One of the smallest countries in Africa, Malawi is tucked between three giants, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. Malawi is so small that it is often overlooked, and that’s partly why it is such a magical destination. Malawi is a distillation of the true African experience. Here you see the kind of heart-squeezing scenery that has made Central Africa famous. Here is the region’s highest peak. Here you can view families of elephants as they splash in the shallows of one of Africa’s majestic rivers, and see the great ginger form of Pel’s fishing owl in a forest of palm trees. You are then on the route taken by Victorian England’s hero Doctor David Livingstone as he battled slavery and disease in a country where his efforts shaped history. You too can discover his beloved, and challenging, “Lake of Stars.”
Sit on a perfect beach. Let your eyes feast on the wide wonder of turquoise water, blue sky and a distant shoreline of misty mountains. Rocky islands float on the water as fragments of fantasy, capped with jungle. The whisper of waves provides a background for the haunting cry of the fish eagle and, if you’re lucky, you may glimpse the glossy form of an otter as it slips home among the rocks. Lake Malawi is the most beautiful feature of a beautiful country. Along the south-western reaches, the lake, somewhere in its two million years of existence, has drawn away from the edge of the Rift valley leaving a wide level plain dotted with baobabs, palms and umbrella trees. The water’s edge is lined with golden beaches, irresistible to holidaymakers, and the sparkling water is alive the most beautiful fresh-water fish in the world. Even the prices are good! When translated into hard currency, many of Malawi’s lake-side lodges and forest rest houses are astonishingly inexpensive.
Malawi attracts adventurous spirits, many of them budget travellers, and there are plenty of establishments providing adventure activities – fuelled by hearty meals – at low prices – as well as simple accommodation, perfectly in keeping with the surroundings. Although there are six local languages in Malawi, Chichewa being most commonly spoken, the official language is English. Wherever you go in this gorgeous country, you are more than likely to be understood. And where you are not, the real wealth of Malawi will come to your aid – for this is the warmest, friendliest nation in all of Africa. And gifted too. Malawi wood-carvings grace museums, art galleries and churches around the world.
You will find you can’t go home without a small memento of what is sure to be your most memorable visit to Africa. Malawi is undisputedly the Warm Heart of Africa.
One of the smallest countries in Africa, Malawi is the epitome of a vast continent, the very essence of Africa. Not quite east, central or southern African, it has elements of each: a touch of East Africa’s sensual magnetism, some of the mystery of Central Africa’s tropical forests, and the sheer delight of southern Africa’s exuberance.
Malawi is a country of startling contrasts. Landlocked, it is a nation of fishermen, one fifth of the country taken up by Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa. Trapped in the Great Rift Valley, it laps like an inland sea at the foot of wooded escarpment hills, in a setting of haunting beauty. In its uplands, the undulating plains of the central African plateau give way to dramatic inselbergs and spectacular highlands – the Mulanje massif, the highest mountain in central Africa, and Zomba Mountain in the south, and northwards, the forested Viphya plateau and the superb rolling grasslands of the Nyika.
The many and varied habitats are protected by nine separate wildlife reserves. Offering more experiential than conventional game viewing, there is a range of thrills for nature lovers, from the orchids of Nyika to the cichlid fish of the lake, from Pels fishing owl in the Shire Valley to the blue flycatcher in the rain forests.
The least exploited of African tourist destinations, Malawi has now been “discovered”. It has all the traditionally prized features, such as sun-drenched beaches and sparkling palm-fringed water, as well as scuba diving, rock climbing, mountain biking and other adventures for the young at heart. Its exceptional scenery lends itself to road travel, for the main roadwork is in excellent condition. This provides the best of all opportunities to experience the real warmth of Malawi, its wonderful people. You are bound to leave a part of your own heart in the Warm Heart of Africa.
Airlines flying to Malawi to/from Europe: Ethiopian Airlines, KLM (via Nairobi with Kenya Airways), South African Airways (via Johannesburg).
African Airlines flying to/from Malawi: Air Malawi, Air Zimbabwe, Air Tanzania, South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines
Most international flights land at Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, but several flights, especially those from Johannesburg and Harare, land at the business centre of Blantyre in the south.
Visas are required by all entering the country except nationals of Belgium, most Commonwealth countries, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Scandinavia, Spain, and the USA. Check with your travel agent or a Malawi Mission abroad; regulations change from time to time. Your passport should be valid for at least six months.
