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Safaris are expensive, but you get what you pay for. You can slot a couple of days into a trip to South Africa, but the camps are a little too comfortable and the game viewing a little too contrived to provide more than an appetiser for a longer trip further into Africa.
The best time to go is in the dry season, up until October, when the animals come down to the water to drink but the landscape is parched and less scenic. We started off on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls (pictured below), reached by a flight which connected to the overnight British Airways flights to Johannesburg. We arrived at the park gates when they opened at 6am; visitors are few and the sun rising over the falls was spectacular. After breakfast back at the hotel, there was plenty of time for a helicopter ride, numerous other activities or just lounging round the hotel.
The Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904, offers faded colonial grandeur – faded enough to be charming but grand enough to have the best location and grounds. As often in Africa, the service is erratic but always smiling and anxious to please.
An early morning transfer across the Zambian border took us to Livingstone for the onward flight by a single-propeller small plane to the Lower Zambezi National Park. This lies across the river from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, but has the advantage of wildlife viewing by boat as well as a simpler itinerary.
Chongwe River Camp occupies a picturesque setting among acacia trees on the Chongwe river, close to where it joins the Zambezi. Elephants stroll through the camp by day, hippos by night and the exceptional friendliness of the staff together with generous servings of Malawi gin ensure highly sociable mealtimes. Expeditions by boat make the game viewing more varied and comfortable – the tracks for the jeeps to and through the park are in poor condition.
The flight that brought us here carried on to Mfuwe, the access point for South Luangwa National Park. We stayed at Kaingo Camp on a bank above the Luangwa river, which provides great vantage points for seeing wildlife. The guides, as elsewhere, tend to focus on the big cats, but if you are lucky enough to see a pack of lions stalk a herd of buffalo before bringing one down, you will see why.
As by the Zambezi, the birdlife will convert the hardest cynic into an ornithologist while the beautiful ebony groves provide shelter from the heat of the sun. Each chalet has a deck looking out over the river, the staff are hospitable and the Malawi gin plentiful, but the key differentiator here was the excellent food provided by a resident chef from South Africa.
Another flight from Mfuwe took us via Lilongwe to Monkey Bay for a few days’ rest by Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Bilharzia – snail fever – makes swimming from the shore inadvisable, but the unique ecology makes it a magnet for snorkelling and scuba divers.
Though the Pumulani is beautifully situated with spacious villas, two swimming pools and the usual range of watersports, our stay was marred by poor management.
A visit to the nearby village provided a stark reminder that Malawi is much poorer than Zambia, while a boat trip to nearby Cape Maclear revealed some attractive-looking, cheap and cheerful alternative accommodation.
From Lilongwe, the direct flight to Johannesburg connects with the BA flight home.
Our trip was arranged by Safari Consultants; safari-consultants.com; 01787-888590.