Malawi and Mozambique 2008

Following my visit to South Africa in 2007 I wanted to go further off the beaten track. The Mozambique coast is a favourite destination for South African tourists because of its beauty and lower prices, so I checked out the local accommodation websites. I was immediately drawn to the Manda Wilderness Reserve on the shore of Lake Malawi because it is run as an eco-friendly lodge and it has a strong local community involvement, and of course there is the location; it is one of the world’s most outstanding freshwater sites and it is stunning.

I choose to go during the rainy season because that is the breeding season for most amphibians and a particularly active time for reptiles and good for invertebrates, although there is risk that there can be interruptions from the weather.

I arrived in Lilongwe on 7th February where I met up with Henry, Nkwichi Lodge’s taxi driver. I stayed at Mafumu Guest House, a former colonial house. It is charming, set within a sub-tropical garden; a good way to relax after a tiring flight in preparation for the journey to Mozambique.

The following day we left for Chipoka to take the ferry across the lake. Everyone with fast cars seems to drive at maximum speed. Henry offered to stop but we were going so fast I couldn’t see where. When I saw a river valley and asked to stop on the bridge where there is a chance to a composed photo. Henry told us about the giant Baobab en route; it was worth the wait. His wife kindly agreed to stand beside the tree for scale. It was the largest tree I ever seen, with a girth of over 10 metres and I’m told that it is perhaps a thousand years old and grew at a rate of one metre per hundred years.

We arrived early and I was taken to the Lake View Beach Lodge. It was out of season and looked much that way. I was the only customer.

I sat beside the lake beneath a thatched sunshade with a dark brooding sky behind. It was wonderfully atmospheric; grey clouds were gathering, and in the distance it was raining the other side of the vast lake. To the north, boats were lined up along the beach shore and there was a hive of fishing activity. A herd of cattle were on the lake shore and two young boys dived off an old fishing boat into the muddy water. Further along I spotted a group of teenagers hauling in a fishing boat that was half a kilometre out.

They growled as they pulled the rope with aggressive purpose. I could smell their sweat as they pulled. A man sat beside the rope directing.


Ilala Ferry trip

A keen-eyed local spotted the MV Ilala. She was over a kilometre out and I could just make her out but I couldn’t tell it was a ferry. I prepared to leave. The Ilala was built in Glasgow in 1949, shipped over and assembled on the lake. It has been in continuous use for 60 years, give or take the occasional breakdown.

Sailing the lake on board the Ilala is the best way to experience the lake. For a modest price you can purchase a mattress on the First Class passenger deck or hire one of the cabins; I did the latter. She is the lifeblood of the lake. She carries everything the lake communities require: fuel, food, cooking oil, wood. It’s a scramble to get to shore using the lifeboats. Sometimes the boats are overloaded. Heavy storm clouds developed and on the horizon I spotted a waterspout with a giant super cell cumulus cloud above. Luckily it was not heading in our direction!

Later I witnessed another of the lake’s natural phenomena; a cloud of lake flies drifting like smoke across the water. A dark cloud passed over the boat and a worried passenger asked,”What are they?”. A fellow passenger replied “Mosquitoes!”. She beat a hasty retreat. Of course they’re not, they’re actually non-biting midges (Chaoborus edulis), entirely harmless and are highly prized by locals who use them to make high protein cakes.


Nkwichi Lodge

When you arrive at Nkwichi Lodge by outboard from Likoma Island you cannot see any of the Lodge until you reach the small harbour. The chalets are hidden amongst trees. All of the buildings are made from local readily available materials, with solid teak frames and thatched roofs and stone foundations. Each chalet has its own private beach on the shore.

The main guest beach is as romantic a spot as you could imagine and is known as Squeaking Sand Bay because the white sand squeaks as you walk across it. Metamorphic rock rises up from shore and leans over beyond the vertical with serpentine bands of sparkling mica, each rock a natural sculpture in its own right.

