Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Top 12 unmissable places to visit in Malawi

I'm often asked what things are not to be missed by friends travelling to Malawi, so I've pulled all my tips together into a single post.

Here are my top 12 unmissable places to visit in Malawi.

1. Mount Mulanje

Mount Mulanje is Malawi's highest peak. Situated in the Southern region above the town of Mulanje, climbing/hiking tours can be arranged, which generally take several days, camping overnight on the mountain. Mulanje offers a breath-taking tropical climb.

2. Lake of Stars festival, Salima

OK, so not a place but an event - and not one you want to miss! Lake of Stars is an institution in Malawi, started a number of years ago, it brings together global and local musicians for a 3 day festival of music and partying. It generally takes place one weekend in October - for more details, visit the Lake of Stars website.

3. Lake Malawi Steamer - the Ilala

The only way to see Lake Malawi - the Ilala steams up and down the west coast of Lake Malawi from Monkey Bay, to Likoma Island, Nkhata Bay and all the way to Chilumba. There are only 5 cabins, but what better way to kick back and relax on a cruise up or down Lake Malawi. Recommended!

4. Nkhotakota pottery, Nkhotakota

Malawi actually has quite an impressive pottery industry, both for local people and travellers' souvenirs and one of the most famous lies in the town of Nkhotakota, on the central/northern lakeshore road. Tied to a hotel, Nkhotakota offers pottery breaks where you can see them at work, paint your own or just buy some of their fabulous products. The do all sorts of crockery, bowls, plates, salt and pepper shakers, as well as tiles and other custom items. Brilliant!

5. Sambani Lodge, Chintetche

Sambani Lodge is a small hotel situated on a beautiful, white sandy beach on the shore of Lake Malawi. Nestled in mango trees, several kilometres from the main lakeshore road that runs from Nkhata Bay to Salima, Sambani Lodge offers good quality accommodation at a decent price. The water is also Bilharzia free, so swimming is compulsory (a huge relief in the heat of the day!). There are also all sorts of activities to occupy you, and if there aren't enough of you for a volleyball team, some locals will be sure to help you out!

6. Kasungu National Park

Kusungu National Park takes up much of the central west part of Malawi, bordering Zambia, and is a huge, mainly wooded park containing buffalo, hippos, leopards and lots of fabulous birdlife. Visiting this park off-season is not recommended as the tree cover means animals are hard to spot and there are lots of waterholes to choose from.

7. Livingstonia

Cut off from the rest of Malawi by a single road, and often inaccesible during and just after heavy rains, Livingstonia should be a separate country of its own. Named after David Livingstone, it sits atop the rift valley plateau, perched on the edge of the escarpment that drops away over 1,000 feet to Lake Malawi below. People and guesthouses are few and far between but for me nothing can detract from this beautiful wilderness.

8. Likoma Island

Perched in the middle of Lake Malawi, Likoma island is accessible by plane (as it has a small airstrip) or by steamer boat from Nkhata Bay. It is a beautiful island, with around 9,000 inhabitants, and randomly a cathedral in the centre! There are guesthouses available for visitors, but booking in advance is recommended.

9. Karonga Museum (it's all about the Dinosaurs!)

This museum is as incongurous as it sounds. Situated on the outskirts of Karonga township, and boasting an amazing full 'Malawisaurus' skeleton (yes that's its name...really!) found nearby, this museum with make you chuckle as much as inform you of the mythical history and local traditions of the area. Worth a visit if you are passing through!

10. Vwaza Marsh National Park

Vwaza Marsh doesn't sound like the nicest place to go, but it is one of the best, and most reliable parks to visit in Malawi. The accommodation is situated around the main marsh/lake with chalets and space for camping. Animals you'll see are elephants, crocodiles, hippos, buffalo, wildebeast. If you go, make sure you sign up for their night safari and walking safaris - you'll be astonished by what you see.

11. Lake Malawi National Park

Claiming to be the world's first freshwater national park, Lake Malawi National Park, in the southern region of Malawi, covers a mere 9,000 hectares, but in spite of its small size it is packed with huge concentrations of Malawi's diverse bird life, as well as hundreds of different species of fish. Lake Malawi has the largest number of species of ciclid of any freshwater lake in the world!

12. Nkhata Bay

Nkhata bay is the place to hang out if you're on an overland tour, or want to do activities in Malawi. The large, pebbly beach is surrounded by guesthouses and lodges, all offering various watersports and other activities. A short way away (on the road to Chitetche) there is a huge roadside carving market, where carvers of all types of soivenirs (traditional and modern) hang out waiting for passing cars and customers. The good news is they are all negotiable!

