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Where to see the Big 5 in Malawi

An insider's view to the best places to see Malawi's wildlife and the story of the country's safari transformation.



Africa Specialist
Published on

02 Jul 2020

Updated on

22 Apr 2021

Wildlife Safari Liwonde Dana Allen Central African Wilderness Safaris 1200 X 797

A decade ago, a Malawi safari holiday is something that most people would not have considered, nor could it be highly recommended for those wishing to see Africa’s most iconic animals. However, Malawi has undergone an exciting wildlife revival in recent years, with an incredible series of animal reintroductions. Find out more in our African Parks - Malawi wildlife revival article. The country now boasts several reserves and national parks offering a great safari experience and with a choice of good accommodation options.

Whereas sightings of larger predators, such as lion or leopard, had previously been rare and legendary, Malawi has become a true Big 5 destination, with a very good chance of sightings, if you know where to visit. Elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard (the ‘Big 5’) and cheetah are now frequently ticked off visitors’ lists.

Excitingly for visitors to Malawi, each of its its protected areas is quite unique, so will hold appeal to different people. To enjoy the best variety of wildlife, habitats and scenery, it’s worth considering combining at least a couple of them. However, if you are seeking a specific iconic animal or experience, here is an insider’s guide to where is your best chance of spotting some of them and the highlights of Malawi’s 4 premier protected areas.

Black Rhino Cr Frank Weitzer 7
Black Rhino, Liwonde, Frank Weitzer

Majete Wildlife Reserve

Highlights: Majete was the first park in Malawi that African Parks took on management responsibility for in 2003. Well over 2,500 animals were introduced during an initial 10-year period. Majete is now home to the ‘Big 5’ and other species, including eland, sable, kudu, suni, klipspringer, hartebeest, zebra, waterbuck, impala, nyala and warthogs. In 2018, 13 giraffes were released into Majete and in 2019 4 cheetahs. It can be explored with a traditional 4x4 vehicle, or on a guided walking or boat safari.

Scenery: The reserve has a rugged beauty, comprised predominantly of miombo woodland and granite hills, broken up by river valleys, flanked by riverine forest.

Location: Situated in the South-west of Malawi, in the Lower Shire valley, Majete is an easy drive, just an hour and a half from Blantyre and its international airport, or you can fly into its airstrip by light aircraft.

Great chance to see: Lion, nyala, kudu, Lichenstein’s hartebeest.

6  Lions Majete
Lions, Majete
Majete Walking Safari
Walking safari, Mkulumadzi, Majete

Liwonde National Park

Highlights: Malawi’s most visited National Park. African Parks has implemented significant conservation and community development projects since taking on its management in 2015. These include seven cheetahs in 2017, which have since doubled in number with the birth of eight cubs; and 10 lion reintroduced in 2018. Other wildlife species include buffalo, sable, hyena and black rhino. Wildlife viewing can be enjoyed as part of a 4x4, walking or boat safari.

Scenery: The broad section of the Shire River that flows along the western boundary boasts spectacular birdlife and is a magnet to wildlife, especially during the drier months.

Location: Liwonde is an easy drive from the southern Lake Malawi and the city of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital. The park and its camps can also be accessed by light aircraft and boat transfer.

Great chance to see: Elephant, black rhino, cheetah, buffalo, sable, hippo.

Birding specials: Pel’s fishing owl, Lilian’s lovebird, Livingstone’s flycatcher, crowned hornbill.

Mvuu Lodge Boat Safari
Boat safari, Mvuu, Shire River, Liwonde
Cheetah Cr Naude Heunis 14
Cheetah, Liwonde, Naude Heunis

Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve

Highlights: The reserve came under the management of African Parks in 2015. Shortly after, in 2016 and 2017, almost 2000 animals, including waterbuck, buffalo, sable, warthog, impala, kudu, eland and zebra were reintroduced. Of note was the translocation of 500 more elephants; one of the largest in history. With just 3 lodges, the knowledge that you are one of the few visitors to explore this wilderness area is unique. The reserve is also a paradise for birders, with over 280 species recorded. The best way to explore is on foot or by canoe along the Bua River. This enhances the unique and tranquil safari experience on offer here.

Scenery: The 1,800 square kilometre reserve’s rugged scenery, comprises miombo woodland covered escarpments and hillsides, broken up by gorges, wetland areas with tall grasses, and even some isolated areas of rainforest.

Location: Centrally located in Malawi, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is a pleasant 3 ½ hour drive from Lilongwe or a short 30-minute light aircraft flight.

Great chance to see: No other people! Blue monkey.

Birding specials: Half-collared kingfisher, Böhm's bee-eater, green-backed heron, Arnots chat.

Mg 2730
Canoe safari, Tongole, Nkhotakota
Majete Buffalo
Buffalo in miombo woodland

Nyika National Park

Highlights: Viewing Africa’s wildlife in this unique habitat makes for an exceptional and truly memorable safari. This is also one of the best places in Malawi to spot leopard, meandering between the patches of evergreen forest and potentially during daylight hours, due to the temperate climate. This high-altitude plateau can be enjoyed as part of a 4x4 safari, on foot, or by mountain bike. About 400 bird species are found here. The wild alpine flowers further add to Nyika’s natural beauty, especially during the rains, when gladioli, protea, and in excess of 200 varieties of orchid come into flower.

Scenery: Nyika is Malawi’s largest park, at 3,200 square kilometres and with altitudes in excess of 2500 metres. The scenery is more reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales than the typical African bushveld or savannah; with its rolling hills, covered with montane grassland.

Location: In the far north of Malawi, Nyika National Park is worth the effort of getting there, either by a road journey, with a stop en route, or light aircraft flight.

Great chance to see: Leopard, roan, eland, zebra.

Birding specials: Wattled crane, Denham’s bustard, red-winged francolin, augur buzzard, grey-olive.

Majete Leopard
Nyika Zebra
Zebra, Nyika

Malawi has emerged from the shadows of some of the neighbouring safari giants, such as Tanzania and Zambia, as the all-round destination, with something for everyone. With its warm people and culture, sparkling Lake Malawi lined with golden sand beaches, dramatic Rift Valley scenery, mountains for trekking, picturesque tea estates, a plethora of activities, and now great wildlife, Malawi is no longer simply a beach add-on, but the complete destination!

Wondering when to visit? Take a look at this guide on the best time to visit Malawi.

Looking for some more inspiration? Take a look at our best safari holidays ideas, our favourite family safaris, our big five safari guide or our top African safari honeymoon suggestions.

Start planning your tailor-made Malawi safari – call us on 01768 603 715 and speak with a Malawi travel expert.

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  • Alistair


    Managing Director

  • Ali


    Malawi Specialist

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