A personal insight into the top experiences and things to do on a holiday to Malawi.
27 Jul 2020
12 Oct 2022
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For a small, landlocked country, Malawi has stunningly diverse scenery and offers a huge amount for visitors to do. As it’s quite an off the beaten track and little-known destination this comes as a big surprise to most people and has those who have scratched the surface vowing to return.
The following is a small selection of what should be on your to-do list for your Malawi holiday.
1. Snorkel in an inland sea
Its vast size, occupying over a fifth of Malawi’s total area, gives Lake Malawi the appearance of being more of an inland sea than a lake. Its crystal clear waters, lap golden sand beaches, so you won’t need to fly to the coast to relax and enjoy some sun and sand at the end of your holiday.
Lake Malawi has long been one of Malawi’s main draws for visitors, which is why it is top of this list. With a huge diversity of freshwater fish species, one of the highlights is dipping into this natural aquarium to discover the hundreds of species of colourful cichlid fish. There are many fantastic sites to snorkel along the length of the lake and around its islands. Your accommodation will often provide free use of equipment, allowing you to explore this underwater world from the shore. An optional boat excursion is also well worth it, visiting some of the best spots, perhaps including other treats, such as a fish lunch, fish eagle feeding or sundowner drinks.
There are also plenty of other activities to choose from at Lake Malawi. Unsurprisingly, scuba diving is another very popular activity, with several PADI dive centres offering dives and courses for those wanting to experience some of the best freshwater diving in the world. You can also enjoy kayaking, sailing, waterskiing, kitesurfing… the list goes on.
2. A boat safari on the Shire River in Liwonde
This is another activity not to be missed on a visit to Malawi. There are two places that you can experience a boat safari on the Shire – Liwonde National Park or Majete Wildlife Reserve. Both protected areas offer an exceptional safari, with a wide variety of wildlife, including lions, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, hippos, buffalos and many species of antelope. However, Liwonde probably has the slight edge in terms of the boat safari experience. The wide stretches of the Shire are teeming with the greatest concentrations of hippo and crocodiles. Large numbers of elephants, antelopes, warthogs and other mammals can be easily viewed on the broad floodplains or coming to the river to drink. The birdlife along this stretch of the river is also phenomenal and best enjoyed whilst meandering along on a boat.
Within the park there are a few great accommodation options to choose from, catering for a variety of budgets, which include boat safaris in their rates. Mvuu Camp, Mvuu Lodge and Kuthengo Camp are particular favourites, situated right on the river, so you can enjoy watching the wildlife without even leaving the comfort of your camp. Game drives and walking are also offered, providing a varied safari experience.
3. Visit a village and meet the people
Taking a stroll through a Malawian village will allow you the opportunity to appreciate day to day life in this peaceful and beautiful country. Malawian people are genuinely welcoming, gaining the country the title of the Warm Heart of Africa, and it’s easy to safely explore a rural village during your trip, either independently or on an organised excursion.
Whilst English is the official language, most people in rural areas will speak Chichewa or another regional dialect. Therefore, if you want to be able to communicate comfortably, interact or try out an activity, perhaps taste the local food, it’s worth going with a guide. Most lodges have great relationships with their local communities, often supporting projects and many offer optional cultural village tours. Alternatively, if you are on a privately guided trip, ask your guide if they can stop off at a market or village along the way.
4. Tea tasting in Thyolo
One of Malawi’s scenic highlights is the tea growing region of Thyolo, in the south. Vast plantations of neatly trimmed tea bushes stretch to the formidable Mulanje Massif, rising majestically from the surrounding fields. This is reputed to be the oldest tea-growing region in Africa and a stay at one of the tea estates provides a charming exploration of the tea growing and production process.
Satemwa is a Fair Trade estate, established in 1923 and one of the most popular with visitors. Here you can enjoy a stay in the colonial style guesthouse and scenic walks or bike rides around the many acres of fields that comprise this tranquil estate. Sample some of the numerous varieties of tea produced here, including black, green, oolong, white and dark teas, during a tea tasting experience, which includes a tour of the factory and an insight into Satemwa’s rich history.
5. Trekking on Mount Mulanje, Central Africa’s highest peak
The Mulanje Massif is an impressive sight towering over the surrounding fields of tea. It covers a remarkable 650 square miles, with Mount Mulanje’s highest peak, Sapitwa, reaching 3,000 metres, gaining the title of ‘the island in the sky’.
It’s possible to drive around the base of Mulanje, wondering at the many peaks, plateaus, clefts, and gorges. However, most people come here to explore the variety of spectacular hiking trails. You can take a gentle guided walk of a couple of hours to some of the river pools and waterfalls. Alternatively, the adventurous will relish the chance to spend a few days trekking to the summit, accompanied by a local guide and porter and staying at the basic, but charming, mountain huts en route.
