Off the beaten track in the warm heart of Africa: A backpackers guide to Malawi
Malawi, nestled in the heart of East Africa, is a land locked country with mountains, tea plantations, an expansive lake and a multitude of excellent activities and hostels to offer any adventurous backpacker. Here’s our backpackers guide to Malawi.
You’ll need a visa, a flight or mutatu (minibus), some Malawian Kwacha to spend and adequate medical supplies to get your trip going. You should, however, expect to share that bus with chickens, livestock or people with a lot of stuff as Malawians favour a ‘more the merrier’ approach to travel.
Malawi borders Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania and is often called ‘Africa for beginners’, due to its laidback and welcoming people. Also known locally as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, it is perhaps most famous for Lake Malawi, stretching like a sea across the East of the country, with the ferries that run its length being a popular travel option for locals and travellers alike.
The lake is enormous – so big, in fact, that a fifth of Malawi is water. According to UNESCO, it’s home to more species of fish than any other lake on the planet which makes it a prime spot for snorkelers and divers.
Despite having a rich culture and exciting collection of things to do for tourists, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. Malawi is consistently ranked by the World Bank as one of the poorest countries in the world and multiple organisations run outreach missions and development projects with the aim of changing this. It’s safe to say that while backpacking Malawi you will bump into your fair share of Western development workers and medics on electives.
It is fairly easy for English-speaking tourists to navigate, with both Chichewa and English as official languages. Malawians appreciate those that pick up some of the local dialect, so make sure you practice “moni” (hello) and “muli bwanji?” (how are you?).
When to go?
Typically speaking, Malawi has two seasons: dry and wet. The varied landscape, ranging from low-lying planes to tall mountains to the beachy lakeside, means the weather can vary from region to region. Low-lying lake shore areas are normally a bit warmer. The rainy season runs from November to April, however heavier rains can be expected in December, January and February. May to August is cooler with bright sunshine and fresh evenings. Temperatures rise again in September so remember that sun cream.
What to do?
Most journeys to Malawi start in Lilongwe – the sleepy capital. There are regular flights in, and if you’re crossing via a land border you can expect to find taxis and buses heading that way. There are a few accommodation options, but many opt for Mabuya Camp.
Mabuya camp is full of expats and travellers passing through. Teachers from the local international school drink there, as do local development workers and ex-pat mango farmers. There are dorms and private huts. It has a lively vibe and lovely staff who are willing to help plan travel to the lake and beyond.
In Lilongwe itself are various markets, including a Malawian craft market and a large second hand clothing market in the centre where men stand in a line hawking their wears. If you’re planning on doing any hiking while you’re in Malawi it’s a good place to pick up second hand warm clothes, hiking boots and backpacks.
In Lilongwe, you can also visit the extraordinary tobacco auction house just outside of the city. This is an enormous warehouse, full of huge bales of tobacco as far as the eye can see, and various tradesmen bidding in auctions. You can smell the pungently sweet leaves from down the road.
Blantyre is another city many travellers stop at. It’s a five-hour coach from Lilongwe, and a popular stop off for those heading to the mountains in the south. You might not want to count on the bus leaving on time, though, as they only depart when they are full. Many people stay in Pakachere backpackers. It’s a great place to stock up on supplies and get things fixed by the local tailors.
Mountains and hiking
The hiking in Malawi is a real treat. If you’re looking for something more chilled out, green Zomba Plateau is impressive. Accommodation-wise, Ku Chawe trout farm near the plateau is a good backpacker spot. Albeit basic it is quite charming, however phone charging facilities and plugs are located in the school down the road and there’s no internet connection until you get to the next town so make sure you’ve posted all your scenic Instagrams before you get there. There are various things to do, such as horse riding or scrambling down potato path (a popular hiking route).
Mount Mulanje is a short bus ride away. Mulanje is peppered with verdant tea plantations, moss, jungle and steep rocks rising up. There are various Scottish colonial huts to stay the night in if you’re doing a longer trek. The climb is quite hard for beginner mountaineers, however guides and porters nimbly negotiate the crags. There’s a porters race every year, where they run up and down the main path. It’s said that on a clear day, from the highest you can see to the Indian Ocean over Mozambique. On the way down from the Boma route are waterfalls to cool off in.
Accommodation-wise, Mulanje Motel at the base of the mountain is cheap and accessible, albeit quite basic.
This is also a good jumping off point for safari in Liwonde National Park.
There is a sociable backpacker trail that hugs the edge of the lake and it’s a great place to get the Ilala – the fabled ferry that has been cruising Lake Malawi since the 50s. It’s a popular backpacker travel option as it gives some respite from the bumpy minibuses, and also used regularly by locals. Organisation is needed as it only goes every few days. It’s advisable to get a cabin if you can, and you’re planning on travelling overnight. Sitting in the boat and going on deck to see the amazing sunset and sunrise is an unforgettable experience
Lake-side Cape Maclear is a three hour taxi ride from Lilongwe, and well worth the trip. It’s home to Mgoza Lodge which has nipa huts looking out over the lake. You can organise boat tours to see eagles here, or get clothes and trinkets made by the local tradesmen.
Monkey Bay is just down the road with Mufasa Eco Lodge also looking out onto the lake and is a bit livelier, playing reggae music into the night.
A hostel further north, which has a real sense of community, is Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay. They have a range of accommodation options, including cabins and camping, and the decking that juts out onto the lake is a good sunbathing spot. They also run development and outreach projects in the local community and can orgnaise diving excursions and canoeing. Another advantage to staying at Butterfly Space is that it’s a convenient spot to get the Ilala from. You might want to stock up on cash before you get there though, as the cash points at the bank often aren’t working.
What to eat?
Although not famous for its culinary prowess, Malawi has a variety of things on offer when it comes to food; from traditional African fare to delicious fruit. Malawi mangos are a particular treat (in season in January), as are the enormous avocados that seem to be abundant in other East African countries.
When travelling, you can get food on the go, with people sticking their produce through the windows of the bus at the larger stops. Home cooked chips with cabbage, sausages (that can look a bit suspect), and, of course, nsima – the stodgy East African staple, are all things you can find on the go. Nsima is a bit like mealy-pap (found in neighbouring countries), but is made of cassava. It’s an acquired taste, and the staple food of many Malawians. Lake Malawi is home to one of the most diverse fresh fish populations in the world, therefore a seafood dinner is hard to turn down, too.
Is it Safe?
Malawi is, on the whole, one of the safer East African countries. Being able to travel alone without too much hassle made this apparent. There were fewer horror stories from fellow travellers about muggings, and there is a good enough backpacker trail that hostels know where tourists might be targeted. You still have to follow the rules: don’t go out too late at night, don’t carry anything too valuable, and watch your pockets on crowded mutatus.
Women should be prepared to dress conservatively in areas that aren’t mainstream tourist hubs, and you’re always expected to ask before you take photos.
Rumours of lake bugs are rife in Malawi, and travellers should be careful to make sure they take the right meds. Bilharzia tablets are widely available from pharmacies for those going swimming in the lake. Malaria is another biggie to look out for, and medication should usually be sourced before entering the country.
Always consult a doctor before travelling, as you may need rabies boosters or other jabs.
Oh, and drink bottled water – if you don’t it can lead to all sorts of problems.
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