Malawi General Information

Malawi1Malawi has a massive diversity of beautiful landscapes. The highest peaks in Malawi touch 10 000ft (3 000m) while the lowest point is barely above sea level. This range of altitudes in a small area help to make the landscape of Malawi one of the most varied in all Africa. It is generally a green, lush country, with plateau, highlands, forests, mountains, plains, escarpments and dramatic river valleys. The variety of scenery is a major attraction to visitors and many of the highland areas and forest reserves have good accommodation options, and plenty of outdoor activities available. Malawi is blessed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna and has no less than nine National Parks or Wildlife Reserves. Whilst it may not have quite the sheer numbers of large mammals (particularly predators) as some of its better known neighbours, it makes up for this in other ways. Malawi provides intensive and exclusive wildlife viewing in unspoilt areas of genuine wilderness.

The Malawian people are, without doubt, its greatest asset: friendly and welcoming to a fault. Every visitor is met with a smile and the warmth of the welcome is genuine and long-lasting. With a population of a little more than 14 million, Malawi is one of the more densely peopled countries of this part of Africa. Most of the population is rural, living largely in fascinating traditional villages. Many of today’s Malawians are descendants of the Bantu people who moved across Africa and into Malawi for hundreds of years up to the fifteenth century.


There is a rich cultural mix in Malawi with the Chewa being the most numerous tribe. Others include the Yao, the Nyanja and the Maravi. In the north the Tumbuka are prominent. Each tribe has contributed to the modern Malawi scene, whether it be in dress or dance or language. Masks are commonly used in various dances and ceremonies and these are usually tribe-specific, the best known being the Gule Wamkulu, performed by the Nyau of the Chewa. Traditional (African) doctors still attract many people and the two main ‘modern’ religions, Christianity and Islam, frequently exhibit a continuing adherence to traditional beliefs.

Cultural Experiences
All travel in Malawi will include some element of cultural experience as interaction with local people is very much part of any stay. A visit to a local village can easily be arranged at most lodges or hotels, whether they are in a town, forest reserve, National Park or on the lakeshore. These are always real villages, whose residents have an established relationship with the lodge in question, and who welcome the interest from visitors in their daily life.

Best time to travel / Climate
For most people the dry (winter) season is most attractive (i.e. April/May to October/November). The chance of rain is slim, daytime temperatures are generally pleasant (in the 20s Celsius) and the low vegetation and limited availability of water mean that game viewing is at its best. However, some of the best bird watching can be had from November to April and the orchids of Nyika are best seen from December to March/April. Malawi’s temperatures are moderated by altitude. In the hottest month (usually November) maximum temperatures will be around 30°C. In the coldest month (probably July) maximum temperatures will be in the low 20’s. On the uplands (e.g. Zomba, Nyika and Viphya) it can be quite cold at night. The hottest area, all year, is that at the lowest altitude – the Lower Shire Valley. Rainfall is extremely rare in the dry season and even in the so-called wet season, the rains are usually short-lived storms, as is typical of the tropics, and at no time does the climate seriously inhibit the traveller. Around the country, rainfall varies, with the highlands causing the highest figures.

Health & Safety

Immunization against polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A is recommended. Yellow fever immunization may be required only by visitors entering from a yellow fever zone. There is a risk of malaria and prophylactics should be taken. Seek up to date advice from your doctor. There is a risk of contracting bilharzia if bathing in some parts of Lake Malawi but the risk is negligible near the main beach hotels. The infection is relatively easily treated once diagnosed. Malawi is a high risk area for AIDS.

Malawi is considered a safe country for tourists and Malawians are rightfully known for their friendliness. However, the usual precautions should be taken as would be advised for tourists anywhere.

Food & Drink
Excellent fish dishes are widely available but especially near Lake Malawi. Most hotels and safari camps serve “western” dishes with, perhaps, game and occasionally local foods such as maize meal porridge. Soft drinks are available everywhere. Beers (Carlsberg is the most common); spirits such as Malawi gin and South African wines are reasonably priced and commonly available. For drinking, bottled water should be used in preference to tap water.

