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Discovering Hope and Birding Paradise at Thangadzi River Conservancy

Updated: May 22

We live in a world where problems are evident all around us. It doesn’t take much to find people who will tell you just how much the world is in a mess and how there is nothing much we can do to change it. It can be easy to lose hope...


Thangadzi River Conservancy is a beacon of hope. It shows that with vision and passion, one can make a significant change in the world. As I sat around the table, late one night, with Chris and Deanne Matthews and the Thangadzi team, I realized that this venue is so much more than a great birding destination. Instead, it shows how lodges can be run so that they not only offer an exceptional guest experience but also conserve and make a difference in the world around them.


Our time at the conservancy started late one evening. We had done a lot of traveling that day through busy Malawi towns, passing an almost endless stream of people who made their way along the sides of the roads. The last part of the trip was done in complete darkness, making it tricky to find the entrance to the conservancy.


We were met at the gate by Iain Tompson, who, along with his partner Rachel, manages the lodge. Iain’s broad smile and warm welcome were a taste of just how special the time at the lodge would be. After we got through the gate, we wound our way through the sugar fields on Kaombe Estate, the farm on which the lodge is based. From the time the farm was acquired by Agricane, Chris Matthews who founded the business, wanted to develop a wildlife area as part of the holistic farming enterprise. The farm is home to one of Malawi’s last riparian forest habitats, so they have looked to conserve this special habitat.

The stunning communal area overlooking the pool - Photo Jandre Verster

 We arrived at the lodge and, after a warm welcome, enjoyed a cup of coffee with Iain and Rachel. We were taken to our chalets and shown what they offered: a nice-sized bed with a mosquito net, plenty of shelves to store what you bring with you, and two showers—one inside and, for the more adventurous, an enclosed outside shower. The lodge is powered by solar, so there is power available in the rooms to charge your devices. There is a communal area with couches, a bar, and a table to sit around and share stories from the day. There is Wi-Fi available in the communal area and in some of the rooms closer to it. There is a beautiful pool that overlooks a waterhole in front of the lodge.


We enjoyed a scrumptious meal that Rachel had prepared before heading to bed to get ready for an early morning.


When we woke up, we had a few options given to us to decide what we wanted to do, but the best option sounded like a boat trip to Elephant Marsh. The marsh is definitely one of the biggest attractions for those who stay at the lodge.


Elephant Marsh was named in 1859 by the explorer David Livingstone, who, after seeing as many as 800 elephants, gave the marsh its name. The 61,556 ha marsh is a Ramsar site, which means this wetland has been ‘designated as internationally important.’ According to the Ramsar website, the marsh supports around 20,000 waterbirds, and around 26 waterbird species have used the area for breeding. Sadly, the elephants are no longer found in the area, but this is a bird photographer's dream!


As the early morning rays tried to push their way through the clouds overhead, we boarded the boat to make our way around the marsh. The lodge uses an airboat to take guests around the marsh. The benefit of this kind of boat is that there is no engine submerged in the water, which means the boat doesn’t get tangled in the vegetation.


Finneas, Robert and Gift

We were warned as we started to glide over the water that this wasn’t the best time of the year to visit as the water levels were high. In prime seasons, there are much larger flocks of birds than when we visited, but we were far from disappointed.


As the boat skimmed its way over the water, we passed species such as African Jacana, Lesser Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, and Reed Cormorant. Many of the birds seemed almost oblivious to the humans armed with large telephoto lenses only a few meters away. A large flock of Collared Pratincole perched on a bank hidden by the vegetation, but almost as one, they took off, providing a spectacle for us on the boat.

Collared Pratincole - Photo Adam Cruickshank

As you make your way through the marsh, every turn offers another opportunity for this special place to take your breath away. One of the most exciting sightings of the morning was a large flock of African Skimmers moving over the waters. This species may not have been a lifer, but seeing such a large flock in action was a moment I will never forget.


We took a break for breakfast on a deck overlooking the marsh. The breakfast was tasty, with coffee, toast, boiled eggs, and the most amazing pancakes I have ever eaten. The fluffy pancakes were flavored with a hint of banana to tickle the taste buds. While eating and spending time with the team on the deck, we managed to add another lifer to the list—this time, a little brown job, a Luapula Cisticola.


An African Swamphen enjoying brunch - Photo Adam Cruickshank

After eating too many pancakes, we got back onto the boat to explore the marsh again. Even though it was later in the morning, we saw once again just what a mecca for water birds this destination is. It is no exaggeration to say that your senses are overwhelmed as you move around the marsh. White-backed Ducks only a few meters from the boat, Blue-billed Teal, Whiskered Tern, Grey-headed Gull, Squacco Heron, and significant numbers of African Openbills. An African Swamphen allowed us to drift in close and take photos of it feeding on snails on the lilies.


African Openbill - Photo Jandre Verster

We were rewarded with an amazing sighting of a species that was on our target list for the trip—the Long-toed Lapwing. This sighting highlighted just why this venue is a photographer's dream destination. We were able to slowly edge closer to the birds and, once the engine was off, spend around 20 minutes observing and photographing them. As with many of the species, they allow the boat to move in close, allowing birders and photographers to have intimate encounters with the birds that call the marsh home.


After a satisfying morning on the marsh, we headed back to the conservancy to relax and have lunch. Even though you can only walk around the lodge area unguided due to the buffalo in the conservancy, the lodge area is a photographer’s dream. Böhm's Bee-eaters and Collared Palm Thrush land on branches only a few meters in front of your chalet, allowing for photos with very little effort. Green Malkoha can be heard calling all around the lodge area.


Long-toed Lapwing - Photo Jandre Verster

We enjoyed lunch and, after a lunchtime 'chill,' we headed out for an afternoon walk around the conservancy. The conservancy is a good location to record Livingstone’s Flycatcher, which sadly, once again, I dipped on for the trip. The walk around the conservancy added species such as Blue Waxbill, African Paradise Flycatcher, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Tropical Boubou, African Hawk-Eagle, and Burnt-necked Eremomela. Although the walk didn’t produce many target species for us, it allowed us to see just how well the guides had been trained on the conservancy.


The next morning, we didn’t have long on the conservancy before we would make the trip to Blantyre for our last night in Malawi, but we got to spend some time in the bird/game hide.


Thangadzi River Conservancy is an amazing venue that offers hope not only to the country that surrounds it but to conservation and empowerment on the African continent as a whole. Where others are quick to find problems, Chris and the team look for solutions. A problem in many areas of Malawi is habitat loss due to trees being cut down for firewood. To counter this problem, they are harvesting an invasive tree called Mesquite, which is used as a sustainable source of charcoal for the surrounding community. There is also a problem of overfishing in Elephant Marsh. Again, the resourceful conservancy team is looking to start a fish farm. This will allow locals to get fish in a sustainable way, thereby preserving the important fish numbers in the marsh. There are a range of other ways that this conservancy is creating sustainable solutions in this special country.

The stunning Elephant Marsh - Photo Jandre Verster

I can talk about the amazing birding and photographic opportunities at the lodge and the conservancy. I can tell you about the exceptional staff who go above and beyond to make your stay memorable. But for me, what I really love about this lodge is how, when you book to stay with them, you become part of a solution. You don't only have an amazing stay, but you contribute to conserving the important habitats in the area and empower the people who call the area home.

Thangadzi River Conservancy will wind its way into the deepest parts of your heart and leave you filled with hope...just maybe we can all make a difference in the world we find ourselves in.


Thangadzi River Conservancy officially opens at the end of May 2024. Head to their website and find out more about this amazing destination


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