Malawi is a relatively small country, roughly 900km long and between 80km and 150km wide, in comparison with the others we have visited so far. Almost one fifth of the country is covered by the inland sea, Lake Malawi is the focal point for most visitors and there are also highlands in the north and the south which we want to visit. As well as Zambia, the country also has borders with Tanzania and Mozambique. Its a friendly, inexpensive and easy country to travel in so we plan to stay about five or six weeks.
We cross into Malawi from Zambia in the far north west at the tiny border post of Chitipa. The road from Zambia was very rough and slow for the last part of our trip and it is dark by the time we have cleared the border so we’re happy to find a guest house and take a room for the night. It’s basic but clean and has an ensuite and secure parking, pretty good for 5,000 Malawi Kwacha which is about $9.00 Aussie dollars.
In the morning we have an easy drive down from the high country to the town of Karonga on the shores of Lake Malawi. It’s quite a big town and has a bustling and colourful market where we can stock up on wonderful fresh produce.
Alfred and his wife Elizabeth and their three sons and three daughters have built and run Thunduzi Camp on the shores of Lake Malawi in the tiny settlement of Chilumba. The camp is very quiet but the attached bar and restaurant do a good trade and Alfred has plans to make more improvements to the camping and to add additional accommodation. It’s a very pleasant spot and we need a break from travelling so we are soon set up and settled in for the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately I have a bit of a virus and need to spend a fair bit of the first week sleeping and then slowly recuperating but Paul easily fills in his time with his photos and also taking a walk with one of Alfred’s sons through the village to visit the local ‘brewery’ and to meet some of the local people and sample some street food.
During the second week, when I am mostly recovered, we take a drive back up into the high country to the old mission station and colonial town of Livingstonia. To reach it we have a short drive down the main road next to the lake then a steep climb up an unmaintained dirt track. The last ten kilometres takes an hour and we are very glad we didn’t bring the trailer. The town was built on the edge of the plateau west of the lake by Scottish missionaries in the 1890’s because too many people were dying of malaria at the original mission settlements at the lower altitudes beside Lake Malawi. Livingstonia is picturesque with solid stone buildings spread along tree-lined streets and wonderful mountain views in all directions. It is also much cooler up here and it is pleasant to spend a couple of nights tucked under a cosy doona at the Lukwe Permaculture Camp. Paul walks through the permaculture gardens to the nearby Manchewe Falls but I’m content to sit and enjoy the views and complete my recuperation. Or maybe I was just feeling lazy.
After another couple of nights back at Thunduzi its time to move on and we head toward the Nyika Plateau National Park. We stop overnight in Rumphi on our way and find a place to leave our trailer as we are in for another steep drive. While Livingstonia, at 1200m above sea level, is more than 900 metres above the lake, Nyika Plateau is over 2,500m above sea level. Nights are much cooler, with a light dusting of frost on the grass in the mornings, so we need to dig out our cold weather clothing and add a down sleeping bag on top of the doona. Its worth it though with wonderful views and plenty of chances to spot wildlife. At this altitude there are not a lot of native trees, just the remains of a failed pine plantation in one section, and the hills are covered in rolling grassland punctuated by rocky outcrops. There are zebras, reedbucks, eland and other antelope scattered around the hills and pretty bushbucks hang around the camp ground and the lake by the lodge. Leopard have been sighted recently not too far from the lodge but although we try hard we aren’t lucky enough to see them. There are also elephant and buffalo in the park but at this time of the year they head to lower altitudes in a corner of the park which isn’t accessible by car.
After two and a half days spent driving through the glorious country and two nights huddling around the fire while we gaze at the stars we head back to Rumphi for another night and then on to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. We are still well above the level of Lake Malawi and the temperatures are mild but the Wildlife Reserve is covered by woodland along with a large lake and river along one edge and a marsh and wetlands forming at the end of the river. The campground is set on the edge of the lake and although the water level is low there is still plenty left for hundreds, or probably thousands, of hippos. We had planned on camping but by some curious vagary in the pricing it is cheaper to stay in one of the pleasant huts which are managed by the local community than it is to camp, the pricing of which is set by the national parks body. We go for a short drive around the edge of the lake and along one of the bush tracks on our first day and plan to go for longer drives later but sitting on the verandah of our hut we gaze out at a passing parade of impala, kudu, puku and elephant as well as the hundreds of hippos at this end of the lake so we pass the next couple of days lazily. A couple of herds of elephant with lots of tiny babies come down to drink not far from the camp and one group walk right through the middle of it, wonderful to experience. As well as being almost submerged in water the hippos spend quite a lot of time out of the water during the day, probably because the temperatures are mild and they need to warm up a little. It gives us a great chance to see the numerous baby hippos and the adults lazing around the shores of the lake. They lie around for hours at a time and then suddenly, for no reason we can see, the whole herd ups and charges into the water. Soon afterwards they start straggling back out of the water. Very funny to watch.
