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Liwonde NP - A hidden gem


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A slightly different trip report - instead of one safari, this is a combination of many weekend trips to Liwonde NP and our experiences there as resident self-drivers and campers.  Hope you enjoy reading about this little gem in Malawi.  (I did a similar report for Majete which you can read here) In the meantime, a few photos from Liwonde:


Palms are a feature of the landscape:



Lions were introduced a few years ago:



Plenty of elephants around:



With the introduction of predators, the vultures have made a comeback too:



Birds are plentiful, like this commonly seen Collared palm-thrush:



The healthy population of sable antelope was a surprise:



But the cheetahs are the real highlight for us:




Edited by Anthilltiger
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How it all started


This is a story about a national park that punches above its weight.  So far it is a conservation success story and hopefully it will continue to be so.  The park is Liwonde National Park, located in the East of Malawi, about 2 hours drive from Blantyre and about 3.5 hours from the capital Lilongwe.


Unfortunately Malawi does not have a good track record when it comes to poaching and conservation of their protected areas. They hunted out most of the predators, poaching for ivory was rife with both rhinos and elephants extinct in many of the parks, there was widespread deforestation and tourists were just not interested in visiting.  Luckily, it seemed that the Malawi government recognised that they needed help and Majete Wildlife Reserve was the first park that the conservation NGO African Parks took over.  An experiment to see if wildlife areas could be restored and contribute positively to the economy of the country? Probably, but it worked and today Majete is a thriving Big 5 park. (I posted a similar trip report for Majete)   


With a model that appears to work, African Parks took over the management of Liwonde National Park in 2015 having suffered the same fate as Majete.  Rampant poaching, thousands of snares and sky high human-wildlife conflicts had the park on the brink of collapse, so it is a testament to the hard work that African Parks and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) have done that the park is now thriving and well worth a visit in our opinion, having spent a bit of time there over the last few months.  This is our experience with Liwonde...


After almost 3 years living in Rwanda, we moved to Malawi and arrived in Blantyre mid-March 2020 after an unexpected 2 month detour in Uganda (which worked out quite well as we got to see both the shoebill and the chimps).  Unfortunately for us, the timing couldn’t have been much worse - the world was just starting to shut down thanks to Covid.  

While Malawi implemented some restrictions, we didn’t experience a total lockdown, but the unintended consequence was that all our household goods - including our camping gear -  got stuck in Rwanda and it took 4 months for the truck to finally arrive in Malawi.  


We were also without a car so eventually we ventured out into the new masked world and got ourselves a good old Southern African special - a Hilux double cab pickup - or a “bakkie” as we call it here and dubbed it Nyasa - in cheeky reference to what the Tanzanians call the disputed Lake Malawi.  A week after getting our goods and we were off on our first camping trip - to Majete. The following week we headed to Liwonde… and for the next 3 months we spent almost all our weekends there - the dry season is a special time to be in the park, and we took full advantage!  


Baboon contemplates life:



A lazy day:



Elephant treks to the river with Chinguni Hill in the background:



Little bee-eater catching prey:



Yellow-billed storks fishing:



Young cheetahs at play:



Buffalo head back after drinking:


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The park itself

Liwonde is a river park, with the massive Shire River the main feature.  You can’t actually see much of the main river from the park, unless you do the boat ride, instead you see the shallower side channels which support the wildlife, so it works out pretty well. The park is small… like really small.  It’s 548 km2, but if that doesn’t give you much perspective, basically it takes about an hour and a half to 2 hours to drive from the entrance gate in the South to the tip in the North - so really small ;)  


Having said that, we don’t actually spend too much time in the north, preferring to only go to about the halfway point, since we’re only staying for a one night weekend and we’ve found that the best game viewing is in the South anyway as it’s the most open compared to the more wooded northern section.  