Customs and Immigration
Officials try to make your arrival and departure as trouble-free as possible and baggage handling is efficient and fairly fast. The usual personal allowances are granted.
Malawi has become a very popular staging post for trans-Africa travellers and it is a very good country in which to begin an African trip. Many tour operators offer packages into and out of Malawi and there are regular coach services from Johannesburg and Harare.
Malawi is always beautiful. The cooler months (May to August/September) are more comfortable for travellers from the northern hemisphere, but the lush, green summer (November to April) is also a good time to visit if due care is taken to avoid mosquito bites. May and June combine the best of both seasons – cooler, still green with great visibility – and are especially good for photography. Country dirt roads are sometimes impassable to normal vehicles during heavy rains.
Game viewing is best in the hottest times of the dry season when the animals are forced to visit water sources, but the countryside is more attractive in the wetter, greener months.
Bird watchers enjoy their best sightings in October and November. Check for school holiday dates, particularly for those in South Africa when more tourists visit Malawi and resorts fill up.
David Livingstone first saw Lake Nyassa, now Lake Malawi, in 1859 and was bewitched by its beauty. “The lake of stars”, he called it, as a myriad winking galaxy glittered from the crystal facets of the water. It’s a wonderful description, as exact today as it was almost a century and a half ago.
Sit on a perfect beach, and let your eyes take in the wide wonder of turquoise water, blue sky and a milky distant shoreline of mountains. Rocky islands float on the water like fragments of fantasy, crowned with jungle. The whisper of waves softens the yelping call of fish eagles, and if you’re lucky, you may glimpse the glossy head of an otter as it heads for a home among the rocks.
In Livingstone’s time, the lake was dotted with dhow sails, sinister as sharks’ fins, ferrying slaves and ivory across to the eastern shore for the long march to the coast. Today, peaceful dugout canoes range the length and breath of the lake, no longer fearful of Arab traders, intent only on harvesting the silver bounty of fish. A meal of the country’s favourite, chambo, served with golden chipped potatoes, is a must for visitors.
Lake Malawi covers almost 20% of the country, and provides much of the country’s protein. The third largest lake in Africa, and one of the deepest in the world, its water is particularly pure. Fish prefer the shallower, southern end, so it’s no surprise that the human population is denser in the south. Here too, the brightly coloured cichlid fishes, mbuna, abound, making rocky island shores an open-air aquarium for snorkellers and scuba divers.
What to wear
Beach resorts are very informal; however, it is well to remember that Malawians are conventional, even conservative, people and visitors should respect local customs and traditions when visiting villages and markets.
Light clothing is essential. You won’t need to make a fashion statement, but you will need to feel comfortable when the temperature rises – and when it drops. Business meetings are usually more formal and those combining work with pleasure should keep this in mind. Long sleeved shirts and light trousers help to keep the mosquitoes at bay in the evenings. Take a jersey for cool weather and late nights – especially when visiting the highlands. A hat, sun block and comfortable walking shoes are essential.
Remember any medication you use regularly (other medical recommendations are discussed later), contact lens fluid and insect repellent.
What else to take
Lots of reading material if you are not going to be near the city bookshops in Blantyre and Lilongwe. Binoculars for birders. Swim fins and goggles, if you have them. Camera, spare batteries and film. Transparency (slide) film is very difficult to find in Malawi and it is best to save your exposed films – in a cool place – for processing back home.
Malawi uses the British three pin square plug and a 240-volt supply, so take adaptors and a transformer if necessary.
Malawi has long been famed as the friendliest country in Africa – and this is still true. But be aware that urbanisation, poverty and changing social values have brought a rise in crime statistics. Be careful. Take the same precautions you would take in any other part of the world.
Malawi’s unit of currency is the kwacha, divided into 100 tambala.
Foreign exchange can be converted at branches of, INDEbank, the Standard, National, First Merchant, Finance and Loita banks and there are several reputable bureaux de change in Blantyre and Lilongwe. Credit cards are sometimes accepted in the cities and around the Lake, but the use of both foreign exchange and credit cards can be difficult outside major centres.
Mondays to Fridays 08.00 – 15.00 hrs. First Merchant Bank and some other bank branches open on Saturday mornings. Most hotels of international standard offer money-changing facilities.
The same simple rule applies to health as to security. Take care. Be aware. Check on immunisation and antimalaria medication well in advance of travel to Malawi or anywhere else in Africa, and pack a reasonable first aid kit to enable you to deal with small emergencies and upset stomachs.
