At the tip of a peninsula at the bottom of gorgeous Lake Malawi lies adorable Cape Maclear. The rural village has been a favourite of backpackers and overlanders for decades, and for a good reason. Green mountains make up the inland while the lakeshore is blessed with a narrow sandy beach. The village is a one lane place with shady baobab trees. The men go out on the lake for fishing in small canoes, while the women are constantly washing at the edge of the lake, with playful kids everywhere. The main event of the day is sunset, when the sky turns bright orange before the sun burns out behind the hilly horizon across the lake. Be prepared with the cold drinks for the spectacle is rather short. Afterwards, the night gets filled with African rythms pumping from the small bars along the beach.
The old ferry Ilala travels the length of Lake Malawi docking at lakeside towns and islands along the way. The second class is cramped and grubby, but the first class (which at times also can get crowded) has a bar and an open deck, where the famous Malawian sunset can be enjoyed with a cold beer in hand. Sleeping can be done in cabins, but people mostly just sleep out on the deck, or, for the second class passengers, on piles of cargo.
Islands of Lake Malawi
If the coastal towns and villages of Lake Malawi are a bit too busy for you, a wonderful way of exploring the lake is by visiting its many islands. While some of them have resorts or lodges (e.g. Mumbo Island), others are more or less deserted. The area around Cape Maclear is ideal for kayaking, since many of the islands are within easy reach, and camping is usually possible. If you are very unexperienced, it might be an idea to organise for a guide to come with you, but plenty of people set out on their own on trips of varying lengths. It is always possible to arrange drop-offs and pick-ups with local fishermen, but bringing a kayak gives you much more freedom. The only people you are likely to encounter out here are fishermen and the odd diving boat, making it one of the most relaxing, not to mention beautiful, ways of exploring the lake. Just be careful with timing, as the lake can get very windy during the southern-hemisphere winter.
Capital of Malawi
Lilongwe is another nondescript African capital. It's hardly a city, just a very spreadout town with different neighbourghoods, none more attractive than the others. Dirty Lilongwe River runs through town and a visit gives an grim, though interesting, insight into poverty ridden Lilongwe. The chaotic local markets are always a good place for some people watching and if you need to pick up some souvenirs, try the surprisingly big craft market outside the post office. Oddly, there is a nature sancturary right in the middle of Lilongwe, which might be worth a look if you are stranded for too many days, but else there isn't a hell of a lot to see or do in Lilongwe.
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde may not offer the wildlife abundance of South Luangwa in Zambia or the Masai Mara in Kenya, but nevertheless offers some of the best wildlife viewing in Malawi. The park is long, thin and (other than during the rainy season) very dusty. The park follows the Shire River, which contains a huge number of hippos and crocodiles. The river is also the best way to experience the park â€“ it is possible to get within a few metres of hippos and elephants when travelling by boat. There is only a single tour operator providing accommodation inside the park itself (from camping to all-inclusive luxury tents), but it is also possible to camp just outside the gate. There is also a (black) rhino sanctuary inside the park â€“ rhino tracking by vehicle or on foot can be organised through the camp or the national parks office. The roads in the park are fairly rough, but a 2WD should be sufficient for most of the year. The closest town is Liwonde, only a few kilometres from the main gate, where fuel and food can be purchased.
All over Southern Africa
Chibuku is dirt cheap maize (and sorghum) beer cherished throughout Southern Africa. It's sold in paper cartons with easily recognisable red and blue stripes enclosing its catchy slogan "Chibuku international beer shake-shake". The fermented liquid is thick with lumpy bits, so a strong shake-shake is indeed necessary before opening. The first time you come across Chibuku is probably when you see scraps of Chibuku cartons lying around in the streets, giving a hint of where the local Chibuku joint is located. It's theoretically possible to get drunk on the stuff, but chances are your stomack will have had enough before you reach any level of intoxication. But give it a go, it will earn you street credits with the local drunks.
Nkhata Bay is probably the most popular place at Lake Malawi. It's a nice bay with a small bustling settlement at the bottom. The rocky shoreline is dotted with some brilliant accommodations and a beach is just a hike away. Walks can be done through the lush hills, scuba diving is available and the lakeshore is begging to be explored by kayak or canoe. However, most travellers end up doing nothing besides lazing, socialising and take the occasional dip into Lake Malawi's clear water - not to mention decline another offer for a customised key ring from one of the beach boys.
Nyika National Park
The Nyika Plateau is without a doubt one of the highlights of any visit to Malawi. Nyika is Malawiâ€™s largest national park. It consists mainly of rolling green hills, interspaced with woodlands, streams and rocky outcrops. Getting here is not easy unless you can fly in â€“ over 100 km of sometimes very rough dirt roads, an endeavour not to be taken lightly (or attempted without a 4x4) in the wet season. Zebras, elands, bushbuck, reedbuck and roan antelopes abound, and the odds of seeing a leopard are better here than anywhere else in Malawi. At the time of writing, there is only one tourist operator in the park, but there is a choice of camping, self-catering cottages and all-inclusive chalet stays. Nyika abounds with wildflowers, including orchids. In addition to game drives, it is possible to hike, mountain bike and fish in the park, and there are plans to bring back horseback riding in the future. Beware that nights can be very cold, particularly between May and September, so bring lots of blankets or thick sleeping-bags if camping.
Two-hour drive from Lilongwe
Senga Bay is the closest beach to Lilongwe, and is a very pleasant place to spend a few days. Senga Bay itself is a sleepy village, but nearby Salima has shops, fuel and ATMs. The Ilala ferry does not stop here, so it can only be reached by road â€“ two hours from Lilongwe or Nkhotakhota, two and a half from Cape Maclear. Senga Bay is a fishing village, and boats line the beach in the village itself. Fruit and various snacks can be purchased. Diving, snorkelling, kayaking, trips to Lizard Island and beach barbeques make Senga Bay an easy place to spend a few days if travelling up or down Malawi, or a convenient weekend trip for anyone based in Lilongwe. The beach itself is nice (for Malawi) but quite narrow â€“ the result of illegal sand mining and consequent erosion. There are plenty of (real and meaningful) volunteer opportunities in Senga Bay for those wishing to stay a bit longer.
Nkhotakhota has very little to offer, but since the Ilala ferry stops here travellers might find themselves passing through. The boat docks here on its northward journey late on Friday nights, arriving at Likoma Island Saturday afternoon and at Nkhata Bay early Sunday morning. Going south, the Ilala ferry comes by on Tuesday morning. It is worth noting that the boats ferrying people from the Ilala to the shore have to stop in chest-deep water, but Sitia Inn â€“ located right next to the stretch of beach outside which the Ilala docks â€“ can arrange boats to take passengers all the way to or from the shore. Be prepared to board in the dark, however â€“ bring a headtorch, and be careful when passing bags onto the ferry. There are a few shops and a small market for self-caterers on the main road, and buses going between Nkhata Bay and Lilongwe (via Salima) pass through here. The Nkhotakhota Pottery is located approximately 15 km south of town, and transport to the Ilala can be arranged from here as well.