The name “Malawi” comes from the Marvi, a Bantu people who emigrated from the southern Congo around 1400AD. Sharing its border with Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and boasting the third largest lake in Africa, Malawi offers a unique getaway experience unlike any other. Home to the idyllic Lake Malawi, schools of rare tropical fish wait to be discovered by scuba and skin divers. Above the azure water, once can enjoy a variety of water sports. And because it’s surrounded by rocky mountains, sandy coves and beaches, there is plenty to discover along its banks.
Visit Nyika National Park and the Vwasa Marsh Wildlife Reserve in the northern region. Sip a cup of tea in colonial style at the famous Livingstonia Mission, with its interesting museum nearby. Explore Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. Hike to the 3000m summit of Mulanje Massi – Malawi’s highest mountain range.
Southern Africa, east of Zambia
Size: 118 484km²
Climate: November to April, hot and wet; May to August, moderate and dry; September to Octber, very hot and dry.
Status: Democratic republic
Population: 10 701 824 (July 2002)
Other main towns: Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba and Koronga
Economy: The economy is predominately agricultural. The economy depends on substantial inflows of economic assistance from the IMF, the World Bank, and individual donor nations. The performance of the tabacco sector is key to short-term growth.
Currency: Malawian Kwacha (MWK)
Language: English (indigenous languages important regionally)
Religion: Approximately 50% Christian, 12% Islamic and the remainder a selection of other faiths and sects.
International dialling code: +265
Time: GMT +2
Electricity: AC 240V
Flag: Three equal horizontal bands of black (top), red, and green with a radiant, rising, red sun centred in the black band.
Malawi’s most popular areas:
Blantyre is Malawi’s unofficial commercial capital, and the oldest European settlement in the country. The Blantyre mission was founded in October 1876 by the Established Church of Scotland, and named after the small village in which David Livingstone was born. Under its first leader, Rev Duff Macdonald, the Blantyre Mission ruled over the surrounding hills a despotic cruelty, flogging and killing suspected thieves and murderers with out even the pretence of a trial. The behaviour of the early Blantyre missionaries caused a scandal in the British press, forcing many of them to retire, and Macdonald to be replaced by Rev Clement Scott in 1881. The healthy, fertile climate around Blantyre proved attractive to European settlers, and the mission’s strategic position served as an excellent communication centre for the traders who operated between Lake Malawi and the Zambezi Valley. Blantyre rapidly became the most important settlement in Malawi, a status it retains to this day, with a population of around 500,000, almost double that of the capital, Lilongwe.
Blantyre is more intrinsically attractive than Lilongwe, lying at an altitude of 1,038m in a valley ringed by low hillls, the largest of which are Michuru (1,473m), Soche (1,533m) and Ndirende (1,612m). For all that, the city lacks any discernible character and cannot, by any stretch of the immagination, be thought of as a tourist attraction. But it remains the focal point of travel in southern Malawi, as well as the springboard for bus transport to Harare via Mozambique’s Tete Corridor. Most visitors to Malawi spend a night or two in Blantyre at some point.
The Shire Valley
Southwest of Blantyre, the M1 snakes and slithers over the Thyolo Escarpment, offering fantastic views across the hills of Majete Wildlife Reserve and Mozambique, before it descends to the steamy lowlands of the Shire Valley. Despite a reasonably dense human population, the Shire Valley retains much of the atmosphere of wild, untrammelled Africa. In large part, this is due to the sluggish presence of the wide and lushly vegetated Shire River, still home to sizeable populations of hippopotamus and crocodile. But even among the people, the Shire Valley seems less influenced by the West than much of modern Africa. The Shire Valley was the first part of Malawi to be visited by Europeans. In January 1859, Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition steamed up the Shire until its path was blocked by cataracts that lie on what is now the southern border of Majete Wildlife Reserve. When Livingstone travelled up the Shire again in 1861, to help Bishop Mackenzie established the first mission in Central Africa, much of the region was under the indirect control of Portuguese slavers. Worse still was to greet Livingstone on his final trip up river in 1863 – the Shire had become, in the words of Dr Rowley, another member of the expedition, ‘literally a river of death’. The banks were lined with dead emaciated Africans; one member of the expedition calculated that a corpse floated past them every three hours. The malaria that is hyper endemic to the Shire River claimed the lives of several members of Livingstone’s expedition. In 1862, Bishop Mackenzie died on a now-sunken island at the confluence of the Ruo and Shire near Bangula. Two other clergy men, Rev Scudamore and Dr Dickinson, and a 25-year-old geologist Richard Thornton, all died in the Chikwawa area in 1863. Today the Shire Valley does not see a great deal of tourism, but it is not short of worthwhile attractions. Aside from the River itself, rich in atmosphere and historical connections, this area boasts two little-visited wildlife reserves, Majete and Mwabvi, as well as the Lengwe National Park.
