Birding in Malawi - 650 identified bird species
Lake Malawi, also called Lake Nyasa, is one of Africa’s Great Lakes that stretch along the Great Rift Valley and is the southernmost lake in the valley. It is the third largest lake in Africa and eighth largest in the world, shared between the countries of Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique. It is the second deepest lake in Africa.
Lake Malawi is as much a part of the Malawi people as it is of the country’s landscape. It has been a life giving force to residents for years and an important part of Malawi’s economy. Fishing villages are scattered all along the lake shore and local fishermen venture out on the lake daily to feed their families.
Lake Malawi has the world’s first freshwater national park at Cape Maclear and has been proclaimed a World Heritage Site. The National Park includes the islands up to 100 meters (330 feet) off shore and a section of land around the Cape and bay. Snorkeling or scuba diving in these waters will dazzle you with color as you swim past thousands of fish of different colors, shapes and sizes. Fish will literally eat right from your hand. Boats are available for hire to explore the park.
Two islands lie within the Mozambique territorial waters of Lake Malawi but belong to Malawi - Likoma Island and Chisumulu Island.
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History of the Lake
In 1859, Dr. David Livingstone (the Scottish missionary and explorer) first laid eyes on Lake Malawi. He was the first European explorer to reach the shore of the Great Lake and decided to call it Lake Nyasa. Not long after his discovery, the region around the lake was claimed by the British and colonial settlements arose.
On August 16 of 1914, Captain Rhoades was on the lake at the helm of the British gunboat Guendolen. He received news from the British Empire’s high command that World War 1 had just broken out. He was commanded to locate and "sink, burn or destroy" a German gunboat that was known to be on the lake, based out of a German East Africa port (now Tanzania). This was the German Empire’s only gunboat on the lake called the Hermann von Wissmann commanded by Captain Berndt. Captain Rhoades found the German vessel in a bay near Sphinxhaven within German East African territorial waters. With a single shot from a cannon at a range of 2,000 yards (1,800m) the British vessel disabled the German gunboat. This part of the lake is now in Tanzania. It was an extremely brief naval battle but still reported in the English newspapers as the first of Britain’s victories in World War 1.
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Malawi has three main regions: Northern, Central and Southern Malawi.
The northern part of Malawi is less populated than the lower regions and has allowed the area to remain natural and less developed. It provides a true sense of being in the 'Africa of old'.
Nyika National Park
This is Malawi’s oldest and largest park and is one of the best places to see wildflowers, with over 200 types of orchids in the rainy season (summer). Nyika has one of the densest populations of leopard in Africa. Other wildlife that you can expect to see includes zebra, hyena and jackal - and because of the Montane vegetation, a variety of antelope can be found. Elephant and buffalo generally stick to the lower regions.
For the birdwatcher there are over 400 species of bird including the rare Denham’s bustard, wattled crane and red winged francolin. Photographic opportunities are enriched with views of waterfalls, a Neolithic rock shelter, trout pools and gorgeous wildflowers.
Nyika has an undulating landscape - great for mountain biking, trekking and 4x4 game drives. There are plans to reintroduce horseback safaris in 2011.
Robert Laws was a follower of Dr. David Livingstone and established a mission station in the area between Nyika’s eastern border and Lake Malawi. He built the Old Stone House as the Law’s family home that is now a rest house and museum. You can actually see Tanzania across the Lake from higher ground near the House.
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
This reserve is predominantly made up of marsh lands and plains. It has a healthy population of birdlife, with over 300 recorded species. Safaris are typically conducted in 4x4 safari vehicles and you can expect to see buffalo, several species of antelope and lion, the region's predominant predator. Large numbers of hippo are found in Lake Kazuni near the entrance to the Reserve and there are regular sightings of thirty to forty elephant.
The Northern Lakeshore is a beautiful area with sheer rocky cliffs and secluded coves that can only be accessed by boat.
Bandawe Mission at Chintheche is an interesting cultural site. A number of resorts in the vicinity offer the traveler the best beaches along the Lake shore.
Nkhata Bay is a large village and was the most northern point reached by David Livingstone. It has a small fishing harbor which is important to the lake’s fishing industry and it is one of the main stops for the lake ferry, the Ilala.
Karonga is the northern-most town on the shores of Lake Malawi, where the skeletal remains of the Malawisaurus dinosaur and the country’s oldest human remains were found. An interesting museum has been erected to tell the story of this fascinating area going as far back as pre historic times.
