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Birding Bliss: Exploring the magic of Liwonde National Park

If you're seeking an escape to a simpler era, where game reserves offer refuge from the pervasive commercialization of the modern world, then Liwonde National Park beckons. Its dusty roads wind through a landscape where wildlife roams freely, and nature reigns supreme.


Malawi is a land of stark contrasts. Departing from the shores of Lake Malawi, we embarked on a leisurely journey to the 548-square-kilometer expanse of Liwonde National Park. This park stands as a testament to conservation success, providing a secure habitat for its resident animals while fostering economic benefits for surrounding communities. Along the way to the park, the countryside teems with human activity. The roads bustle with vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles, offering a stark contrast to the tranquility that awaits within the reserve.



Due to elevated water levels, we opted for an alternate route rather than entering through one of the main park gates. Our path meandered through a landscape dotted with red-brick houses, the sign marking the road to Mvuu inconspicuous amidst the surroundings. After navigating through a rural village, we reached the gate of Liwonde National Park. Following a brief exchange with local game rangers, the gates swung open, granting us access to the enchanting wonders of Liwonde.


Once through the gates, we made our way to Mvuu Camp. There were some sections that were a bit of a struggle for our low-clearance vehicle, but a short drive we were in the camp. We were greeted by the big smile of one of our guides, Justin Mwaiwatha. After a brief introduction to the camp and the reserve, our bags were taken to our rooms.


Mvuu Camp, situated on the banks of the Shire River, is run by Central African Wilderness Safaris. Our rooms, due to the high-water conditions, were situated only a few meters from the edge of the water. After being warned about crocodiles and hippos, we were able to settle into our rooms. The camp is made up of 14 stone cabins which each have stunning river views. Our rooms comprised of 2 rooms, each two beds that can either be kept together or separated into two separate beds. As with all of the places we stayed at Malawi, there was mosquito nets over the beds. The ablutions in the room consisted of a shower, toilet, and a basin. The camp has both solar and generator power. During certain times of the day, only solar power is available – meaning you can only run the lights in the room. When the generator is running you are able to charge devices in the room and use the plug-points. There is, however, always plug points available in the restaurant and reception area. You are not allowed to walk to your room after sunset. Someone will walk with you as the camp is unfenced and hippos regularly walk around the camp at night. The camp also has a nice-sized swimming pool and a curio shop.


The stunning accommodation at Mvuu Camp

While settling into our rooms, we already got a taste of the excellent birding that the reserve offers. Böhm's bee-eater and Collared Palm Swift perched only a few meters from the front of the cabins. The Collared Palm Thrush was a bird that I still needed for my life list, so ticking it off from the comfort of my room was very special.


Collared Palm Thrush - Photo Jandre Verster

After a quick lunch, it was time to head out on our first game drive in the reserve. Not only was Justin Mwaiwatha one of our guides but we were also joined by Funny Luciano, a Level 2 Tour Guide at the Malawi Institute of Tourism. I have been on many game drives in reserves, but these two guides were by far a cut above the rest. Their incredible passion for what they did shone through. They went out of their way to get the target species that we were after.


Justin Mwaiwatha and Funny Luciano - Our passionate guides

The species that was most common on our drive around the reserve was White-browed Sparrow-Weaver. Small flocks of the species seemed to be congregating every few minutes. Our first lifer for the game drive was a distant flock of Lilian’s Lovebirds – although we managed some decent sightings of this beautiful species, we were not able to get any decent photo opportunities. A small waterhole allowed us close views of a pair of elegant Saddle-billed Stalks walking in the shallow water. A Southern Ground Hornbill, another species that we sighted fairly regularly, was marching across the short grass looking for a late afternoon snack. Perched high on a tree as we pulled away from the waterhole was a Palm-nut Vulture. As we made our way to a late afternoon sundowner alongside the majestic Shire River, we were able to record species such as Meve’s Starling, Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Black-headed Oriole, and Orange-breasted Bushshrike. Although the ‘lifer list’ was still on the low side, the experiences in the park were leaving us on a natural high.


