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Malawi - The author’s take
‘The Land of the Lake’, ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’, ‘Africa for Beginners’… Malawi certainly attracts its share of snappy catchphrases, and these three sum up much of what makes this small African country so well liked by all who visit it.
Sunset over Lake Malawi © Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness Safaris
Few countries are so dominated by a single geographical feature as the ‘Land of the Lake’. Lake Malawi follows the dramatic contours of the Great Rift Valley for a distance of 585km; it is up to 100km wide in parts and it covers more than 15% of Malawi’s surface area. Enclosed by sheer mountains and edged by seemingly endless palm-fringed sandy beaches, Lake Malawi is the most beautiful of Africa’s great lakes and the indisputable focal point of Malawi’s tourist industry.
There is much truth in the phrase ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’. Not only do the climate and lush vegetation of the lakeshore conform effortlessly to every stereotypical image of tropical Africa, but the people of Malawi exude a warmth and friendliness that make most visitors feel instantly at home. Malawi may well be the most laid-back nation on earth.
And ‘Africa for Beginners’? Well, certainly, Malawi would lie near the top of any list of African countries I’d recommend to a nervous novice traveller. Although crime is on the increase, Malawi remains as safe as anywhere on the continent, and it is one of a handful of African countries where English is widely spoken. The country’s small size, relatively well-maintained roads and unusually nippy public transport combine to spare visitors the arduous all-day bus trips that are part and parcel of travel elsewhere on the continent. Malawi is remarkably compact, relatively cheap and hassle-free – with one qualification: the high incidence of malaria on the lakeshore.
A boy with today's catch © Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness Safaris
Tourism in Malawi has developed along rather unusual lines. The country lacks the vast game reserves of East Africa and the world-class tourist facilities of southern Africa; as a result, it sees little in the way of fly-in tourism. Instead, Lake Malawi has become the ultimate venue for backpackers crossing between East and southern Africa. It also relies on being included in the itineraries of tourists visiting neighbouring countries, and has suffered in recent years as political uncertainty and chronic shortages domestically have led tourists to travel around, rather than through, Malawi, and as Zimbabwe’s troubles have helped keep visitors away from the region as a whole. Thankfully, these situations are very much on the upswing and tourist numbers have rebounded in turn.
Within Malawi, tourist patterns are oddly schizophrenic. Travellers gather in their hundreds at lakeshore retreats like Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay, yet away from the lake there are many attractive and accessible destinations which regularly go weeks on end without seeing a non-resident visitor. There is more to Malawi than a lake: numerous exciting off-the-beaten-track destinations often overlooked by visitors beckon the adventurous traveller.
Malawi boasts a wealth of forest and mountain reserves, ranging from the relatively well-known Mulanje and Zomba plateaux to the little-visited but highly accessible mountains around Dedza, Ntchisi and Mzimba. Malawi’s wildlife reserves may not compare to the very best in Africa, but several – Nyika, Vwaza, Nkhotakota, Majete and Liwonde – are easy and cheap to visit, and they have an untrammelled and unpretentious appeal, which, combined with the opportunity to watch big game on foot, should make them popular fixtures on the overland travel circuit. Add to this such currently obscure gems as Lake Chilwa and the Elephant Marsh and you realise it is one of the anomalies of African travel patterns that a country that attracts such consistently heavy traveller traffic has so much unrealised travel potential.
Mulanje National Park © Africa Image Library
Perhaps the greatest of Malawi’s attractions is a low-key charm that most visitors find thoroughly addictive. Many travellers fly into Africa barely aware that Malawi exists; by the time they return home a high proportion have come to regard it as their favourite African country.
Whether you’re content to relax at the lake or prefer to actively explore little-visited mountains, forests and game reserves, it is difficult to think of a more agreeable place for easy, unstructured travel than Malawi.
Crafting my itinerary to update this sixth edition of Bradt’s Malawi seemed enough of a cut-and-dried affair at the time. Eight weeks, three rental cars, a few well-planned circuits around each region, and a carefully chosen exit date to avoid excess visa renewals (cheap though they may be)! All was laid out in front of me, but as the Scottish poet Robert Burns famously wrote, ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry’, and from the moment I crossed the border I knew this was to be the case. ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ had claimed another victim, love-struck and powerless to resist the tranquil charms of this most welcoming of countries.
Eight weeks quickly became nine, and ten, and even a few more after that. I had to skip forward several pages each time I opened my calendar. So many places made a mockery of my best laid schemes: Likoma, the uncharted island getaway of so many daydreams, Nkhata Bay’s syrupy languor turning my most rigid of agendas into fanciful abstractions, and the uncrowded game reserves, thoroughly enchanting in their solitude. But even against this idyllic natural backdrop, an unfolding political drama remains on the tip of every Malawian tongue.
Recently spared the increasingly-authoritarian rule of former President Bingu wa Mutharika by his unexpected demise, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief with the democratic transfer of power to now- President Joyce Banda. Elections take place in 2014, and any friends you meet will be happy to inform you of the latest political escapades.
Finally, while it may be a cliché that ‘the people’ are a country’s greatest asset, in Malawi you would be hard pressed to make an argument to the contrary. Take the time to greet and shake hands, and you will be repaid with smiles, laughter, and a genuine welcome given freely and without expectations. It’s the only country where I’ve been asked for my Facebook information more than I’ve been asked for money! This is why for me, and as for so many visitors, Malawi – its gentle and engaging people, stunning landscapes, and ease of travel – was an unexpected delight. Come ready to slow down, be a bit less cynical, and most importantly, leave yourself some extra time.