The network of roads is pretty limited too. There is a main N/S road - to the east it’s mopane woodland and to the west is the Shire River, with a few meandering loops that head down to the river, although those roads are all black cotton soil, so we’ll see how they are when the rains come!  (Spoiler alert: they close them in the rainy season as they're impossible to drive) There are also a couple of roads around the hills in the park, which have been surprisingly productive.  They could do with a few more tracks especially to areas the predators are known to hang out, but I’m sure that will come with time.


From our experience, the most productive sections are in the South, with the Chikalongwe loop giving us our best sightings of most of the animals.  It includes the floodplain that is a magnet for animals heading for the river in the dry season.  


The lions are often found on Chimwala plains in front of the bush camp:



Otherwise they like to hang out on the Chikalongwe plains:



Hippos on Kombe Island:



If you're looking for Waterbuck, they can be found EVERYWHERE!



The sable antelopes are often seen crossing Chikalongwe plain in search of water in the dry season:



Buffalo are also often sighted heading to drink at the river:



In the morning the elephants head to the river to feed on the grasses, crossing back in the late afternoon:


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@Anthilltiger I couldn't agree with you more. I spent 3 days in Liwonde in 2018 and just loved it. In fact it's one of my favorite national parks. I enjoyed it so much that I'm planning to visit Majete, as as Nklahatoa.

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Thanks for starting this Trip report. I am looking forward to the next chapter.

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4 hours ago, Biko said:

Thanks for starting this Trip report. I am looking forward to the next chapter.

me too

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Thanks for posting, I also enjoyed your report  on Majete and you are of to a good start again ;)

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i'm awed by that large herd of such beautiful sables. 


I didn't realise Liwonde was so small. would it make sense to stay 3 nights then? 

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Thanks for posting @Anthilltiger, its great to see Liwonde thriving and that the cheetah (just re-introduced when we were there) appear to be doing very well

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Thanks for sharing---I went to Liwonde a number of years ago prior to AP management but I found it a very compelling place for wildlife.  The landscape was stunning as you show with a hippo filled river, giant crocs, plentiful elephants and sable etc... there was at the time a protected area for black rhinoceros but we did not spot them on our visit.  cheetah and lion had not yet been introduced.  I would certainly go back given your report and it is so close to beautiful Lake Malawi as well...Thanks again.

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Mopane woodland, baobabs and palm trees dominate the landscape to the east, while open floodplains with termite hills dominate the west, so it gives quite a number of different photo opportunities.  And luckily considering all the mopane trees, not too many tsetse flies - although we’re waiting to see if that changes with the rains ;)  (Update after the rains: no major problems with those pesky flies)


With the exception of Ruaha NP in Tanzania, it’s probably the place with the most baobab trees that we’ve seen, and definitely the most that have been destroyed by elephants - the amount of tusking that the elephants have done to so many of the trees is very noticeable and we’ve seen that some of the older trees have even been protected from the elephants with barb wire.  The first time we ever went to Liwonde the first elephant we saw there was tusking a baobab - the following weekend that same tree had been completely destroyed.  It may have something to do with the long dry season or the amount of elephants in the park, which leads me to one of the biggest attractions...


The river is never far away giving way to open floodplains:



The mopane woodland makes for an interesting backdrop:



Even the cheetahs hang around in the woodland:



The palms add to the beautiful sunsets in Liwonde:



Look out for the amazing variety of wild flowers during the rainy season:





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On 4/25/2021 at 4:40 PM, Kitsafari said:

I didn't realise Liwonde was so small. would it make sense to stay 3 nights then? 

There are plenty of areas to explore - you won't have a problem filling up your time, especially if you're going in the dry season.  In the wet season, many of the roads are out of bounds and then driving is quite limited, but overall 3 days won't be a problem.

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From our trips around East and Southern Africa, the dry season in Liwonde is a surprisingly good place to see elephants.  At one stage, they had too many it seems, but after a historic translocation of 350 elephants from Liwonde to Nkhotakota NP, they have hopefully become more manageable.  But there are still plenty to see - in fact, if you are coming in from the Southern entrance, there is a high chance that you will see at least a few elephants within 2 minutes of driving in.  And considering the history of the park, they are astonishingly calm which has surprised us; we like to think that they can feel the change from poaching to protection over the last few years.


