Malawi, September-October 2008
Page 1: Itinerary and Scenery
London to Malosa, 21st to 23rd September
We flew with Ethiopian Airways leaving London Heathrow on the evening of 21st. The flight paused at Rome and we had to change planes at Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). The short stop at Addis airport early on 22nd provided my first new birds of the trip, including a couple that aren't found in Malawi.
Upon arrival at Lilongwe, Malawi, we were picked up by Susannah and following lunch we spent an hour or so in a local park where several more new birds were identified.
The rapid, chicken, child and bicycle-dodging run to Malosa was interesting. There were people everywhere and I realised what a heavily populated country Malawi is. The first night was spent at Susannah's home and by breakfast time on 24th I'd seen another round of new birds.
Liwonde National Park, 23rd to 25th September
Vitty and I travelled to Liwonde after breakfast on 23rd, taking our time travelling through the park before reaching Mvuu Camp just after lunch. The food and facilities at Mvuu Camp were very good (and so they should be - it wasn't cheap), and the wildlife was fantastic. The quantity of dangerous game meant that to go outside of the camp on foot required a guide plus armed assistant, although we never quite understood why we had to be accompanied to our chalet after meals but were allowed to walk back from the chalet alone! I suppose if there was a Hippo on the chalet doorstep when you want to leave it, you would just stay inside until it had gone whereas if you were trying to get in it might be less clear what to do.
The drive in and out through the park produced many birds and animals and consequently took several hours. We joined an organised game drive on the first afternoon, which was very productive both for birds and mammals. Among the birds, a Bat Hawk hunting bats at dusk was particularly exciting.
After being woken by Hippos and the noisy Hadada Ibises we went on a guided pre-breakfast walk. There were too many people for a walk really, and the guide for this wasn't quite so knowledgeable as the other guides we experienced at Liwonde. Even so it was well worthwhile with a fair variety of new birds. A boat trip on the Shire River was excellent with amazingly close views of several species of Kingfisher and many other waterbirds.
After lunch we had an hour or two around the camp during which I discovered the fantastic Livingstone's Flycatcher and several other new species. The main party who'd been staying at Liwonde departed which meant that for the next 24 hours we had a guide to ourselves and a free choice of how we spent the time. We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon/evening doing a combination of walking and driving, starting in an area where the guide reckoned might be good for owls. Shortly Vitty and the guide's assistant glimpsed a large owl which we'd apparently disturbed. The assistant successfully located it sat in the top of a palm: it was the rare Pel's Fishing-Owl and it remained in full view and was immensely enjoyed by all of us. Even the guides don't see them often and I'm not sure if they'd ever seen one close up through a telescope before.
The sharp-eyed assistant followed this up with an African Barred Owlet, though as we positioned ourselves where we could view this we failed to notice the danger directly above our head and an enormous palm nut crashed to the ground right in the middle of us. A few inches either side would have been goodbye to one of us!
We decided to take an early boat trip in the morning, partly to look for White-backed Night-Heron, two of which were located almost immediately. The boat trip produced many more interesting birds and mammals and then before heading off we just had time for a drive through the Rhino enclosure. We didn't see the Rhinos which are re-introduced here but there was no shortage of game to look at, or birds. The latter included Racket-tailed Roller and Arnott's Chat.
The night of 25th was spent at Susannah's house at Malosa and from this point on Susannah was able to join us for the trip.
Liwonde National Park, 23rd-25th September (that's an Egyptian Goose on top of the termite mound in the bottom photo, in case you're wondering, and an African Openbill to the right of it)
Chilwa and Zomba, 26th to 27th September
Susannah had organised a boat trip on Lake Chilwa for Friday morning. The little dug-out was letting in water and didn't seem very steady, but apart from Vitty who was sitting nearest the hole, we stayed dry. A very different experience from the more tourist-geared boat trips on the Shire River at Liwonde, but still producing lots of good birds, including Lesser Jacanas. Definitely a worthwhile trip, even though conditions prevented us from going to the open water in such a small and leaky vessel.
Then on to Zomba Plateau where Zomba Forest Lodge provided our accommodation. The forested valley near the lodge proved very good for birding with several new species. The books promised that the area around Ku Chawe would be rather better for the Zomba specialities, though the guy at the Forest Lodge did a good job of persuading us that his patch was as good. We did make sure we had a look round Ku Chawe before leaving the Plateau though, and this did indeed secure a few more new species. We didn't manage to find Malawi's only endemic (depending on taxonomy), Yellow-throated Apalis, which is supposed to occur in this area.
