or years, perhaps decades, Malawi has been known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’, with the tourism industry touting its people as the country’s shining light – the raison d’être for visiting. That and the big stretch of water that occupies 20 percent of Malawi’s total surface area, of course; hence, Malawi’s other often-used moniker: the ‘Land of the Lake’.
But this (relatively) tiny, land-locked country, sandwiched between Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Mozambique, is so much more than these well-worn clichés. From relaxing on the beach to deep sea (or rather lake) fishing, from canoeing to safari walks, from snorkelling to hiking across plateaus, from river cruising to Big 5 game drives, from rolling hills to golden sands, from forests to lakes and more… Malawi, to use another cliché, really does have it all.
Being surrounded by some of Africa’s big hitters, however, means Malawi rarely gets a look in as far as tourists are concerned – unless its for some R&R on the lake’s beaches after a few days on safari in Zambia’s national parks. A route I too am guilty of traipsing.
I have travelled far and wide across Africa, on a budget and in luxury. I’ve visited many of the continent’s ‘must-sees’ – Victoria Falls, Ngorongoro Crater, Kruger National Park, to name a few. I’ve been lucky enough to experience indescribable wildlife encounters, and I’ve met some of the most fascinating people you could ever hope to meet. But, for some reason, Malawi keeps drawing me back.
Yes, there may be countries with more obvious appeal. Yes, there may be more iconic sights or better wildlife experiences to be had elsewhere. But where else can you do everything in one, relatively compact, place? Perhaps it’s this that might make Malawi the ideal African destination.
“Every day is sun day,” laughs Sarah Beer, manager at Likoma Island’s Kaya Mawa resort. She’s not wrong: there’s not a cloud in the sky and there’s a laid-back vibe that feels like… well, a relaxing Sunday.
Kaya Mawa exudes unpretentious luxury. Nestled among boulders and trees, the resort opens up onto a secluded stretch of sand on the shore of Lake Malawi. After a long day’s travel, an ice-cold beer hits the spot as I watch the sun slide over the horizon, turning the sky a fiery orange. I already feel at home.
I awake the following morning to the calming lap of gentle waves. I open my eyes to a sumptuous view of the lake, the sun glinting off a rock island that sits just off shore. I take a dip in my plunge pool, before coffee is delivered to my door.
After a lazy breakfast, I gather a snorkel, mask and flippers from my room and head down the path that leads from my deck to the water. I flop into the warm lake and am immediately surrounded by fish. I swim towards the island that I saw from my bed, watching a whirl of fast-moving colours flitting in and out of the jigsaw of boulders that populate this stretch of water. It’s like snorkelling on the side of a mountain.
“There’s 1300 species of fish in the lake,” Kaya Mawa’s co-owner James Lightfoot tells me. “589 are endemic. Two are found only at a point on the left of here,” he gesticulates in the general direction, “and one only at a point on the right.”
“How can they be that accurate?” I wonder.
“Oh, they are my made-up numbers,” he chuckles.
Whatever the exact figure, there’s no getting away from the fact there’s plenty of fish here. I’m particularly enamoured by the endemic blue zebras, so called because of their blue and black stripes.
Snorkelled out, I settle into a kayak and leisurely paddle about. Fishermen power past me, their oars flinging spray behind them at a frightening rate, as they head out to cast their nets.
A loud ‘quock’ grabs my attention and I turn to see a fish eagle fly out of its nest, scanning the watery buffet below. This is the life.
To the hills
All too soon we are back in the air, snaking in between the hills that lead to the Nyika Plateau. Below us, the Rukulu River winds through the valleys with alarmingly tight turns. There’s a touch of Hobbiton about the scene, and I’m not surprised to learn that JRR Tolkein resided in Malawi for a while.
As we make our way to Chelinda Lodge, some 2500m above sea level, I can feel a chill in the air – a far cry from the warmth of Likoma.
Lurking among the tall grasses, we spot a unicorn. A closer inspection reveals it to be a roan antelope that’s missing a horn. Roan are endangered across Africa, so much so it would probably be easier to spot the mythical unicorn, but the antelope is prevalent here.