Thyolo and Mulanje
The M2 south of Limbe winds to Thyolo through a highland area quite different in character to any other part of Malawi. This is tea-growing country, strikingly reminiscent of the Kericho district of western Kenya: breezy, rolling hills swathed in orderly rows of tea bushes and still supporting the occasional remnant patch of indigenous forest in valleys and along watercourses.
As you cross the plantation-covered hills around Thyolo, you can hardly fail to be aware of the staggeringly proportioned granite outcrop that dominates the eastern skyline. This is the Mulanje Massif, the highest mountain in Central Africa, rising almost 2km above the surrounding Phalombe Plain to an altitude of 3,002m.
Tourism to this part of Malawi is inevitably, and rightly, centred around Mulanje, which arguably offers the finest hiking in the country, and is renowned, by mountaineers for its exceptional rock-climbing. Thyolo, too, is worth a stop, as a base from which to explore the biologically rich mahogany forest on the upper slopes of Thyolo Mountain.
Zomba and Surrounds
This is a lovely part of Malawi, a relatively low-lying plateau interrupted by a number of large mountains, most notably the vast Zomba Mountain above the town of the same name. The most popular tourist attraction in the region is undoubtedly Zomba Mountain, a hikers’ paradise with plentiful birds and small mammals, as well as wonderful views across to Mulanje and Mozambique. Also growing in popularity, especially since Mvuu Camp was privatised and thoroughly refurbished, is Liwonde National Park, one of the most atmospheric reserves in Africa, dominated by the palm-fringed, crocodile and hippo infested waters of the Shore River.
The Lakeshore from Mangochi to Cape Maclear
The southern shore of Lake Malawi is well developed for tourism. All but one of the major tourist-class hotels on the lake lie on the stretch of shore between Mangochi and Cape Maclear, and Cape Maclear itself is far and away the most popular backpackers’ haunt anywhere in the country.
The largest town in the region, Mangochi, does not actually lie on Lake Malawi but on the west bank of the Shire River a short way south of Lake Malawi and north of Lake Malombe. Nevertheless, Mangochi is best grouped with the southern lakeshore – not least because its main source of tourist traffic comes from travellers who have arrived at Cape Maclear to discover that Mangochi is the nearest place where you can change foreign currency into local money.
Lilongwe is the blandest of African capitals. Arriving as most visitors do, in the so-called ‘old town’, what you will see is indistinguishable from any number of small southern African towns. And you are in for a major disappointment if you head up to the new town – Capital City – expecting something more ostentatious. The Capital City sprawls unconvincingly over lightly wooded hill; what many maps show as the city centre amounts to little more than a couple of shopping malls and a few restaurants and government buildings melting into leafy suburbia.
Bland though it may be, Lilongwe is one of the most equable capitals in Africa: the climate is comfortable, getting in and out of town is simplicity itself, cheap accommodation is abundant and conveniently situated, shops and markets are well stocked, and the city is almost entirely free of the sort of tourist-targeted crime that makes so many other African cities a potentially treacherous initiation for visitors.
Lilongwe was founded in 1906 on the banks of the Lilongwe River, initially as a settlement for Asian traders, though its pleasant climate is rapidly attracted European business. In 1909, the fledgling township’s future status was assured when it became the terminus of the first road connecting Malawi to Zambia. By the 1930s, Lilongwe boasted a hotel, a hospital, a European sports club, and a mosque and Muslim Sports Club built by the thriving Asian business community. In 1947, Lilongwe was accorded full township status. By the time of Malawi’s independence, Lilongwe was, with a population of around 20,000, second only in size to Blantyre, and its central position made it the obvious choice to replace the colonial capital of Zomba. Lilongwe was formally made the capital of Malawi in 1975, since when its population has easily doubled.
