Magical Malawi : five great reasons to visit the Warm Heart of Africa
Lulama Njapa urges you to treat yourself to a ‘post-pandemic’ adventure that won’t break the bank
The only thing you might remember about Malawi is that Madonna adopted her beautiful children from this beautiful country.
If you are South African, you might remember a certain former president who used Malawi as an example when making a point about countries with terrible roads, to make a case for e-tolls.
We also frequently read about the poverty and unemployment that have ravaged the country.
What we hardly read about is the resilience of the people of the Warm Heart of Africa, as Malawi is fondly known. Neither do we read about the fighting spirit of the people, who remain kind and hospitable even as they go through these hardships.
Tourism was certainly not the first thing on my mind when I came to Malawi. I had never read anything about the tourist attractions of the country and so it was a wonderful surprise for me.
Every experience felt like an undiscovered truth — here is a short list of some of those truths.
1. THE GLORIOUS MOUNTAINS
Whether you're a hiking enthusiast or just love the therapy of being surrounded by mountains, Malawi is the perfect destination. The landscape is like something out of a mystical legend. Whenever you step outside and look up, rolling hills beckon in all directions.
Malawi is home to Mount Mulanje, 378km southeast of Lilongwe, the capital, and a mere 65km east of Blantyre. The drive from Blantyre is wonderfully scenic as the road meanders through the tea plantations of Phalombe. Mount Mulanje looms 3,002m above sea level and is about 26km long. You catch sight of it long before you arrive and the closer you get the more you are enveloped by the desire to worship at its foot.
Mount Mulanje is a playground for climbers and hikers alike. You can hike to Sapitwa Peak, the highest in Central Africa.
If hiking is not your idea of fun, you can take a slow walk and appreciate the vegetation and diverse animal species in the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve.
Zomba Plateau, one of the busiest tourist attractions in Malawi's southern region, is just 60km south of Blantyre. Its highest peak is 2,087m and on a clear day you can see as far as 60km away.
Mount Zomba offers hiking, rock climbing, horse riding and mountain biking. But if a serene, peaceful day is what you're after, you can relax with a picnic near Mulunguzi Dam, which is on the plateau itself.
2. THE CUISINE
Malawi's food culture is incredible. Meal times are communal and almost sacred. It doesn't matter where Malawians are during the day, when lunch time comes they wash their hands, sit down, and eat. They hardly ever eat on the go. Meal times are so strictly observed that businesses close for at least an hour every day while staff have their lunch.
Malawian cuisine doesn't have many external influences so the food has remained simple and more about sustenance than extravagance. Most restaurants serve local dishes, but if you need fast food it's available in urban areas. The staple food is nsima — basically what South Africans know as pap. The only difference is that the maize is ground finer than pap, which makes the nsima denser and softer. It's usually served with chicken, fish or beef and vegetables.
Lake Malawi's own yield is a type of tilapia fish called chambo, which is served deep-fried, grilled or baked. It can also be coupled with nsima or rice and vegetables. Chambo is the most common and easily available type of fish but you can also find butterfish, catfish and other types.
Mpunga is the Chichewa word for rice. Malawians plant their own rice and, although some South African rice makes it onto the shelves through big retailers, they consume mostly local rice. Malawian rice is aromatic, less processed and cooks quicker than parboiled rice. It's not a luxury that everyone can afford but it's always a welcome treat.
Kachumbari is a tomato and onion salad that resembles salsa and can be served cooked or raw. It accompanies most meals including braai meat, which is also called braai in Malawi. Malawians take pride in their clean, organic food that doesn't take long to prepare.
Tea is Malawi's second-largest export after tobacco and Malawians mostly drink local tea. Do yourself a favour and try some with your breakfast.
Some predominantly Muslim areas might frown on excessive alcohol consumption but most of Malawi is relaxed when it comes to drinking. The drinking age is 18 and bars stay open until the early hours of the morning. Malawi imports a lot of alcohol from SA and you might pay more than double what you usually pay in Mzansi. However, the Warm Heart of Africa also brews its own gin, vodka and wines. Try something different as part of your adventure.
3. THE BEACHES
This might be confusing if you remember from school geography that Malawi is landlocked. It is, but it does have the magnificent Lake Malawi, the fourth-largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and the third largest in Africa.