A friend of Susannah has the very localised White-winged Apalis breeding in his garden on the edge of Zomba town. Although he wasn't there to show us round he had kindly allowed us to look round in his absence. Unfortunately though, we weren't able to locate any Apalises here.
Fishing and flowers on Lake Chilwa, 26th September
Zomba, 26th-27th September
near Ku Chawe (Zomba Plateau), 27th September
near Zomba Forest Lodge, 27th September
The southern Tea Estates, 27th to 30th September
We arrived at Lujeri Tea Estate in the Mulanje foothills late on 27th and had the spacious 10-bed guest-house to ourselves. The next few sites would be self-catering, but although we had to provide food ourselves there was always a cook on hand to cook it for us.
I had hoped to arrive at the forest in Mulanje's Ruo Gorge early on 28th but the directions through the tea estate weren't very clear and it took me well over an hour to find it. I thought my chances of finding the speciality Cholo Alethe would be much diminished by arriving so late but I ended up getting brief but good views of one, and then a bit later in a slightly different place, what was presumably a second bird. Generally though, here and elsewhere, forest birding proved very difficult and not knowing any of the calls (or having tapes with me) was a big disadvantage. Lots of good birds were seen round here though, and also a few in the tea estate itself and round the guest house.
We spent two nights at Lujeri before heading off to the Satemwa Tea Estate at Thyolo. The mountain still holds a small patch of forest, though most has been cut down. The ex-colonial guest house at Satemwa was amazing - very grand and impressive. The garden was so full of birds that it was difficult to tear myself away, even though I knew that I would have to go to the forest to find the real specialities (although the Green-backed Honeyguide just outside the front door was nearly as good as anything in the forest, and less expected). We did the obligatory tour of the tea factory before I finally decided to head off to the mountain forest, as much to ensure I could find it in the morning as anything else. Good job I did, as once again I had great difficulty finding it. "Go straight" apparently means turn right at the cross-roads and then bear left when the road forks. If I'd just looked for the mountain peak and headed towards it I would have found it quickly but I went straight as I'd been told and ended up completely lost. Finally I reached the mountain as darkness fell and apart from a brief silhouette of an unidentified owl I was too late to see any birds.
Next morning was a different story and whilst the now-familiar difficulties of forest-birding were still evident, another Cholo Alethe was glimpsed flying from one patch of forest to another, the very local and critically endangered Green-headed Oriole was seen in flight.
After this we headed off to the Dzalanyama, a longish drive broken by a quick stop for lunch in Blantyre.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, 30th September to 3rd October
Late on 30th we arrived at Dzalanyama. Unusually for this trip, we weren't the only birders staying here: Barbara was visiting from USA and had brought with her an American guide (Steve Bailey) as well as a Malawi guide, Ben Mwapeyah. Although I didn't spend the whole time at Dzalanyama with these three, the time I did share with them was very useful as their experience of African species far exceeded mine.
This site provided a very different habitat (Miombo woodland) and with it a completely new set of birds. The first stroll through the woodland produced such a rush of new birds that I couldn't keep track of everything I was seeing! Among these were specialities like Boehm's Flycatcher and Stierling's Woodpeckers.
The rest of the two full days spent here produced a wealth of birds including many Miombo specialities, a fantastic Red-chested Flufftail and a pair of Boulder Chats.
The drive out from the reserve also produced a few new birds including a surprise Fischer's Sparrow-Lark. On the way up north we missed the site we'd been given for Locust Finch and got a bit delayed in Mzuzu, but eventually we arrived at Vwaza shortly before dusk.
The dambo and a red flower, Dzalanyama, 2nd October
Vitty on her birthday, Dzalanyama, 2nd October
A village somewhere on the Viphya Plateau, on the way to the north, 3rd October
The North (Vwaza Marsh and Nyika National Park), 3rd to 7th October
Vwaza Marsh was excellent although the facilities were more basic than some of the other places. There were a few others staying there and most of them joined us for the early morning guided walk. Unfortunately the guide wasn't at all knowledgeable and I ended up showing him more than he showed us! Still, it enabled us to access an area which probably wouldn't have been safe to go to alone (there were a lot of elephants and things here).
Nyika was awesome. We stayed at Chelinda Camp where there are some small lakes and a well-vegetated valley that's full of birds including things like Rwenzori's Nightjars and Churring and Black-lored Cisticolas. The rolling plateau all around was heaving with birds and mammals: Montane Widowbirds were common and mammals included several species of antelopes, a few Zebras and most excitingly, a Leopard. Somehow the largest birds we had hoped to see proved the hardest to find - no Wattled Cranes, no Bustards, no Vultures.
