A new safari nation is born

JIM, our guide, bent down and crushed some of the fibrous brown dung in his fingers. "Elephant," he said, before picking up a furry, half-eaten palm nut, about the size of a plum.

"Baboon," he added and pointed up the path where our uniformed guard was standing, carrying a very old British Army rifle, to the dusty ground ahead where a baboon was lolloping slowly away. By this time the sun had risen just above the trees to our right, lighting one half of everything - including the huge, bulbous baobab trees - in a bright, warm glow.

The sun was at an ideal height to pick out the brilliant colours on the tiny birds which nipped and chirruped through the trees and shrubs. It also roused the bush buck and impala as they scratched through the grey dust for grass, wary of our presence but confident we posed no danger.

It was an early-morning bush walk in the Liwonde National Park just south of Lake Malawi - a kind of safari-on-foot that the staff at Mvuu Camp at Liwonde run most mornings.

Few of us had slept well but that was only because of the extraordinary surroundings in which we found ourselves. There is something slightly magical about being woken in the middle of the night by a three-ton hippo grazing just outside your room but there is also something faintly threatening about it.

Hippo are noisy feeders and often come into the grounds of Mvuu Camp at night. They munch and tear at grass and foliage with a loud and regular ripping. That is a difficult background noise to sleep through, at least on the first night in camp.

Hippo are plentiful in Liwonde, as are elephants, all manner of impala and buck, warthogs and crocodiles: there are even a few secretive leopards. What Liwonde doesn't have are the more common safari staples of lion or rhino but Malawian safaris are no worse for that. Indeed, in many ways a safari in Malawi is a much better, richer experience than those on offer elsewhere.

This is because Liwonde is much less crowded than almost anywhere else in game-park Africa. There are none of the ubiquitous white, open-top vans that patrol the Masai Mara or the need for the tarmac roads that criss-cross the Kruger. There are a few open-topped Land Rovers run from Mvuu and very little else. Also, and much more importantly, Liwonde has the wide and sweeping Shire River, the huge, stately artery that feeds into Lake Malawi. This is its heart and it is the river that makes it special.

It is easy to see elephants from a vehicle on safari in Africa, but guides on land know to keep their distance: elephants can turn on them with astonishing speed. A boat safari on the Shire River, however, makes it possible to get much closer to elephants simply by drifting silently up to them as they graze on riverbank reeds, totally unthreatened by the boat's presence.

The boats also slip gently downstream with the crocodiles. Hippo can be seen at eye level as they stand on the river bed with just their eyes and ears out of the water.

Mvuu Camp, or the more secluded Mvuu Lodge nearby, captures the essence of what makes Malawi different. It is not overrun with tourists, it is relatively cheap and it manages to retain something of the romance and exclusivity of a top safari destination that many of its rivals have lost.

But, Mvuu offers more than just a safari experience; and so does Malawi as a whole. In the same way that Mvuu offers boat safaris and early-morning bush walks, so a holiday in Malawi has something of "safari-plus". A few days of boat and game-drive safari at Mvuu can be followed by trekking on the Zomba plateau, sailing, snorkelling, kayaking and swimming on Lake Malawi or simply resting at one of the luxurious resorts on the lake.

It is this variety that other sub-Saharan countries cannot offer. The problem for Malawi, however, is inaccessibility. British Airways pulled the only direct flight from Europe a couple of years ago and European travellers now have to go via Johannesburg or Nairobi.

This does add time and inconvenience to a holiday and there is nothing the Malawians can do about that until, or unless, one of the major airlines re-establishes a direct flight from Europe. But it does mean that any tourist who takes the trouble to get there will be rewarded by a more exclusive environment than they might have expected.

Malawi's biggest asset, both in economic and tourist terms, is Lake Malawi - the huge freshwater expanse that fills the southern part of the Great Rift Valley and dominates the country.

The lake is 365 miles long and 52 miles wide but, incredibly, there is only one live-aboard yacht on the water.

This is the sumptuous catamaran Mustafa, owned by Danforth Yachting. Mustafa is the centrepiece for a range of water activities from diver-training to water-skiing, all run from a centre on the edge of the lake.

