Sun-dappled beaches and clear waters, rolling plains teeming with wildlife and vibrant street markets await visitors to Malawi: a once castaway British colony that’s now making a name for itself as the “warm heart of Africa”.
Like so many former African colonies, it has endured decades of dictator rule and struggled to build a viable economy since independence in 1964. Although Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries today, an ever-increasing number of tourists are being drawn to its diverse attractions.
Laying low in Lilongwe
Chances are you’ll start your Malawi adventure after landing at the Lilongwe International Airport. Most tourists soon head straight out of the capital, but the city does have a few places of interest if you’re there on business, or waiting for a flight.
But keep in mind Lilongwe’s quite spread out and grabbing taxis to travel through it can be exhausting when the tropical heat is at its most intense.
Divided into Old Town, to the south, and New Town, to the north, the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary neatly carves the city’s two districts in half.
Slap-bang in the middle is the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre – a wild animal rescue and rehabilitation facility that also teaches visitors about the rich diversity of the country’s fauna.
A lodge has opened in the sanctuary, giving tourists a “wild” experience in an urban jungle, and a portion of its profits go to the rehabilitation centre.
The sanctuary is significant as it’s the only place where residents in the city can get a taste of the wide-open landscapes beyond its borders.
From the sanctuary, explore Old Town’s thriving market on Malangalanga Road, visit the street vendors and their colourful ware, and stop in at the more upmarket shops, bars and restaurants in the Old Town Mall to experience daily life in Lilongwe.
But few visitors come to country and never leave the capital. The real highlight is Lake Malawi, two hours to the east of Lilongwe, forming a shimmering natural border with Mozambique.
The jury’s still out on the exact origin of the name Malawi, but the best guess is that it’s derived from the word for “flaming water” in the local Chichewa language.
If you’re short of time, the beautiful Senga Bay is the best place to head. Just 90 minutes’ drive from Lilongwe, you’ll pass through the bustling town of Salima en route, where there’s an interesting market to shop for souvenirs. A short way beyond that is the bay with a range of hotels, guesthouses and camp sites to suit pretty much every pocket.
If you can stay longer, an adventure to the northern town of Nkhata Bay is well worth the long road journey. The great African explorer David Livingstone, who first set eyes on the lake in 1859, once visited there and it has since become the hub of the lake’s fishing industry.
In recent years it’s attracted a growing throng of tourists who come to enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and soothing waters. You won’t find many glitzy hotels here, but small guesthouses and camp sites are abundant and won’t put too much of a dent in your travel budget.
You’ll also find a scuba school offering affordable diving courses. Lake Malawi is famous for its more than 600 different species of brightly coloured tropical fish – known as cichlids – and the warm, clear water with few currents makes it an ideal spot for learning how to dive.
Nkhata Bay is also the northern stop for the Ilala ferry, which makes trips to the distant Likoma and Chizumulu Islands. Nestling in the eastern reaches of the lake, closer to Mozambique than Malawi, these islands are a tranquil hideout offering tourists their own, secluded beach. You can stay at a basic guesthouse, in camp site accommodation or at the impressive new eco-lodge.
Unless you can afford to charter a plane, the Ilala is the only way to get to and from the islands, and while you’re on board you might as well take the opportunity to travel down south as well, but keep in mind the ferry service is not a speedy one.
Built in the 1960s, the Ilala travels the entire length of the lake each week, from the northern ports to its home base in Monkey Bay down south. It is by no means a luxury liner, but if you book yourself into cabin class you’ll find it’s usually clean and the food is edible. It’s a legend in African travel and suited to daring tourists with time to spare.
In his book Livingstone’s Lake, Oliver Ransford describes the colourful chaos on board as the Ilala pulls into port: “Amid the excited bell-ringing, siren shrieks and hooting that seem inseparable from all maritime arrivals and departures, crowds of Malawians line up on the Ilala’s deck to disembark, cluttered up with baggage that includes bicycles, cages filled with squawking fowl, sewing machines and even tethered goats.”
Some 36 hours after leaving Nkhata the Ilala drops anchor in Monkey Bay on Cape Maclear, the tourist hub of the lake. From the relaxing beach bungalows on the cape to the upmarket resorts further south, this is where most visitors come to play. Diving, fishing, sailing, swimming, kayaking – and just plain lazing about – are all on offer here.
When you’ve had enough of lakeside living, head south to Blantyre. It may not be the capital, but it’s the country’s largest city and the commercial centre.
Named after Livingstone’s birthplace in Scotland, Blantyre is home to a number of fine buildings, including the historic Mandala House and the National Museum of Malawi, also known as the Chichiri Museum.S
Sweeping plains and plateaus
Most tourists use Blantyre as a gateway to the scenic natural attractions of the south.
Just 160km from the city is the Liwonde National Park, the most popular wildlife spot in Malawi. With the Shire river flowing along the western border on its way from the lake to the Indian Ocean, the lush park is home to large herds of elephant and antelope, and also offers excellent bird-watching.
Towards Blantyre, the imposing Zomba Plateau rises above the plains. Although heavy pine plantations fill the area, there are still sizeable tracts of Afromontane forest for nature-lovers to enjoy.
Serious hikers come to this southern corner of Malawi to tackle the country’s highest peak, Mount Mulanje, which soars above 3 000m. A number of tour companies offer assisted trekking on the mountain, but you can also contact the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust about hiring guides and accommodation.
Although colonials may have called this fascinating and diverse country home for many years, the Malawi of today is distinctly African. From beach resorts for sun-worshippers, to adventure activities for thrill-seeking travellers, this warm heart of Africa is well worth a visit.