Malawi Travel Information
Background and History
Known as the Warm Heart of Africa, Malawi has a thoroughly deserved reputation for the friendliness of its people. Wherever you go, you will receive a warm welcome which is unsurpassed anywhere else in the world.
Hundreds of miles of tropical golden sand beaches line Africa`s third largest lake. Lake Malawi is a true inland sea - and tide less. Relax in the sun on an un-crowded beach, hand-feed tropical fish at the world`s first freshwater National Park or enjoy the waterspouts available on the waves of Lake Malawi.
Malawi has an incredible variety of stunning landscapes, and its Wildlife Reserves offer true unspoilt wilderness, many of these unfenced, which make the landscape truly wild. Malawi is a remarkable developing African nation. Tourist facilities in major cities and in resort areas are steadily improving, but remain limited. Ageing infrastructure and a lack of investment have rendered electricity, water supply, and telecommunications relatively unreliable in rural and certain city areas but for those looking to escape this is simple, comfortable and definately for you.
People and Cultures
Malawi derives its name from the Maravi, a Bantu people who came from the southern Congo about 600 years ago. On reaching the area north of Lake Malawi, the Maravi divided. One branch, the ancestors of the present-day Chewas, moved south to the west bank of the lake. The other, the ancestors of the Nyanjas, moved down the east bank to the southern part of the country. A lot of Portuguese and British influence has since left its mark on this nation, beautiful people with more European features than the general African look is a common sight.
Migrations and tribal conflicts precluded the formation of a cohesive Malawian society until the turn of the 20th century. In more recent years, ethnic and tribal distinctions have diminished. Regional distinctions and rivalries, however, persist. Despite some clear differences, no significant friction currently exists between tribal groups, and the concept of a Malawian nationality has begun to take hold. Predominately rural, Malawians are generally conservative and traditionally non-violent, a clear distinction between Christian and Muslim religions are apparent throughout the country.
Though, under the impact of modernization, Malawi`s traditional culture is characterized by continuity as well as change. The traditional life of the village has remained largely intact. One of the most distinctive features of Malawi culture is the enormous variety of traditional songs and dances that use the drum as the major musical instrument. There are various traditional arts and crafts, including sculpture in wood and ivory which are inexpensive and some of the most beautiful available. There are two museums - the Museum of Malawi in Blantyre and a smaller one in Mangochi.
Fresh fish from Lake Malawi is the country`s specialty and Chambo (Tilapia fish) is the main lake delicacy. And where you are out of reach of the lake there are trout dishes caught from streams on the Zomba, Mulanje and Nyika plateaux. Hotel restaurants and many of those in the cities are of a good standard. They offer a wide choice of dishes, including European, Korean and Chinese as well as authentic Malawi dishes and haute cuisine.
Poultry are plentiful and tropical fruits are abundant in season. Dairy products are rarely available and powdered milk is a common occurance outside of major cities and more rural areas, cheese is an expensive treat and it would be a recommended item to pack should this be a necessity for your dietary requirements.
The local beer is very good and imported beer and soft drinks (reffered to as minerals) are available throughout the country. Glass is a valuable object in Malawi and the locals will do anythign to get their hands on your empties for sales back to the local shop owner.Street vendors are reluctant to give soft drink bottles away even when one is willing to pay a deposit for the bottle. They prefer the customer to drink the soft drink at the vendor site to ensure that the bottle is returned.
Geography of Malawi
Malawi is situated in south-eastern Africa. The Great Rift Valley traverses the country from north to south. In this deep trough lies Lake Malawi, the third-largest lake in Africa, comprising about 20% of Malawi`s area. The Shire River flows from the south end of the lake and joins the Zambezi River 400 kilometres (250 miles) farther south in Mozambique.
Malawi is one of Sub-Saharan Africa`s most densely populated countries. The population of Lilongwe - Malawi`s capital since 1971--exceeds 400,000, the second most visited city of Blantyre is estimated at about 140 000 by the locals. All government ministries and the Parliament are located in Lilongwe. Blantyre remains Malawi`s major commercial centre and largest city.
Malawi`s economy is based on agriculture of which 90 percent of this contributes to the country`s export earnings. The main crops grown in Malawi are maize, tobacco, tea, sugarcane, groundnuts, cotton, wheat, coffee, rice and pulses. Malawi’s primary products that are exported include tobacco, tea, sugar and groundnuts while its major imports are intermediate (chemical and allied) goods for industry.