Dress is generally informal. Swimwear and very skimpy clothing should be confined to the beach resorts. For safaris, “natural ” colours should be worn in preference to light/bright colours. In the uplands, especially in the winter (April-September), it can be cold in the evening and sweaters may be needed. It can be very cold on morning or night safari drives.

Money Matters
Malawi’s unit of currency is the kwacha (abbreviated to MK internationally; K locally). The kwacha divides into 100 tambala. Practically speaking, only the kwacha is used. Banks in the towns are open weekdays from 0800 to 1300. Mobile banks operate along the lakeshore and in more remote areas (check days/times locally). Travellers Cheques or foreign (hard) currency notes are widely accepted. Avoid black market currency traders. There is no limit to the amount of foreign currency imported but it must be declared and accounted for on departure. Only MK3000 of local currency may be exported. There are 24-hour ATMs in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu. Only local currency is dispensed and that is limited to approximately the equivalent (depending on exchange rates) of GB£85, Euro110; US$140 in any period of twenty-four hours.

Time & Public Holidays

Malawi time is GMT+2, as with most of southern Africa.

Public Holidays
Jan 1, 15; March 3; May 1; June 14; July 6; 2nd Monday in October; Dec 25, 26. Also: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. If a holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, then the next Monday becomes a holiday. Muslim festivals may also be celebrated in some areas.

Supply is based on the 220/240 volts system, using “British type” square bayonet three-pin plugs.

The telephone system is reasonably reliable, though mobiles can often be easier to get through to than landlines. Sim cards for local mobile phone networks are widely available and relatively cheap and easy to use. Most hotels and offices are readily reached by e-mail. The postal system tends to be slow. International courier DHL operates in Malawi.

TV & Radio
There is a national TV station, though its primary output is news. In addition, many city centre hotels receive international satellite channels. There are English language radio broadcasts.

Any camera equipment is best brought into the country and care should be taken to avoid its exposure to extremes of heat. Most Malawians will not mind being photographed but it is common courtesy to ask permission first.

Language Guide
While English is an official language, and is widely understood, a number of indigenous languages are also spoken. The most common is Chewa (or Chichewa – the language of the Chewa).

Small supermarkets are found in towns and larger villages. Large supermarkets and European style shops are almost exclusively found in Blantyre and Lilongwe. Markets and roadside vendors are popular with travelers. Attractive souvenirs are the excellent wood carvings, widely available, and straw goods together with work by local artists. The standard of craft-work varies but at its best is quite outstanding. In the markets, bargaining is expected. Traditional Chief’s chairs are popular. Shops and offices open and close earlier in the day than is the custom in Europe or North America.


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Malawi Guided Tours

Malawi5Snorkelling & Diving
The clear, calm, warm, shark-free and tideless waters with abundant fish populations (over 600 species), and fascinating rock formations make Lake Malawi an excellent place to dive. It is widely recognised as one of the best freshwater diving locations in the world. Visibility can reach 30m at the best times of year (August to December). Even simple snorkelling gives good results in the right places. Swimming with the fish is a favourite pastime in Lake Malawi.

Kayaking & Sailing
Kayaking and sailing can range from an hour or so on the water to a full kayaking expedition or to living aboard a luxury yacht as it sails the length of the lake. Kayaking is proving increasingly popular, particularly in the Lake Malawi National Park. Sea-going kayaks are used to paddle to eco-camps on two deserted islands in the park (Mumbo and Domwe). Canoe expeditions are also on offer at Nkwichi Lodge in the Manda Wilderness Community Reserve

Boat Trips
For a simple organised pleasure trip of up to a few hours there is a choice of destinations – places of interest along the shore, or small islands just offshore. Traditional wooden boats or modern fibreglass speed boats are available. Some trips will include snorkelling or fishing along the way.

Water Skiing
Thankfully, Lake Malawi is not awash with speedboats, but at some of the lodges it is possible to water-ski. Where this is available, there are also sometimes a variety of other objects that guests can sit or stand on whilst being dragged behind a boat!