With the water temperature averaging about 25C over the year, and with blue skies, light sailing winds and excellent diving, such a site would be overrun with tourists if it were in Europe. But in central Africa it is exclusive. It's possible to sit on the deck of the Mustafa, drinking a gin and tonic and watching the sunset, having swum in the warm waters of the lake without seeing another tourist anywhere.

Even more extraordinary than that, however, is the experience of Mumbo Island. Mumbo is a small retreat, without electricity or running water, but it rivals any hideaway for high-rollers anywhere in Africa. It has ten canvas cabins, each set high on the rocks around a promontory, each with a veranda looking out over the lake and each set far enough away from its neighbours to ensure peace and tranquillity.

It is the very absence of electricity and the trappings of modern life that makes it so special. A party of guests can take over the island, enjoy kayaking, snorkelling, diving and swimming during the day and relax at night with food prepared by an unseen army of helpers and drink from an honesty bar in the central camp.

Mvuu Camp, the Mustafa catamaran and Mumbo Island, run by Kayak Africa, are aimed at the very top end of the holiday market but they are accessible to tourists on more modest budgets. This is mostly because holidays in Malawi are relatively cheap. Tourists can stay at Mvuu Camp for about 70 a day, a price that covers accommodation, meals, game drives and all activities, including boat safaris.

They can stay at Danforth Yachting for about 75 a day and that includes all diving. A night on Mumbo Island costs the same, again with all meals, activities and transfers thrown in.

The other advantage for British tourists is that the holidays are generally priced in US dollars. With the pound so strong, it means an exclusive break is suddenly affordable.

However, tourists must go to Malawi with their eyes open. Luxurious tourist holidays are cheap because labour is cheap. Malawi is the tenth poorest country in the world - which makes it very easy to employ local staff on low wages.

Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the uncomfortable contrast between the opulence available to visitors on a yacht in the centre of the lake with the mud walls and grass roofs of subsistence-farm shacks on the water's edge.

This is not a reason to avoid Malawi. On the contrary, the only way the country is going to haul itself up off the floor is through the injection of foreign currency, which tourists bring. But any holiday to Malawi would be unbalanced without seeing what the country is like outside the tourist resorts.

Malawi exudes a beguiling aura of a colonial past mixed with modern global brands - slogans for Coca Cola are painted on to rocks beside crumbling British-built mansions. Most Malawians operate on a subsistence level, however, growing a few crops or managing a few goats but rarely producing enough to sell.

There is a small, enterprising strata of aspiring middle-class earners above them, trying to make a living in service industries and who often combine several initiatives to make ends meet. It is not unusual to see offices advertising such disparate services as accountancy and welding, or security, dog hire and hairdressing, all under the same roof and operated by the same person.

The roads are pot-holed and nothing ever runs to time but the Malawian people are astonishingly friendly, partly because they have not been overrun with tourists so have not developed the sort of aggressive hustling that has become common in places such as Nairobi and Harare.

When Jack McConnell met President Bingu wa Mutharika on a recent visit to Malawi, the President is understood to have turned to the First Minister and asked: "What took you so long?" That is exactly the question that visitors to Malawi find themselves asking when they arrive. sm

Malawi factfile

How to get there

Fly to Lilongwe, Malawi, with South African Airways (0861 359722, www.flysaa.com) from London Heathrow via Johannesburg for about 800, or with KLM (www.klm.com) and Kenya Airways from Heathrow to Lilongwe via Nairobi for around 1,200.

Where to stay

• Mvuu Camp and Mvuu Lodge in the Liwonde National Park are run by Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safarismalawi.com).

• Danforth Yachting, Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi (www.danforthyachting.com).

• Mumbo Island is run by Kayak Africa (www.kayakafrica.co.za).

• Le Meridien Hotels run the Ku Chawe Inn, Zomba and Le Meridien Capital in Lilongwe (www.lemeridien.com).

And there's more

Malawi Tourism (0115 982 1903, www.malawitourism.com or e-mail enquiries@malawi-tourism.com).