Kwacha (K) = 100 tambala. Notes are in denominations of K500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5. Coins are in denominations of K1 and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 tambala.
Credit & debit cards
Acceptance of credit and debit cards is very limited, although the main hotels in Lilongwe and Blantyre accept Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club and American Express. Check with your credit or debit card company for details of merchant acceptability and other services which may be available. Cash is the easiest and most common transaction medium in this rural landscape.
As with major currencies, including US Dollars, Euros and Sterling, travellers cheques can be exchanged in banks, hotels and other institutions. In remote areas, the Treasury Office of Local District Commissioner`s offices will cash travellers cheques, although Pounds and Dollars are readily accepted in any area. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travelers are advised to take travellers cheques in US Dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling or South African Rand. Cash remains king in this quaint country and we advise that you travel with this in mind.
Vaccination International Certificate of Vaccination for Yellow Fever is required upon arrival if traveling from an INFECTED AREA. Polio and Typhoid vaccinations might be a good idea should you wish to ensure that you are well protected however bear in mind that this needs to be completed 10 days prior to your arrival in Malawi.
Malaria exists throughout the year in all areas, including urban areas. Resistance to Chloroquine is confirmed thus extra attention is required during your time in Malawi. Precautionary measures are a must in all areas of Malawi and prophylaxis is recommended for visits to this country, however the best measure of protection is to ensure that your activities during dusk, dawn, rain and humidity when the anopheles mosquito is on the hunt is that you are protected through creams which are insect repellent or alternatively treated clothing and sleep under the net!!
Medical facilities are basic in urban areas and poor to non-existent in rural areas. Some medicines are in short supply or locally unobtainable, so remember to take enough of your own along, and dont forget to pack for those unprepared moments for just in case. Local knowledge is freely available and with such a small country and with the only main road it is not impossible to locate the nearest medicinal unit and with the friendly population you are in good hands considering. Travelers should be aware that, contrary to the frequent claims of the local tourist industry, Lake Malawi does contain the parasite schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia in stagnant waters. HIV/AIDS is also prevalent throughout the country and protection is a must in this country!
Visitors into Malawi require a passport valid for at least six months. South African visitors and those from commonwealth countries do not require a visa. Please confirm details with relevant authorities or your African Chapter consultant before travel.
Airports and Transport
The two international airports where most visitors arrive as the first point of entry is Lilongwe or Blantyre. Lilongwe International Airport lies approximately 26 km north of the capital and Chileka Airport is just 13 km outside Blantyre.
There are international flights from London if travelling from Europe, or alternatively from Johannesburg should you wish to combine SOuth Africa with Malawi on your chapter.
A departure tax of US$30 is levied on all international departures from Lilongwe International Airport and Chileka Airport near Blantyre and this must be paid in cash - please be prepared for this as there are no atms, however bureaux de change is available the service is intermittent and you might have to wait a while to complete the transaction.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
Malawi`s principal highway is generally in good condition, though the lack of shoulders constitutes a safety hazard, due to the number of people, pets and domestic livestock which live along the main road. Secondary roads are in poor repair and may be impassable to all but four-wheel drive vehicles during the rainy season (November-April). Public transportation, consisting primarily of minibuses, is unreliable and accidents are common thus not recommended to those without a bit of bravery. Given Malawi`s high road accident rate, travelers should drive defensively, hooting as you approach busy areas is common practice and should be implemented if you are driving in such areas, bicycles are also a very common sight on the Malawi road network, and avoid road travel outside cities at night or during dark times. Road support networks for stranded drivers do not exist, the settlements on the verge of the roads are also hazardous as people, domesticated animals and children walk freely across the roads at any stage.
Police roadblocks are common, but properly-documented drivers usually pass quickly and without incident, refrain from photographing officials at these road blocks as these individuals are there for your protection and are thus not open to such intrusive behavior. Foreigners intending to remain in Malawi for an extended period of time are expected to obtain a locally-issued driver`s license.
Dangers posed by wild animals: Travelers are advised that, even in the most serene settings, wild animals can pose a threat to life and safety, lions have been viewed on the main road linking the country from North to South and some East to West networks. Travelers are cautioned to observe local or park regulations and heed all instructions given by tour guides. Please be vigilant when exiting your vehicles on even the main road.
Major Cities and Attractions
The man attraction being the Northern Lake Sore, Likoma Island, Nkhota Bay, Chinthechwe and Nyika National Park. Experience Africa at its most unspoilt natural state. Except for that part of the region which is occupied by Lake Malawi, the north is characterised by its great highlands. Most magnificent of all is the Nyika Plateau, towering to no less than 8000ft (2500m).
