• Malawi,
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  • Malawi
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Malawi

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile
Landlocked in the middle of southern Africa, Malawi's jewel-studded landscapes don't attract huge crowds of tourists. But venture onto the shores of Lake Malawi and you'll find an incredible place to relax, whilst a trip into the country's green mountains provide superb safaris.

Travel guide

Welcome to Malawi

Perfectly preserved by the borders of Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, as well as the shores of its eponymous lake, Malawi is a discreet nation. The lake makes up an important part of just less than 4,000 miles of territory known as Africa's Great Rift Valley, and to the south it sprouts the Shire River before launching it into Mozambique.

Head for the hills

But away from the banks of its lakes and rivers, Malawi is defined by its mountains. Almost half of the surface of this small nation sits far above an altitude of 100m and to the south, emerging suddenly from the flat plains, Sapitwa peak sits at a cool 3,000 metres to claim the title of summit of the Mulanje Massif and of the entire country.

Mulanje Massif

This remarkable rock formation is unsurprisingly one of Malawi's biggest attractions. It has been classed as a 'Biosphere Reserve' by UNESCO since 2000 due to the diversity of its wildlife and its sheer number of endemic species. Along with the jungle-covered plateaus of Zomba slightly further north, this area makes up Malawi's hiking region.

Diverse national parks

A mere eleven national parks and reserves, all exhibiting mountainous terrain, forested hillsides and wonderful water systems, make Malawi first and foremost a top nature destination. The diversity of landscapes within a relatively modest area mean the country is easy to explore and rich in offerings.

Liwode and Nyika

The most famous national park is Liwonde, to the south. The fertile lands of the Shire valley play hosts to an astonishing array of animals, from hippos and crocodiles to great herds of elephants storming across the plains. To the north you'll find Nyika, Malawi's largest national park and well worth a detour for those with the luxury of time. Head here if you want to see leopards hidden high in its grass-covered hills.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi, third largest lake in Africa and renowned worldwide for the clarity of its water and for the enormous quantity of endemic fish species residing in its depths, is a must for all visitors, even if it's just a couple of days to relax on the shores and breathe in the fresh air. The Lake Malawi National Park protects a small southern portion of the lake and it is here that you'll find crystal clear water and plenty of places to stay.

The islands of Likoma and Chizumulu

The final spots to figure in to any trip to Malawi have to be the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu. Not far from the Mozambique-owned shores of the lake, they still belong to Malawi. With several hotels and gorgeous beaches bordering crystal clear waters, the island of Likoma is the best place to catch your breath amongst Malawi's constant adventures.

Our Editorial team's advice

The best time to visit Malawi is between April and November. The late dry season is the best time to wander in areas near rivers to watch animals coming to quench their thirst. In fact, the landscape is more elegant and travelling conditions are more enjoyable between May and July, away from the dry season. But the lack of water during this season of scarce rain pushes the animals towards watering holes, meaning they are easier to spot for safari-goers.

Lilongwe may be Malawi's largest city and capital but you'll find the country's main airport situated in its second city and financial capital Blantyre, to the south. Though you won't find any direct flights from the UK, you'll find plenty of options with one stop over.

If you want to take an organised tour, most begin in the south to accommodate those arriving into Blantyre. You can choose to take in Cape Maclear, Liwonde, Zomba and Mulanje before finishing on the island of Likoma for a few days for some relaxation on the lake. Distances can often be long between the site and the road network is modest so if you're really short on time, consider an air-taxi.

Malawi's national parks and reserves are extremely safe but the weather can change abruptly, particularly in the mountainous regions of Mulanje. It's strongly advised to be well-equipped before setting off and always take a local guide who can predict changes in the weather and turn you back to safety if necessary.

pros

  • +A relatively untouched country with varied landscapes.
  • +Very warm and welcoming locals.
  • +Diverse and record-breaking species of fauna and flore.
  • +Rich cultural heritage.

cons

  • -Less developed infrastructure.
  • -Tours can be expensive, especially for safaris.

Traditions

A kingdom of Malawi has existed since the 15th century, when the Bantu people began to settle the land from the north. But the region's history goes back much further than that, with prehistoric sites dating back over one million years.

Malawians are known throughout the continent for being especially warm and friendly. You'll find the welcome to be easy if you visit someone's home, though the atmosphere can change a little in the touristic areas, as people focus on making money.

Churches play an extremely important role in Malawian society, with several variations of Christianity claiming large amounts of believers. A little more than half of the population declares itself protestant, brought to the country by Scottish missionaries who arrived with the Portuguese explorers.

Food

Whichever season you choose for your visit, you'll find that Malawi has abundant sources of fruit and vegetables throughout the year, from mangoes and pineapples to sweet potato and corn. The country's main dishes combine seasonal veg with fresh fish, such as chambo, from Lake Malawi, or trout fished from fast-moving rivers.

In the cities, top quality restaurants offer excellent menus and exquisite cuisine. You will be delighted with specialities from Lake Malawi or excellent beef from the plateaus. Less adventurous types can also find pizzas and burgers.

The local beer is of excellent quality and in the region of Mulanje, look out for the local tea, one of the pioneering African regions in tea production and worth bringing home for family and friends to sample.

Souvenirs

The country's handicrafts are very colourful and meticulously hand-made. You'll find sculptures, decorated wooden objects, batiks, potteries and traditional musical instruments. Shopping hours: 8:00 - 17:00 from Monday to Saturday.