Known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ after the friendliness of its people, who just seem to smile all the time; for this alone Malawi is one of my favourite countries in southern Africa.
Malawi borders mainly Mozambique and Zambia but with a small border to the north to Tanzania. The major feature in the country is Lake Malawi, a vast fresh water lake that runs for almost the entire length of the country.
Access is via two international airports, Lilongwe (the capital city) and Blantyre in the south. You can also link into Zambia via road which connects to Mfuwe and the South Luangwa National Park.
For a superb ‘bush and beach’ experience without the need to travel vast distances, you really should have Malawi at the top of your list. Many of the lodges are also family friendly, so it’s great for the ‘young-uns’.
Majete Wildlife Reserve
Just a two hour drive from Blantyre, Majete has recently been made more attractive and accessible to international visitors with the re-introduction of what I call the ‘big hairy’ into the reserve, making it the first of the parks to offer guests the opportunity to see the ‘Big 5’ – but Africa and Majete is so much more than these five animals – important though they are.
At the far southern tip of the Great Rift Valley, Majete is made up of mature miombo woodlands and granite topped hills that contrast with picturesque river valleys and lush riverine forest. It is one of the big success stories in African conservation, as after decades of poaching, hard work has turned the reserve back into a sustainable development. Now previously-endangered species live and breed there and you can look forward to amazing encounters.
Mkulumadzi is the place to stay – https://www.signatureafricansafaris.com/destinations/malawi/majete-wildlife-reserve/mkulumadzi/
Zomba Town and Plateau
Two hours to the north of Blantyre will bring you to Zomba, the capital of Malawi prior to 1975 when Lilongwe took over that role. The town remains a thriving commercial centre but look around and you’ll see a wealth of old colonial building and monuments. Well worth a visit and a wander.
The Zomba Plateau dominates the town and is its most famous feature. In some parts, it rises to 1800m in height and is covered with vast tracts of Juniper trees and other mixed vegetation. The top of the plateau is criss-crossed by streams and is dotted with waterfalls and still lakes. The hike to the top of the Plateau is a popular tourist activity – but you need to have a reasonable level of fitness.
From the top of the plateau, it is possible to see Lake Chilwa (that connects with Lake Malawi) to the north, Mount Mulanje to the southeast and the Shire River to the west. This is a good place to trek, as there is an abundance of plant life and creatures, as well as waterfalls.
Liwonde National Park
Further north towards Lake Malawi you encounter Liwonde National Park, whose western edge is bordered by the Shire (pronounced ‘sherry’) River. The park principally consists of mopane woodland with some grassland areas, and reed swamp and marshland.
The wildlife includes large numbers of elephants and the river attracts countless hippos and crocodiles. Antelope include kudu, sable and bushbuck. There are leopards and hyeana and the occasional visit by lion. Black rhino has been re-introduced but, as a highly endangered species, are being carefully husbanded. Birdlife is exceptionally varied with over 400 species identified – the river attracts fish eagles and weaver birds build their nests in the thin woodland on its shoreline. Pel’s Fishing Owl are often seen at dusk along the river’s edge.
There are a small number of lodges on the fringes of the park but the camps to stay at are Mvuu Camp or Lodge which are inside the park and located on the banks of the Shire River.
Lake Malawi & islands
A national park in its own right, Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa at some 365 miles long and 52 miles wide – hence one of its nicknames, the Calendar Lake. It’s also known as the Lake of Stars as the surfaces glistens under the African sun and reflects the night skies.
The lake fulfils many functions – water, food and transportation with the MSC Illala, operating a service that links the far flung corners of the lake.
Did you know that one of the first naval ‘battles’ of World War One, between England and Germany, took place on Lake Malawi? You surprise me!
The lakeshore is a popular place for locals and visitors alike with a range of lodges and camps set along it shores and on its islands.
For rustic charm go to Cape Maclear and Mumbo Island – https://www.signatureafricansafaris.com/destinations/malawi/lake-shore/mumbo-island-camp/
Or for more luxury catch a flight to Likoma Island and experience Kaya Mawa (which means ‘maybe tomorrow’ and really says it all) – https://www.signatureafricansafaris.com/destinations/malawi/lake-shore/kaya-mawa/
Mount Mulanje & Thyolo
Lying to the east of Blantyre, and the tea plantations of Thyolo, in the far south of the country, the scale of this mountain is astonishing, with its bare rock flanks towering to almost 9,000 feet dwarfing all around.
You can drive round the base of Mount Mulanje in a day but I’d ditch the car and take to the mountain on foot, choosing from gentle walks to climbs for the more adventurous. Arrangements can also be made for a guide and camping equipment to really explore the mountains remoteness.
And while you’re in the area take some time to visit the tea plantations that cover the slopes in the countryside in the Thyolo region. In fact that’s where I’d stay – at Huntingdon House – http://www.huntingdon-malawi.com/
Nyika National Park & Plateau
A long drive (or short flight) along the lake shore, or through Viphya Forest, north of Lilongwe takes you to the Nyika Plateau on the border with Zambia.
Complementing Vwaza, which is a lowland wildlife reserve, Nyika sits high on a plateau with many areas some 3,000 feet higher than Vwaza at over 7,500 feet. The plateau experiences a range of weather, so visitors need to be dressed and equipped accordingly.
Nyika is characterised by rolling grassland, deep valleys and waterfalls and is superb for trekking and mountain biking, and horse-riding as well as more conventional 4×4 excursions. The montane vegetation attracts large numbers of antelope from the diminutive Common Duiker through to eland and roan. Zebra are common near Chelinda and the highest part of the plateau. The park is starting to see more sightings of leopard but being mainly nocturnal they are rarely seen, although tracks and signs have been regularly found. There are a number of species of smaller mammals such as warthog and the smaller cats and porcupine.
I would stay at Chelinda Lodge – https://www.signatureafricansafaris.com/destinations/malawi/nyika-national-park/chelinda-lodge/