Traveling to Africa? Consider Visiting Malawi

Margie, a med student at Harvard, who has volunteered several summers in Malawi  has written a guest blog to introduce my readers to the small Africa country of Malawi.  Perhaps after reading her blog you might put it on your bucket list.

Malawi has earned several nicknames that should spark your interest – like the “Warm Heart of Africa” and “Africa for Beginners.” While its neighbors can boast higher-profile attractions (like Kilimanjaro and the major game parks in Tanzania, or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe), Malawi has a lot to offer: it is relatively compact, easily navigable, and English-speaking, and its tourist destinations are almost never crowded. I’ll share with you some of my favorite spots in the country, but be sure to do your research to make the most of your trip!

A Few Basics

Malawi is an up-and-coming travel destination, but infrastructure is still very rudimentary. Only the highest-end spots will offer online reservations, for example, and few hotels and fewer restaurants accept credit cards. There are very few chains besides South African stores like Shoprite and Game, and as of now, no major international hotels. Other than the AXA coach between major cities, buses don’t run on a schedule – they leave when they are full. Malawi is generally very safe, but you should do your homework about how to minimize risk, and keep in mind that car accidents cause more harm to foreigners than infectious diseases. (But speaking of health, get your malaria prophylaxis and vaccinations before you go!)

I have found Malawi to be a remarkably safe, welcoming place. I encourage you to travel with an open mind and a generous heart – on a whole, Malawians are friendly hosts and want to show you the best their country has to offer. However, certain situations call for more caution. Again, road safety: I cannot stress enough the importance of safe driving and abundant caution! Also, if you are out and about in the cities at night, try to plan your itinerary and use taxi drivers you have already met. Use general travel smarts, like spreading out your cash and keeping photocopies of your passport. Check out the CDC for health advisories, and read local newspapers to stay up-to-date on political happenings (such as the 2014 presidential election).

For a basic orientation: Malawi is a long, skinny country with three regions – conveniently North, Central, and South. The North is much less populous than the South and Central, but there are worthwhile destinations in all three regions. The M1 is the main highway that runs the length of the country, with other major roads along the northern lakeshore (the M5) and through Liwonde and Zomba (M3).

You will have several options for getting between locations. The very adventurous can use buses (and minibuses for shorter trips) that travel all over the country many times a day. For more control over your schedule, though, you can consider renting a car, with or without hiring a driver. Be advised that driving is on the left, and while the major roads are generally in good repair, you will save yourself a lot of headache by keeping your speeds low and your traveling to the daytime. Within the city, I would recommend finding a taxi driver and getting their cell phone number for subsequent trips.

Several terrific companies offer all-inclusive trips throughout Malawi. I haven’t used them myself, but I have a lot of respect for Kiboko Safaris and the excellent value deals they offer for 3-7 day trips (their 7-day trips to the North or South both look perfect!). Don’t hesitate to inquire if your package can be personalized for your interests.

If you are planning your own trip, here are the highlights of what Malawi has to offer – in my humble opinion.

The Lake

Lake Malawi is a centerpiece of any vacation in the country. It’s a very large, deep, freshwater lake with beautiful sandy beaches and colorful cichlid fish. The easiest escape from Lilongwe is to Senga Bay (near Salima), and I have heard great things about Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear on the southern tip of the lake. My personal favorite, though, is the northern shore – I love Nkhotakota Safari Lodge for its excellent value and nearly empty beach. With a higher budget, you should consider a flight to Likoma Island to stay at Mango Drift or splurge at Kaya Mawa. I love just relaxing on the beach and swimming in the warm water, but many lakeside resorts will offer snorkeling, kayaking, and more activities.

Sunrise on Lake Malawi-1

The Mountains

Mount Mulanje

Far in the south of the country is the imposing Mulanje massif. Its cliffs rise from verdant tea plantations and offer countless miles of hiking trails. Be sure to hire a local guide, and every year in July, watch the fittest of them (and a few brave expatriates) compete in the Porter’s Race up and down the mountain. Mulanje is a terrific destination for active travelers, but it can also be a lovely place to relax on the patio and drink a Malawi gin & tonic while watching the sunset over the lush fields of tea.

Zomba Plateau

Just a few hours north of Mulanje by road (and less than an hour from Blantyre, once the road repairs are completed) is one of my favorite spots in the country, Zomba. Formerly the colonial capital, the town of Zomba is leafy and quiet, especially compared to the bustle of Lilongwe and Blantyre. Rising steeply above the town is the Zomba Pleateau, with a top altitude of over 6,800’. The sides of the plateau are heavily wooded, with pine and deciduous forest depending on the altitude. For a special treat, stay at the Zomba Forest Lodge  halfway up the plateau, where Tom and Petal will serve you a gourmet meal by candlelight. There are other great options in town, including Annie’s Lodge and a variety of budget accommodations. You can hike around the plateau any time of year, though you may find more luck in the dry season – but beware of legitimately cold temperatures in June and July!