Limoma Island is reached by boat or plane. Although it is actually located within Mozambican territorial waters, the island belongs to Malawi. It has some stunning beaches and a large lovely cathedral with stained glass and carved soapstone features. Construction of the cathedral was started in 1903.
The Viphya Highlands
This is a forested landscape that will call out to adventurers, offering mountain biking, birding and trekking. The rolling landscape is beautiful in which to just relax; this will not be a typical safari destination although a few smaller animals are resident.
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Central Malawi is the hub of the country. Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, is situated in this region. Many visitors arrive via Lilongwe’s international airport to travel further into Malawi or on to Zambia.
Kasungu National Park
Kasungu is close to Lilongwe and easy to reach by road. Despite heavy poaching, there is still wildlife in the park.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve
There is presently only one lodge in the park, with plans to build more. This will accommodate the anticipated growth in visitors to Nkhotakota, a reserve that is truly untouched. It is not easy to get in and around the park since it consists of mostly Miombo woodlands with sections of grassland. The terrain is rugged with a few rivers that flow down towards to Lake but wildlife is prolific. All the big mammals can be found, including elephants, a number of antelope species, lions and a good population of birds. Look out for new developments for this park.
Ntchisi Forest Reserve
Ntchisi is one of only two remaining montane forests in Malawi. This is an ornithologist’s heaven; Ntchisi is famous for its birdlife and wild flowers on the forest floor in summer.
Mua mission was established over 100 years ago. Today it is home to an arts and crafts center. Students at the center learn how to create fine wood carvings and then go on to ply their trade across Malawi. Mua also has a really nice cultural museum, worth a visit.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
Dzalanyama reserve is only an hour from Lilongwe and is covered in woodland, streams and large areas of evergreen forest. This is another of Malawi’s fantastic escapes for birding, but is not a great safari destination.
Whether you are travelling between Lilongwe and Blantyre or making a rest stop in Dedza, you simply must visit the Dedza Pottery. The town is located just south east of Lilongwe and overlooks the Dedza Mountains. Watch craftsman as they make mugs, table lamps, dinner services, tiles and virtually anything else that can be fashioned from clay. Decorations are often colorful - and although Dedza Pottery is sold all over Malawi, it would be a great souvenir if bought in Dedza. There is a lovely little tea shop to visit and rest up as you marvel over your latest Malawian purchase. Visitors can stay overnight at the Dedza Pottery Lodge. Pottery made here is a great export item for Malawi.
Chongoni Rock Art Area | A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Located in the forested granite hills near to Dedza is rock art, with some dating back to the Stone Age. This is the most rock art found in a relatively small area in Central Africa. The art is found in natural shelters and tell the story of farmers and the BaTwa hunter-gatherers. Rock art from farming communities is relatively scarce and the depictions of both farmers and hunters' art includes a significant representation of women - still a very important factor in the culture of the Chewa people.
The Central Lakeshore
The Central Lakeshore is not as scenic as the north and has fewer lodges, but one or two places are worth mentioning:
Senga Bay houses the breeding facility for Lake Malawi’s colorful cichlid fish.
Nkotakota is a large traditional village, once the center of the slave trade but now a thriving village with pottery craftsman to rival Dedza.
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Southern Malawi is the most visited, most populated, most developed and most varied in landscape. It is the home to the Shire River which threads down from Lake Malawi through southern Malawi.
The Southern Lakeshore
Monkey Bay is near Cape Maclear, the first freshwater national park and has a small harbor where the Ilala ferry starts its journey northward.
Lake Malawi National Park is a great place to go snorkeling and scuba diving to swim with the Mbuna, the colorful tropical fish of Lake Malawi. The Park is also a UNESCO World Heritiage Site and includes the islands and a portion of the land area on the shore.
The Mangochi Lakeshore is the southernmost part of the lake and if you are looking for a resort type holiday with hotels and golf courses along the lake then this is your destionation.
Liwonde National Park
The Park is about 100 miles (160km) from Blantyre and about half that to the lake. It offers 4x4 game drives and boat safaris along the Shire River on its western border. The Park has a very healthy wildlife population including hippo, crocodile and many antelope. Black rhinos have been re introduced, birding is excellent and large numbers of elephant are found in the park.
Most folks will visit the Plateau for its great fishing, mountain biking, forest walks and horse riding. The scenery is beautiful with waterfalls, lakes and a mix of wild vegetation.