During my first night the heavens opened and the thunder closed in. Little streams of water started flowing into the chalet. I think that this is normal monsoon weather but the rains have washed away two wooden bridges, and half the sand on Squeaking Sand Bay has been washed away. Peter and Diana Simkin, who set up the Lodge with their son Patrick (Lodge Manager), say 4½ inches fell in 24 hours and it is the worst rain they have known in 10 years.


Manda Wilderness

Nkwichi Lodge and the Manda Wilderness Reserve are set within pristine habitat on the eastern shore of Lake Niassa (Nejnga name for Lake Malawi) are arguably the most untouched and naturally wild part of Africa. Indeed much of the shore remains much as it did in Dr. Livingstone’s day.

Natural forest, known as Brachystegia Parkland; which is an open mosaic of trees and savannah, reaches down to the rocky lake shore. Every couple of miles or so this gives way to bays with golden sandy beaches. There are wooded mountains, rivers, streams and long stretches of virgin marshy swamps and floodplain. Small villages of traditionally made mud huts with thatched roofs nestle in bays along the shores. It is pristine, idyllic and underdeveloped. The Simkins are passionate that they want to keep it that way.

The reserve covers an area of 120,000 hectares; about half the area of my resident county of Herefordshire. The reserve supports lions, leopards, zebra and, most significantly, a pack of rare African wild dogs. These free-roaming animals have access across vast areas wilderness which adjoin the reserve and perhaps for this reason are not readily encountered.

The Manda Wilderness reserve is home to just 20,000 Nyanja people compared with 180,000 people living in Herefordshire! It is run by a community trust which has helped build five schools and supports a range of farming projects.


Scientific Research

My interest, work and my passion back home is freshwater ecology and I am here to study the invertebrates, in particular the water beetles. As far as I know, the wetland areas in and around the Mozambique lake shore have never been studied in any detail. Here was a great opportunity to find rare species, carve a bit of a name for myself and help the Lodge at the same time by documenting new discoveries. I packed my pond net in my rucksack, minus the pole! A new pole from the local teak was made at the Lodge by the local carpenter.

The village of Mandambuzi is about 12 kilometres south of the Lodge. The nearest marsh is to the northwest of the village and covers an area of 5,000 metres square. It has a broad draw-down zone which has been colonized by emergent vegetation. I could not have been here at a better time of year because everything was in flower and the water was teeming with life. There were deeper pools within the marsh, which have been dug by the local villagers to wash cassava. These now support African white-lilies Nymphaea flavovirens and a relative of our yellow fringed water-lily Nymphoides sp, both of which were in full flower.

An amaryllis with white and red stripes grows beside the margin; I dubbed this raspberry ripple! By day small reed frogs camouflaged themselves on the green leaves. By night there was an amphibian chorus which sounded like popcorn bursting in a frying pan. There were other frog calls suggesting at least five species are present. Dip netting the shallows reveals a range of mainly small water beetles representing at least 37 species, including Haliplidae, Bidessini, Amphiops, globular Hydrophilids, Noterids, Limnichids, Bagous ssp., Laccophilus spp., Hydrovatus spp and the medium sized diving beetle Hydaticus dorsiger. A large crawling bug with piercing mouthparts was also noted, possibly Fiebers giant water bug Limnogeton fieberi.

The following day my guide Peter Mandela took me to another section of marsh about five kilometres distance from the previous one. Here I observed fen raft spiders Dolomedes sp. In particular there was a stunning one with what could only be described as bar-code legs. Four large diving beetles belonging to the genus Cybister were found together in an area of trampled reeds.

