Known as the “warm heart of Africa”, Malawi is an incredibly friendly landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Completely unspoiled by mass tourism, this is the Africa you imagine, where it feels like a step back in time into another world. From the moment we landed at the small airport in Blantyre, weaving our way through the city traffic into the countryside, my eyes couldn’t keep up with the sights and sounds around us.
Elegant colonial buildings give way to small hillside villages and ramshackle shops. We stopped along the road to purchase our sim cards. It seems anything is for sale along the roadside, including mice on a stick, a local delicacy! Our Land Rover chugs along over a scenic mountain pass before descending via the Lower Shire River Valley to the Majete Wildlife Reserve.
This is the only Big Five game park in Malawi, and one of the outstanding success stories of African conservation. In the 1980s and ’90s, the park was almost depleted of game due to extensive poaching. A joint effort by the Malawi government and Africa Parks, including the reintroduction of endangered species, has turned this park into a model of sustainable development and biodiversity.
Beautiful Mkulumadzi Lodge is our base for the next couple of nights. My stunning tent faces the Shire River, and moments after arrival, a visitor makes her presence known. An elephant is tearing away at a small tree while curiously taking me in, while hippos are grunting in the river further away. I am in my happy place! Twice daily game drives show off the diverse terrain that makes up Majete.
We regularly see a herd of elephants teaching their young babies what these funny looking vehicles with people are all about. This particular herd is very friendly and curious, coming up very close to our vehicle. A morning stop along the river provides a chance to soak up the lovely scenery over a steaming cup of coffee. Here you can see hippos lazing on the mudflats, waterbuck and nyalas drinking on the water’s edge, and colourful bee-eaters flying through the air. Dinners are served al fresco on the huge deck overlooking the river. Tonight we have a special dinner guest, “Buzz” the bush baby, who likes to come down and visit the lodge staff occasionally (and maybe have a little peanut butter and strawberry jam treat).
Our next stop is the beautiful old colonial Huntingdon House, on the Satemwa Tea Estate. The estate is undoubtedly among the country’s most respected and established tea producers. This is one of the most scenic regions of Malawi, with its rolling hills of immaculately cultivated emerald green plantations, and magnificent views everywhere you look. Relax in the colonial atmosphere of the lodge and its beautiful gardens, have a picnic on one of the hilltops, and most importantly, go for a tea tasting tour! We continue south, past the Zomba Plateau. Sadly our itinerary does not allow time to try some of the great hikes offered in this area. We pass scenes of women in colourful dresses carrying goods on their heads from the market, grasshut villages, and children playing at the water pump frantically waving at us.
Our next destination is Liwonde National Park. We arrive at Mvuu Lodge after a relaxing cruise seeing hippos, crocodiles, and plentiful birdlife. Mvuu means “hippo” in the Chichewa language, and it is no wonder, as the river is filled with them! Our lodge is built on the banks of a lagoon that is teeming with waterbuck, impala, naughty vervet monkeys, and egrets riding on the backs of warthogs. Liwonde is a birdwatcher’s paradise, offering brown-breasted barbets, Bohm’s bee-eater, the African skimmer and Livingstone flycatcher, to name just a few. Nature walks, game drives, night drives, and special game drives into the Rhino Sanctuary are available in Liwonde, as well as river cruises to get close to hippo pods, elephants, crocodiles, and the abundant birdlife. It was here that I saw my first sable antelope after many safaris all over Africa.
Last but definitely not least, is probably the country’s most famous attraction, Lake Malawi. Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, called it “The Lake of the Stars” because the lanterns from the fishermen’s boats resembled stars at night, and it is still the same to this day. Lake Malawi, one of the deepest lakes in the world, with its clear waters and mountain backgrounds, offers a wonderful change from the safari circuit.
There are several stunning lodges along the lake, such as Pumalani Beach Lodge, where the rooms feel more like a private house with incredible views over the lake. Kaya Maya is an exclusive luxury resort set on Likoma Island and has been voted in the top 10 “most romantic places in the world” by Conde Naste magazine.
If you want to completely unplug from society, then eco-friendly and pristine Mumbo Island is the place for you. The lake offers various boat trips, dhow cruises, fishing and snorkelling expeditions, sail boat charters, as well as visits to local villages. After exploring this wonderfully varied country, there is no better place to pour yourself a gin and tonic while watching the sunset from the shores of Lake Malawi.
While Malawi may not offer the same game experience as some other Africans countries, it packs a punch in natural beauty, wonderful people, amazing birdlife, and an authentic off-the-beaten-path travel experience. Due to its location, it is easily combined with South Luangwa in Zambia for those who really want to see the big predators, making for a perfect Africa vacation!