Our next destination is Mzuzu, the largest town in northern Malawi. We found a great range of fresh fruit and vegetables in Karonga but we haven’t seen a supermarket since we left Lusaka in Zambia so supplies are getting low and we are looking forward to stocking up. We also need to extend our entry permit and we find the government offices right across the road from another colourful market, much more fun visiting the market than lining up in the immigration office. The last service of the car was in Cape Town so that is due as well and we find a very pleasant camp just out of town to spend a couple of nights while we do our chores. The owners of the Maconda Camp, Luca and Cecilia, are Italian and, as well as the small campground and some other accommodation, they run a well frequented restaurant. The food is delicious, especially the pasta and pizza, so we skip cooking and dine in style for the two nights we are here.
Luca recommends another camp further south along the lake and so we stop in at Kachere Kastle in Chincheche. Its an amazing place built over the past seven years by Russell and Kate, originally from England but now enjoying living in Malawi. They have paid enormous attention to detail and did all the plumbing and electrical work themselves to ensure quality control, an amazing effort. Paul starts taking photos and drone footage of the place and Russell and Kate are very impressed by the results so we end up trading a video and still photographs for our accommodation which included a very comfortable room plus dinner on the last of our 8 night stay.
We’ve been in Malawi for nearly a month by now and we’re still in the northern section so we need to hurry ourselves up as there are some spots in the south we don’t want to miss. On a recommendation from Luca in Mzuzu, Mua Mission in central Malawi is our next destination. This mission was built at the beginning of the 20th century and has some wonderful old buildings and a large church but our interest is in museum and cultural centre which houses a huge collection of Gule Wamkulu masks, drums and other accoutrements and a series of murals providing huge amounts of information about the daily life and the traditions of the three main cultural groups in the area. These masks are used in “the Great Dance of Malawi” which is now on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage register. The dance is mainly performed at funerals and memorial services but also at initiations and other celebrations. The masks worn by the dancers on such performances are believed to capture the soul or spirit of the deceased that brings renewed life. The purpose of the dance is said to be a way of communicating messages of the ancestors to the villagers and making possible continued harvests and continued life. Father Claude Boucher, originally from Montreal, has been in Malawi for more than 50 years and has collected hundreds of masks and documented the characters and their stories. Its late afternoon when we arrive so we spend the night in a chalet and plan to spend the morning visiting the cultural centre and gallery and be on our way before lunchtime. Father Boucher invites us to watch a performance which has been arranged for a group and it should commence mid-morning. The group are late arriving, we’ve already had our lunch and the elaborately costumed performers have also had to wait but we are extremely pleased to have this opportunity as we are enchanted by the performance. The costumes, the dancing, the singing, the drumming and particularly the masked characters combine to tell a story and to pass on a message to the audience.
Liwonde National Park on the Shire River is our next destination. It is in southern Malawi so we’ve left the lake behind us now. It’s late when we arrive at our campground, getting dark before we are even set up so we have a slow start in the morning then drive to the entrance of the national park. The fees are double the amount we were expecting and we are not sure that we will see much wildlife in the half a day we would be in the park so we decide to give it a miss and return to camp. The camp ground is hot, dry and dusty but the baobabs at sunset make our two nights here almost worthwhile.
We need to get out of the dust and the heat for a couple of days so we take a detour from our southerly course and drive up to the Zomba Plateau. The trout farm at the top of the small plateau has a grassy area for camping and it’s a lovely spot to sit for a couple of days. Large trees provide shade for the trailer and car but there are plenty of open patches so our solar panels can keep the batteries topped up. Water from the adjacent creek is channelled to the hatchery nearby and we scoop it out by the bucketful to drink and to fill our water tank. Its the clearest and best tasting water we have had for ages. Most has been bore water which is ok for drinking but contains minerals which coat the kettle and thermos, and the ‘treated’ water available in the towns contains chlorine and other chemicals to make it safe to drink. The climate on the plateau is perfect for berry and avocado growing and we feast on strawberries, raspberries and avocados which we buy from the side of the road on our way up. We aim to buy more on our way down. The only thing we are lacking on this trout farm is the trout to eat as they only have the very small fingerlings, maybe they will be bigger in a year.