With its own microclimate, walkers are treated to a variety of vegetation, including forests of huge Mulanje Cedar trees, stretching to over 30 metres in height. These in turn provide habitats for a variety of wildlife, including klipspringer, black eagles and white-necked ravens.
There are a few accommodation options at the base of Mulanje, including Likhubula Forest Lodge or Kara O’mula Country Lodge, which provide a comfortable base to overnight before or after a trek. For a little more luxury, there are alternatives within easy striking distance, such as Huntingdon House or Game Haven Lodge.
6. Mountain bike in the rolling grassland hills of Nyika
Nyika National Park is Malawi’s largest park, at 3,200 square kilometres, remotely situated in the far north of the country. Getting there may be a bit of a challenge, but those that do are well rewarded. The rolling grassland hills are more like the scenery of the Yorkshire Dales than the African savannah. However, these hillsides are home to herds of zebra and antelope, such as roan and eland. Leopards are also regularly spotted here.
A unique and highly recommended way to explore the park is on a guided mountain bike safari, enjoying the rich wildlife, flora and breath-taking views. About 400 bird species are found in this high-altitude plateau, including some specials, such as the endemic red-winged francolins and rare Denham’s bustard, augur buzzard and wattled crane. Chelinda Lodge also offers 4x4 and walking safaris, creating a varied and memorable experience.
7. Sleep out under the stars in Majete Wildlife Reserve
Mkulumadzi Lodge is idyllically situated within Majete Wildlife Reserve, offering expansive and airy rooms, with magnificent views over the Shire River. The lodge provides a variety of activities, including game drives, walking and boat safaris. Romantic adventurers will love the chance to sleep out on an exclusive raised star-deck, under a blanket of stars. The cosy star-deck can accommodate a maximum of two people and includes a double bed under a canopy mosquito net, with cotton linen, bedside tables, lanterns and seating. This is an unforgettable experience to share with someone special, surrounded by a natural paradise. The star-bed is available during the dry months, from May to October.
8. Enjoy the views from Zomba Plateau
The Zomba Plateau is a peaceful and cool haven in which to relax, whilst enjoying the picturesque scenery or taking part in one of the many activities on offer. This unique rocky massif stands at 1,800 metres, with the highest mountain viewpoint over 2,000 metres. Its setting in the Shire Highlands and altitude is the reason that Zomba enjoys a cooler climate, hence is blessed with a rich variety of plant life. The large forests of cedar, pine and cypress offer excellent walking trails and a shady refuge from the African sun.
The beautiful Zomba Plateau can be explored on foot, horseback or by mountain bike. The top of the plateau, intersected with streams, waterfalls and lakes is definitely worth visiting for the spectacular views alone, described as “the best views in the British Empire” during colonial times. For the less active, the viewpoints can be reached by mountain tracks in a 4x4.
At the foot of the plateau, connected by a tar road, lies Zomba Town, the former capital of Malawi, with its attractive colonial architecture and leafy streets.
9. Canoe through Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve
The Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is a vast 1,800 square kilometre wilderness. It receives very few visitors each year, so the chances of seeing anyone else whilst exploring the reserve are minimal, making it the perfect retreat for those wishing to escape and be surrounded by nature. There is no better way to enjoy the unrivalled tranquillity of Nkhotakota than drifting silently along the Bua River in a canoe. Tongole Wilderness Retreat offers the best canoe safaris in the reserve and your expert guide will point out the diverse birdlife, colourful insects, shy wildlife, and occasionally crocodiles and elephants, as you glide along. To cap it all off, you will stop on a sandbank to delight in morning tea and cake or an afternoon sundowner drink.
10. Stay on an island in the Lake of Stars
At the southern end of Lake Malawi, known as the Lake of Stars, lies Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s first freshwater national park. Within its protection are a few small islands, where you can stay in a secluded piece of paradise. These include the beautiful Marelli Islands, off the shores of Senga Bay, as well as Mumbo and Domwe islands nearby Cape Maclear. The magic of a sunset cruise on crystal clear waters, before retiring to your Robinson Crusoe style accommodation to lie in your hammock, gazing at a spectacular starlit sky, is a memory you will treasure.
In Mozambican waters, but still part of Malawi, Likoma Island is another gem in the sparkling lake. The idyllic island can be easily reached by air direct from Lilongwe and is home to the exceptionally luxurious Kaya Mawa.
11. Dance the night away
Every September, Malawi hosts one of Africa's best music festivals, right on the shores of Lake Malawi. called Lake of Stars Music Festival. The festival combines music, with culture from poetry to fashion and wellness so there is something for everyone.
Whilst there has been a couple of year break from the festival, it is due to return, bigger and better than ever in 2023.
Whether you are looking for romance, adventure, or relaxation, are travelling as a couple, family, or solo, these are just a few of the highlights that Malawi has to offer you. It’s unlikely that you will be able to experience them all in one trip, but then you will return!