Situated in the middle of Southern Africa lies a tiny country on the edge of Africa’s third largest and second deepest lake. The lake is the lifeblood of the country and is the place where you could find yourself lost in a hammock by its shores for many months.
Malawi is not as well know for its animals or safari parks like those of Tanzania and Zambia that surround it, yet there are many reasons why Malawi should be on your list of places to visit in Africa. We went purely based on enthusiastic recommendations by my brother, and fell in love with it. And now we want to enthusiastically recommend it to others.
Here are some reasons why you will fall in love with the warm heart of Africa:
Malawians are like the Rastafarians of Africa. Nothing seems to faze or upset them, least of all that they live in the fourth poorest country in the world and the struggle for clean drinking water is an everyday occurrence. Despite having that large lake on their doorstep, they do not have the funding or the experience to tap into it for fresh supplies.
Each day they come down to the lake for washing, cleaning, eating, and yes-drinking. I’ll never forget having a BBQ on the beach cooked by some local beach boys. We saw the process from whole chicken with feathers, to plucking, cleaning, cooking, all done with the help of the lake water, and then the boys scooped up some of the same water in a cup and took a long thirsty drink from it.
The Malawians reminded me every day to be grateful for what I have and that happiness really is a choice. They had nothing yet were so happy, so warm, and so friendly.
You have to keep reminding yourself that you are actually on a lake; it is that large it seems as if you are on the edge of the ocean. Along the shores are sandy beaches and coves and rocky headlands perfect for cliff jumping and snorkelling.
No matter where you stay you will find a plethora of activities to do. Most backpackers have snorkels and kayaks for rent, or if you are game, the traditional Malawian dug out canoes. Many people come to Lake Malawi, in particular, Nkhata Bay to learn how to scuba dive. It is one of the cheapest places to learn and you still get to see an amazing underwater world.
We went out for a day deep lake fishing tour. Our guides took us out on their makeshift catamaran- a large plank of wood tied to two dug out canoes. Being out in the deep lake waters was a really enjoyable day. I soon gave up the 80-meter hand fishing reel to laze on the pontoon and swim in the bilharzias free depths of the lake. Coming back in as the sun was setting casting a soft pink glow over the surrounding mountains was a magical Malawian moment.
The Great Rift Valley Escarpment
The Great Rift Valley runs through Malawi and is what is responsible for forming Africa’s great lakes. The mountains and plateaus surrounding the valley extend themselves to enjoyable explorations. Our first stop coming into Malawi from Tanzania was the small beach area of Chitimba. It is from here that many people first arrive to journey up into the escarpment to visit the historic Scottish Highland town of Livingstonia.
We decided to reach this town in the rather unorthodox manner of taking a midday hike in the blazing dry heat of a 40-degree day. Our guide tried to tell us we were more than a little crazy, but no more so than him who did it wearing tracksuit pants and drinking barely any water.
I thought I was going to die from heatstroke. For the first hour or so there was barely a tree in sight for shade and the going was slow. Eventually as the bush thickened and the shade increased, my energy levels increased but it was still a tough hike, tough only due to the heat.
The reward at the end of the hike was far better than I could ever imagined. We were the only campers at the campsite and pitched our tent right on the edge of the escarpment. The cook made for us the most delicious vegetable curry I had ever eaten, and Craig and I sat under a thousand stars as we gazed at the immense valley floor beneath us, with only the night time noises of the bush. It was pure heaven.
We walked into Livingstonia the next morning after savouring the views from our tent door.
Mayoka Village, Nhkhata Bay
Nkhata Bay is a place that entraps you and begs you to stay forever. We were trying to leave for a week but each day we tried, Gary the owner of Mayoka Village, where we were staying, would convince us to stay yet another day. We couldn’t miss the beach volleyball fundraising competition, the visiting acrobatic evening show, the day tour of the village, the rock jumping tour from their boat, and then last of all, the gift of a bungalow on the headland for the same price of our $1 a night camping spot on the terraced garden.
Mayakoa Village is definitely one of my favourite backpackers in 14 years of travelling. It wasn’t just the delicious fresh food they served in their kitchen, their cheap accommodation, the short dusty walk into town, or it’s position on the rocky headlands where just a short jump from your bedroom door had you snorkelling in amazing clear and refreshing water.
The place was legendary due to Gary and Katherine, the owners, who have turned this into a family haven for backpackers, locals, and their workers alike. Each night we would spend congregating in the common outdoor area, chatting, laughing, and drinking as Gary pounded out a set on his drums, or called in some locals for entertaining.
From fundraising events to help local schools, or just in order to show the backpackers the true warmth of Malawi, Gary and Katherine are always putting the needs of others before their own.
Cape Maclear is a small fishing village at the Southern end of the lake. It is a one dusty road town and the pace of life here is very slow. It was at this village where my brother lived for 3 months as he recovered from malaria (yes a high risk zone). His time wasn’t all that bad, he did get invited to a local witchcraft ceremony and well we were hoping for some sort of a similar adventure.
We camped on the edge of the lake, right under a mango tree. Is this not heaven? Each morning mangos would drop on our tent ready for breakfast. These succulent and juicy Malawian treasures kept me occupied all day as we lazed around reading, eating, swimming and playing Bowa with the local boys.
You will soon discover just how addicting Bowa is- otherwise known as Mancala in many countries. The men sit around all day playing it, laughing, cheering and talking in heated voices. Don’t even try to challenge them in a game. You’ll never win. This was about as adventurous as it got for us, no visiting witch doctors came through, but I was quite satisfied with my mangoes, my bowa games, snorkeling nearby islands, and barbecued chicken on the beach at sunset with the beach boys.
Caz Makepeace has been living and travelling the globe since 97, both solo and as a couple and now with a three year old. They believe life is all about the memories and their travel tips and stories at yTravel blog and their fanpage aim to inspire and teach others how to make their life a story to tell.