Sunset over the Shire River

The sundowner on the banks of the Shire River is a moment that I will always remember. I looked over the still waters as the sun set over them, shifting the reflective colour the water to a stunning shade of red. Although I was with other people, I was able to deeply breathe in the fullness that life was offering me at the moment. I was able to behold the wonder and splendor of this continent that I am blessed to call home.


After an amazing first afternoon on the reserve, we headed back to the camp to clean up and have dinner. The delicious meals are served under a restaurant with a thatched roof. The restaurant area has a warm African feel that immerses guests in the surroundings. Dinners were three-course meals that were packed with flavor. They didn’t have the ‘5-star’ luxury feel, instead, you could taste they were cooked with passion, resulting in exceptional quality at every meal. You definitely won’t go hungry at Mvuu Camp, the meals are more than big enough to satisfy even the biggest appetite. Meals are included in the accommodation costs, but drinks are charged to your account. The drinks are charged in US Dollars. One of the highlights of the meals was the small flock of Collared Palm Thrush that moved around the tables and on the rafters above the restaurant. There is no music played during meals, but the musical melody of the Palm Thrush’s call was a great addition to our meals.


After dinner, we were escorted back to our rooms. Sitting in the quietness of the room with darkness all around, it was easy to see why we were not allowed to walk around at night. The distant sounds of a pride of lions could be heard breaking through the night. A large hippo was feeding a few meters from my side door, and late on the second night, a large male Elephant was walking around in the camp. The reserve is home to four of the big 5 (strangely enough the park does not have leopards), as well as Yellow Baboon, Cheetah, and Pangolin. For birders, the park boasts an impressive tally of more than 390 species. The park is the Southern limit of the range of the Brown-breasted Barbet, so this is fantastic, but tricky species to record in the reserve. The park is also a good location to see Livingstone's Flycatcher - which sadly we dipped on.


Dickinson’s Kestrel - Photo by Jandre Verster

Early the next morning we were up for coffee and biscuits, after which we headed out for a game drive and a walk on foot. Almost immediately as we made our way out of the camp, it became apparent why Liwonde is a birder’s dream destination. Perched in a tree in the middle of an opening was a Red-necked Falcon. While our hearts were still beating with excitement after seeing the first lifer of the morning, we also managed to see a Dickinson’s Kestrel in the same area! With the low morning light, it was tricky to get photos of these sought after raptors. When we were on the way back later on, there was not one, but two, Dickinson’s Kestrel’s perched in the tree near the camp allowing for some photos.


After a short drive, we disembarked the vehicle to do a walk on foot in the reserve. Safety is a priority on these walks, we were given a comprehensive safety briefing and we were joined by an armed game ranger. We managed to record species such as Cardinal Woodpecker, Common Cuckoo, and Black-backed Puffback on the walk.


For our next walk, we targeted Racket-tailed Roller in a Mapane woodland area to try for. As we walked through the area, we relied heavily on the knowledge of the guides with us. We played a little call-back in the one area which was pointed out to us, and a small flock of noisy Racket-tailed Rollers started flying through the trees around us. Not only was this a special species to get to see, but also being able to enjoy them flying around us noisily made the sighting even more special.


Racket-tailed Roller - Photo by Jandre Verster

After spending time with this noisy group of birds, we got back into the vehicle to continue our search for more special species. As we made our way along the dust roads, we heard a call of a species that was one of our target birds for the trip. After a short wait, a few meters to the left of the vehicle, a pair of Arnot’s Chat showed. We were able to not only get some pretty decent photos, but also spent some time watching the birds move around.


Arnot's Chat - Photo by Jandre Verster

After a short while, we started to drive closer to the Shire River. There was a small wetland area with a few birds moving in it. This wetland area showed how impressive this reserve is for wildlife and bird photographers. There were species such as Grey Heron, African Jacana, and African Wattled Lapwing moving in the water. There was also a Black Heron using the ‘umbrella technique’ for fishing. The only sad part was the short time that we had in the reserve. We didn’t have the time to spend longer at places like this and take it all in. When planning a trip to Liwonde National Park I highly recommend that you spend enough time in the park so that you can soak up every special moment without having to rush.