This southern Malawi town was named after David Livingstone’s birthplace and is Malawi’s commercial capital. The main attraction would be the old colonial buildings, large museum and a church linked to Dr. Livingstone. The church of St Michael and All Angels Church was built between 1888 and 1891 at the Blantyre Mission and is found on the original Scottish Mission site. Since 1991 it has been affiliated with the Hiland Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Thyolo Tea Estates
Thyolo has been Malawi’s tea growing area since its inception in 1908. The trimmed and manicured tea bushes make the estates look like enormous well kept gardens. The tea industry employs thousands of local people. It is possible to stay at some of the plantations and learn more about the process of growing and harvesting tea leaves. Nearby the Thyolo Mountain Forest Reserve offers walk and great birding for hikers.
East of Thyolo are the peaks, basins, valleys, forests, streams and waterfalls of the Mount Mulanje region. The Mountain is the highest peak in Central Africa at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). This is a great area for serious hikers and mountain climbers. Some gentle walking trails are available at the base of the mountain. Vegetation and wildlife changes with the altitude, making it a very interesting and scenic mountain to climb.
The Lower Shire Valley
Much of this valley south west of Blantyre is covered in cultivated sugar plantations but there are a few wildlife areas to visit.
Majete Wildlife Reserve is receiving new wildlife stock and it is becoming a very good reserve to visit for wildlife viewing. The Kapichira Falls are located just inside the gate and this is where Dr. Livingstone started his trip up the River Shire.
Lengwe National Park is an easy Park to drive through, with a good number of hides to view wildlife.
Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve is a new community driven area that is driving a conservation project for tourists. Some accommodation is already available, bird watches would enjoy a visit to Elephant Marsh which used to be home to thousands of elephant but is now more a birding destination.
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Culture and Traditions of the People
Malawians are a very friendly, courteous, softly spoken people and will show respect by shaking hands.
Women should avoid scanty clothing and showing too much skin, which is considered discourteous especially outside the cities. Avoid mini skirts, shorts and tank tops. Consider wearing a wrap, available in stores and at markets in the cities. These are in fact really beautiful and make great souvenirs.
Men should avoid wearing shorts and only wear long pants. Shorts are considered a garment worn by young boys.
Courtesy is very important to a local and you should always make 'small talk' first and not go straight to the point. Ask the person how their day has been and say hello before asking for what you need.
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How to get there
For international arrivals, Lilongwe has the largest international airport in the country. Airlines flying into Lilongwe include South African Airways via Johannesburg, Kenya Airways (code sharing with KLM) via Nairobi or Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, with connections into Lilongwe from Europe or the USA. If travelling from or via Dubai, then the State carrier Air Malawi is a good option. Air Malawi is also a great choice if you are extending your trip to other African destinations.
If you are driving from Mozambique, Zambia or Tanzania then remember that border posts are closed from 6pm to 7am and you must check what kind of licensing your vehicle needs. It is best to get a visa (if required) prior to crossing the border. It's not easy to obtain one at the border crossings.
Road conditions are good for driving during the day but due to poor road markings you are not advised to drive at night. Remember that Malawi was under British rule during the colonial era and traffic drives on the left and vehicles are right hand drive.
Some smaller ‘Air Taxis’ such as Nyassa Air Taxi offer regional flights from neighboring countries such as Zambia and Air Malawi operates regular small propeller flights between Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre.
Boat travel is a wonderful way to get around in Malawi via the Lake. Ilala ferry is the best known and runs a two day journey from Monkey Bay to Chilumba in the north from Friday to Sunday, returning again from Chilumba to Monkey Bay Monday to Wednesday. The ferry links Likoma Island with the mainland twice a week.
Buses run throughout the country but vary in condition and accidents are fairly common. This is not an advisable means of transport.
Taxis are available in the cities but they are not all licensed and rates are ‘negotiable’. It is best to find out the going rate prior to using taxis.
Best time to go
The hottest month for Malawi is usually November and from November to April (summer) bird watching is good. Some will say that the dry winter months from May to October are the most attractive but then the wetter summer months have their own special attraction. The Nyika orchids are at their best from December to March or April.
Daily high temperatures for summer hover around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) – November to April.
Daily high temperatures for winter are around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit)
It can get very cold in the highlands such as Zomba, Nyika and Viphya on winter evenings and morning game drives.
Malawi as with many other African countries is a malaria area and you must check with your doctor to make sure you take the correct anti malaria prophylactics. It is advisable to have up to date immunizations against polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A. You may be asked for a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when entering Malawi especially if passport control determines that you have previously visited a Yellow Fever area such as Tanzania.
Some parts of the lake carry a risk of bilharzia (a tropical waterborne parasite) so be sure to check with your safari booking agent as to the prevalence of bilharzia in the area you are visiting. However the risk is said to be low near the main beaches and those with hotels.
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