At the lodge we are greeted with hot towels and warm drinks, a distinct contrast to the cold towels and chilled cocktails that welcome us elsewhere. Inside there’s a roaring fire emanating much-needed warmth.
We’re soon out on an evening drive with our guide Whyte Mhone. We, or rather Whyte, spy a pack of hyena circling near their den.“They’re preparing to hunt,” he grins. “They’re warming up, warming up.”
Sightings of jackal, scrub hare and bushbuck follow, before fog descends, swirling in the spotter’s light and killing our visibility.
Retiring for the night I get the shock of my life as I get into bed – there’s something in there with me. Panicked, I switch the light back on, only to discover it’s a hot water bottle warming the sheets.
We take an early morning stroll across the plains, the terrain reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, as is the temperature. “Nyika means ‘grassland with scattered bushes’,” Whyte tells us. How very apt.
Wandering at close quarters with the park’s ungulates, we near two dazzles of Crawshay’s zebra grazing. As we pause to watch, a female trots from one group to the other and stops for a chat, before returning to her mates to pass on the gossip. “To tell a male from a female,” the ever-knowledgeable Whyte informs us, “look at the stripe from the tail to between the legs. It is wider for the male.”
Back in the vehicles, we take in Lake Kaulime and the 360-degree panorama that is Chosi View, a smorgasbord of antelope dotting the rolling hills. Nyika’s flora spreads out in front of us: the yellow albuca, the blue lobelia, the striking red-hot poker. Reedbucks chase Denham’s bustards into the air; a red-winged francolin holds a worm in its beak; a Rufous-napped lark skips along the track in front of us, before taking off, banking sharply and away. “These are very clever birds,” says Whyte. “They lead cars away from their nest by running in the road.”
After a fruitless but entertaining afternoon fly-fishing, we’re back out for a night drive. Following an early serval sighting, the drive climaxes with two hyenas trotting along the road in front of us, one of whose fur is more bouffant than is usual. Indeed, I could go as far as to say it was a good-looking hyena – an oxymoron if ever I heard one.
Out in the wild
“If you hear the drum,” says Lucas Samson, pointing to a large instrument in the bar area at Tongole Wilderness Lodge, “that’s the fire alarm.” He continues the tour, leading me to my room, which opens out onto the Bua River, beyond which lies dense forest. A rope stretches across the room’s entrance to keep the elephants at bay. I feel truly remote. There’s a soothing soundtrack, courtesy of the gurgling river, grunting baboons, singing nightjars, ribbiting frogs and crickets doing whatever it is crickets do.
This is a park returning from adversity. Its wildlife poached nearly to extinction, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve has recently been the recipient of 500-plus elephants and some 2000 other animals as part of African Parks’ relocation programme. There are plans afoot to reintroduce lion.
“In ten years, the park will be beautiful, with plenty of animals and more lodges,” says a beaming Lucas.
Head guide Emmanuel Kandiero takes us out on the water. Although crocs lurk below the surface, out in the canoes it’s all about the birds. “There’s a water thick-knee,” he says, pointing to an odd-looking yellow-eyed bird. “It used to be called the thick-head, but this was thought to be too rude.”
There are five types of kingfisher here and we quickly tick four off our list. The malachite may win on the colour front, but the pied kingfisher is my favourite. “The female has two dots on its chest, like a lady’s bra,” chuckles Emmanuel. I’m easily pleased.
After breakfast, we venture on foot through the miombo forest with Emmanuel’s brother Aaron. The younger Kandiero proves equally likeable and leads us on an information-packed meander.
Superstition is rife here. The kuduberry tree plays host to kind spirits, he tells us. “You can’t cut them down or even nail a sign into the trunk because this could hurt [the spirits].”
The ironwood tree is also considered a good luck charm. “[When building a house] people put an ironwood branch in the roof to keep the evil spirits away,” Aaron says.
