Check in – As soon as Malawi comes off the UK’s travel red-list, I book my flight. Triple-vaccinated and super excited, I arrive to a warm welcome at Tongole Wilderness Retreat, located in the heart of the Nkhotakota Game Reserve. This is a tranquil, idyllic venue set among the verdant miombo woodland. The private deck of my suite is meters above the Bua River. A lofty vantage from which to ‘green bathe’ – that is observe nature while breathing deeply and allowing all my pre-travel stress to ebb away.
My river-view suite is impressive – not only for its cool expansiveness but for its delightful decadence that features an oversized handcrafted bathtub. I say ‘bathtub’ but this is more like an indoor cocktail plunge pool – and big enough for two.
Having worked (virtually) with the passionate Tongole team for the past year, I am highly motivated and excited to experience the retreat myself. Tio Kalanga-Kaluwa, the sales, marketing and reservations manager for Tongole, hosts me, offering an inside track but also providing some much-needed camaraderie.
About the retreat and its foundation – Tongole Wilderness Retreat is an exclusive nature lodge, with just five open-fronted suites, all overlooking the permanent Bua River which is a magnet for wildlife. The retreat has a decade behind it of welcoming guests. It is the recipient of multiple awards, winning honours for its ecologically considered operations and its indelible community impact.
Tongole is a ‘not for profit’ retreat, conceived to honor the legacy of Vitu Kalanga. This well-loved young Malawian was determined to use his British education to benefit his countrymen. At the time of his tragic death at just 16, he was the boyfriend of a fellow student. The Kalanga and Cole families forged a bond over his loss and now co-manage the Tongole Foundation, a UK-registered children’s education charity.
Grass roots conservation – I wake up at sunrise to the fragrance of freshly ground Malawian Mzuzu coffee and the chorus of birdsong. My next three days are a series of mini-adventures on the river and on foot as we explore the 1,974-km2 reserve managed by African Parks.
African Parks has a three-pronged approach in the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve: of law enforcement, environmental education and enterprise initiatives that are building long-lasting value for the local communities. Since 2015 African Parks has re-introduced 500 elephants and 2,000 other species. The aim is to restore Nkhotakota through additional re-introductions of endemic species such as black rhino, lion and leopards.
A river runs through it – The retreat’s alfresco relaxation area offers a front-row seat onto a parade of animal and birds by the river. Canoe safaris are available from April through to December and typically last for two hours, with a refreshment pit stop halfway through. Imagine for a second the warm sun on your cheeks. The summer surround-soundtrack of dragonflies, birdsong and the whisper of the oars dipping in water; trickling freshwater tributaries attract thirsty antelope.
From the central vantage of the canoe, our eyes scan and are rewarded with elephants playfully wrestling a tug of war with their trunks, and a flotilla of adorable, squeaking baby crocodile.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is a mecca for bird-watchers: In 2021, Birdlife International declared the park an important bird area, with more than 280 species recorded and 20 on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species.
I can vouch for the incredibly rich birdlife! Whilst canoeing, four Fulvous whistling ducks are decimated by a harrier hawk’s aerial predatory precision. If that is not enough excitement, a lizard buzzard snatches a recoiling snake from the riverbank. One minute the gentle breeze is rippling on the surface of the river and the next minute it is like a scene from a National Geographic Wild programme.
From the kitchen – The food at Tongole is delicious, scoring consistent rave reviews on Tripadvisor. Chef Paul’s kitchen craftsmanship is unpretentiously wholesome, seasonal and, where possible, locally sourced: from the lightly-grilled and spiced Kapansa lake salmon to the decadent Malawian black cherry pie, served with vanilla ice-cream – and all made from scratch onsite.
In the afternoons, Tio and I sunbathe and enjoy exotic cocktails by the poolside. Tongole’s entire team is super-attentive; I name-check Johan and Gideon, who deliver effortlessly friendly service. Sunsets blaze across the skyline and, as Venus rises, we gather for dinner, comparing notes around a cracking campfire under an infinite canopy of African stars.
The Tongole Foundation – Schools Visit – The motto of the Tongole Foundation is ‘A child without education is like a bird without wings’. On my last day at the retreat, Bentry Kalanga, the CEO (and also Vitu and Tio’s father) joins us for a visit to the three schools that benefit from the Tongole Foundation children’s education charity.
Funds from the foundation have been used for vital repairs to classrooms and school buildings, mending drainage and school roofs, installing solar and toilet blocks as well as the new school build. The foundation works with the Chankhokwe F.P. School, the Mwalawatongole F.P. School, and the Chilimani F.P. School, the latter having been built from scratch.
We are welcomed in the shade of trees and received like visiting dignitaries. It is the school holidays, but all three schools field a grand welcoming committee, comprising the principle, deputy principle, village elders, representatives from the parent association, teachers and the schoolchildren themselves.
Bentry and Tio are regarded like rock stars. It is an extremely moving experience and I have a heightened appreciation and regard for the Tongole Foundation. It is not an overstatement to say that the foundation’s ongoing support is critical to the success and survival of these schools’ guardians and the education of the schoolchildren, who are desperately hungry for knowledge and the opportunity for self-advancement.
It’s a wrap – The Nkhotakota is not a reserve where, right now, you go to checklist a Big-Five game experience. However, from the tangible comforts of Tongole you experience grass roots conservation that features wildlife that is still adapting to human interaction and is integral to the restoration and protection of Malawi’s rich biodiversity.
Pristine, lesser-trodden tranches of well-managed wildernesses like Nkhotakota are still unsullied by over-tourism, and the Tongole Foundation is both dependent on, and optimistic for, the support of altruistic, socially conscientious, and sustainable travellers in a post-pandemic world.