A personal insight in to what makes Malawi such a unique country for your next African adventure.
23 Jun 2020
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Malawi is a beautiful little, landlocked country, sandwiched between Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique and overshadowed by several better-known tourist destinations in the region. But, the saying “Good things come in small packages” is very true of Malawi, which is bursting with highlights that those lucky enough to unwrap it will discover.
Marc, our Malawi specialist shares his reasons that a Malawi holiday should be top of your bucket list.
1. A hidden gem
One of Malawi’s main drawcards is that most people will have no idea of the country’s many highlights, which make it such an exciting destination to visit. It’s an off the beaten path, hidden gem! This means you won’t be sharing your African adventure with crowds of other tourists or sitting in wildlife sightings surrounded by vehicles. The country retains its cultural authenticity and if you enjoy discovering unique destinations, you’ll love Malawi.
2. Spectacular scenery
I first visited Malawi in 2006. It was shortly after the rains and, during my 3-hour road transfer to Lake Malawi, I was struck, both by how beautifully green it was and by the incredibly varied landscape. Malawi is a long, narrow country, about 520 miles north to south, and the diversity of the scenery as you traverse it is remarkable. You journey from the rolling grassland hills of the Nyika Plateau, along beautiful stretches of golden sand beaches that line the lake, past densely wooded reserves like Nkhotakota, stop off at idyllic islands in crystal clear waters, along dramatic rift valley escarpments, through picturesque tea estates and on to the majestic Mount Mulanje, which overlooks them.
3. The warmest of welcomes
Malawi’s people are what make the country truly special and have gained it the title of the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawians are incredibly friendly and welcoming, which creates a charming ambience from the moment you arrive. Despite Malawi having one of the poorest economies in the world, the people have a very happy and peaceful nature. This shines through in the service that you will receive from your guides and staff at the accommodation you stay at. However, you will be missing out if you don’t take a little time to get to know the country’s people better and there are plenty of opportunities to explore rural villages during a visit, either independently or on an organised excursion.
4. The Lake of Stars
About a fifth of Malawi’s total area is comprised of Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest lake. It’s described as the Lake of Stars, due to the sparkling waters by day and the twinkling of hundreds of lights from fishermen on their dugout canoes, lining the horizon, by night.
The lake has long been one of Malawi’s better-known attractions, often included as a few nights’ beach stay at the end of a trip in neighbouring countries, and for good reason. A natural aquarium, boasting the greatest diversity of freshwater fish species of any lake in the world, the colourful cichlid fish provide exceptional snorkelling and scuba diving. There is also an abundance of other activities on offer, including kayaking, sailing, kitesurfing and waterskiing. Of course, you may prefer to simply relax on the idyllic golden beaches that line the shores, basking in the tranquillity.
5. Easy to get around
Its compact size, peaceful people and reasonable standard of roads make Malawi safe and easy to travel around; whether that be on a privately guided or self-drive holiday to Malawi.
There are few destinations where you can easily be watching cheetah in the morning and enjoying a sundowner drink on a dhow sailboat in the afternoon, without the need for a flight in between. On the other hand, if you are short of time or prefer to fly, there are excellent scheduled and charter flights services, connecting airstrips in the key locations throughout the country.
6. A wildlife safari revival
Malawi has undergone a dramatic wildlife revival in recent years. Four of its protected areas – Majete Wildlife Reserve, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Liwonde National Park and Mangochi Forest Reserve – are now under the management of African Parks, an internationally renowned conservation organisation. These areas had become depleted of animals, due to poaching, and increasingly under threat from encroachment of farmland, resulting in human-wildlife conflict. However, African Parks has transformed them through a string of unprecedented wildlife reintroductions and strengthened community support, due to sustainable social and economic development projects. The wildlife translocations have included lion, rhino, elephant, leopard, buffalo, cheetah and a wide variety of other animals. Malawi’s natural areas are thriving once again and this has put the country back on the map as a safari destination.