As the petrol station at the nearest town of Rumphi had run out of petrol and it's a very long way from there to Chelinda, we were concerned that we wouldn't be able to see much of Nyika and get out again. Fortunately the staff pointed us in the direction of someone who was able to sell us enough petrol to see us through - thanks Nigel! We also tried birding the forests at Chowo and Zovo-Chipolo, arriving there early for the best birding. Unfortunately I wasted a lot of time trying in vain to find a way in to both forests - we did eventually find the track going into Zovo-Chipolo but by this time it was too late in the morning for much success with forest birds. We had a little more success here on the final morning before we left Nyika but missed out on several of the Nyika forest specialities. The route in and out of Nyika was good too, and we could have done with spending a bit more time here. The miombo woodland here produced a couple of good birds I'd been disappointed to miss at Dzalanyama: Woodland Pipit and Miombo Rock-Thrush.
On the way out we missed the turn to the northern gate of Vwaza where Ben had told us we might see Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver and White-winged Babbling-Starling - never mind, we'll just have to go back one day.
Vwaza Marsh, 4th October
Nyika Plateau, 5th-6th October
Lake Malawi, 7th to 10th October
We couldn't go to Malawi without going to the Lake (well, Vitty couldn't anyway), and we wanted to ensure the last day or two were relatively relaxing without too much travel. We planned to spend a night around Nkhata Bay/Chinteche, have a look for East Coast Akalat in the morning and slowly head down to Senga Bay area where we'd spend our last two nights. We ended up staying the first night at Makuzi Lodge which was a bit further from the Akalat site that we'd appreciated. We'd been looking out for the Akalat site as we drove down from Nkhata Bay and missed it so, rather than risk either not finding it the next morning or finding it and not finding the Akalats (they're another skulking forest species that's much easier to see if you have tapes to lure them or at least know what they sound like), I decided to stay round the Lodge and bird there. This was probably a wise decision and produced several new species.
Makuzi Lodge wasn't the cheapest place we stayed at (by a long way) but it was very nice. The guy who runs it knows a bit about birds and would have taken me up to see the Akalats, but unfortunately he wasn't around that morning. The avian highlight from my point of view was the Madagascar Bee-eaters but by far the rarest bird from a Malawi perspective was a Turnstone. I can see these almost any day at home but some winter round the coast of Africa too. In inland Malawi though they're extremely unusual with fewer than 20 records ever, so in national rarity terms this was a fantastic find!
On the way down to Senga Bay we stopped at Nkhotakhota Pottery - Vitty can't go on holiday without visiting a pottery and we'd not stopped at the one at Dedza so we couldn't really avoid this. The wares here weren't as tempting as in some places, and lacked variety, so we managed to leave without parting with much money. Not far away from here we got great views of a raptor that I didn't immediately recognise. I should have done as it's a species I know from home (though in my defence I've rarely seen them perched). As soon as I checked my photos I realised what I'd seen - it was a Honey-Buzzard, a scarce winter visitor to Malawi and only once ever recorded before 20th October - a species that consequently wasn't on my radar for this trip.
We spent the last two nights at Cool Runnings at Senga Bay. If you're a backpacker wanting somewhere cheap to stay with a view over the lake this is fine but if you feel claustrophobic when there's noise and people all round and you can't escape then this isn't a good choice. But it was ok, and even had a few birds in the garden (though nothing new). A few minutes drive away though there was a fantastic wetland which was full of birds, including several new ones. Mpatsanjoka dambo and the Bird & Hippo Sanctuary were very good sites, although despite the name there aren't any Hippos there at this time of year.
Whilst staying here we also paid a visit to Mua Mission, the origin of the intricate carvings that are sold all over Malawi. An interesting place with a fascinating exhibition about the culture of Malawi, and even a few good birds there!
The journey home, 10th-11th October
We had half an hour spare when we reached Lilongwe so I popped into the reserve there for a quick look round. By the time I'd persuaded the guard that it wasn't worth paying him to protect me from crocodiles and muggers as I'd only be there for 20 minutes, I had rather less than 20 minutes to get down to the river see a few birds and get back. Not long enough to see most of the special birds that occur here but Red-throated Twinspot was a nice new bird for the end of the trip.
The flight home was longer than the other direction. There was an additional stop in Zambia (where it was raining!) and the wait for the connection at Addis was very long and tedious and with limited seating we didn't dare get up to use the facilities for risk of losing our seats.
All in all a fantastic holiday. I tried to keep an eye on how many species I was seeing but failed as my estimated 300 proved to be short by a few - the exact number depends on taxonomy: using Clements a total of 319 species of which 282 were new to me; using a less conservative taxonomy 320 species of which 286 were new.