As tall as a one-storey building and heavier than a pick-up truck, our African giants should be easy to find. But right now, the newest residents of Malawi’s Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve are proving harder to locate than a proverbial needle in a haystack – or an elephant in miombo woodland, in this case.
Brought here as part of a successful two-stage translocation shifting 500 elephants from elsewhere in the country – the biggest and most ambitious project of its kind to date – the animals are, unsurprisingly, a little unsettled.
“They are much calmer now,” insists Emmanuel, an assured twenty-something guide who boasts a lifetime of experience growing up in the forest, and claims his only toys were origami butterflies made from the leaves of a camel’s foot tree. “They don’t charge at us anymore… well, not as much.”
When, after two days of fruitless searching, we do eventually spy an ashen-grey trunk tangled within the forest’s spindly arboreal limbs, the sight is uplifting; the outline of a mother and calf etched effortlessly into their surroundings. The youngster is one of several newborns totalling the population to 600, but begging the question – where are the other 598?
Bringing a park back to life
Stretching 1,800sq km across the centre of the country, Nkhotakota is sprawling with few access points. But under the management of African Parks, acclaimed for regenerating wildlife areas across the continent, there are plans to complete a 700sq km solar-powered fence enclosing an elephant sanctuary, and to build new roads.
Malawi, like many African countries, is realising the potential for tourism by restocking parks and reserves denuded of wildlife through poaching and community conflict. Although less advanced than neighbouring safari big-hitters Tanzania and Zambia, it’s also less crowded, and in an age where over-tourism is a growing concern, it’s a conservation success story in the making.
“For now, this is a wilderness lodge,” explains Bentry Kalanga, a big man with an even bigger smile and the co-owner of Tongole, a comfortable lodge deep in the forest on a wend in the Bua river.
Long-term resident herds occasionally come to frolic in the shallow, Nesquik-coloured water – including ‘short trunk’, a local celebrity easily identifiable by his unusual proboscis clipped in half by a snare.
Largely though, the attractions are avian, and we spot several species on an early morning canoe trip along the Bua. A trumpeter hornbill could easily be mistaken for a bawling baby and a water thick-knee crescendos and crashes like a battery draining its juice.
“There’s a myth that if you kill a hamerkop, your house will be struck by lightning,” muses Emmanuel as he paddles past the flat-headed bird resting on a fever tree. “They say it has a third eye which can see into your soul. People are afraid, so they leave the birds alone. We need stories like that to protect our animals.”
Home to one of the world’s largest lakes
Although planes can be chartered to an airstrip at Tongole, we travel by road to one of this small country’s biggest attractions, Lake Malawi, just 40km away.
The journey itself is a swift introduction to local agricultural life. Young girls in torn, puff-sleeved satin dresses peddle uneasily on cumbersome, rattling bicycles, riding over sun-scorched soil exploding with chilli-red flame trees and swollen baobabs. Every encounter involves a wave – sometimes two-handed – and dumb-founded perplexity as to what these sweaty, pale misungos (white people) are doing here.
Although landlocked, Malawi is blessed with sandy beaches fringing the shores of its dominating lake, which pours from the Rift Valley and swallows a quarter of the country. Curved by stubbly, parched hills, Robin Pope’s Pumulani Lodge perches above Kasanga Bay in the popular southern sector. The breezy, style-conscious property could challenge some of the smartest beach outfits in Mombasa and Zanzibar; from my clawfoot bath, I watch vervet monkeys swipe at the mango-laden canopy and fishermen row wooden canoes in the lake.
Our breakfast is eaten on a traditional dhow, sailing before a bleeding African sun boils the water, and afternoons are spent kayaking along the reed beds.
Cases of bilharzia, caused by a fresh water-dwelling parasite, put many people off swimming in the lake, but several areas – including Bird Island – are regularly tested and deemed safe for snorkelling, providing an opportunity to see the rare, endemic cichlid fish which earned Lake Malawi its Unesco status.
I take my chances while staying at Makokola Retreat, a more rustic Italian-owned resort where thatched cottages spill onto a fine sandy beach. A whirlwind of inky gills flaps around my limbs, but soon fades away – a faint shadow of the shoals which once gathered here.
“When I was a child, fishermen would haul in huge nets of fish. Now they barely have any,” laments Benedetto Calvani, whose family has lived here for a century.
Connected by an open gate, the village beach is a patchwork of nets pulled taut and drying. As the sun sets, women drum on plastic upturned buckets and sing gaily as men in roughly-carved boats set out for a night of fishing, fuelled by laughter and hypnotic coils of tobacco smoke.
Fortunately, efforts are being made to restock the number of chambo fish in the lake, although the demands of a growing population don’t make life easy.
A place with big ambition
Continuing our journey around the lake, we reach the mouth of the River Shire and the gateway to Liwonde National Park, one of the prettiest protected sections of the country. An hour’s drive through maize fields and villages is followed by a short boat crossing to reach Mvuu, a simple camp leading to a much smarter eight-room lodge, where squirrels flit across pathways and bushbuck graze fearlessly within arm’s length.
Many of the elephants translocated to Nkhotakota originated here, and signs of their overbearing presence are clear – grass mowed so short it resembles a golf course and baobab trunks gnawed like apple cores.
“At the peak, we had 800 elephants,” explains David Nangoma, a community manager for African Parks, who also manage Liwonde, which is three times smaller than Nkhotakota.
Alongside major departures, there have also been some new arrivals. Last year, four cheetahs were reintroduced to Malawi for the first time in a century and, in 2018, there are plans to bring lions and leopards into the mix with financial support from Leonardo DiCaprio’s charitable foundation.
Flanked by hornbills with gleaming red beaks, we go on an afternoon game drive through lowland mopane forest in search of eight resident black rhinos, but despite the pleasant ride, we have little success.
The main focus for Liwonde is its river, home to 3,000 hippos who give Mvuu its onomatopoeic name. Gliding along the water, we see several grazing on the banks – unusual and almost suicidal in this skin-roasting heat.
Although fewer cats mean hunts are minimal, there’s still plenty of action on the water. Baby crocodiles the size of sprats wriggle at the frothing waterline, an easy snatch for African fish eagles too swift for the snapping jaws of a protective mother.
Early afternoon, I return to my thatched tent for an outdoor shower and am joined by a herd of elephants, demolishing their way through the valley below my elevated platform. Suspended in awe and silence, I’m too frightened to even move. But the encounter confirms something David Nangoma told me earlier that day.
“If well-managed, Malawi can be another big safari destination. We’ve got the potential; we just need to play our cards right.”
How to get there
South African Airways (flysaa.com) fly to Lilongwe, Malawi from £694 return.
For more information on the destination, visit malawitourism.com