Likoma island - off the eastern shore of the Lake. Likoma’s claim to fame is its cathedral (the size of Winchester’s) on which work began in 1903. This vast building offers the most interesting features including stained glass and carved soapstone. The island has some gorgeous beaches. And access to the island is by boat or chartered aircraft. The accommodation is practical but boasts a luxury beach lodge for those in search of some pampering.
Nkhata Bay is at the northern point on the Lake reached by David Livingstone. Its small sheltered harbour is a focus for the Lake’s fishing industry but is also fast becoming a important tourist centre. With the variety of accommodation on offer, most in the form of camping sites and small lodges - cosy and comfortable is the order of day in this remote part of Malawi.
Most visitors arrive at Lilongwe Airport, Lilongwe also being the Capital City which is in Central Malawi, provides easy access to the rest of the country. The scenery in Central Malawi is less dramatic than anywhere else in the country but it has the same attractive variety that makes Malawi a special country to tour!
Lilongwe is also often used as the gateway to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, which is just a hop across the border.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is 40km south west of Lilongwe situated in a range of hills. It is a great location for mountain biking and exploring with excellent birdlife of the region. There are also natural pools and streams allowing for a quick cooling dip in the warm African heat of the day. Accommodation is available at the Forest Lodge should you wish to stay on a little longer.
Another Forest Reserve is Ntchisi Forest Reserve covering approximately 75 square km and surrounded by rolling hills, covered by subsistence farming and dotted with traditional villages. It is an untouched paradise, entirely undiscovered by mass tour groups.
Salima an important service and trading centre, close to the junction of the M14 road to Lilongwe and the lakeshore highway (M5), this artistic town is 10 miles (16 km) inland from Senga Bay. A very busy little town with an interesting market and all the usual services. The Mua Mission, south of Salima, where carvers are trained, has an excellent shop and the finest artisits in Malawi can be located here. Traditional musical instruments are also sold throughout Malawi. Markets and roadside stalls function every day as a major source of income for the people of Malawi.
To the east of Salima town is Senga Bay where a range of hotels extends from the truly luxurious to small lodges and campsites. The beautiful bay is only one and a half hours` drive from Lilongwe.
The southern part of the country is the most populated, developed and varied region and indicates the most European influences across the country. The region is made up of many physical contrasts and is mostly dominated by the River Shire (pronounced shiray) which snakes its way southwards from the Lake still running through the rift, occupied by the Lake. There are two substantial lakes in the region: Malombe and Chilwa
Southern Lake Shore - The greatest concentration of lodges and hotels is on the southern lakeshore between Mangochi and Monkey Bay. Varying between sophisticated properties, with a golf course and airstrip, to more simple resorts offering comfortable clean facilities. All have excellent uncrowded beaches and offer a range of activities on the Lake. Their locations, just off the M10 road, make them readily accessible from Lilongwe or Blantyre.
Monkey Bay - On the southern lakeshore is a little Lake port with a sheltered harbour behind the Cape Maclear headland. It is a construction and repair centre for the Lake’s limited shipping industry.
Lake Malawi National Park - the world’s first freshwater national park and a World Heritage Site, is at Cape Maclear. The park includes a land area around the cape and bay as well as the islands of up to 100 metres (330ft) off shore. Here is a veritable aquarium of tropical fish providing a colourful kaleidoscopic display. The countless thousands of freshwater fish, locally known as the mbuna, are more abundant and varied here than anywhere else in the world. Boats are available for hire and the fish will feed directly from your hand. Away from the Lake, the park has baboons, antelope and hyrax, and, of course, there is a great variety of birdlife including fish eagles, cormorants and hamerkop. Excellent new up-market operations at Cape Maclear combine accommodation with lake activities in a seamless adventure.
Thyolo (pronounced "Cho’lo") tea estates is situated between Blantyre and Mount Mulanje .Tea has been grown here since 1908 and the primly trimmed bushes (strictly trees) give the whole area the appearance of a neatly kept but vast garden. By arrangement it is possible to tour some of the estates and see the work of these plantations. Accommodation is also available on request and can easily be arranged through African Chapters resources.
Nyika National Park situated in Northern Malawi is Malawi’s largest park covering a land mass of approximately 3200 sq km. With so much to experience we reccommend some definate time in this gorgeous place.
