If you’d have asked most people where Malawi was a few months ago they wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Yet Madonna’s recent visit and adoption of a young Malawian boy has drawn the world’s eyes to this little known African country, putting it on the tourism radar – visits to Malawi’s website are up by 43% since the story broke.
Even experienced travellers can still be nervous about visiting a continent whose media image is often characterised by death and destruction. Malawi’s relative lack of conflict, though, has kept it from being newsworthy and makes it a stable and safe place to visit. Its small size and reasonable roads make it easy to navigate and the wide range of scenery, from mountain ranges to safari parks, give a varied taste of what Africa has to offer.
With most of its population living on less than US$2 a day, Malawi is, like most of its neighbours, desperately poor, yet its people have a warmth of spirit that cannot be crushed. This is what fuels many a love affair with Africa, and after my stay in Malawi, this is what had strengthened mine. Here are five more reasons why Malawi deserves its long-awaited attention.
Unusually for a landlocked country, one of Malawi’s greatest draws is its water. Taking up a fifth of the entire country and nicknamed the ‘calendar lake’ at 364 miles long and 52 miles wide, Lake Malawi is Africa’s third largest. The lake and its islands are a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the continent’s most important freshwater fish sanctuaries. With more than 400 species and clear, warm water to see them in, snorkelling and diving are a must.
Up close with the animals
Compared to more established safari destinations such as Kenya, wildlife-spotting in Malawi can cost as little as a third of the price, and its 11 national parks and game reserves are far less crowded. Bordered by the Shire River, Liwonde National Park is Malawi’s most popular park, and lodges reachable only by boat give the chance of getting up close to frolicking hippos and elephants. The park also has cheaper accommodation and camping facilities available so you can tailor your trip to your budget.
Lake Malawi is so large that it can feel like an ocean, and there are some great escapes in its midst. A 40-minute boat ride from shore, Mumbo Island has no permanent structures, inhabitants or electricity, and is a great retreat from the outside world.
Separated from the rest of the island by a wooden walkway across the bay is a secret rock-top enclave, with wooden shackled tents jutting out from the cliff for clear views across the lake. Outdoor showers, hammocks and communal eating area add to its rustic feel. Trips to the island can be arranged through Kayak Africa.
If you feel like blowing the budget, splash out on a night at Kaya Mawa resort, rated by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the 10 most romantic destinations in the world.
Cup of tea and a lie down
With green blanketed hillsides providing a stark contrast to the sparse plains of the national parks, the country’s tea estates are interesting places to visit. Established in the 1920s on the slopes of Thylo mountain, Satemwa (www.satemwa.com) is a historic working tea estate that also acts as a convenient base from which to explore the south of the country. Day tours and tea tastings can be arranged if you’re just passing through.
Up the markets
For an eclectic scene make sure you browse the city markets, the largest of which is in the capital city of Lilongwe. With none of the aggressive stall-holders or exploitation found in countries overrun with tourists, the markets in Malawi are welcoming to visitors. They are also great places to people-watch and take in the rich colours and crafts of the country. You can pick up some superb wooden carvings such as intricate chief’s chairs and colouful paintings of local scenes at incredibly cheap prices. •
• For more information about the country, see www.malawitourism.com.