Try to use licensed accommodation units and restaurants.
Do not drink tap water in resort areas, rather plenty of bottled water and keep out of the midday sun as much as possible.
The road from Lilongwe to Salima is a good one, winding gently down the Rift escarpment to the distant shimmer of the lake. Beside the road, craftsmen weave beautiful rattan-type furniture, binding the stems of a wild creeper onto bamboo frames. Salima itself is not a destination for visitors, but Senga Bay, fifteen kilometres farther on, is one of the loveliest on the Lake. Like many of lake-side towns in Malawi, Salima was an Arab trade centre in Livingstone’s time. In those days, only Muslims were safe from the threat of slavery and today Salima retains a predominantly Muslim character.
Just northwest of the town is Malawi’s first wildlife breeding station – Kuti Wildlife Reserve. Established by the Game Breeders’ Association in 2001 on an ex-government cattle ranch it began with a handful of nyala and wildebeest. It is one of the few places in Malawi where giraffe can be seen, since they do not naturally occur in the country.
About 80 kilometres south from Salima on the M5, you will be startled by larger-than life figures of Angoni warriors in full battle regalia, feathers streaming, leopard-tail kilts flying.
These are the work of craftsmen trained at the Mua Mission.
The first Roman Catholic Mission in Malawi, established by the White Fathers in 1899, Mua today is synonymous with Father Claude Boucher. “Fr. Bushy”, as he’s known to his flock, has channelled his passion for Malawi into a sculpture school and a rich museum of Malawi culture. Don’t miss either of them!
The intrepid traveller can return to Lilongwe via Dedza and the remarkable pottery there, by taking the newly surfaced Golomoti Road, behind Mua Mission. This beautiful scenic route threads up the
Rift wall, giving stunning views out across the valley and the lake. Stop to admire the workmanship of the Golomoti craftsmen and their delightful models of road-making equipment.
Malawi’s fish are a great tourist attraction to divers and snorkellers. There are more species of fish in the Rift Valley Lakes than in any comparable areas of water in the world – in fact new species are discovered every year. The majority of them belong to the family known as cichlidae and they have adapted and evolved to fit highly specific niches within the lakes. Cichlids are generally small, and the most attractive are the colourful, flashing, striped and decorated fish, seen to best advantage at Cape Maclear and around the islands.
The local fishing industry relies on a whitebait-like fish called usipa and utaka, more like sardines, caught in large quantities in deep water. Visitors will see the catch on drying racks near Malawi’s many fishing villages. Larger species like mpasa (lake salmon), and kampango are eaten, but the gourmet favourite remains the bream-like chambo.
Although Malawi has not yet yielded much in the way of hominid remains (to date, only one jawbone dated at around 2.5 million years) it is in this region that the earliest ancestors of humans lived. The roots of language, story and communication were formed here.
Before recorded history, movements of peoples swept central Africa and national boundaries were not recognised. Only with the colonial influx were borders and nations established – often with little reference to the people who lived there.
Africa was involved from earliest times in trade with places as far away as Arabia, India and China. Slave taking and the exchange of gold, ivory and other tropical products for desirable exotic goods took place long before travellers arrived from Europe. There is a strong Islamic influence, especially around the lake, from these early contacts, which predated a powerful Christian initiative into the region through missionaries such as David Livingstone and many others.
During the colonial period, the country was incorporated into the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, achieving independence in 1964 with Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda as Prime Minister, later President. Malawi held democratic elections in 1994 for the first time since independence and the three decades of government by the nation’s Founding Father, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. After three such elections, true democracy is well established, amid the rule of law and order.
Malawi is dotted with isolated outcrops of rock, or inselbergs. It is part of the landscape’s charm, and much of the natural diversity of the country is due to these elevated islands offering unusual habitats.
One can think of Mount Mulanje in almost the same way. It is an isolated granite massif, covering
over a thousand square kilometres. From a distance, it’s hard to believe Mulanje is not a range of
mountains, it seems long, rather than high. Yet it is so tall that it creates its own climate, and is known to be unkind, even lethal to those who dare take the mountain for granted. The summit, the highest in south-central Africa at 3000m, is called Sapitwa, which is said to mean “Don’t go there!” The warning challenges the determined climber. Sapitwa does require experience, though
often testing endurance rather than technique. The west face of Chambe peak is the real challenge, offering nearly 1700m of roped climbing and said to be the longest rock climb in Africa.
