Liwonde National Park is long and tall, stretching along the east bank of the Shire River and Lake Malombe, which sits just below Lake Malawi. Much of the southern end of the park is wide open savannah that stretches around the river for miles, and as you go farther north the trees get more dense. The main entrance is at the south end of the park, and Spine Road runs from the main entrance all the way north, with several branch roads to explore as you go along.
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Liwonde is now one of four parks in Malawi where you can see the “Big Five,” which are elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard. There are also a lot of other animals there, including cheetahs, sables, warthogs, antelope, crocodiles, hippos, waterbuck, kudu, pangolins, and zebras, to name a few. It’s also a prime place for birding. Possibly my favorite is the warthogs, especially when there are babies! And of course since I grew up in the 90’s, every time we see them I have to break out singing, “When I was a young warthoooog!” I mean really, if you drive through a safari park in Africa without singing The Lion King soundtrack, you’re doing it wrong for sure. The only big animals we haven’t personally seen there yet are the zebras and rhinos.
As home to Malawi’s largest elephant population, we see elephants every time we go (sometimes a little closer than has been comfortable), and we’ve gotten to see a mama and 3 baby cheetahs twice: once when the cubs were small, and again when they were nearly full-grown. On one trip we were lucky enough to get to see 4 lions just a few yards away, resting lazily in the shade next to a freshly killed antelope that they were apparently saving for later. It was so surreal to be that close to wild lions! (And slightly nervous-making considering we were in an open jeep! Good thing they’d already killed their lunch.)
Interesting fact: there are sadly no giraffes in Liwonde, because the trees they eat won’t grow in that area.
Liwonde is a popular park because of its central location (at least compared to other National Parks like Majete and Nyika). It’s only an hour from Zomba. It’s a two-hour drive from Blantyre, and just under four hours from Lilongwe. Or if you’re feeling fancy, you can fly there from Lilongwe via Ulendo Airlink.
The park is incredibly affordable to visit, especially in your own vehicle, which is what most people do. The most current entry fees as of the writing of this article are:
* Adults: US$4
* Children: US$2
* Vehicle: US$4
(Foreigners who have a residence permit)
* Adults: US$10
* Children: US$5
* Vehicle: US$4
* Adults: US$30
* Children: US$4
* Vehicle: US$4
Ways to Safari
We’ve seen Liwonde in three ways: self-driving safari in our Land Cruiser, guide-led safari in an open jeep, and boat safari. While the self-driving safari is the cheapest and most pandemic-friendly option, our preference by far has been the guide-led jeep safari!
The guides have a better idea of where the animals like to hang out, and they also stop to talk with each other as they meet other guided vehicles, which helps them know where animals have been spotted recently. And the open jeeps are much more comfortable than being crammed in the land cruiser!
Several of the lodges around Liwonde have their own vehicles and do jeep safaris. We have used Kutchire Lodge’s safari services multiple times now, and generally been very happy with them (though some of their vehicles give a more comfortable ride than others).
A few lodges also do boat safaris. The boat safari is neat—you definitely see a TON of hippos—but you’re limited to what you can see from the water, which might not be much more than hippos. It’s a better option during the dryer part of the year (Sept-Nov) when animals are more likely to be near the river to drink. Just keep in mind that dry season is also hot season, and we thought we were going to melt as we slowly made our way up the breeze-less river while wearing life jackets.
We’ve done a couple of boat safaris from Hippo View Lodge in the past, but if you are wanting to book a boat safari, we’d recommend looking into options closer to the park, because 30 minutes of our boat ride in each direction was just getting from the lodge to the park. We hear Kutchire Lodge now does boat safaris as well, but haven’t gotten to try one of theirs yet.
There are plenty of lodging options in the park for every budget. On the luxury end of things are Mvuu Lodge or Camp and Kuthengo Camp, and on the more economical end are places like Kutchire Lodge and Bushman’s Baobabs. There’s also Chimwala Bush Camp, located in the middle of the park and run by the park itself. The cool thing about all of these options is that they are INSIDE the park, so having elephants or lions wander past your cabin is a real possibility! Definitely a reason to keep your kids very close to you, but it can also be a super cool experience! Since it’s so close to our home, we haven’t felt the need to spend the night there before, but we’d love to try out a couple of the options sometime—especially Chimwala Bush Camp and Kutchire’s treehouses!
Tips for Your Visit
As seasoned professional Liwonde visitors (I totally just made that a thing), here are our top tips for a successful visit, based on our own experiences:
1. Wear earth tones. The park is full of biting tsetse flies, whose bites hurt and can transmit African sleeping sickness. They are attracted to dark colors, especially black and darker blues. Khaki, green, and brown are your friends when on safari. Bug spray also helps.
2. Pack plenty of water and snacks. The drives are pretty long, and it isn’t fun to get out in the middle of nowhere and find yourself (or your kids) thirsty or hangry.
3. Wear sunscreen. Even if you’re in your own vehicle or a canopied open jeep, the sun is likely to get you through the windows or below the canopy, and you won’t notice until it’s too late, because you’re so absorbed in looking for the animals.
4. We strongly recommend taking a guided open jeep drive. We have found this to be the most enjoyable way of seeing the park, and have seen many more animals thanks to the guides than we are able to find on our own. If you decide to take your own vehicle, it really needs to be four wheel drive. We’ve seen people driving small cars and vans through the park, but it just doesn’t seem like the best idea, especially if you want to explore beyond Spine Road (which you do want to do, or else you may not see any animals at all).
Is Liwonde on your bucket list? Or have you already been and you have more tips for future visitors? Please let us know!