Because elephants need to drink almost every day, they trek to the river to drink and if you hang around long enough on the floodplains you will catch family herds coming out of the woods and crossing the channel to get to browse in the marshes.  Sometimes the smaller herds get together to do the walk to the river, leading to scenes of 40-50 elephants in one spot which is really special.  We’ve been lucky to catch them crossing the channel away from us (just elephant bums!) and towards us, as well as one special, close experience. 


We’d stopped under a tree in the heat of the day when about 30 elephants emerged from the woods about 200m away.  Instead of crossing the plain right there to the river as we’d seen them do before, the matriarch decided to lead the herd straight to us, before she made her way almost within touching distance just past us, leading an amazingly silent group of pachyderms young and old - it was awesome!


In the same spot a couple weeks later, we watched as a big herd of elephants gathering on the other side of the bank in preparation to cross towards us one afternoon.  They were pretty calm and were slowly and methodically crossing when suddenly 3 big bull elephants that seemed to be trailing them appeared.  These 3 were actually running towards the herd and into the water like bulldozers!  


There was pandemonium with elephants rushing to cross the river before these 3 bulls got to them, including a very small elephant who fell over in his rush to run away - that caused mom and her relatives to get upset and start trumpeting - as I mentioned - pandemonium!!  It went on for a few moments, with elephants trumpeting and bellowing and running in all directions, and then suddenly as quickly as it started, it stopped - everyone was suddenly calm and walking slowly into the woods.  A really great sighting to witness of the bulls and the rest of the herd.


Catching the elephants in the mopane woodland also offers a different perspective, especially during the dry as it offers lovely colours and hues of the fallen leaves creating an interesting backdrop to the grey of the main subject.


The dry season saw the elephants gather to cross to the river to drink:



One of my favourite elephant encounters with the matriarch leading her family past us:



Elephant bulls tussle at the river channel:



Almost every day in the dry season you can count on the elephants crossing the river channel:



Pandemonium as the bulls charge into the water:



Single file along a well worn elephant path:



The mopane woodland provides a different backdrop:



A lesser seen mating attempt:



Another small herd crosses the water:


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We have been assured that there are rhinos in the park - we just haven’t seen them ;) 17 black rhinos found themselves in their new home from South Africa in 2019, but they were released in the more wooded North of the park - an area that we don’t usually spend a lot of time in.  We do believe there is at least one rhino in the south of the park but so far this loner has eluded us, so we keep making the rounds around the hills hoping to catch him.  


This is as close as we've come to rhino- A dung beetle on dung from a rhino midden: 

Edited by Anthilltiger
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Amongst all the surprises of Liwonde, one of the biggest are the sightings of sable antelope.  Through all our travels sable has remained almost as elusive as roan antelope (the roan we finally found in Akagera NP, Rwanda) with our only sightings of multiple sable being in Chobe NP, but not on the scale that we have seen in Liwonde. 


Not only do you see the impressive dark males, but there are breeding herds - the main one that we see is about 60 or 70 strong.  Again, the dry has offered a real advantage here - on most days at least part of the herd are heading to the river so as long as you wait patiently, you should get a good sighting of them. And we’ve found that there is a nice male herd of about a dozen that is resident on one of the hills so there’s always a chance to catch some good shots of these beautiful antelopes.


The sable can be found mid-morning heading to the river to drink in the dry season:


Otherwise we found them in the woodland around Kadungusi Hill:



The males are strikingly beautiful with their curved horns, dark coat and face markings:



The horns can be used for a good scratch too:



A couple of males head back to the wooded area:



Edited by Anthilltiger
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The frustratingly elusive and shy Eland antelope is plentiful in the park, but we haven’t seen them too often. However our best sighting was a herd of about 70, which is probably the biggest Eland herd we’ve seen, complete with babies and males.  We had a nice sighting, but not great photos - trying to get close to them usually results in only photos of their bums as they run off!  