For the less dedicated, Mulanje offers equally great rewards. Spectacular views across tea plantations to Mozambique, sheer drops down gullies laced with waterfalls; glades shaded by forest trees where purple crested loeries and sun squirrels scuttle along the branches; montane grasslands dotted with ground orchids and gladioli and alive with butterflies; forests of fragrant Mulanje cedar trees.
Mulanje is within easy reach of Blantyre on a beautiful new road, making it a superb day outing for visitors. The drive through the Shire Highlands is satisfying in itself. Some tea estates, like Satemwa, in Thyolo and Lujeri, on the lower slopes of Mulanje offer gracious guest houses for those who would like to spend more time exploring the area. The tea plantations have a haunting beauty, and the relic bush, that clings, despite deforestation, to the stream banks shelters a wealth of specialised flora and fauna.
On the mountain itself are six climbers’ huts, maintained jointly by the Department of Forestry
and the Mountain Club of Malawi. Malawi’s famous tenga-tenga, (porters, literally “those who carry”, the term was also used to refer to the postal runners in the old days) will be more than happy to carry your luggage or pack on your climb but make sure your chosen guide has a Government issued identity card indicating he has been formally trained. It is good manners to employ at least one porter per person, even if you carry little more than a day pack. Friendly and out-going, the tenga-tenga know every nuance of the mountain, and the guides will prove invaluable in the sudden changes of weather to which Mulanje is prone. Laurens van der Post’s Venture to the Interior has a harrowing account of one such occasion, where the advice of the guide was fatally ignored.
For many, Malawi’s mountains are the most magical aspect of the country. Just stand on top of the Zomba plateau and gaze across the Phalombe plains to majestic Mulanje, and you’ll soon agree. Stop at the Sunbird Ku Chawe on the sheer lip of the plateau, at least for a cup of tea. Curled at your feet lies the charming town of Zomba, one-time capital, and now Malawi’s university town. The bowl of the mountain top is a forest reserve, and has a primitive beauty. Among the plantations are patches of indigenous forest, cool streams and high grasslands, and from the view points, Malawi laid out like a relief map. Hike, fish or ride, but take your binoculars and camera.
Zomba is about an hour from Blantyre. The Mtenga-tenga Postal Museum is a must for philatelists, and art lovers should look out for road-side stalls selling hand-made clay pots and whimsical “mud heads”.
As you enter Zomba, there is the King’s African Rifles War Memorial, to the men who gave their lives in the two World Wars. About half an hour north of Zomba at Chingale are the craftsmen who specialise in carving chief’s chairs. Each made from a single trunk, the chair’s simple design is ornamented by bas relief carvings. These are uniquely Malawian.
Less than 50km west of Lilongwe, Dzalanyama is about two hours away by car. Like Dedza, Dzalanyama is a working forestry area, with both pine and gum plantations. There are also wonderful areas of unspoiled forest and bush, with plenty of scope for mountain biking and hiking, or simply enjoying the fresh mountain streams and waterfalls. Dzalanyama has great significance for many of the people of Malawi who believe that it is the site of creation – the footprints of the very first man are still, they say, to be seen in the rocks where God set him down. This forest range is the catchment area for most of Lilongwe’s water supply.
The rewards in getting to Ntchisi make it well worth the effort. The Reserve includes one of the few true relic rain forest areas in Malawi. Cathedral-like glades of buttressed trees are hung with lianas, and butterflies dart like fish in the leaf-filtered gloom. The call of a green bulbul or the hollow “chonk” of a samango monkey echo through the mossed stems. Not long ago elephants used to wander around the Lodge, and leopards still prowl among the rocky outcrops.
Be warned: do not go walking alone in the rain forest. Several of the game trails can have pit-fall traps in them. It is safest to take a guide with you.
To the south of Lilongwe, Dedza Mountain rises almost 2200m above the Great Rift Valley. From the summit, a glorious view of Lake Malawi is possible. Accessible, almost to the very top, by a 4 x 4 track, Dedza is a bird-watcher’s delight. Pockets of indigenous montane forest tucked into gullies between rolling grasslands provide a wonderfully varied habitat.
Make it a full day’s outing from Lilongwe, and have lunch at Dedza Pottery’s garden tea-room in the village below. Here is Malawi’s biggest pottery where items may be designed to customer’s specifications and shipped anywhere in the world.
The undulating Viphya Plateau lies between 1500 and 1800 m with inselbergs thrusting even higher. To the north-west is Nyika, reaching an impressive 2600m. The two great plateaux are separated by the South Rukuru River as it carves its way to the lake. On the northern edge of the Viphya before it drops down into the Rukuru valley, lies Mzuzu, the capital city of the Northern region.
