TRAVEL UPDATE: The warm heart of Africa

"Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all."
Brian Jackman

There is nothing more exciting to an intrepid explorer than the idea of finding an undiscovered destination. Be it a remote sandy beach on a private island to forests and jungles bursting with wildlife. Africa is one of those glorious places where you can do just that. From private island resorts to up and coming lodges in new parks I ventured off to Malawi which is fast becoming one of Africa’s hotspots. Landlocked, by some perhaps more well-known neighbours, it is often overlooked however it shouldn’t be! With everything you would want from a beach destination (except the salt in the water) to the ever increasing populations of wildlife in the national parks it is soon becoming a one stop, all round destination with a huge diversity of activities on offer. Known as the warm heart of Africa and widely praised by Vicky it had a lot to live up to and I am glad to say it did. You may have read recently that the wildlife in Malawi is on the up, with the big 5 in Majete, cheetahs and black rhino in Liwonde and a ground-breaking move of 500 elephants around Malawi by none other than Prince Harry himself (helped slightly by African Parks).

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We started the trip in Lilongwe, Malawi’s Capital a bustling city spread over several suburbs and a useful stop before you embark on your adventure. Staying in Kumbali Lodge a beautiful countryside retreat with huge grounds it is a peaceful and relaxing place where you can sit back enjoy the views, a cold drink or a swim in the pool, ideal for a pre or post safari rest. After an early breakfast we set off to Zambia to the South Luangwa National Park, not far from Lilongwe you can either drive or fly and the wildlife here is prolific, famous for its big cat sightings, cameras were at the ready! We headed to Farside’s firm favourite Kafunta River Lodge, having put it in many an itinerary, and met Anke the owner at a few trade shows, it was great to finally experience the magic that is Kafunta. Driving in was an experience itself, after heavy rains the roads were still muddy with large puddles, however we made it through and managed to have a mini game drive along the way spotting giraffe, antelope and even elephants! Kafunta really is a stunning lodge. The views across the floodplain are beautiful particularly at sunset and at night when the stars are out. Of course during the day you can watch the many animals that come to visit, there is a special hide under the decking for those who want to chill out and watch the animals or you can do this from the infinity pool from above should you prefer!

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The South Luangwa didn’t disappoint and we saw a leopard on our first night. Sadly for us he quickly moved on and disappeared into the thick bush so no photo opportunities however a great start to the trip. The food at Kafunta is really delicious and we managed to squeeze in two of their famous lunches, one in the dining room and one on a special tree lookout platform before we headed off. Kafunta has two further bush camps, not open yet due to the rains, which look equally as luxurious as the river lodge and offer some great walking experiences.

We headed off to Mfuwe lodge just in time for a cold G&T in the pool before we went back out on drive. A luxurious lodge, famous for the elephants that walk through the receptions to eat mangoes off the trees, it is set along the river bank and attracts lots of wildlife alongside the elephants. We went back out on a drive and made a special request for a good sundowner spot which was provided with an incredible lookout over the river, as the sky turned red and pink and the hippos yawned it was a great end to the day but not the drive. When the sun had set the spotlight turned on and our safari continued, from a heron catching a catfish to a buffalo, lots of hippos out of the water and even a rather relaxed genet. Of course what we really wanted was to see was a cat… as we headed back to the lodge the guide suddenly got all excited and said a leopard had been spotted hoisting a kill up a tree. Following several other vehicles we sat eager with anticipation for a glimpse awaiting that famous shot. However, as we got closer our guide quickly realised the leopard was in fact a rather bemused hyena who had managed to steal part of a leopard stash. A great sighting all the same the curious guy showed off his stolen meal before whooping off to eat it in peace. Not to end there as we pulled into the lodge a huge crocodile walked across the car park, reminding us all that we were in the bush so romantic late night strolls are not a good idea!

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Up early (before morning drives so I mean early) we headed back to Malawi and off to the lake. It’s a long drive between the two but we arrived at the boat just before lunch. The lake is simply stunning with crystal clear waters, you jet across the usually flat surface (we had a little wind that day so it was slightly bumpier than normal) until you reach your island paradise. Famous for the birds and colourful cichlid fish it is full of romantic white sandy beaches where you can stroll along to your hearts content as well as all the activities you can take part in and on the water. We had a quick inspection of Blue Zebra a luxurious getaway island with a gorgeous infinity pool, fantastic cocktails and private tented rooms and cottages dotted around the island. And after a hearty lunch we got back into the boat and headed toward Mumbo Island, an eco-friendly boulder island, where you can get back to basics without losing any luxury. Set on the most picturesque island surrounded by the crystal clear turquoise water, the chalets are dispersed on a boulder island connected to the main island by a wooden bridge. Each of the open fronted chalets overlooks the lake with a separate eco toilet and shower. It has all the basics but the setting is not to be missed the views alone from your room are enough to make you want to stay forever. You can take hikes around the island (take a sundowner) and go paddle boarding, kayaking and of course snorkel and dive in the waters looking at the bright cichlid fish during the day before settling down to delicious meals and stargazing at night. There is no electricity on the island (although there is a generator for charging cameras etc) which really allows you to get back to nature and appreciate and enjoy what is around you.