7. Variety of accommodation
Rewind a few years and Malawi would have been considered primarily a backpacker’s destination for the adventurous traveller. Apart from a handful of more luxurious beach lodges, most accommodation options were comfortable, but affordable. This has changed, as pioneering individuals, passionate about Malawi, and specialist tour operators have opened new accommodation across the country, catering for a range of budgets. There is a far greater choice of mid-range and luxury accommodation now, which is ideal for Malawi family holidays or romantic breaks. The bonus is that you will also pay less in Malawi than you would for the same standard of accommodation, service and experience in a more well-known destination.
8. Choice of activities
Like the variety of activities on offer at the lake, there is a wide choice on dry land too. Wildlife safaris can be enjoyed on foot, mountain bike, boat, or canoe, as well as the more traditional 4x4 game drives. Malawi’s plateaus, mountains, forests and rolling grasslands also present idyllic opportunities for walking, trekking, mountain biking, or horse riding, serving up spectacular views. It’s definitely worth escaping the bubble of your vehicle to explore the network of meandering trails, navigating your way through little villages and discovering day to day life in Malawi.
9. Everyone's cup of tea
It’s true Malawi has something to offer everyone. It is also reputed to be home to the oldest tea-growing region in Africa. The Thyolo region’s picturesque scenery is dominated by vast expanses of neatly trimmed tea bushes, with the backdrop of Mount Mulanje and views over the Lower Shire Valley.
A stay at one of the tea estates, the best known being Satemwa, provides a fascinating insight into the tea growing and production process, tea tastings, delicious afternoon teas and scenic walks through the grounds.
10. Boat safaris in Liwonde - spotting elephants and hippos
Malawi has a few great national parks and each offers something special in terms of its wildlife, birdlife and scenery, which means visitors will have their own personal favourites. However, Liwonde National Park is Malawi’s most visited and perhaps premier protected area. Enjoying a boat safari along the Shire River, with an abundance of hippos, crocodiles and birdlife, watching out for elephants and a variety of other land mammals on its wide floodplains, is a unique and wonderful experience. Game drives and walking are also offered in Liwonde, creating a varied and exciting safari. Wildlife species that you may be lucky enough to spot here include buffalo, sable, hyena and black rhino and recent reintroductions to the park include cheetah and lion.
11. Reach dizzy heights on Central Africa's highest peak
The Mulanje Massif is also known as the ‘island in the sky’, rising dramatically from the surrounding plains it covers an area of 650 square miles and its highest peak, Sapitwa, reaches an impressive 3,000 metres. It offers a variety of spectacular hiking trails, suitable for most. However, the adventurous will want to explore the varied landscape of deep gorges, waterfalls, and forests, staying at the basic, but charming mountain huts, en route to the summit – well worth it.
12. A little piece of home, with wildlife roaming free
In the remote north of Malawi lies Nyika National Park. It may be a bit of a journey to get to, but it rewards those that do venture there with one of the most distinctive safari experiences in Africa. The scenery is more reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales than the typical African bushveld or savannah, with its rolling grassland hills. However, these hillsides are dotted with wildlife, such as roan, eland, zebra and a variety of other antelope species. It’s also a great place to spot leopard.
Malawi’s largest park, at 3,200 square kilometres and with altitudes in excess of 2500 metres, Nyika is rich in birdlife and flora. About 400 bird species are found here, including some specials, such as the endemic red-winged francolins and rare Denham’s bustard, augur buzzard and wattled crane. Exploring the high-altitude plateau of Nyika, with its breath-taking views, on a 4x4, walking, or mountain bike safari is a truly exceptional and very memorable experience.
These are just a few of Malawi’s highlights, which combine to make it an unparalleled destination for most visitors; from honeymooners or couples looking for romance, to families with children, seeking a unique and safe destination off the usual beaten trail. It’s what keeps drawing me and so many others back time and time again.