Black Heron - Photo Adam Cruickshank

We took some time to enjoy some coffee and biscuits at a stop-over point on the banks of the river. Yes, I can remember a few birds that we saw while drinking coffee and talking about the morning, but for me, this was instead an opportunity to enjoy the people that I was with and take a moment to simply enjoy the place I was so blessed to be in.


We headed back to the camp to have a late breakfast. Although we spent time in the camp over the lunch period, this was not an unproductive period. The camp provides guests with the opportunity to get some fantastic up-close photos of some of the species that call the park home. The national bird of Malawi, the African Fish Eagle, is often heard calling around the camp. With patience, one can get some good shots of this iconic raptor while in the camp. As well as the species that I mentioned, Collared Palm Thrush and Böhm's bee-eater, providing many photo opportunities. Also, be on the lookout for various kingfisher species, Blue Waxbill, African Openbill, and Yellow-breasted Apalis.


Yellow-breasted Apalis - Photo by Adam Cruickshank

There are people who look to compile a ‘Bucket List’ of things that they want to do before they die. Although I might not have compiled one of these lists, the afternoon activity allowed me to know one item that should be one everyone’s list – a boat trip on the Shire River.


Spur-winged Lapwing - Photo by Jandre Verster

Late in the afternoon, we boarded a small boat, I didn’t quite know what to expect. We had been warned that the water levels were a little high due to the high rains. This meant that although this would give us a taste of what the Shire River offers, we might be a little disappointed. We started the slow meander along the river, exploring both the expanse of the river, but also the small tree-laden gullies that break away from the sides of the river. The river bursts with life all around it. Providing a habitat for species to thrive, but also providing a source of life for many that live in the reserve. Hippo grunted, announcing their presence only a few meters from the boat. Elephants stood along the banks drawing from the life that it offered. We explored the river, and at every corner, we came around another moment to take our breath away. Western Osprey, a flock of Fulvous Whistling Duck, Goliath Heron, and cormorants all added to the spectacle that was on show. Malawi was showing off and we were lapping it all in. A pair of noisy Spur-winged Lapwings were calling and displaying from a nearby piece of land – another lifer for the trip.


The stunning banks of the Shire River

By the time the boat stopped and the afternoon drinks were served, Malawi had etched a very special place in our hearts. As the sun started to sink and the colors of the evening skies painted the waters we were on, Liwonde had become an experience that would become one of the greatest moments of my life.


Surely life is a lot more than the pursuits that have come to define the lives of so many. Life is meant to be lived and experienced to the full.


Memories around every corner on the afternoon boat trip

Our last night at the camp, although my soul was filled and overwhelmed, also was a sad time. This would be the last few hours in the places that I had grown to love.


The next morning, we did one more drive in the park. We needed to make our way to the next destination, so we didn’t have as much time to spend as we would have liked. In the drive around, we, however, managed to add Hildebrandt’s Spurfowl to the list. Mvuu’s guides worked hard to help us see the bird, which was not showing itself easily. This epitomizes the attitude of the guides who took us around – they worked hard to ensure that we got to see the special species in the park.


Hildebrandt’s Spurfowl - Photo by Jandre Verster

Mvuu Camp has to be one of the best accommodation venues that I have ever had the privilege of staying at. Yes, they offer the luxuries and ‘bells and whistles’ that high-end guests may expect. But they have also managed to keep those old-school values of hard work and exemplary customer service as a priority. Their staff were both friendly and professional.


A piece of my heart was left on the banks of the Shire River. I need to go back and discover even more of what this special park offers and allow the life that it offers to flow into the very core of my being.

 

To find out more about Mvuu Camp or to book your stay, visit their website https://cawsmw.com/mvuu-camp

2 Comments


Guest
May 11

Love how the articles are written. Love the beautiful photo's👏👏👏.

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Replying to

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment - I really appreciate the kind words


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