With a total surface area of 29,600km², Lake Malawi has some of the most unspoilt shores in Southern Africa. It stretches from the southern region all the way to the north, with beaches that look like something out of a glossy travel magazine.
Mangochi town was formerly known as Fort Johnston after Sir Harry Johnston, who purposed it as a slave-market point and administrative centre for colonial Britain.
Just an hour from Mangochi, you can have an adventure in Monkey Bay or Cape Maclear. The beauty of both beaches is that you can choose to have a quiet day, sipping cocktails and sunbathing, or take part in the water activities available — sailing, kayaking, paddle-boarding and snorkelling. You can also take a boat ride to feed the fish eagles and see them up close as they swoop to collect their food.
In the central part of the country, you will find Salima, where the sand is whiter and the water somehow bluer. It's also more developed than the other beaches and there are many resorts and boutique hotels.
In the days before Covid-19, Salima hosted some of the country's biggest festivals. Revellers danced the night away or shared a drink with friends around a bonfire at the annual Lake of Stars or Sand Music Festival.
The northern region has a hidden gem in Nkhata Bay, a small resort with different types of accommodation. You can stay in a luxury hotel or in a campsite on the lakeside. Nkhata Bay residents mostly depend on fishing, so you buy your fish from the local fishermen who prepare it on an open fire while you wait.
There are also several islands that welcome visitors. Two of these are Likoma Island near Nkhata Bay and Domwe Island closer to Cape Maclear, both of which can be accessed using the ferry, which travels once a week to Likoma, Domwe and other areas on the lake.
Malawi's pride and joy, the Ilala has been ferrying people and goods on Lake Malawi since 1951 and is the best way to explore.
4. THE CULTURE
Soon after you arrive, you'll understand why this country is called The Warm Heart of Africa — Malawians are wonderful and warm.
If you're lucky, you might still meet older people in the north who are descendants of the Zulus who migrated from SA during the Mfecane wars of the 1800s
While the people are still relatively traditional, and some still have expectations as to how women should dress and whether or not they can drink alcohol, these expectations usually don't affect tourists. Malawians are accustomed to tourists and treat them with kindness and hospitality. However, it is advisable to dress the part and be respectful if you visit the surrounding villages.
Language is not a hindrance in the urban areas as most people speak English. It might help to learn a few words of Chichewa, the predominant language in the south and central region. People in the northern region speak Chitumbuka. If you're lucky, you might still meet older people in the north who are descendants of the Zulus who migrated from SA during the Mfecane wars of the 1800s. You will certainly come across Zulu names.
5. SAFE AND AFFORDABLE
My favourite thing about Malawi is that it's a peaceful country. Of course, all countries have their problems, but a high crime rate is not one of Malawi's problems. Tourist areas are usually safe, although it's advisable to remain vigilant when in crowded areas.
Malawi is also generally affordable and the South African rand will go a long way there. The exchange rate favours the rand at R1 to MK50. You can buy a beer for around R10 and, depending on where you are, a full meal for less than R50.
Pay-to-enter tourist attractions have lower entry fees for SADC travellers, so keep your passport with you.
Malawi is a small country and relatively easy to see. Public transport is convenient and safe. Perhaps the most important thing is to practise responsible tourism. Because of the high poverty rate, it's imperative that you tip generously for good service and buy from the informal sector because that is the only way some will have a meal for the day. Village walks can be fun but make sure they are done with respect. Always ask people before you photograph them and don't pose for pictures that may be disrespectful to the locals.
As tiny as the country is, it will surely leave an indelible mark, not just because of the great weather but also because of the spirit of the people. If it steals your heart, you might even stay longer than expected — like me — or keep coming back.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
GETTING THERE: Flights to Lilongwe and Blantyre on Malawi Airlines, average cost R7,000 return.
COVID RULES: Negative PCR test obtained 10 days prior to arrival. Always best to double check the latest requirements before you travel.
VISAS: South African passport holders get a free 30-day tourist visa with an option to extend.
HOW TO PAY: Always have cash available as most service providers don't use speed points.
CONNECTIVITY: Use your passport to register a SIM card on arrival.