A Great Place To Relax On An Overland Trip Through East Africa
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In August 2014 we traveled Malawi, named after the Maravi, an old name of the Nyanja people that inhabit the area. We crossed the border coming from the south, from Tete in Mozambique. These are the places we visited: Blantyre, Liwonde Natonal Park, Chongoni Rock Painting Area, Lilongwe, Nkhotakota, Nkhata Bay, Livingstonia and last but not least South Viphya Forest Reserve.
Having only two weeks, we decided to rent a car and drive ourselves, which gave us great flexibility and the possibility to go Off The Beaten Track.
Why Travel To Malawi?
Malawi is mostly known for its ocean-like lake that runs through the country from north to south. Yes, it is intriguing to find fine sand beaches in a land-locked country!
Malawi is very easy to travel: short distances, mostly good roads, people speak English and accommodation is relatively cheap for Africa. It even earned the title “Africa For Beginners”. One thing is certain, there is no other place on the continent to crash and relax as cheaply as in Malawi. Anyway that we know of…
Malawi also claims to be “The Warm Heart Of Africa”. Well, of course most people are friendly and helpful, but if our memories drift back to travels in Uganda, Zimbabwe or Mali… this is where we would give out titles.
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
You should have a very good look at two aspects when organizing a trip to Malawi:
- Red Tape – Citizens of most European countries, but not all of them, can get a free of charge Visa On Arrival at any border crossing or at the International Airport. Nevertheless, some countries are not included on this list, for instance Austria & Switzerland… There are only very few embassies of Malawi in Europe delivering Visas, so check carefully in advance. And: in such a case the visa is awfully expensive – no less than 150 Euro!
- Money… Read this very carefully: “Bring Your Visa Card… And Cash”! We spell it out again: VISA, not Master Card, not American Express, it is VISA only! Not knowing this we wasted a lots of time and above all money …
Highlights Of The Trip
- Relaxing on the shores of Lake Malawi at Fish Eagle Lodge in Nkhotakota, the most pleasant and relaxing place. And that for a really, really reasonable price!
- Strolling the streets of Livingstonia being the only tourists – Not only did we enjoy the stunning views and the very relaxed atmosphere, but we had so many pleasant encounters and discussions with local people in the streets, restaurants or in shops… Livingstonia turned out to be the best place to buy wooden artwork ever. Prices were about 10-15% of what we would have paid in Lilongwe…
- Night Diving in Nkhata Bay – The “normal” dive was okay, but nothing to write home about. The night dive was truly spectacular!
- “Football Fever” in Nkhata Bay – Across from the local prison, the football field turns lively on weekends, when local teams compete each other. A very local event, if this is what you like.
- Tobacco Auction in Lilongwe – Fascinating to watch how the system works and how quickly 500 tons of tobacco can be sold…
- The spectacular suspension bridge made of bamboo in Kandewe – Climbing across the wobbly bridge with the river well below was quite an experience!
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
As soon as you leave Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay, you will encounter only very, very few tourists. So most of Malawi is actually Off The Beaten Track. Having your own means of transport helps immensely, although you can also reach more remote places on public transport. Provided you are not in a rush…
What Will We Especially Remember?
- Tourist ghettos in Lilongwe, Nkhata Bay and from what we heard in Cape Maclear: Cheap hostels full with backpackers and volunteers, plus those Africans who are attracted by this – A few hundred meters from their diameter and you may enter a tourist free zone!
- Inviting sandy beaches on the shores of Lake Malawi.
- Deserted (good) roads once you leave Lilongwe
- Banks at every corner in Blantyre and the center of Lilongwe
- A very dry country, especially the northern half of Malawi
- Seeing the Gule Wa Nkulu with our own eyes. Quite uncomfortable actually, as the guy was swinging a Panga (machete)…
What Would We Do Differently?
- Not waste any time and money on a safari, rather disappointing in comparison to neighboring countries. Liwonde National Park has very little wildlife, Majete we cannot tell – we did not even give it a try after our stay in Liwonde.
- Bring Euro or USD in cash and a VISA card (see “Bring Your Visa Card… And Cash”)
- Book accommodation ahead for Nkhata Bay and Lilongwe.
Is It Safe To Travel To Malawi?
It is extremely safe and easy to travel Malawi. Nowhere in Africa have we seen so many young people traveling, many of them volunteers, even girls on their own. Most of them concentrate around in Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay, though.
Best Time To Visit Malawi
The rainy Season spreads from November to April, so the best time to visit Malawei is during the dry months from May to October. It is best to avoid holidays in Malawi, in January & February, the hottest and wettest months.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
Communication is extremely easy in Malawi as English is widely spoken.
Getting Around In Malawi
Roads are mostly in good in condition. Depending on how much time and budget you have available, you can choose either to travel on public transport (slow but actually efficient) or rent a car. Take into consideration that gasoline is extremely expensive in Malawi.
See “Challenges Organizing the Trip”
Photography – Few Opportunities For Great Pictures
Malawi turned out to be rather disappointing from a photographer’s point of view. Viewing all of our photos after returning home, we had none we dared sending to our Stock Image Agency (www.ImageBroker.com)!
People not only refused to being photographed, even when you ask them, but on top of that, often even taking pictures from the shop or the minibus led to discussions, a very unusual experience for us.
The other reason? There are not many exceptional motives in Malawi. Of course, there is always the photo of a lifetime that can happen to you anywhere, but it did not…
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Conclusion About Malawi
Malawi is definitely a great place to crash and relax on a long-term trip through Eastern Africa. Nowhere else did we find such pleasant, reasonably priced and inviting hostels and guesthouses. The perfect places to drop our backpacks and chill for a few days were Nkhotakota, Nkhata Bay and Livingstonia…
Nevertheless, we would not recommend Malawi as a “Fly-In Destination”. Lake Malawi is nice, but its assets do not justify a very long, expensive flight from another continent. For us, having visited a fair number of countries in Africa, it offered only a very few unique experiences.