There is such a lot to see from various waterfalls, a neolithic rock shelter, trout pools and even a ‘magic lake’ are just some of the attractions. It extends across the great plateau which is essentially a granitic dome and its environment is like none other in the whole of Africa.
The name, Nyika, means "where the water comes from" . The rolling scenery is at its best in the rainy season when over 200 types of orchid are in flower. The grasslands of Nyika are rich in wildflowers during the other seasons. The area is great for mountain biking and horse riding safaris as well as more conventional 4x4 excursions across the remote landscape. The vegetation attracts large numbers of antelope from the diminutive duiker to eland and roan. The park has one of the highest densities of leopard in Central Africa and there are a number of species of smaller mammals such as warthog and bushpig within the reserve. Elephants and buffalo usually keep to the lower ground on the northern edge of the park but lions and elephants have recently been seen on the high plateaux.
Bordering Zambia is Kasungu National Park, in the Central Region (2100 sq km) this area of natural woodland and bush, with occasional stretches of more open grasslands is a vast vista of beautiful splendour. Unfortunately poaching has reduced the number of some species of animals but there is still plenty of wildlife. Elephants and antelopes are common sights, as are small herds of buffalo and zebra. Predators include leopards, hyenas, serval and jackal. There is a significant number of hippo in the lake at Lifupa and a great bird watching spot for the enthusiasts amongst us. Access to the park has been improved greatly in the recent years and is relatively easy to reach from Lilongwe (approx. 100 miles/160km). A camping site is nearby and a lodge as close, however please do check with us on the latest details before traveling to the area so as to avoid any disappointment.
Liwonde National Park in the Southern Region is the most popular of all the game parks. It is about 160 km north of Blantyre . Game viewing is enhanced because the River Shire flows along its western border. The variety of wildlife includes large numbers of elephant and the river attracts countless hippo and crocodile. You will also find a range of antelope including kudu, sable and bushbuck, and there are lions and leopards for the control of these populations within the reserve. More recently the black rhino has been re-introduced offering the lucky visitor the experience of this fine creature. Birdlife is exceptionally varied with the river attracting fish eagles and Pel’s fishing owl, often seen at dusk along the river’s edge.
Short List of preparations and important information:
To help you pack and prepare for your Journey our team have created a Short List to assist you and bring to your attention the important facts to remember once you have reached your Malawian destination!
- Malawian dress code is very conservative. Local women are not permitted to wear anything resembling men’s attire, e.g. shorts or trousers, however travellers are generally accepted to wear these items. Lightweight articles are worn all year in the Lake Malawi area, with warmer clothes advised in the mountains, particularly during winter and on chilly evenings during your stay. Dark or natural coloured clothing should be worn for game viewing excursions.
- Malawi`s climate is generally subtropical and rainy season runs from November through April.
- Acceptance of credit and debit cards are very limited, cash is the easiest and most common transaction medium.
- Safety: Petty crimes, including purse snatching, muggings, and pick-pocketing, do occur both in Lilongwe and secondary cities. Visitors are advised to be vigilant in public areas and should not display jewellery or other expensive items while in these areas.
- Tourists are advised to keep a photocopy of the first few pages of passport, visas and air tickets, separately from the original documents. Malawian law requires that all persons carry an identity document, such as a passport, and produce it if requested by police.
- It is advisable to use sunscreen, as there is a danger of the reflection of the sun on the water causing severe sunburn. Also be aware of frequent sudden changes in the weather at the Lake which results in currents and windy days out of nowhere.
- Travellers should never approach wild animals and always ascertain safe swimming areas, as crocodiles and hippos frequent many rivers.
- Malawi Road Safety - Malawi`s principal highway is generally in good condition, though the lack of shoulders constitutes a safety hazard. Secondary roads are particularly poor during the rainy seasons (November-April).
- Malawi produces a variety of colourful arts and crafts in markets being the best way to locate fine and fresh goods. Items are invariably handmade and there is no factory production of curios in this country. Purchases include woodcarvings, wood and cane furniture, soapstone carvings, decorated wooden articles, colourful textiles mainly from Tanzania, a Malawian material is a great buy if you can find one. The standard of woodcarving is one of the highest in Africa.
Malawi is truly the wildest and most pleasant location we have had the pleasure of visiting and would recommend this to anyone who is keen on the more rural of lifestyles and enjoy learning from kind and generous peoples of the planet.
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Please don't hesitate to contact us directly, we have visited here previously and are able to provide you with up to date information at any time.