Malawi is known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’, reason being is plain and simple; it has some of the friendliest people on planet earth. Smiling is mandatory for Malawians, and they don’t do things by halves, so much so that sometimes you think you are in a toothpaste advert! It is one of Africa’s smaller countries, yet it has been blessed with tremendous attributes: the most famous of which is the enormous Lake Malawi (over 360 miles in length) that forms the majority of the country’s easterly border; incredible mountain ranges and plateaus as well as grasslands and forests; more recently the amazing success stories of its wildlife, where African Parks (NGO) have helped the country develop 2 amazing wildlife reserves, Majete and Liwonde, which were on their knees a few years ago (poached out), and are now thriving. It’s quite a success story and really the jewel in the crown of the many successes African Parks have had across the continent. There are many reasons to visit Malawi but we have plucked 5 to whet your appetite of this often overlooked African gem.
1. The People
They say the people make the place. In Malawi’s case, very much so. The feeling wherever you are in Malawi tends to be very friendly and hospitable. Having been to Malawi about a dozen times I have never felt anything other than welcome. From bartering and bantering with wood carvers for a famous ‘Malawi Chair’ to immersing myself in the market at Mzuzu there is always lots of smiley chat and a good repartee. Lending itself to the affectionately given name ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’. Grab a chance and interact with the locals to learn about their rich culture, they are always very keen to chat, smiling incessantly. The people you meet will bring a smile to your face. It must be infectious!
Ten major ethnic groups are historically associated with modern Malawi, with English widely spoken as well as other Bantu languages. The population is growing at quite a rate, with the birth rate being one of the highest in sub-sahara, although life expectancy is short, primarily due to the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Just over half of all Malawians are under the age of 15 and at least ¾ are under 30. The country is one of the most densely populated in southern Africa but also one of the least urbanized, however this is changing much quicker than in most other African countries. The largest cities being Lilongwe, the Capital and Blantyre.
2. Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique, is an African Great Lake and the southernmost lake in the East African Rift system. Shared between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, it is the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and is home to more species of fish than any other lake in the world, including at least 700 species of cichlids, most of which are endemic, making diving and snorkelling a real colour explosion. Think of jumping headfirst into a domestic fish tank, as most are present in the waters of Lake Malawi. The beaches are a fine white sand and the fresh water clear as you will find anywhere. And not a trace of salt.
Did you know?Lake Malawi is a meromictic lake, meaning that its water layers do not mix. The permanent stratification of Lake Malawi's water and the oxic-anoxic boundary (relating to oxygen in the water) are maintained by moderately small chemical and thermal gradients.
David Livingstone named it the Lake of stars, as the fishermen’s lights at night reflected off the lake and shone like stars, this still happens today. The lake certainly is the star of the show as it is the source of livelihood for many subsistence fishermen living in countless villages on the lake shore. This inland sea attracts a plethora of visitors both from the surrounding urban areas as well as foreign visitors. The latter is on the increase leading to some great spots to enjoy the lake and all the activities it has to offer. Both the Mozambique and the Malawian portions of the lake were officially declared reserves by both Governments.
Have a look at Pumulani Lodge for an amazing experience on the beach at Lake Malawi. Only ten luxury villas set above the private beach with glorious views out over the lake. There is so much to do here from Dhow Cruises, cycling, amazing walking, kayaking and SUP. Alternatively head to Kaya Mawa or Blue Zebra on various islands dotted around the lake.
3. Safari Parks
For years Malawi was all about the Lake. Foreign visitors would, and many still do, look elsewhere for a game experience such as the game rich South Luangwa just across the border in neighbouring Zambia. They would then visit Malawi as their post-safari chill out / beach time. These days things can be very different, depending on what your priorities are. Whilst Malawi still cannot boast the density of game as its more famous safari offering neighbours, it is a far cry from the empty National Parks and Reserves of the 80’s and 90’s. Its Parks have been rebirthed with reintroduction of several animal species including rhino, cheetah, leopard, lion, wild dog, giraffe and so much more.
Malawi has the most amazing conservation success stories to be told with Majete Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park standing out as 2 key areas. Majete was the first wildlife reserve that came under African Parks management in 2003 and in collaboration with the government has resuscitated to Big 5 status. Liwonde is a more recent success story coming under African Parks Management in 2015. The Mangochi Forest Reserve is also now under management too – a stunning forested area, home to a good proportion of Malawi’s elephants.
Majete Wildlife Reserve highlights:
Nearly 5,000 animals of 16 species have been reintroduced including black rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, sable antelope, and buffalo. The restocking of the park has led to Majete becoming a 'Big Five' reserve.
Elephant population has grown to over 430 individuals since 2006 resulting in the ability to translocate 200 individuals from Majete to Nkhotakota to help repopulate that reserve as part of African Parks historic ‘500 Elephants’ translocation.
Significant decline in the number of poaching incidents in the reserve year after year, with not one rhino or elephant poached since 2003 and 2006 respectively.
Liwonde National Park highlights:
Liwonde’s predators are on the rise, seven cheetahs were reintroduced to the park in 2017 after a 100 year absence and the population has already more than doubled. And ten 10 lions were reintroduced in 2018 after they were last seen in the park 10 years ago.
In 2019, Liwonde hosted yet another historical translocation as 17 black rhinos were relocated from South Africa to the park to boost the population numbers and genetics.
Poaching has been brought under control and more than 40,000 wire snares have been removed.
A ranger training centre has been constructed providing a critically needed training ground for rangers in Malawi and on the continent.
The lure of Majete and Liwonde is the lack of other safari goers and the diversity of ways in which you can game view. You can literally still have the parks to yourselves; walking in the morning, boating in the afternoon and driving the following day. All without possibly spotting another vehicle. It also has some fantastic camps and lodges:
Kuthengo Camp in Liwonde offers a magnificent setting on a plain with its 4 large tented rooms looking out towards the Shire River. It welcomes all ages and is open all year apart from January and February. Option to walk, drive or boat and is a birder’s paradise.
Mkulumadzi Lodge (if you can spell it!) in Majete Reserve is also set on the magnificent Shire River and is slightly larger with 8 chalet style rooms. The absolute must is a night in the Star Bed, where you have nothing but the most amazing African sky above. Walk, drive, boat or sit in a hide there is plenty to keep you busy whilst you enjoy the wilderness.
4. Bush & Beach
In these times of PCR testing and red tape to get between different countries the ease with which you can combine bush and beach experiences, makes Malawi extra special. Distances are not vast, allowing one to travel between the two experiences in as little as 3 hours from say from Liwonde National Park to Lake Malawi. The beauty of this is that you can self-drive comfortably throughout, the roads are good, or relax and enjoy comfortable road transfers without the requirement of expensive and environmentally unfriendly light aircrafts.
Malawi is off the beaten track, surrounded by better known neighbours, and so no crowds. Perfect for those seeking the peace and tranquillity of an authentic African experience. You will not see the crowds that can haunt various other wildlife reserves or parks. There will be no noise or light pollution in the wild as all lodges in Malawi are set up with sustainability and the surrounding wilderness in mind.
If that is not enough to get you out there… consider the great weather, amazing sunsets and perhaps a cup of locally grown Malawi coffee or tea (yes, the country grows the most delicious coffee and tea!).
With so much to offer, it’s a wonder that it remains undiscovered. If you are looking for one country with packed experiences, then Malawi is just what the doctor ordered!