Ditch the car

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Following a trip to Malawi, Sophie Ibbotson puts the case for doing your game viewing from the water. Pictures by Sophie Ibbotson and Ben Tavener

Nothing beats messing about in boats or gently cruising down a river, watching the world go by. And when you are on safari, there is an added dimension to the pleasure of a boat trip: you can quietly approach all manner of birds and other creatures you wouldn’t normally see up close.

When I first travelled to Malawi, it was the game drives which attracted and excited me; but it was the wildlife sightings on the rivers which ultimately compelled me to go back for more.

The Great Rift Valley runs the length of Malawi, and in its trench lies Lake Malawi, whose waters cover nearly a quarter of the country’s landmass. This makes it one of the most watery nations in the world, only behind the Marshall Islands, the Bahamas and Guinea Bissau. The mountains and plateaus of Nyika National Park, the Shire Highlands, and the Mulanje Massif hide the headwaters for numerous rivers and streams, including tributaries to the mighty Shire River, which flows out of Lake Malawi and feeds into the Zambezi downstream.

Whichever national park or wildlife reserve you visit in Malawi, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to take to the water. I’ve nominated a few of my favourites to help you narrow down the choices:

Best for birding
Malawi is a birdwatcher’s dream, with some 650 species recorded in the country. Eighty per cent of these breed in Malawi, and 10 per cent of them can be seen nowhere else in southern Africa. The richest birding spots are around Lake Malawi and along the Shire River, where my bird-obsessed colleague, Ben, managed to tick off 37 lifers before breakfast.

We motored along the river to a point near to where the Shire and Mwalasi rivers meet, and on the sandbanks hundreds of African skimmers were nesting. We photographed them at rest and in flight, rounding off an incredible morning of bird sightings which already included giant and malachite kingfishers, tawny and African fish eagles, crowned hornbills, ospreys and water dikkops.

Best for elephants and hippos
Mvuu means ‘hippo’ in Chichewa, so it should come as no surprise that the waters surrounding Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park are filled with hundreds of hippo. The lodge is accessed by boat, so from the very start of your stay, the river is part of your daily routine.

Taking an early morning river safari, the hippos have already returned to the water after their nightly foraging expeditions ashore. The boat makes its way around or between the hippo in the pod, not all of which are visible above the surface. Dozens of elephant come down to the riverbank to drink as well, and they are completely unfazed by the presence of the boat. You can get within a boat’s length or two of these incredible pachyderms – far closer than would be safe in a vehicle or on foot.

Best for nocturnal wildlife
Hippo and crocodiles make it inadvisable to canoe after dusk, but in the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, neither are present in the Bua River. You can paddle directly from Tongole Wilderness Lodge in an inflatable two-man canoe. We set out on our river journey in the late afternoon, when the heat of the day was fading. There’s white water further downstream, but we planned for a leisurely paddle.

The baboons and birds were waking up from their siestas and starting once again to become active, the former leaping down the rocks to the water’s edge to drink. Looking up into the tree branches that overhung the river, we could see the bats already alert, readying themselves for their nighttime hunt for insects. The nightjars and a plethora of owls were already stretching their wings in flight.

Best for sunsets
This has to be Lake Malawi. You can catch a traditional wooden dhow boat from the beach at Pumulani on the mainland, or circumnavigate Mumbo Island by kayak or motorboat. This is a super way to see the waterbirds fishing and, where the water is shallow and crystal clear, the colourful cichlids as well. Regardless of the kind of boat you’re in, the most important thing is that you find a good spot for your sundowner. The sun burns orange-red-white before it sinks below the horizon, and when the light is reflected on the surface of the water, it’s as if the whole lake is ablaze.

Sophie Ibbotson travelled to Malawi with tailor-made safari specialists Africa Exclusive.

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