Most of the lakeshore lodges will have a sailboard or two for guests to use. Winds are rarely very high, but with the size of the lake, there will always be a breeze.
There’s a wide choice of safari. You can use the customary 4×4 vehicle (most are open) for your game drives or you can really get to know the country and its wildlife on a walking safari. Other options include boat safaris along the Shire river. This is a wonderful way to see the animals close-up as they seem unfrightened by people in a boat. You can float close to the hundreds of hippos and watch the elephants drink just a few metres away. Other close encounters can be had, for example, when tracking elephant in Majete. The famous horseback safaris are back in 2010, an opportunity to ride alongside the antelope and zebra.

Climbing & Abseiling
Rock climbing is largely restricted to the Mulanje Massif where a number of little-used routes up the great granite faces offer experienced climbers a variety of challenges. There are also opportunities for climbing on the Viphya Highlands and escarpments of the Northern Lakeshore. And where there is climbing, there is also abseiling.

Malawi6Walking & Trekking
Malawi has such beautiful and varied scenery throughout, that walking and trekking is popular at pretty much any location, even along the laekshore. Walks through all of the national parks and wildlife reserves are popular for game viewing but trekking is generally through the cooler, shady forests on the hills and plateaux.

Horse Riding
There are a few places around Malawi where horse riding can be enjoyed – scenic locations that can be leisurely explored on horseback. Beginners are welcome and rides will be adapted to suit ability. There is a stables between Chintheche and Dwangw offering rides into the bush and along the beach. All the lodges there offer rides to their guests.

Cycling & Mountain Biking
The change in scene over relatively short distances, and the varied terrain, make Malawi a good country for cycling. The generally good tar of the main roads allow for cycling tours over a few days, for example, along the lakeshore.More challenging mountain biking is provided in the forests and on the plateaux. Many of the newly privatised forest lodges offer mountain bikes for hire and there is an increasing number of trails to explore.

As well as Lake Malawi, rivers and smaller lakes and reservoirs provide varied fishing opportunities. Light tackle will cover most situations and some equipment may be available for hire at the resorts, though it’s always best to bring your own.

Quad Bikes & 4×4 Trips
With rugged terrain and some ‘challenging’ tracks once off the main highways, quad bikes and larger off-road vehicles offer a motorised way or reaching places otherwise only accessible on foot. Quad bikes are few and far between – currently only on Likoma Island and at the Tyholo Tea Estaes. 4×4 trips are available across some of the forested highland areas.

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Likoma Island

Malawi2Although Likoma lies just off Mozambique, the island remains the property of Malawi, its coastline- dotted with lone baobabs alongside crystal waters– taking on the flavour of the motherland. The sandy 17km square island, with its mango trees and rugged mountain peaks, is flat and unprepossessing, but its lanquid beaches are lapped by clear waters. Lying in splendid isolation off the mountain-backed beach of Mozambique’s mainland, Likoma can be difficult to reach and the only proper-albeit rather unreliable-way to reach the island is via the MV Llala II, the dilapidated but enchanting old lake steamer that once a week ferries passenger between Likoma and Mozambique. The island itself is tranquil and laid back and, apart from the weekly performance of the malipenga dancers pandering almost exclusively to a tourist audience, there are few notable landmarks. The most significant is the cavernous St Peter’s Cathedral, built along the lines of Winchester Cathedral by Anglican missionaries in the early 1900s. St Peter’s remains the focal point of the island today, with many locals working virtually all year every year on maintaining the colossal remnant of Likoma’s colonial past.

Lake Malawi

Malawi4Known as Lake Nyassa or Lago Niassa, depending on what bank you are standing, the 23 000km square Lake Malawi is the third –largest inland body of water in Africa and covers more than a half of Malawi’s territory. The 585 km of its length along the southern Rift Valley comprises a diversity of habitats for array of wildlife. As a result the waters of the lake- encircled by mountain slopes- have formed the mainstay of Malawi’s economy and nucleus of its tourism industry. Blessed with tranquil beaches the most important settlement along the shore is the fishing community at Chember, who depend on Lake Malawi for the livelihood. Numerous dug-out vessels ply the lake surface, netting fish that forms the staple diet of Malawi. The lake has one of the richest populations of freshwater fish in the world and most species found here in the lake are endemic. Casual angling is forbidden in areas, including Cape Maclear National Park, and surrounding islands, although water-based leisure activities are encouraged.



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