Misty forest in Zomba, Malawi

Nyika Plateau

In the northern reaches of Malawi is Nyika Plateau. I haven’t been since the park was revived in recent years, but we enjoyed our stay at Matunkha Safari Lodge in nearby Rumphi back in 2009. The Plateau is up at quite an altitude, and offers some expansive views of grasslands dotted with zebras and many varieties of antelope. If you check out Chelinda Camp in the center of the park, let me know what it’s like!

Game Parks

If you want the classic African safari, you may be persuaded to visit Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa for sightings of the “Big 5” and extremely established tourist infrastructure. However, Malawi offers excellent alternatives. Majete Wildlife Reserve in the south has re-introduced lions, and Liwonde National Park has hosted high-quality safaris for years. For a remarkably affordable safari, my mother and I stayed at Liwonde Safari Camp just a stone’s throw from Bushman’s Baobabs.  In about 24 hours and for less than $100 each, we ate three tasty meals, slept in a luxury safari tent, and took a game walk (seeing warthogs, crocodiles, and loads of unique birds), a game drive (elephants, impala, bushbuck, waterbok, other antelope, eagles, and a whole family of warthogs), and a river trip (hippos galore!). On top of that, we listened to hippos come ashore to feed after dark, and we were awakened in the morning by, quite literally, a small herd of elephants walking quietly through the camp and munching on trees less than 50 yards from our tent. Plus, we shared these experiences with only two other travelers, and saw only two other vehicles on our whole game drive – a totally different experience than what I’ve heard about Masai Mara and other, more developed parks.

Elephant in Liwonde, Malawi

The Cities

You will probably fly into Lilongwe or Blantyre to start your trip. Both are bustling, potentially overwhelming places without extensive tourist attractions, but if you find yourself with a day on either end of your trip, don’t be afraid to explore. My favorite accommodations in Lilongwe are at the Kiboko Hotel, with its comfy four-poster beds and cool patio and garden. It’s very centrally located but surprisingly quiet inside. Right next to Kiboko is the best art and souvenir market in the city – it’s open-air and definitely a place to bargain. If you feel like you need some guidance, ask for Morris and Osman, and tell them I sent you! The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre does a remarkable job rehabilitating and releasing animals in the wild, while hosting other animals who can’t be released in generously large enclosures. An hour or two at the Centre gives a nice respite from the traffic in Lilongwe. If you’re looking for a good meal, I love the many Indian restaurants in the city, particularly Blue Ginger in Area 43. Mamma Mia for Italian dishes and Don Brioni’s burgers are other favorites; Ama Khofi and the Living Room are great for a cup of coffee or cocktail. For a big night out, Zanzi’s and Harry’s have hopping dance floors. For someone used to a 2 AM last call in Boston, Zanzi’s made me feel like I was in New York City.

Rural Malawi – the Heart of the Warm Heart of Africa

Above, I’ve listed some of the top tourist destinations in Malawi—but after a few minutes’ drive in between any of them, you will probably realize that there is much more to Malawi that visitors are rarely able to see up close. Over 80% of Malawians are engaged in subsistence agriculture, making it one of the most agricultural economies in the world, and life on a rural farm is very different from what most visitors to Malawi are used to. Encountering rural communities can be one of the most elusive but rewarding experiences in the country; if you choose to do so, whether through visiting one of the many terrific community-based organizations or by participating in an organized tour, do your best to be a “responsible traveler”.  Start with the suggestions here. Do your best to act the way you would want someone to act if they were visiting your neighborhood for the first time. Most importantly, visit with an open mind and heart, and listen and observe without making assumptions.

My favorite memories in Malawi

There are a few highlights from my different experiences living in Malawi that really stand out. I had the privilege to live in a very rural community in 2009 near a district center. My neighbors farmed corn and other vegetables for their families, and my walk to work at the hospital took me through cornfields, by chicken coops, and past the well where we got our water. I remember waking up to my neighbor singing while she washed clothes, and walking home after dark under a full moon that lit up cornfields so brightly we didn’t need flashlights. Our landlady and her family were tirelessly generous: I remember when her son brought us half a squash and two ears of corn one morning after it became clear that we weren’t very good at cooking over our biofuel stove. The girls from the nearby high school came over to teach us how to make porridge and gave us lessons on carrying water in our big plastic buckets. When I go back to visit, I can count on an enthusiastic greeting from each of the many children that live with my landlady and nearby. I don’t want to romanticize the challenges of rural poverty in Malawi – life is hard, ordinary tasks are extremely time consuming, and education and health care are often of low quality when they are available – but there was endless warmth in the welcome that my husband and I received in that community.

Aside from that experience, I have three wonderful memories of traveling in Malawi that I hope you will be able to share. Hiking through the tea plantations on Mount Mulanje in 2009, spending a night at the Zomba Forest Lodge with my mother in 2013, and a weekend on the deserted beach at Nkhotakota are the highest of the highlights. I hope that whatever experiences you have in Malawi, you’ll hold them in your photo albums and your heart for many years to come!

I hope that whatever experiences you have in Malawi, you’ll hold them in your photo albums and your heart for many years to come!

Update:  CNN just reported that Malawi is THE place to visit in Africa.  Click here to read their report.

Thank you Margie for your travel suggestions to Malawi, a country that holds your heart.  If any readers have any questions, send them to me and I will forward them to Margie.

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