So, those are my top unmissable places to see in Malawi - have I missed any that you would add? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Guest Blog: My first taste of Malawi by Emma Langley

Nick: I'd like to introduce a friend who has very kindly agreed to share her experiences of travelling in Malawi as a young, single female traveller. Huge thanks to Emma Langley for this post:

My first taste of Malawian hospitality came before I’d even got outside Lilongwe airport.

I’d bonded with two strangers on the aeroplane over our two particularly tremulous flights from London: two brothers, Paulo and Emilio, then living in London on their way home to Malawi. I was supposed to be staying in guesthouse in Lilongwe before my friends arrived but the brothers had a better suggestion: “Don’t stay in the capital by yourself, stay with our family in Blantyre”. I can’t do that. My British sense of politeness said it would be imposing and awkward, and the single female traveller in me said you’ve known these guys for less than 24 hours. But the adventurer won out. It was a judgement call, the kind you don’t tell your mother about.

They were met at the airport by Manuel, another brother, a family friend and Paulo’s 10-year-old son. I had no idea how many ‘main’ towns there were – or weren’t - in Malawi. So when they said they Blantyre was just the next town down, the fact I was in a different country, no clue specifically as to where in relation to anywhere else, no means of communication, with complete strangers, seemed marginally less angst-inducing. Five hours in the back of the truck with a backside that had disowned me later, we arrived at their sister Clara’s house in Blantyre.

Blantyre is not five hours from Lilongwe – it was more like 2-2.5 hours on the return trip. But we stopped at every single small settlement or roadside gathering on route so the brothers could buy food, exchange clothes/cigarettes from the UK, catch up with friends. It was a five hour story with a plot as bumpy as the potholes and as characters as colourful as the roadside fabrics: I heard the life story of the man selling giant mushrooms on the side of the road, the business problems of their ex-primary school teacher’s wife, and the agricultural history of the fruits we purchased from children at a market. Of course, a random white girl in the back of a truck with 3 non-Malawian looking Malawians and a child attracted just a little bit of attention: I had come to Malawi as a tourist but was fast realising that I was becoming a tourist attraction. I figured out the meaning of “Musungo Musungo!” without the help of a translator. We drank beer watching the sun go down over the vast expanse of Mozambique to the right of the road and, as the brothers starting reminiscing about their childhood, I almost expected to pitch up with a campfire for the night.

None of the brothers or their 8 elder siblings were born in Malawi, they arrived here as refugees when Paulo, the youngest, was a baby. The 15 year civil war from 1975 -94 in Mozambique led a million and a half people to flee to neighbouring countries. Their father was a Portuguese farmer, their mother the daughter of Mozambican famer, Mozambique being an ex-Portuguese colony and trading port. Like many similar families in the very southern regions of Malawi, Clara’s household speak Portuguese as a joint first language with Chechwa, and some English. And when I say household, I’m talking six children, four adults and grandmother. It took me three days to figure out whose children belonged to whom: amongst their family and friends children seemed to be very communal. By Malawian standards, the family are relatively well-off, mostly through Clara’s marriage to a South African building developer. It took me a while to get my head around the idea that a nanny, a cook, a cleaner and a house guard constituted a normal lifestyle for anyone outside of aristocracy; to Clara’s circle of friends and family, hired help is entirely normal.

In between playing with six children and watching Nigerian soap operas, the family took me around Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial centre and second largest town. We explored Limbe, took in the awesome views across the Shire River and bank-side farms, and went clubbing – the least likely activity I thought I’d be doing in Malawi. Clara lent me a dress on account of the fact that very item of clothing in my rucksack screamed scummy backpacker. But I think the highlight for me was the party in an Iranian friend’s house, to celebrate the birthday of one of their Indian friends. If it wasn’t for grandmother busting her Mozambican dance moves until the early hours, you could have been forgiven for thinking you’d arrived at a United Nations conference.

It’s rare that over-used clich├ęs are well-employed, let alone deserved, but I was starting to glean something about this so-called warm heart of Africa: I was taken in by complete strangers and they made me part of their family. The brothers delivered me safely back to Lilongwe and it was not the last I saw or heard from them – I’m going back to visit the family in October. This experience was the first of many encounters with friendly Malawians and I’m genuinely humbled by how I’ve experienced hospitality in a place so vastly different from home.

Nick: What was your first visit to Malawi like - we'd love to hear you experiences too!