ABOUT MALAWI There is no country in all of Africa that has its geography so sculptured and determined by Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the 5000-kilometre long geological formation that bisects much of Africa from Egypt to Botswana. Towering mountains, lush, fertile valley floors and enormous crystal-clear lakes are the hallmark of much of the Rift Valley and this is what Malawi is all about. It is a little-known gem of a country in the heart of central southern Africa that offers a true African experience
The country is long, narrow and landlocked, covering more than 1000 km from north to south. Lake Malawi, nearly 600 km long and up to 80 km wide, dominates the country. The Rift Valley, the largest single geographical feature on Earth, is an ancient geological formation with fertile soils and evidence of this is to be found everywhere in Malawi. Throw a seed to the ground and a plant grows there.
1. Lake Malawi: Although landlocked by four other African countries, it is Lake Malawi that attracts most of the visitors to this friendly little country.
The 29,600km2 body of fresh water (known as Lake Nyasa in its other two countries - Tanzania and Mozambique) is possibly the most scenic lake in Africa. It's flat, fresh, 585km long and contained between tall Rift Valley mountains.
The lake was known universally as Lake Nyasa both during and before colonialism, but the former Nyasaland Protectorate renamed both the country and the lake to give credence to associations between the current Malawi government and the legendary Maravi Empire. The other countries bordering the lake paid no attention to this ostentatious and unilateral act, and the lake retained its traditional name in both Tanzania and Mozambique.
Lake Malawi lies at around 500m above sea level, and its climate is often extremely hot, although the cool winds that blow in off the water help to cool things down a bit, especially at night. There is malaria in Malawi, so be extremely careful to take your pills diligently both during and after your stay in the area, and contact a doctor as soon as possible if symptoms develop.
2. Lake malombe: Lake Malombe is one of Malawi's substantial lakes, with an area of about 450km2. It was probably once part of Lake Malawi, as it lies in a depression that is, in geological terms, nearby.
Malombe is very shallow, and large portions of it evaporate in the dry season to expose tracts of fertile land, which the locals use to grow sugar cane and maize. When they're not farming the locals are fishing, laying out the millions of little chambo they catch on reed tables in the sun to dry.
In fact Malombe (like Malawi's other lakes) is in serious danger of being overfished.[/b] In 2003/4 the Malawian government implemented a plan to combat the depletion of its fish resources, which are a local staple. The aim was that by 2010 chambo stocks should return to their 1990 levels. It remains to be seen whether the plan meets with success.
3. Lake Chilwa: Lake Chilwa lies in a natural depression that runs approximately north-south between Malawi's Mount Mulanje and Mozambique. It is the second biggest lake in Malawi, though its size varies greatly with the seasons.
Recent years of drought have caused Chilwa to shrink, so that huge areas of lakebed swamps and sands now sit on land that used to be well submerged, but the lake still occupies a good 2,500km2. David Livingstone suggested that in 1859 Chilwa reached almost to the surrounds of Mount Mulanje - about 30km further south than its present limit. It would have been contiguous with Lake Chiuta, and about three times deeper than its present maximum depth of about three metres.
The islands of Chisi and Thongwe in Lake Chilwa are home to some of the remotest communities in the country. Their inhabitants live much as their ancestors did a century ago, and the islands' remoteness mean that there's little contact with travellers - a pity for the travellers, and perhaps for both parties.
Chilwa has a high evaporation rate, which makes the water pretty salty, and allows Nanipi woodlands to invade the land left behind by the retreating water's edge. The interior of the lake is silent and calm, a wonderful spot for seeing waterbirds like pelican, flamingo, heron, egrets and ducks. You can hire a boat or a canoe for a trip out on the water.
The best time to visit Chilwa is towards the end of the rainy season in April, when the lake is fullest and most impressive. There's no accommodation at the lake itself, but it's easily accessed from a base in Zomba or Blantyre
4. Lengwe National Park: 75 kilometres from Blantyre is Malawi's southern most national park. Due to the area being ideal for sugar cane, much of the surrounding area has been transformed into plantations.
Within the Park many of the animals have been poached out, yet the scenery is beautiful and hours can easily be spent around the water holes bird watching or walking through the bush. There are still large populations of Nyala, as well as smaller antelopes and baboons, and one might be lucky enough to spot a leopard or hyena.
5. Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve: This is the largest reserve in Malawi, with significant numbers of elephant, as well as lion, buffalo and upwards of 11 species of antelope. Game sightings are fairly infrequent though, due to the rough terrain and dense vegetation.
Poaching has been a big problem in the past, but luckily changes are afoot and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife is now taking much more interest in Nkhotakota, and have recently acquired new vehicles for their anti-poaching scouts.
In fact all the facilities at Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve are due to be upgraded, and three concessions have been put forward for eco-tourism development. Currently the best camp to stay at is Bua, although its facilities are still very basic and camping requires that you bring everything that you need including tents, bedding and food.
We'd recommend staying at one of the lodges on the shores of Lake Malawi and taking a day trip into the reserve (the Nkhotakota Pottery and Safari lodges do day trips). Good walks can also be undertaken, with the help of a guide or ranger.
6. Kasungu National Park: Covering about 2,316 km2, Kasungu is the second largest national park in Malawi after Nyika. The landscape is mainly grassland and rolling hills, with a small lake and a wide marshy river course. The lake is home to a group of hippos, and there are an estimated 300 elephants remaining after a serious poaching problem.
Other large game includes buffalo, antelope and zebra. The park also contains many smaller animal species, and a rich and varied birdlife.
It is best to tour the park in your own vehicle, but game drives and guided walks can be organized by the lodge. Since 1995 the Park has been receiving funds from the European Union. The funds are helping aid anti poaching efforts and the improvement of roads.
7. Nyika National Park: Nyika, the largest national park in Malawi, located in the northern region of the country, is home to the of leopards in the country, in addition to the many zebras, antelope, and warthogs that run free throughout the park
8. Liwonde National Park: At the southern end of Lake Malawi is one of the country’s best-known parks. Running through Liwonde is the Shire River, a natural attraction for crocodiles and hippos. The park’s most notable residents are elephants, though, hundreds of them; you won’t miss a sighting. The park covers more than 200 square miles (322 kilometers,) so it is worth spending a few days there ..
9. Cape Maclear: Ironically, a place that was once reputed to be a quiet fishing town on Lake Malawi is now one of the largest backpacker destinations in Malawi. Cape Maclear is rich in guest houses, restaurants, and activities for visitors to engage in. You can watch the fishermen collect the day’s catch, go snorkeling, or take a kayak out on the water. Try some fresh fish for dinner, and then grab a beer at a local bar before enjoying a good night’s sleep under the stars.