Eland with youngsters:



Good looking male:



They stopped and posed for a moment only because we were so far away.  And soon after they ran off:



Edited by Anthilltiger
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Waterbuck, waterbuck, waterbuck everywhere!  Considering they’re an antelope that needs water and there’s a river it makes sense you’d see plenty.  And they are all over the park, so if you’re looking for a waterbuck safari, you’d be very successful ;) If you’re ever in the park, check out the riverside drive in the South - there is one female that stands out from the rest as she’s got floppy ears - it makes her instantly recognisable and the one we always look out for when we’re driving in that area.


Waterbuck are everywhere you look:



Most often found near the water:



Or on termite mounds:



"Floppy" stands out from the rest:


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As with waterbuck, there are big populations of impala.  As the dry season was heading to an end, we could see that so many of the females were heavily pregnant and the week after the rains broke, we were lucky to see a live birth.  Impalas give birth at midday in bushes to avoid the predators so the photos weren’t worth much, but it was fantastic to see a baby impala being brought into the world, although he definitely needed to grow into his ears and legs;)


Just like waterbuck, impala are everywhere:



Impala giving birth:



And the resulting little one:



They really need to grow into those legs:



It was great to see the explosion of new babies at the beginning of the rainy season:



Although the cycle has begun again with the rut:



Impala roadblock:



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Other antelope


After living in East Africa for the last decade where we didn’t see much kudu, it is nice to see these graceful antelopes again - especially the males with their impressive horns, and there is a healthy population of them around.  Other antelope that you will catch with regularity are bushbuck dotted around, and we’ve seen one reedbuck that looked as startled as us to see each other ;) Hartebeest are in short supply - we caught sight of a small herd of hartebeest once in the woods that raced off as soon as they saw us.  


We were pleasantly surprised to find some klipspringers as we didn't actually know that they were in the park.  It was just after the rains had started and these normally nocturnal antelope had come down from Chinguni Hill to feed on the fresh new grass.  After our first sighting of these stocky little chaps, we've seen them a few times during the rainy season.


Kudu browsing on the last of the leaves during the dry season:



The horns of a male kudu are always so impressive:



Reedbuck can't get away fast enough:



Klipspringer after the first rains:



We had a number of klipspringer sightings, including this couple in the open:


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7 hours ago, Anthilltiger said:

We have been assured that there are rhinos in the park - we just haven’t seen them ;)

We were equally "unlucky" but that was before the 19 new arrivals.


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**This chapter is not for the faint-hearted**


Baboons of course are all around - as in the rest of Southern Africa these are the savannah baboons as opposed to their much handsomer olive baboon cousins in East Africa.  While we don’t usually pay much attention to baboons, we did witness a live kill by one of them, which was a moment of madness in the heat of the day.  


We were chilling under our favourite tree on Chikalongwe loop (the same one we’d been under when the herd of elephants had walked past) and nothing much was happening - the antelope had already been to the river to drink and moved back into the woods, so we were doing some birding.  Then a couple of warthogs with their offspring started moving out of the woods.  There were 4 relatively young piglets following the adults and they were snuffling around the bases of the trees looking for food when a baboon walked past, just one who ignored the pigs and went to sit nearby.  Then the 2 adults and 2 of the youngsters walked off leaving 2 of the piglets behind to carry on foraging - big mistake! 


The next moment squealing pierced the calmness as the baboon that had been ignored by everyone (including us) grabbed one of the piglets and made off with it.  A flurry of activity with pigs running in all directions - the mother trying to chase the baboon and lots of squealing from both the grabbed pig and its siblings, but it was all for nothing - the baboon won out in the end and spent the next couple of hours eating his piglet prize while the rest of his troupe gazed on longingly waiting for scraps.  Just shows that things can happen anywhere, anytime in the bush - you just got to be there and be patient ;)


And that wasn’t the end of the baboons and kills...


