, the small landlocked country wedged into the southern end of the East African Rift Valley, I was drawn there by its eponymous lake. But beyond the shores of the dazzling “Lake of Stars”, I discovered an endearing little country with exciting, if limited wildlife viewing opportunities.
Liwonde National Park
Located in the Upper Shire Valley, the 580-square kilometer (220-square mile) Liwonde National Park is considered the premier wildlife-viewing destination in Malawi. It stretches along the left bank of the Shire River, the only outlet of Lake Malawi and the largest river in the country, on its 400-kilometer (250-mile) way to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.
By far the main attraction of the park, the river allows it to support one of the densest populations of elephants and hippos in Africa (about 900 and 2000 respectively). Liwonde is also known for its abundance of birdlife and due to the absence of major predators, it is home to a good a variety of antelopes. It’s where, after five previous trips to some of the most vaunted safari destinations in Africa, I have the pleasure to finally encounter sable antelopes.
It’s a solid two-and-a-half hour drive from Blantyre, southern Malawi’s major city and airport, to the Western gate of the park. The paved road becomes gradually less so as we get farther away from the city. It disappears entirely as soon as we get off the main north-south thoroughfare. It’s all rocky dirt roads from here on, lined with tiny brick homes covered with disheveled thatch, each sitting on its small patch of ground. My driver drops me off at the park’s gate where my arrival is duly recorded and announced by phone to the Mvuu Lodge.
Ideally located at the edge of a secluded lagoon across the Shire River from the park entrance and the only property inside the park, the Mvuu Lodge can be reached only by boat. It is so well integrated into the dense grove of yellow acacias that I don’t notice any sign of human habitation at first; until a small wooden craft detaches itself from a spindly dock and chugs its way across to collect me.
The lodge immediately lives up to its name (Mvuu means hippopotamus in the local Tonga language). We zig-zag our way across the lagoon, giving a wide berth to pods of hippos submerged save for dozens of periscope eyes that follow our progress with a baleful gaze.
Mvuu is an upscale, environmentally-friendly wilderness lodge with a casual atmosphere and an attentive, friendly staff. Raised high into the trees, the open-sided thatched main lodge provides an perfect hide-like retreat to observe the constant activity of the lagoon.
In addition to its many hippos, it is home to a large resident family of warthogs and a colony of seriously oversized crocodiles. A late model telescope on a tripod invite guests to take a closer look at the birds that fill the trees all around.
Morning on the Shire River
The riverside location allows for a mix of cruises and drives that provide a close and varied view of the game as it goes about its daily life. Game-viewing is generally interesting at Mvuu but never more so than on the river. An especially memorable morning begins as a typical pleasant boat ride punctuated by a steady stream of photo opportunities of the waterfowl and raptor population, various antelopes coming to the water and a small breeding herd of elephants wading across in the distance.
We then come upon a few venerable “big tusker” bull elephants lined along shore, dousing themselves by the trunkfull with river water. I spot one of them snoozing at the edge of a wall of savannah grass. Yes, elephants do sleep lying down. I can hear his stentorian snore drift toward me. Suddenly several more begin to emerge from the grass and congregate on the shore. The snorer stretches awake.
After a half hour of what looks like a palaver to weigh in the advisability of going in for a bath and considerable testing of the waters by various parties, they all wade in over time. What follows is a “horsing around” session of epic proportions, with these grizzled behemoths splashing and dunking each other under the waterline before rearing back up like teenagers at the beach.
It is this spectacular encounter with that I take with me at as the iconic memory of my visit to the Mvuu Lodge.
Good To Know
- Mvuu Lodge opened in 1998. It is owned and managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), a Malawi company wholly owned by founders Chris and Pam Badger. Central African Wilderness Safaries, cawsmw.com/index.php/lodges/mvuu-lodge/, e-mail: email@example.com, or call: + 265 1771 393/153.
- Accommodations consist of eight spacious tents under thatch that can welcome a total of 16 guests. The tents are raised well above the ground on vast wooden platforms that include a wrap-around deck overlooking the bush. They are scattered along neat sandy paths at the rear of the lodge for complete privacy. Each tent has full bathroom facilities, including a shower with hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. There is solar power in the tents.
- Wifi was not available at the lodgeat the time of my visit
- Although lion tracks have been occasionally spotted and a male lion sighting reported recently, I didn’t see any “big cats” during my stay. But in addition to the large and active population of elephants, I found the abundance of antelopes, the excellent bird-watching opportunities and the warm Mvuu hospitality well worth my visit.