Malawi – The one that nearly got away

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Chances are you’ve never heard of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Maybe it’s time you did. Aaron Gekoski heads in search of Malawi’s last remaining wilderness.

MalawiThump thump thump. I’m lying in the back of a bakkie, sweating and getting grumpier with each passing thump. My bottom is being pummelled against the metal floor of the car, courtesy of the lumpy bumpy track below. Gem, my partner, reaches for additional clothing to pad our bruised coccyxes. Some might call this karma: before our transfer to Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve (NWR) we’d read on their website – with some scepticism – that “this is one of Africa’s, and possibly Malawi’s, last remaining truly unexploited areas of wilderness.” Bold claims for a reserve we’d never even heard of. Surely that crown belongs to Majete or Liwonde?

As we grasp hold of each other’s knees for support our doubts are blown away in the wind and into the dense miombo woodland of Malawi’s largest, and oldest, National Park. This is 1800 sq km of rugged beauty. Which begs the question: why doesn’t NWR show up on most travellers’ radar? To understand the park’s present, we must understand its past. Over recent decades, poachers have stripped these forests of their wildlife. Let’s not play the blame game – this is one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest countries on Earth, a place where few have access to protein.

It wasn’t until 2011/12 that Nkhotakota’s fortunes began to change, following a US$850,000 cash injection from the World Bank. The money has been used to improve infrastructure and combat poaching. The plan now is to reintroduce wildlife and put NWR firmly back on the map.Also central to its revival is Tongole, which we eventually arrive at, rubbing bruised bottoms. We’re greeted by managers Zane and Jo, who hand over the customary cooling face towels and welcome drink, which we gulp gratefully before being led inside.

Stepping into Tongole is like walking through the wardrobe and into Narnia. We glance around the large open plan building: a spiral staircase stretches towards a mezzanine lounge, which overlooks the Bua River. A herd of elephant grazes on its banks, as if choreographed for our arrival. “With poaching still rife in Nkhotakota, the elephants have come to view Tongole as something of a sanctuary,” explains Zane, who goes on to tell us that the park also boasts zebra, buffalo, sable, eland, leopard and a small, skittish, lion population.

Despite being furnished to an incredibly high spec, the lodge blends comfortably into the thicket: it is elegant without being pretentious, homely without being twee. Yet perhaps the most impressive part was yet to come: the bedrooms – one of only four in Tongole. We are led through wrought-iron glassless doors. A bed – large enough to accommodate one of the elephants munching away beneath our chalet window – is dressed with Egyptian cotton sheets. The mosquito net is larger than our bedroom at home. In the adjoining bathroom sits a gigantic stone bathtub, ideally stationed for viewing the wildlife below.

After a soak, we head for dinner and spend the evening chatting to our hosts, who explain the sad events that led to Tongole’s inception. In 2006, Nkhotakota resident Bentry Kalanga moved to the UK to further his son Vitu’s education. Tragically, the following year Vitu was killed in a car crash. The event brought Bentry close to the father of Vitu’s girlfriend, David Cole, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. The two hatched plans and decided to build a lodge in Vitu’s honour.

Bentry and David didn’t want to build just any old lodge, isolated from its surroundings. Their aim was to improve the lives of local communities while simultaneously providing visitors with an enriching travel experience. Money raised by the Tongole Foundation has helped build school classrooms and toilet blocks, and mend desperately leaky roofs. An entirely new school is now in the pipeline.

Along with improving educational facilities, Tongole employs local staff to work in the lodge and rangers to patrol the park on the lookout for signs of poaching. The next, ambitious, stage is to reintroduce more species back into the area. Tongole’s efforts were recently recognised in the 2015 Safari Awards, where they won Best Community Focused Property and Best Ecologically Responsible Property in Malawi. Not bad achievements for less than four years’ work.

Gem and I wobble off to our lavish chalet, full of fillet steak and admiration. The last remaining space in my stomach is plugged by a superlative handmade truffle, left tantalisingly on a pillow. Well sated, and in preparation for the photographers’ obligatory sunrise wake, we embark on eight hours of the soundest sleep we’ve had in ages. We spend the next couple of days exploring the Reserve. Tongole’s emphasis is on low-impact activities. Despite my aversion to exercise, I agree to go on a hike up nearby Chipata Mountain – my first proper trek in 32 years.

We pass the afternoon walking through evergreen Afromontane forest with guide Shai, barely a bead of sweat running down his perky cheekbones. En route we see plenty of the reserve’s 280 bird species, including various types of kingfisher, eagles, hornbills and herons, which Shai helps us to identify with a broad, handsome smile. Gem teases me for developing a man-crush on our new guide.

The following day is spent kayaking down the Bua River, stopping for lunch on its banks. After an unsuccessful spot of fishing, we visit nearby Bua River Lodge, NWR’s alternative retreat. Opened by conservationist John Dickinson in 2010, this tented lodge offers a more affordable yet no less romantic option to Tongole.

We head back to base for our final meal – a grilled meat extravaganza washed down with Johnnie Walker Black Label. As has become the custom during our stay, we sit in an alcoholic daze on the deck, musing about the stars and putting the world to rights. Tonight we ponder what distinguishes a good National Park from a great one, and come up with three criteria: spectacular scenery, a minimal number of tourists to share it with, and abundant wildlife.

NWR excels in the first two and – after its troubled history with poaching – efforts are underway to rectify the third. In Tongole and Bua River Lodge the Park possesses two ecological gems from which to explore what is indeed one of Malawi’s last pockets of true wilderness. This might be the first time you’ve heard of NWR, but if Bentry and David have anything to do with it, it won’t be the last.

Safari Planner
• Getting there Flight transfers (30 minutes from Lilongwe International Airport) are now available on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, connecting Lilongwe-Tongole and Tongole-Likoma Island. Charter flights can also be arranged on any day.
• Road transfers are also available and being only 115km from Lilongwe, a three-and-a-half hour drive connects to Nkhotakota, making it a great place to spend a few days after arriving in Malawi, before travelling to the lake.
• When to travel  Open all year. Access is more challenging after the rains (January-March) but many visitors enjoy the dramatic storms, green vegetation and birdlife during this period.
• Further information  Bradt guide to Malawi (6th Edition), by Philip Briggs;  www.malawitourism.com

Other lesser-known wilderness areas
• Lengwe National Park  Just 80km from Blantyre, Lengwe is Malawi’s southernmost National Park. Since it is flat and arid, animals such as buffalo, kudu, impala, bushbuck and hyena tend to congregate around the waterholes, offering great photographic opportunities.
• Dzalanyama Forest Reserve  Formerly known as the Central Angoni Highlands Game Reserve, Dzalanyama became a forest reserve in 1922 to protect Lilongwe’s water resource. It is renowned for outdoor activities including mountain biking, walking and trekking. The birdwatching opportunities are also excellent.

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