Expert Africa has an 11day southern Malawi tour including the Zomba plateau, Liwonde National Park and a luxury lakeside lodge; the dry season, from May to September, is best for game viewing. More: expertafrica.com. Australian-based operators that feature Malawi in their safari programs include The Classic Safari Company. More: classicsafari company.com.au. African Parks is a nonprofit conservation organisation responsible for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments and local communities. More: african-parks.org. • malawitourism.com Liwonde. Krisztian Gyongyi, a Hungarian ecologist supervising the rhino conservation project, is hugely encouraged by the African Parks initiative. He is planning to introduce more rhinos to enhance the genetic pool, and says simply, “This place is a national treasure.”
The hippos would probably agree, although hearing them shuffling and grunting around the lodge at night can be unnerving at first. Then you get used to it, and look forward to the breakfast entertainment of swallows swarming around giant baobab trees, and waiters with catapults chasing marauding vervet monkeys.
A memory that lingers is the haunting whistle of a little bird called the tropical boubou echoing in the forest at dawn. It is like a call from the spirit world. Many local villagers have been summoned to that world prematurely after close encounters with hippos and crocodiles. The golden rules are never to come between a hippo and the river … and don’t even think about going for a swim.
There are no such hazards a few kilometres away on the Zomba plateau, a towering 1830m escarpment swathed in exuberant forest alive with birdsong. Admittedly, there are leopards, but they keep pretty much to themselves. Tom and Petal, an enterprising British couple who run Zomba Forest Lodge halfway up the mountain, usually can tell when there is a big cat around. “If the dogs sniff the air and refuse to go out, we know there is a leopard in the woods,” Tom says.
The big attraction of the escarpment is hiking trails that climb through woodlands that are a natural aviary, filled with melodious tweeting, chirruping and warbling, to panoramas of southern Malawi, a rumpled patchwork of green land and woods, and trails of red earth meandering to far horizons. The first European believed to have marvelled at the views in 1859 was David Livingstone, and Tom and Petal’s lodge in an Afro-montane cloud forest is also a footnote to history. It was built in 1940 as a retirement home for Dr G Meredith, who served as medical officer on the ship that won the first naval engagement of World War I.
That brief battle took place on Lake Malawi in 1914 when SS Gwendolen, commanded by Captain Edmund Rhoades, sank the German steamship Hermann von Wissmann, which was under the command of a friend and former drinking partner. The German captain was understandably furious, because he was unaware the war had begun. The gun that sank the Hermann stands as a monument to British derring-do on a traffic circle in the town of Mangochi, south of the lake, beneath a red brick clock tower dedicated to Queen Victoria. It is pointed out to me by my driver and guide, a gentle, courteous man named Everlasting Nyirenda, a natural storyteller who is a fund of knowledge on the history and folklore of his country. I learn how early postal deliveries were disrupted by lions and crocodiles eating the postmen, and hear old tales of a woman who beat a lion to death with a cooking implement and how ants once killed an elephant.
My final and most exotic wildlife encounter occurs in Lake Malawi, when I take a speedboat to a small island to swim with the endemic blue zebras ( Maylandia callainos). They are little cobalt blue and black striped fish, members of a perch-like family called Cichlidae, that are partial to breadcrumbs.
When I enter the water with mask and snorkel and the boatman scatters crumbs around me, I am enveloped in a swirling cloud of blue zebras that spend the next halfhour swimming along with me. The calm, silent water and the glittering, slow-moving curtain of fish imbues a deep sense of contentment, like aquatic yoga.
Nyirenda is typical of the hospitable people of a country that is friendly and safe, with a distinctly chilled vibe. As a result, Malawi has been labelled rather disparagingly as “Africa for beginners”. Maybe. But it is real Africa, with natural attractions that arouse a sense of freedom and adventure. Just ask the lions.
TELEGRAPH MEDIA GROUP