Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve

New leaves

Early morning. The sun has just risen and the slanting, golden light illuminates the woodland floor with its carpet of leaves. It is quiet, the only sounds the lost call of a fish eagle proclaiming his territory and the whisper of the river, audible but invisible to your right. You follow your guide through the dappled shade of the tall, riverine forest trees, along a narrow footpath deep in the wilderness.

Suddenly, your guide raises his hand. You stop. He points into the dense forest but, at first, you see nothing. “Elephant”, he breathes. Still you see nothing. Then a large ear flaps. The elephant snaps into focus. Amazing that such a large creature can remain so inconspicuous.

She reaches up with her trunk and pulls a sapling down so she can reach its tender young leaves.

Your guide is testing the wind’s direction. It is in your favour. The elephant doesn’t know you are there. You start to see more elephants, off to the right, and a mother and calf directly ahead. Soon you realise there is a herd of 20 or more peacefully eating, less than 100 metres away from you.


You feel tension, so deep in the forest, so close to the earth’s largest land mammal. But your guide is relaxed, so you relax too and marvel at this most wonderful of sights. The breeze shifts. Trunks rise up to test the air. The herd picks up your scent and, as one, they turn and move away, silently into the wilderness. You are left with a feeling of awe and a touch of sorrow that these beautiful animals have been disturbed by your presence.

Such is the essence of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, 1,800 square kilometres of wilderness penetrated by few tracks and even fewer roads. Home not just to elephants but to lion and leopard, buffalo and zebra, roan and sable, waterbuck and bushbuck and many smaller species. The bird life is prolific, with over 200 species recorded, including palm-nut vulture, black stork, Taita falcon, giant kingfisher, Boehm’s bee-eater, African Finfoot … the list goes on. And with much of the reserve yet to be properly surveyed, doubtless the number of recorded species will grow.

Bua River Gorge

Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve’s heart is the Bua River valley, which bisects the reserve, tumbling from the high plateau west of Lilongwe to empty into Lake Malawi. Inside the reserve, the river has cut deep, rocky gorges, interspersed with quiet, tree-fringed pools, the haunt of some very large crocodiles. A band of magnificent riverine forest mark the course of the river, tall hardwoods emerging from a dense mixture of smaller trees and shrubs that provide shelter to many animals during the hot, summer months. Indeed, during the dry season, the river draws animals to its banks, it being one of the very few permanent water sources in the reserve. The sight of a herd of elephants revelling in a still pool and slaking their thirst, is one of the classic scene of the reserve.

The river is the breeding ground of the Lake Salmon or Mpasa as it is known locally. This fish is endemic to Malawi and like the Atlantic and Pacific Salmon (to which, however, it is not related) it moves up-river from the Lake on the falling flood to breed in the gravely shallows of the river. The Mpasa provides excellent angling (strictly catch and return) particularly between April and June as the river starts to clear.

Close to the western boundary of the reserve, Chipata Mountain’s unmistakable shape rises over 1,700 metres above sea level. Its upper slopes are clothed in 40 Ha. of tropical, evergreen forest, the home of troops of Samango monkeys. Tall, buttress-rooted trees, often encased in strangler vines, rise high above the forest floor, their canopy casting permanent shade, creating a cool, moist atmosphere, in remarkable contrast to the surrounding woodland. Just below the summit, this forest gives way to short heath-like vegetation, which allows breathtaking 360 degree views. Day trips to climb Chipata Mountain can be arranged by Bua River Lodge.

Djon'gombe Hills at sunset

The reserve has been neglected for many years. Difficult access, a lack of road infrastructure, the dense vegetation and terrain have given the reserve a reputation of being devoid of wildlife. The opening of Bua River Lodge and funds from USAID, the World Bank, the Norwegian Government and others permitted the Government of Malawi to begin to improve the reserve’s management and to enhance livelihoods of the people living on the edge of the reserve. However, of immense importance to the well-being of the reserve is the recent management agreement signed between the Government and African Parks, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of protected areas in Malawi, with which it has had considerable success since its foundation 12 years ago. There is no doubt that African Parks’ approach to wildlife conservation will, within the next few years, have major positive impact on Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.