Liwonde National Park
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Liwonde National Park is a national park in Malawi. It is located on the upper Shire River plain, east of the river, 140 km north of Limbe. Its southern gate lies about 6 km from the town center of Liwonde, and is accessible by bicycle taxi or walking. There are several affordable lodges near this entrance gate, the most famous being Liwonde Safari Camp and Bushmen's Baobab. The one main lodge inside the park is Mvuu (which means "hippo" in Chichewa) Camp. All lodges provide accommodations and game viewing on walking tours, drives, and boat/canoe trips. The park is home to several species of antelope (impala, kudu, waterbuck, etc.), elephants, buffalo, crocodiles, hippopotamus and many other mammals. Also there are more than 400 species of bird found in this park.
Liwonde National Park is in the southern part of Malawi near the Mozambican border. It’s situated on the left bank of the Shire river between Lake Malombe and Liwonde.
In 1868, Captain Henry Faulkner wrote for the first time about the Liwonde area. He and others who followed him all wrote about enormous quantities of game, like zebras, elands, hippos and hyenas. These numbers decreases significantly when hunters came to the area in the late 19th century. By the 1890s, administrators and settlers of Zomba, only 50 km to the south, had their favourite recreational hunting ground here. Before 1930, the wildebeest, the black rhino and the nyala antelope were disappeared in the area. Others followed soon after WW II. The African wild dog, the eland, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, buffalo and zebra were all last seen in the 1960s or 1970s. In order to protect the remaining wildlife, a Controlled Hunting Area was proclaimed in 1962, upgraded in 1969 as game reserve and finally a national park in 1973. Since then, hippos and elephants do much better. Elephant numbers increased from 200 to 900. And since the 1990s some species like the black rhino, the zebra, the buffalo, the eland, the hartebeest and the roan antelope were reintroduced. After being vanished for 20 years, lions recently came back from Mozambique to Liwonde National Park.
Liwonde National Park supports a range of habitats that belies its small size, with more than 1000 vascular plant species recorded. Ecologists recognise seven main vegetation plant communities within the park. Roughly three-quarters of the park supports a monotonous cover of mopane woodlands, dominated by the mopane trees that form a 12m-high canopy, but also supporting stands of Candelabra Euphorbia, mesmerising python vines and countless baobabs’ scarred where elephants have ripped the bark off to eat. Elsewhere, there is reed swamp and marshland along the Shire River and southeast shore of Lake Malombe, floodplain grassland in the south, mixed woodland on all the hills, tall grass tree savannah along the narrow floodplains of seasonal streams, small pockets of dry deciduous thicket riverine, and semi-deciduous riverine forest. Wild flowers are seasonally plentiful during the rains, and include brightly coloured flowers, lilies and ground orchids, while the stumpy impala lily bursts into striking pink bloom during the dry season.
Wildlife in Liwonde National Park is abundant. Especially elephant and hippo numbers are high for this small national park. Respectively 900 and 2000, which makes it one of the densest populations of Africa. Also crocodiles are numerous, as well as impalas, waterbucks, warthogs, vervet monkeys, yellow baboons, bushbucks and kudus. In the mopane woodland there are living several hundreds of sable antelopes. The recently reintroduced rhino already broke out its sanctuary and can be seen everywhere in the park now, but quite rarely, because of its small numbers and its shyness. On the other hand, predators are scarce. A small number of lions is present since they have returned from Mozambique. It’s unsure if these few lions is the beginning of a healthy, self-sustaining population or only temporarily visitors to Liwonde National Park. Leopards do live here, but are seldom seen, due to their excellent camouflage and the dense woodlands in the park. Also spotted hyenas are rarely seen, but often heard at night. Smaller predators include serval, genet and side-striped jackal.
Elephants and hippos might be the main attraction for most visitors, but Liwonde National Park is a true top site for birdwatching, with a very different species composition form most of Malawi’s avian hotspots. More than 400 species have been recorded! Most notably are the water-associated birds as the African fish eagle, the pied kingfisher, the saddle-billed stork and goliath heron. This national park is one of the best places anywhere to seek out a few rarer water-associated birds among them Pel’s fishing owl, red-necked falcon, palm-nut vulture, rufous-bellied heron and white-backed night heron. It’s also the only site in Malawi for spur-winged lapwing, a species that had never recorder in the country until vagrant pair pitched up in the late 1990s, since when it has established itself along the river in substantial numbers. Away from the water, birds of prey are very well represented. The bateleur, martial eagle and all three snake eagles are quite common and also the southern ground hornbill is present. The park is home to several localised woodland species, such as brown-breasted barbet, Boehm’s bee-eater, Lilian’s lovebird, Livingstone’s flycatcher, collared palm thrush and green twinspot along with more sparsely distributed mopane specialists such as racket-tailed roller and pale-billed hornbill.
Tourism in Malawi is still low key and that reflects in the number of visitors to Liwonde National Park. That said, it is Malawi’s premier wildlife-viewing destination and has a lot to offer. Because its almost non-existing number of dangerous predators, it’s one of the few wildlife national parks that offers game walks, alternatively to the more common game drives. There are also canoe and boat safaris.
There are only three lodges and safari camps inside the fence of the national park. Number 4 is on its way and constructed as we speak on the ruins of the Chinguni Hills Lodge. It will be an upmarket safari camp run by Robin Pope Safaris.
Mvuu Wilderness Lodge is probably the most exclusive safari lodge anywhere in Malawi. 200 meters away there’s Mvuu Wilderness Camp, under joint management, and still luxurious, but less exclusive. A campsite is adjacent to this camp. Both entities lie on the river bank and have a swimming pool and all rooms have a river-view balcony. It’s only reachable by own transport, a long bicitaxi trip or a $80 boat trip.
Much closer to Liwonde is Bushman’s Baobabs. It is an typically African-style lodge with a great viewing tower facing the Shire river. It’s the only lodge that offers canoe trips. Liwonde Safari Camp is the relaxed budget option with a supreme wilderness experience as elephants pay an occasional unscheduled visit to the camp. Vervet Monkeys and other small animals are residents. It’s still an ongoing project, but that does not disturb its bush experience. It offers game drives, game walks and boat safaris.
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