A country in Africa, Malawi is bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Described as the “Warm Heart of Africa” referring to the supreme friendliness of the people, the country with its stunning and varied scenery does live up to the hype. Known as the “Lake of Stars”, the Malawi Lake is the countries big draw – a glorious shard of crystal water stretching some hundreds of kilometers along Malawi’s eastern border, separating it from the untamed and rocky coast of Mozambique and Tanzania. Remote villages are scattered in the northern lakeshore and the wonderful Liwonde Park rests at its southern tip. There are hundreds of fish that inhabit the lake. Water activities like freshwater diving and snorkeling are excellent in this area.
Malawi is not just for water enthusiasts and sun worshippers though; there’s plenty here to let you explore and make you active. The country’s landscape is surprisingly varied. Travelers can head to the misty heights of Mount Mulanje or to the Nyika National Park where you can witness never ending grassland and find some of the most enjoyable hiking routes in the whole of Africa.
When to Travel
The climate in Malawi is sub-tropical. Rainy season starts from November and ends in May while the dry season is from May to March.
For most activities, the best time to visit Malawi is during early May to late October, which is the dry season. The country’s best weather is in August but since this is the month for school holidays, national parks and lodges on Lake Malawi can become very crowded. On the other hand, July is the coolest month of the year.
Some roads become impossible to pass even by the toughest four-wheel drive during the rainy season, which is from January to March. For game viewing, the best time to travel to Malawi is definitely the dry season. Vegetation will be less dense and there is a greater chance of seeing wildlife at perennial water holes.
Bird watching is good all throughout the year but is best done during October and November where it can be very hot and very wet. Hiking is also possible all year round but it is not recommended to do during the wet season. The months of August and September are the most comfortable times for trekking the Southern Highlands as the mountain air is cool and crisp.
Cuisine and Drinks
Cuisines of various countries have contributed a lot to the Malawian cuisine. Various types of food are an important aspect of the Malawi culture.
The basic food of the people of Malawi is the nsima. It is basically a thick porridge, rolled into balls with your right hand and dipped into a variety of stews known as relishes. There are beef, fish and chicken relishes served with beans, pumpkin leaves and other vegetables. Adding tomato and onion sauce can also greatly enhance the taste. Other Malawi foods are potatoes, cassavas and rice which is regarded as a luxury. Starch is also one of the main foods of the locals. Serving a generous amount of starch in any kind of meal is a common practice.
The Malawi Lake is full of different kinds of fish, the reason Malawians prefer fish over meat. There are various types of fish available in the market and some cooked with nsima is a favorite food item. The food flavor is increased when the fish is grilled and seasoned with salt.
Common desserts to taste are the country’s cookies called Mbatata, the Mtedza puffs made of peanuts, Ntochi bread and the most favorite Malawi cuisine which is the banana fritters known as Zitumbuwa. Food options in major cities like Lilongwe, the capital city and Blantyre are really good. Fast food – including burgers, fried chicken and pizza are also very popular in Malawi.
For refreshments, a traditional local drink worth trying is mahewu. This refreshing drink is somewhat similar to yogurt but has a gritty texture made of maize meal. Factory produced mahewu is sweet, comes in plastic bottles and is available in a variety of flavors like orange, banana and chocolate. On the other hand, homemade versions are usually unflavored and less sweet. Other tasty, fizzy drinks are manufactured by Southern Bottlers (Sobo). Sobo is also the licensed manufacturer of Coca Cola in Malawi.
Although Malawi has a significant Muslim population, alcohol is widely available even in Muslim dominated regions. Beers are commonly brewed in Blantyre by Carlsberg and its products are available in different fine establishments. There are also stronger liquors like Smirnoff Vodka and Mulanje Gold Coffee Liqueur. Possibly, the most popular drinks in the whole country are the Malawi Gin and Tonic (MGT) which has a distinct aroma.
Nyika National Park - This park is the oldest and the largest in Malawi covering some 3000 sq. kilometers. The main attraction of the park is the Nyika Plateau with a unique landscape and unusual climate. The plateau is a vast range of rolling hills, thick pine forest, wide alleys and flower carpeted grasslands. On clear days, you will be able to see endless sceneries too.