We could easily linger longer at the trout farm as there are lots of walks and waterfalls in the area but we need to keep moving so we head to Blantyre, the largest city in the south of Malawi and the commercial and industrial capital of the country. We have a couple of places to visit out of Blantyre but it is the hub of the south so we find a secure camp to drop off the trailer and head straight on to Majete National Park. This is further down the Shire River and we stop in a private lodge and campground very near the entrance. Our site is fabulous, right next to a lovely swimming pool which is surrounded by a deck overlooking the river. We had planned to stay two nights but we arrived late so to allow ourselves a full day in the park and a day enjoying the camp we stay a third night. On the day we spend in the park we have a very early start and leave camp before breakfast so we can be at the gate when it opens at 6.00am. There are a network of tracks in the park and we easily fill in the whole day and stay until the late afternoon. The tracks take us along the picturesque Shire River and to two very popular waterholes. This park has probably the highest concentration of animals in Malawi and we see plenty; lots of elephants and hippos, a good variety of buck including a beautiful sable antelope, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra, but unfortunately no lions or leopards.
From Majete we return to Blantyre, replenish the small fridge in the car from the large fridge in the trailer, and drive out to Mt Mulanje. The mountain is a huge mass of granite rising 3,000m above the surrounding plain and it is a very popular destination for hikers. We’re not going to tackle any of the multi day hikes but plan to walk to one of the waterfalls. The first place inside the park we visit to find a place to stay has a group of fifty coming in later that day and all the chalets and rooms are booked so although we could camp we decide to continue looking and the next place is ideal. It is in the lower section of the park but still quite elevated and the temperature has dropped accordingly. We could camp but the lodge has delightful rooms at a very reasonable price so we stay warm and comfortable and enjoy a bit of luxury. Numerous locals offer to guide us to the falls so we agree on a price and set out in the morning. We are able to take the car a fair distance up the track so our walk is halved. Its not a difficult or overly steep walk but we have not done any walking for ages so it is good to stretch our legs and get a bit of exercise as we walk through the bush. It is the dry season so the falls are not roaring but they are still impressive and Paul clambers around the rocks to get different vantage points for his photos. We finish off our visit to Mulanje with a pizza in the town and head back to Blantyre.
As we are approaching Blantyre and the camp where we have left our trailer Paul starts feeling cold although I think it is still quite a mild day. By the time we are in the camping area he is feeling worse and starts shivering uncontrollably. Its an easy self diagnosis of malaria and we hurriedly consider the options. When we were in Mozambique we bought some malaria curative tablets which, if taken promptly, will greatly lessen the severity and length of an attack so Paul takes the first dose while I am checking out the internet for more information on malaria and for the location of doctors or hospitals nearby. As we are in a large city there are several options and I map out a route to a private hospital where I hope we can get quick attention. The curative tablets sure work fast as we are still on our way when Paul stops shaking and doesn’t feel as terrible. Now that we know the tablets are working and a doctor could do little else to help we change our plans and look for a guest house, Paul may be feeling a little better but camping is certainly not an option. I pick one from the guide book which looks easy to get to and drive there to check it out. The room looks ok so I help Paul inside and pile blankets on top of him and he basically sleeps for the next two days. His fever drops as he continues to take the tablets, we are certainly grateful to Barbara and James in Mozambique for their advice about carrying the malaria curative with us.
When I checked out the room I didn’t check the bed and unfortunately it is very hard so as soon as Paul is up and eating again we decide he is well enough for us to move on provided I do the driving and we stay in rooms for the next couple of nights. We finally collect the trailer, very appreciative of being able to leave it there safely and to have had the use of power to keep the fridge running and they don’t even want to charge us anything … Malawi is certainly a friendly and hospitable place. We leave a donation and make our way north to a little place called Dedza. Its on the tourist route because they have a very good pottery and a range of accommodation. We enjoy a very comfortable bed in a delightful room with dinner in the restaurant and a visit to the pottery in the morning. A bit of pampering is certainly a good idea right now.
It is time to leave Malawi so in the morning we take the shortest and easiest route to the border. It bypasses the capital of Lilongwe and we arrive at the border with Zambia by mid afternoon. Its been a delightful country to visit, (its a pity malaria is so prevalent,) the people are friendly and welcoming, accommodation and national park fees are cheaper the surrounding countries, and it has been far quieter and less crowded. The lake is very impressive and the highland areas provided a welcome change in both the geography and the climate, it is certainly a country we would recommend to other travellers.