Located in the Upper Shire Valley, Liwonde National Park is undoubtedly Malawi’s most spectacular wildlife viewing destination. Originally established in 1973, Liwonde has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years, one that has restored it to its former glory. Maurice Schutgens returns to the park after 12 years to experience it.
The memories came flooding back in a hurry. While it may have been just over a decade since I had last laid eyes on Liwonde, I still remembered the details well enough. The bumpy road to the park, the large mango trees scattered in the neighbouring villages, the humidity hanging heavy in the air. It was exhilarating. From the jetty I gazed out over the dark waters of the Shire River, the pièce de résistance of Liwonde, beautifully lined with countless towering borassus palms and ancient baobabs. And then there were the hippos, known as mvuu in the local Chichewa language, put simply – they were everywhere, grunting and groaning loudly without apology. It put a smile on my face; it was good to be back.
A herd of elephants waded into the shallows as we crossed over to Mvuu Camp (no rewards for guessing why), a rustic style accommodation managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris, situated on the banks of the Shire River. The core dining area, flanked between two ginormous baobabs, offered sweeping views over the floodplains teeming with life. Looking out over this scene you would be forgiven for thinking that this paradise had existed since time immemorial, but Liwonde’s journey has not been without trial and tribulation.
In 2015, when African Parks (a South Africa based non-profit conservation organisation) took over the management of Liwonde, in partnership with Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), the 548km2 park was littered with tens of thousands of wire snares and wildlife populations had been decimated. Poaching was rife and severe human-wildlife conflict was a daily occurence. Liwonde was facing an uncertain future. It is in this context that Liwonde’s transformation must be viewed.
After overhauling the law enforcement capacity and constructing a comprehensive perimeter fence to regain control of the park, African Parks set about restoring Liwonde. While a small population of critically endangered black rhinos have lived in the park since the early 90s, it had long ago lost all of its apex predators. This was set to change. A small population of cheetahs were reintroduced in May 2017, a historic moment given that these cats were last documented in Liwonde over a century ago. Lions followed in August 2018. African Parks’ investment and business approach to conservation has seen a revival in tourism numbers and bolstered revenue to what is today a big-five destination.
While I was in Liwonde to attend a conservation technology conference with other like-minded organisations, I was keen to get out and explore the park and maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of the critically endangered black rhinos. In the late afternoon, after a long day of meetings, we set out for a game drive heading away from the lush riverine areas. The contrast couldn’t have been more clear. Penetrating deep into the dry mopane woodland, occasionally broken up by a baobab, we silently scanned for wildlife. We spotted a lone young bull elephant going through the motions of dismantling a tree to the chagrin of the park management, but it was the sight of the rare sable antelope that caught our breath. Their brown and orange flanks perfectly camouflaging them in the surrounding vegetation’s neutral palette. Suddenly spooked, they sprinted across the road and disappeared into the undergrowth.
Come nightfall, with us happily settled in our chalets, the park once again came to life. A sign on the way to the rooms wisely informed us to ‘beware of the hippo’ who certainly have the right of way. As we tried to sleep they made their rounds grazing on the lush grass in front of our accommodation, none too quietly in their antics.
On our final evening in Liwonde we headed out onto the Shire River for a boat safari. Wildlife encounters are all but guaranteed, the grassy floodplains providing critical dry-season grazing. Hippos eyed us suspiciously, only their eyes showing above the water, as we glided by carefully while crocodiles basked in the heat with toothy grins. Spectacularly coloured malachite kingfishers balanced delicately on reeds in the shallows as fish eagles swooped low in the warm afternoon breeze scanning for prey. The sheer diversity of wildlife along the river was astounding.
The African sky turned a soft shade of lilac as the day drew to a close. With a Malawi gin and tonic in hand we admired the most perfect of sunsets as storm clouds gathered far away on the horizon. I couldn’t help but think that Liwonde National Park is one of Africa’s best kept secrets.