Lilongwe holds little that is likely to be of interests to most tourists. Capital City is worth a look, and the old town is a pleasant place to stroll around, particularly the market and the nearby Asian quarter. The only genuine tourist attraction is the underrated and little-visited Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary which lies between old town and Capital City. But, in all honesty, it is tempting to recommend that tourists who have no specific reason to visit Lilongwe bypass the city altogether.
The Lakeshore around Salima
The Lake Malawi shore around Salima has become popular weekend getaway for Lilongwe residents. As a result, the 5km stretch of beach between Senga Bay and Kambiri Point is as well developed for tourism as any part of the lake. The Salima area, is a must be said, has neither the natural beauty of Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear, nor the sense of isolation of some of the resorts on the northern lakeshore. It is popular simply because it is closer to Lilongwe that any other part of the lake. Nevertheless, it is an attractive enough spot, relatively rich in birds and mammals, and a very comfortable place to settle into for a few days.
Salima itself lies 15km from the lake; it is a thoroughly dull small town, and purely if interest as a route focus and as the gateway to Senga Bay on Lake Malawi. The only motivations for exploring Salima beyond its bus station are practical: it has a bank, a post office, a bustling market, and a couple of well stocked supermarkets. Most visitorssimply head straight onto Senga Bay.
Main points of interest around Senga Bay are the Mpatsanjoka River (excellent birding and resident hippos), Lizard Island, and the tropical fish farm near Kambiti Point.
Nkhata Bay’s attractions are manifold. The lakeshore is gloriously lush and scenic: a twin pair of bays spilling into the wooded mainland and separated by a long, narrow peninsula. Just as alluring to many is the strong sense of traveller community that has developed in the village. The place is addictively laid back, to the extent that it seems to paralyse the will of many travellers, but Nkhata Bay’s fortunes have fluctuated. From being one of the best-kept secrets, this small port overtook Cape Maclear as the most popular travellers’ congregation point on the lakeshore, if not anywhere between Zanzibar and Victoria Falls.
The island of Likoma, 8km long and 3km wide, lies within Mozambican waters but is territorially part of Malawi, mainly as a result of its long association with Scottish missionaries. In 1886, Likoma became the site of an Anglican mission, established by Bishop Chauncey Maples with the help of his close friend and fellow Oxford graduate, the Rev William Johnson. Maples was consecrated as the first bishop of Likoma in London in 1895, but he never actively assumed this post as he drowned in a boating accident near Salima, caused by his enthusiasm to return to Likoma despite stormy weather. Maples was buried in the church at Nkhotakota. Johnston went on to become one of the most fondly remembered of all the missionaries who worked in Malawi. He arrived at the lake in 1882 and for 46 years he preached from a boat all around the lakeshores, despite being practically blind and well into his 70s when he died in 1928. Johnson’s grave at Liuli (on the Tanzanian part of the lakeshore) remained for several decades a popular site of pilgrimage for Malawian Christians.
Historical interest aside, Likoma’s main attraction for travellers is its isolation and mellow atmosphere. This is no conventional tropical island paradise, though the beaches really are splendid with the mountainous Mozambican shore rising above them, while the interior has a certain austere charm, particularly the southern plains which are covered in massive baobabs and shady mango trees and studded with impressive granite outcrops. Likoma has always generated a great deal of interest among travellers, but it remains surprisingly little visited.
Mzuzu, Nyika and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
Mzuzu is the largest town in northern Malawi and the region’s major route focus, lying on the junction of the M1 between Lilongwe and the Tanzanian border and the lakeshore road from Nkhata Bay. Mzuzu and the nearby town of Rumphi hold little of interest to tourists, but they are springboards for visits to two of Malawi’s finest conservation areas: Nyika National Park and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, a beautiful rolling highland plateau where visitors can walk freely amongst a variety of big game species. Vwaza Marsh is less publicised than Nyika, and sees very few tourists, although it is readily accessible both to motorised travellers and to backpackers, and it offers exceptional game viewing, elephants being particularly numerous.