Elephant Marsh is part of the floodplain of the Lower Shire River between the towns of Chikwawa and Nsanje.
The marsh lies in an area of very low rainfall – less than 100mm in poor years – and it is fed almost entirely by the spillover from the Shire and Ruo rivers.
It varies in size from 400 sq km (150 sq miles) to 1200 sq km (450sq miles) depending on the flow of the rivers and has no permanent boundary.
At its northern margins, it is best classified as semi-permanent marshland where crocodiles slide sinisterly into the water.
To the south, it becomes a small lake with purple-flowered hyacinth and white lilies, and the surrounding area is studded with massive baobab trees and tall palms.
In particularly wet seasons, when rainfall figures are high, the whole area may be underwater, threatening the villages like Chiromo and Makhanga which mark its southern limit.
The name Elephant Marsh was given to these swamplands by David Livingstone in 1859 who recorded a herd of around 800 elephants 800 in a single sighting.
In 1896, the British protectorate authorities proclaimed it as a game reserve, and hunting was forbidden without a licence, but the elephants had been all shot out by 1910 anyway, and it was degazetted as a result.
Although Elephant Marsh is not classified as a national protected area, efforts are still made to preserve this important catchment area, which sustains both human life and wildlife.
Malawi has designated Elephant Marsh as its second Ramsar Site, Wetland of International Importance in July 2017.
Elephant Marsh supports one of Malawi’s largest populations of crocodiles, large numbers of hippos, smaller aquatic mammals such as otters, and a rich aquatic birdlife, spectacular both in numbers and variety.
Anyone interested in birdlife will be in for a treat. Fish eagles, storks, kingfishers, herons, and countless other species will be seen even on a short visit.
Getting there & away
The only way to see the marsh properly is by boat.
The usual way of doing this is to hire a boatman and his dugout canoe at a small village called Mchacha James on the east side of the marsh, about 7km from Makhanga.
If you’re driving, head southwest of Blantyre for 30km and turn left (east) at Thabwa (the bottom of the escarpment).
Makhanga is another 65km or so further south, following the Tyolo Escarpment.
From Makhanga, head north towards Muona village.
After 2.5km a dirt track leads west for 4.5km through villages and small fields to Mchacha James.
This route is not signposted so ask for directions – it may be worth arranging a local guide in Makhanga.
During the rains, it sometimes isn’t possible to cross the bridge to Mchacha James.
You can probably get a boat across and then walk but you might not want to leave your car unattended.
If you’re without wheels, take the bus from Blantyre that travels to Nchalo and Nsanje.
You can get a matola from either of these towns to Makhanga.
Alternatively, you can get off this bus at Bangula and then take a matola through Chiromo to Makhanga.
From Makhanga, you can walk, take a bicycle-taxi or charter a matola to Mchacha James.