The explosion of the impala lambs at the beginning of the rainy season provided great opportunities for the baboons to up their protein intake.  Since impalas give birth around midday, the baboons were always around just looking for new-borns.  We’d seen a few baboons feeding on baby impalas the week before, but during a drive we found a mother impala looking quite nervous and soon discovered why.  


She’d just given birth but a big male baboon was walking around and we figured out quickly that he was looking for her baby.  And unfortunately for her, it wasn’t long after that he found the baby and grabbed it from its hiding spot and ran off with it.  The mother gave chase but in the end there was nothing she could do when he climbed up a tree and she gave up eventually and moved off.  


This left the baboon with his prize and the calls of the baby impala soon attracted the rest of the troop - it’s quite a macabre scene to witness the killing of a baby impala by baboons - they’re not efficient killers and more often than not just start eating the poor animal alive all the while trying to prevent any of the rest of the troop from grabbing it.  

We saw a similar scene play out the following day again; luckily those baby impalas that do survive those first few days quickly grow into those legs quickly enough to get away and soon you see impalas and baboons feeding together again!

See the baboon hiding behind the tree in the top left photo? The piglets didn't...



Baboon enjoying his catch:



This new-born impala lamb didn't have much chance despite mom's valiant efforts:



He spent time running with it while being chased by the rest of the troop:



Eventually he started eating while up a tree:



Baboon defending himself and his kill from another baboon:



A more peaceful scene:


Edited by Anthilltiger
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Other general game


There are good buffalo herds around - we’ve seen at least 2 strong herds in the South and the dagga boys hanging around the hills.  We even saw an oddly coloured buffalo which we originally thought was a lost cow as he has a white band across the body - while we only saw him briefly at quite a distance, we will be looking out for him in the future.


Hippos… it’s a river park - there are plenty ;) The best place to catch them are at Kombe Island where the road is closest to a channel of water where a pod usually hangs out.  Otherwise they can be heard all along the river channels or seen out the water grazing on the marsh grasses.  Likewise, with water come crocodiles and you will see them sunning themselves on the sandy banks, although that would be towards the north of the park.


Warthogs are plentiful - they like to spend their nights in the culverts that are dotted around the park so we’re often startled by a pig dashing out of the culvert as we drive over ;) 

Speaking of pigs… bushpigs.  These shy and nocturnal creatures are very seldom seen around, but they seem to be less shy in Liwonde as we’ve seen quite a few of them around in the park, including a very bold one in the campsite up North.  I assume he’s got used to people - and their food - being around so I’d think he’d be quite a good bet if you’ve never seen a bushpig.  


There are zebras in the park, but we’ve caught sight of them only a couple of times.  We believe that the population is relatively healthy, but they don’t seem to hang out in the same areas we do.  And don’t worry about looking for giraffes - there aren’t any.  We’re not sure if that is due to poaching rather than habitat limitation, but assume it is the latter.  We were really pleasantly surprised by the variety of abundance of the wildlife that are resident in the park and combined with the landscape offers some really nice photo opportunities.  But as usual for us the focus more often than not is the predators…


A buffalo keeps a wary eye on us:



There are big herds that can be found in the woods or traversing Chimwala plain to drink:



A river park always has hippos:



And crocodiles:



Zebra sightings are few and far between:



We've been surprised how often we've seen bushpigs:



Love their long snouts:



But there are plenty of smaller creatures, like this dragonfly:



Monitor roadblock:



Nests of the foam nest frogs were everywhere after the first rains: 



I think this adorable creature is a sengi, but not sure which one:



The rains also brought out the Orb weaver spiders, this one we watched catch her prey and encase it in silk:




Edited by Anthilltiger
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Pictus Safaris

Great stuff @Anthilltiger- that's a nice shot of a four-toed sengi.

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Would there be checkered, or other sengis too in Liwonde?

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