Flanked by the borders of Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania in Southern Africa, the tiny nation of Malawi is often overlooked by travellers in favour of its neighbouring giants of the African safari and overland tour circuits. However, during a recent work related trip, my sister and I discovered that Malawi is a remarkable destination in its own right.
From hiking up misty magical mountains, to relaxing by the azure waters in one of Africa’s largest lakes, to catching a glimpse of the ‘Big 5’ on safari, Malawi offers something special for every kind of traveller seeking to immerse themselves in a unique travel experience.
I am excited to share with you some of my special moments and images of my trip to Malawi.
Malawi is referred to around the world as the “warm heart of Africa” for good reason! Making a small effort to learn a few words of the local language (Chichewa in the South and Tumbukha or Tonga in the North) will get you very far with appreciative locals, who are more than happy to strike up a conversation with you in English.
We were fortunate to meet many good Samaritans along our journey: there were the amazing folks of Zatuba village, who greeted us daily with their beautiful smiles, generously shared their food and water with us, and serenaded us with sweet songs during our week long stay with them; Nelson, our taxi driver in Blantyre, who responded to our hungry pleas by taking us to a local café and patiently waited for us to have tea and samosas (with the turned meter off!) before taking us to our destination; and Francis, our mountain guide, who entertained us for two days during our trek up Mt Mulanje with tales of mountain sprits and by recounting bitter sweet stories of his childhood at an orphanage.
At the end of the trek he took us to his village (in the foothills of the mountain) to proudly show case the pre-school that he helped built with his community for their children. He told us of his widower neighbour for whom his wife takes food to everyday… of this Francis said “I cannot happily eat when I know my neighbour is going hungry”. Thoughtful sentiments from a thoughtful soul.
If hiking is your thing then Southern Malawi offers a wonderful range of paths and trails to suit the most intrepid wanderer. The scenery in this area is breathtaking with green tea plantations carpeting the floors below mighty mountains ranges.
We embarked on a two day hike up Mt Mulanje which is known locally as the “Island in the sky”. The mountain is a 3,000m-high granite outcrop of forested slopes with a plateau spanning 590 square kilometres across southern Malawi. Mt Mulanje’s twisted rocks are dotted with charming colonial-era mountain huts which piece together its various walking routes.
The village below in Lukhumba is a delightful base where you can stock up on supplies in the fascinating local market and relax with a Carlsberg beer while you watch the frenzied and bustling trade downtown.
We also travelled to Zomba in Southern Malawi and hiked up the infamously steep ‘Potato Path’ from the town to reach Zomba plateau. It was a gruelling two hour climb with the midday sun beating on our heads sapping us of strength and energy. However our perseverance was rewarded as we stumbled across Kuchawe Inn atop of the plateau – a beautiful and plush colonial era hotel with a garden straight out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland, complete with wild flower canopies, a giant chess set and breathtaking views of Zomba town. It was the perfect spot to rest our tired feet and enjoy an ice cold guava juice.
We opted for a more sensible walking tour of the plateau the next day where we hiked across paths dotted with pine trees, passed roadside strawberry and passion fruit vendors, did a spot of trout fishing and took a dip in waterfall lagoons.
Malawi is a fertile land mass where trees and bushes, dripping with blossoms of every colour, pepper the landscape across the country creating a visual feast for the eyes.
Hand painted insignia
I loved the hand painted signs that headlined the various shops across the towns in Malawi, which combined old school nostalgia, quirkiness and humour.
I was slightly bummed at missing the chance to take a picture of the “Good governance coffin shop” sign!
Lake Malawi, which stretches 550 km from Southern Malawi to the North, entices travellers with a number of lakeside retreats for those seeking to lap up the sun, swim in its azure waters and enjoy a multitude of water sports. My sister and I stayed at Nkhata Bay in the Northern part of Lake Malawi in the charming Mayoka Village, which is built along the rocky cliffs of bay. It offers beautiful stone chalets and wooden lake side huts, all with spectacular views of the lake.
We spent the days swimming and snorkelling amongst the rocks pools and eating butter fish and mangoes to our hearts content.
We also made our way to Likoma Island, which is situated in the northern most part of Lake Malawi and a hop, skip and jump away from neighbouring Mozambique. After an arduous 6 hour boat journey from Nkhata bay, we arrived to Likoma Island and were yet again left breathless by our idyllic destination. Think white sandy beaches and turquoise waters contrasted with flaming pink bougainvillea trees which dotted the beach.
Stylish beach bungalows complete the scene to create the perfect setting to relax and do nothing but swim in the tranquil waters, lie on a hammocks and enjoy a cup of Malawi tea on the balmy afternoons as you watch another spectacular Malawi sunset.
“We do sunsets well” said the waiter who I was standing next to at the guesthouse in Mulanje. We were both gazing in admiration at the fireball slowly descending into the horizon while unleashing a wave of colour in its wake. Moments earlier I had given up trying to capture the image on my camera as I was unable to do the scene justice!
There is something about sunsets in Africa which are bolder and brighter than anywhere else in the world…and this Malawian sunset was the most beautiful one that I had seen yet.
Malawi certainly does do sunsets well, along with many other things. My three week journey into the warm heart of Africa has left an indelible impression on me in a way that few other destinations have…
Shyamika Peeligama is a Director of Empower, a not for profit sustainable development organisation which runs projects in Malawi and Sri Lanka. In December 2013 she travelled to Malawi to visit Zatuba village to conduct an evaluation on an Empower project which has been operating there for 3 years. For more information about the work of Empower visit http://empowerprojects.org