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After a blissful night we departed Mumbo and headed back to the mainland to Liwonde National Park. As I mentioned Malawi’s wildlife is steadily on the increase and visiting the park is really magical. To reach Mvuu Lodge & Camp you first have to cross the river in a boat which seems a nice way to cut off from urban life and into the wilderness. The river is teaming with hippos, crocs and elephants, which starts to give an indication of the level of wildlife here. Lacking predators, bar the odd hyena, for many years has enabled the other species to flourish and become quite used to the safari vehicles and people on foot. African Parks for this reason has just released cheetah into the area allowing them to get a good steady hold of the area before plans of releasing the other cats. We stayed in Mvuu Lodge which is the smaller of the two camps. With a dining area overlooking the river and tents facing a floodplain we spotted all sorts of visitors at camp including some elephants right next to my tent who we later found on foot on our morning walk. One of my favourite areas it is a great chance to see the herbivores and omnivores up close and in a relaxed environment. On our morning walk a large male warthog decided to accompany us through the trees as he foraged for food completely happy to accompany us as we headed back to camp. At Liwonde there is a rhino boma where they have several black rhino you can track on foot which at some point will be able to roam freely. As well as tracking the rhinos you can go for bush walks, game drives and boat drives, it really is a fantastic area to get close to the animals out with the big 5 (as well as getting very close to the elephants and rhino) and appreciating the smaller animals. Subsequently you can head into dense bush on your walks without the worry of bumping into lions which is where I saw bush pigs for the first time.

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After a day at Liwonde it was time to head south and into the tea estates. Malawi is famous for its tea estates and the tea which is drunk all over the world. Compared to some parts of Africa, Malawi is very green and has great water supplies subsequently agriculture here is prosperous and the tea industry booming. Malawi has a long standing connection with the UK (Scotland in particular) and so it only seemed apt as Brits that we would be drinking and having afternoon tea whilst here. The tea estates are slightly cooler in temperature which is a welcome relief after the safaris. We headed to Huntingdon owned by a Scottish & Dutch family in Satemwa; it is like entering a traditional British manor house with beautifully tended lawns and a huge array of flowers including a beautiful rose garden. With just 5 rooms it is a luxurious and comfortable stay with extremely personalised service. Each massive room has its own bathroom with a bath and stunning views of the garden. Most impressive was the chapel room which was, as its name suggests, a converted chapel. Here we enjoyed tea infused cocktails, cakes and a tour of the tea factory and tasting. With over 25 teas there was something for everyone despite two of us protesting we didn’t drink tea we all walked away with a favourite. This was the first time on our fast paced trip we didn’t have any activities or site inspections to do and we were honestly a little lost as to what to do! After enjoying some of the cocktails we explored the gardens and got out the books we all brought with the great intention of reading. This really was a stunning place and a great stop for those looking to do both national parks. It is also the perfect base for hikes nearby including Milanje Mountain which has the most stunning views.

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After a restful night it was back in the car for our final stop of the trip and our final safari at Majete Wildlife Reserve to stay at Mkulumadzi Lodge. Majete is home to the big 5 and another great example of Malawi’s conservation success stories with African Parks taking over management of the reserve in 2003 and translocating over 2,500 animals to Majete, where the populations have been increasing ever since. Mkulumadzi Lodge is really stunning; to enter the lodge you have to cross a long swing bridge over a river before a short drive. The lodge is set along a beautiful river with a pool at one end of the riverbank leading to a dining area, boma and mess area then 8 chalets. The chalets are huge with open bathrooms and all have the brilliant river views from the baths, showers and beds as well as your own private veranda should you want to be closer to the action. After another quick G&T by the pool we had a fantastic game drive and completed it with sundowners on a boat trip, a great end to a great trip.

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With final farewells looming we were transferred back to Lilongwe Airport to say our goodbyes and continue our journey home. I would highly recommend getting here quickly and discover this unspoilt wonder.

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