Back at the lodge, he urgently calls us outside. Thrashing through the bushes is a lone elephant. “It’s Short Trunk,” he says. The unfortunate male had his truck caught in a snare when he was a youngster. “He is a loner. He will turn up in camp and stay for about a week,” adds Emmanuel. We follow the elephant as he makes his rounds. At one point we get a bit too close and he turns, flapping his ears menacingly, before disappearing into the undergrowth. I’ve seen hundreds of elephants over the years, but tracking this single example is exhilarating – a sure sign that Nkhotakota is fighting back.
Big 5 country
Everlasting drives us from Lilongwe to Liwonde National Park. “Great name,” I say. “Ach, it is just a name,” he replies. Yes, but it’s one that will go on forever, I wished I’d said.
On arriving at Mvuu Camp, we dump our bags and head straight onto the Shire River for a sunset boat safari. I’ve never seen so many crocodiles in such close proximity. We come across a hippo carcass, floating near the riverbank. A few crocs stand, or rather lie, guard.
“They wait for a couple of days for it to decompose, before feasting,” says our guide Thom Chilangwe. That will be some banquet.
Four elephants lumber to the river’s edge to drink. Here, too, there’s one with a truncated trunk – this time courtesy of a crocodile attack.
The Shire delivers an enduring image: fish eagles soaring, kingfishers lurking, storks strutting, yellow baboons scampering, vervet monkeys climbing, warthogs snuffling, waterbuck grazing, crocs basking, hippos waddling and elephants feeding.
There’s also buffalo, rhino and leopard in the park. And with the recent reintroduction of lion, Liwonde is now Big 5 territory.
While the game may not be as prolific as other African parks, Liwonde has a magical appeal. The beauty of its twisting tracks through thick vegetation is that you never know what’s around the corner. Suddenly we are up close to an elephant, watching as he stamps down on a bush to break it up, making it easier to consume.
Baobabs abound. Some ripped apart by tusks, their gaping wounds left open to the elements. We pass one that is bent at right angles. “It took one elephant over a week to break it,” says Thom; the pachyderm returning day after day until he had knocked it down.
We head to a sanctuary designed to protect the park’s rhino, which were reintroduced here in 1993 after they had been poached out. The bush is thick and the roads rough. This is proper off-roading. We spot zebra, kudu and sable, and at one waterhole an elephant indulges in a mud bath.
The rhino prove elusive, but Malawi’s appeal certainly doesn’t.
Due to its compact size, there are no arduous journeys to get from A to B. Travel between places is generally quick and easy – be it a short hop by air or a few hours in a car, while there’s a regular ferry to ship you around the lake.
Off the main routes, the roads tend to be not so good and you will need 4WD to reach some lakeshore lodges and those in wildlife reserves.
With a reputation as Africa’s friendliest country, Malawi is also one of the safest – and is considered an ideal destination for first-time travellers to the continent. Having said that, take the same care would elsewhere in the world. Malaria prophylactics are recommended, particular around the lake.
You can eat well for less than US$10 in an upmarket restaurant, while a beer shouldn’t set you back more than a couple of bucks (considerably less in a local bar). Transport is cheap; even flying internally is good value. Park fees are among the lowest on the continent at US$10 per day. Work on around US$100 a day if you are on a mid-range budget.
Food in restaurants and lodges is generally of a high standard, varying from local to European and Asian-influenced fare. Local specialities include chambo (fresh fish from Lake Malawi).
Curio markets abound, whether in the cities or around the lake. Bargaining here is a pleasure – there is usually no hard sell and the seller often becomes your friend. As well as the usual wood carvings, tables and traditional Chief’s chairs are prevalent. Small supermarkets can be in found in towns and larger villages, while more European-style shops can be found in the main cities.
Game drives, walking safaris, boat safaris, hiking, rock climbing, fishing and fly-fishing, canoeing, snorkelling, diving, sailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, birdwatching, horse riding, quad-biking and mountain-biking – you name it, Malawi has it.
Whatever your budget, Malawi has it covered: US$5 a night campsites and backpackers, self-catering chalets, mid-range hotels and lodges (US$50-100), top-end luxury lodges (up to US$250), exclusive beach resorts and safari lodges (upwards of $350 per night, activities included).
For more from Phil Clisby, explore www.travelafricamag.com