Other than watching wildlife, Nyika gives tourists a chance to explore a distinctive and preserved territory of African wilderness in a variety of ways. You can roam around and explore the area simply by foot, by bike or horseback. Common animals that can be seen here are zebras, reedbucks, bushbucks and roan antelopes. You may also spot klipspringers, jackals, warthogs as well as hyenas and leopards.
Mount Mulanje - As central Africa’s highest peak, with its peak sometimes seen like floating in the sky, it is not surprising that Mount Mulanje acquired the local name “Island in the Sky”. This mount is surrounded be near-vertical cliffs of bare rocks. Some tourists come to the base of the mountain just for a day visit but the wonderful scenery, clear paths, trouble-free access and well-maintained huts make Mulanje a fine hiking area.
Liwonde National Park - Liwonde National Park is the closest thing Malawi has to a traditional wildlife park. Located near the Shire River and dominating the west part of the region, the park overflows with hippos and crocodiles. It is also a favorite stomping ground for herds of elephants. Beautiful sable and roan antelopes, zebras and elands settle in the dreamlike flood plains in the east. Waterbucks are common near the water sources and night drives can reveal spotted bushbabies, genets, scrub hares and side-tripped jackals and even hyenas. Protected in separate enclosures are black rhinos and a colorful collection of birdlife.
Island of Mumbo - A trip to the environment friendly island of Mumbo is truly one magical and relaxing destination. It gives tourists a glimpse of the majestic Lake Malawi from tents perched on rocks above. The overall feel of the island is supremely magnificent.
Horseback riding safaris - Horse riding safaris are also becoming quite popular near the Nyika Plateau. This is a best way to explore around the area since some parts cannot be accessed by any vehicles. Horse riding is also available in the Gymkhana Club on Zomba Plateau.
Bird Watching - Bird watching is another activity tourist will certainly enjoy doing in Malawi. With over 500 species of birds found, some bred in the country, others are migrating birds from neighboring continents of Europe and Asia, birding enthusiasts will keep coming back for more. There are birds of prey like black eagle, falcons and lanner spotted near the hills of Dedza, Dowa and Lakeshore. Other species found are African Fish eagle best spotted in Salima and Monkey Bay, species of weaver, woodpecker, heron, cuckoo and a number of other great varieties in Elephant Marsh on the Shire Valley.
Hiking - For those who want to explore the country on foot, hiking and mountain climbing sports can be done with Malawi’s highlands. Mulanje and Zomba plateau are favorite destinations for these activities and even the Nyika National Park can be a thrill with its walking safaris.
Lake Malawi - The warm fresh water of Lake Malawi is also inviting. Its immensity that looks like a tropical sea is a perfect spot for snorkeling, kayaking and sailing. Even though the country is landlocked, fishing is very much possible with the lake’s variety of tropical aquarium fish and even game fish too. Some species found are cichlids or mbuna, some Tiger fish and Lake Salmon. Freshwater Trout fishing is well-played in the trout dams of Nyika Plateau, Zomba Plateau, and Mulanje Massif. A visit in the Likoma Island will let you experience some waterskiing, scuba diving, tube riding and fishing trips. You can also stay on Lake Malawi aboard Mufasa – a 4-berth luxury catamaran. Spend a day sailing to an isolated island for a private picnic lunch or you can charter the yacht for a relaxing week of sailing, scuba-diving, snorkeling and fishing.
Malawi’s unit of currency is the kwacha (MK). One kwacha is made up of 100 tambala. The best foreign currencies to carry around are US dollars, British pounds and South African rands. You will also find some ATM machines at banks in major cities like Lilongwe, Karonga, Blantyre, Liwonde, Mzuzu, Zomba and Salima. Credit cards are sometimes accepted outside the main cities.
For exchanging cash, most banks and exchange bureaus won’t charge a commission but for travelers checks, there is usually a 1% charge rate.