The Viphya pine plantations are said to have been the largest in Africa. Patches of indigenous forest survive between the marching rows of pines and the original open heathland in the east of the plateau, making it a wonderful area to explore on foot, or mountain bike, even by four-wheel drive on remote tracks. For bird-watchers, Malawi is at the interface between east and southern African bird distributions, and many unusual birds are easy to spot here. Contrast the serene forest and the exhilaration of physical adventure by combining a birding safari with a mountain bike trail down the Great Rift escarpment on a newly re-opened track to beautiful Chintheche on the Lakeshore.
Nyika National Park
Almost the entire Nyika Plateau is a National Park, Malawi’s largest, and one of the most unusual in Africa. Mainly high rolling grassland, Nyika is a wonderland of flowers. Ground orchids, proteas, irises, aloes… it’s a botanist’s paradise. Nyika has a scale of its own. Everything seems dwarfed by the vast landscape, trout dams seem mere puddles, and the pine plantation at Chelinda clings to a rise in the ground like a skull cap. Herds of eland, the largest of the antelope, seem most perfectly proportioned here.
The eastern edge of the plateau forms the wall of the Great Rift Valley. It is possible to hike all the way down to Livingstonia, and going on foot is the very best way to appreciate the scale of Nyika without overlooking the exquisite detail. There are rainbow trout in the dams, and mountain bikes for hire.
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve is a must if you visit Nyika by road. To the west, between the Viphya and the Nyika plateaux, it lies in a flat alluvial plain. Where the South Rukuru River leaves the park, it forms Lake Kazuni, a meagre lake by Malawi standards, but hugely attractive to wildlife. Vwaza Marsh was one of the most renowned source areas for ivory in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is now again one of the best places to see elephant in Malawi, and buffalo, too. A guided walking safari will add to the delight of your stay.
With northern Malawi increasingly favoured by international tourists and Lilongwe the kick-off point for regional destinations such as Zambia’s Luangwa valley and the resorts on the Mozambican side of the lake, many flights into Malawi touch down at Lilongwe, the capital. Being some distance from town, the drive in affords the visitor a preview of the Central African highlands countryside, through mostly ‘mango savannah’. There was extensive indigenous woodland before the construction of the capital, copses of which are still carefully conserved in the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary. This area, now known as, the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, boasts a wildlife rehabilitation and care facility, nature trails through 65 hectares of pristine wilderness area, where the released wildlife can be seen, environmental and life skills education facilities and a beautifully appointed lodge for overnight guests.
The new city, three kilometres north of the “Old Town”, has been laid out with an eye to future development and a keen sense of green space, particularly along the wide natural drainage lines. The street layout has avoided the colonial grid-pattern, making it at once more interesting and attractive to the eye, if more confusing for the visitor.
Some international flights land at Chileka International Airport near Blantyre, the centre from which to explore the southern region. Blantyre, seen right from Ndirande Mountain, is Malawi’s oldest and largest city and commercial capital. Vibrant and bustling, it is slowly losing its quaint, older buildings which lent a flavour of the past. Nevertheless, its tree-lined streets and high elevation, surrounded by hills, give it a distinctive beauty.
Even further north is the historically fascinating town of Karonga. Lying close to the northernmost point of the Lake, this was the headquarters of the slave trader, Mlozi, and the scene of many battles. Karonga saw the first naval action of World War I! To crown its historical claim to fame, it has fossil beds which have yielded a fragment of humanoid jawbone roughly 2.4 million years old, and Karonga’s pride, a dinosaur about 100 million years old, called Malawisaurus.
A reconstruction of this dinosaur is housed in the special cultural museum in Karonga. Karonga lies en route to the remote mountains and reserves of southern Tanzania and is the gateway to the Misuku Hills, which are a botanist’s and bird watcher’s delight and where, increasingly, superb coffee is grown.
Mzuzu is the capital of the Northern region. It is the fastest growing urban area in Malawi and from tiny developments in the late forties, centred on tung growing, at the time an essential oil for paint, it is now a thriving small city. It is increasingly a base for tourism to the surrounding high plateaux, such as the Viphya, (Elephant Rock, below) and the even higher Nyika Plateau. It is also very close to the best beaches on the shores of Lake Malawi, to the north of Nkhata Bay and south around Chintheche.