Will discovers new species of water beetle in Mozambique


Over the course of two scientific expeditions to the subtropical forests of Mozambique, Will Watson, Wildlife Consultant from Docklow discovered a species of water beetle new to science. The 2.7 mm long diving beetle has been named Haliplus watsoni. Will says:

“I am absolutely chuffed to have found a new species of beetle and honoured and somewhat embarrassed to have it named after me. This is a particularly rare accolade as it is not normal convention to name species after the finder. The location was stunning and the expedition had its moments of excitement. I was initially concerned by that I might be confronted by crocodiles and hippos. However, in the end I was infected by the microscopic parasite which causes bilharzia. Thankfully I am now fully recovered and this discovery certainly makes all the pain and effort worthwhile.”


The water beetle was discovered on the Manda Wilderness Community Game Reserve which is managed in association with the local community by Nkwichi Lodge. The reserve is in the province of Niassa in northern Mozambique in the Great Rift Valley and borders Lake Niassa (also known as Lake Malawi). The reserve covers 130 000 hectares; just over half the size of Herefordshire but with a fraction of its population. It is an unspoilt wilderness with Brachystegia forest, savannah, swamps, streams, mountains and miles of sandy beaches with crystal clear water. Lake Niassa has been described as the most biologically important lake in the world. It is 365 miles long and 55 miles wide and is the 9th largest in the world.

Collecting process

The water beetle was collected from a seasonal floodplain pool close to the village of Manda Mbuzi in December 2008 during the rainy season. Further water beetle specimens were collected from the same site on a second trip to Mozambique in April 2009. A standard size EFE GB net was used to collect water beetles from the shallow margins of the pool. Only the small beetles were retrieved; those less than 3.5 mm which could be stored in 5 mm glass vials. They were preserved in isopropyl alcohol. Will was escorted through the reserve and assisted on both occasions by local guides Jackson and Peter Mandala.

Registering and confirming the new species

After my return to the UK all water beetle specimens collected in Mozambique were first sent to Professor Garth Foster in Scotland, Secretary of the Balfour-Browne Club. Shortly afterwards he forwarded the Haliplidae specimens to Bernhard Van Vondel in Holland; the international water beetle referee for that family. At the time he thought one of the Haliplidae was a new species; however it took a year and half before he was able to confirm this. Over this period he checked other reference specimens in collections held privately and in museums in other parts of the world. My six Haliplus specimens from Mozambique were compared with Haliplus specimens collected in the 1970’s from Nigeria and in the 1940’s in the Democratic Republic of Congo which had either been wrongly identified or not fully described. It was then apparent that these were same species of water beetle. Van Vondel then described them as a new species in the Dutch scientific publication Netherlande Entologische Vereniging: African Haliplidae (Coleoptera), Bernhard J. Van Vondel. Volume 153 239-314 December 2010.

Relevance of the discovery

The beetle´s discovery comes at a time when the Mozambique Government and the World Wildlife Fund are in the process of establishing the Lake Niassa Reserve and the Manda Wilderness Community are developing eco-tourism on their reserve. This find indicates how valuable the surrounding freshwater habitats are for biodiversity and should help inform and direct conservation efforts.

Status and distribution

Haliplidae are small crawling water beetles which swim by using alternating leg motions. They occur on all continents with the exception of Antarctica. They are found in association with aquatic plants and typically live around the edge of freshwater habitats. Their larvae feed on algae. Haliplus watsoni is distinguished from other African Haliplidae by the small dark mark on the pronotum; the segment between the head and the abdomen.

Haliplus watsoni, probably has a broad distribution as it also occurs in Nigeria. However, judging by the three records depicted on the distribution map one might assume that it is not very common. It is one of nine species of Haliplidae newly described from African by Van Vondel in his latest paper. There are now 44 species of Haliplidae described from Africa.

“Etymology: This species is named after W.R.C. Watson, collector of the type material”. If it were specific to just Mozambique it might have received a local name.


“Thanks to all the staff at the Lodge who made my stay so memorable and a special thanks to Peter Mandala and Jackson for guiding me and assisting during collection and to Joaochincyami for making a new teak handle for my pond net. I am particularly indebted to Bernhard Van Vondel for his painstaking identification work. Without everyones combined efforts this discovery would not have been possible.”