Travel Guide | Malawi

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Malawi lies in the Great African Rift Valley system. Lake Malawi, 360 miles long and about 1,500 ft above sea level, Lake Malawi is the county's centerpiece. Like an inland sea it has endless palm fringed beaches, enclosed by sheer mountains, making it undeniably the focal point for Malawi's tourists. Malawi is a landlocked country located in southeastern Africa. It is bordered in the North and East by Tanzania, on the east, south and southwest by Mozambique and to the west by Zambia.

Much of the land surface is plateau and elevations rise of over 2,440 m in the Nyika Plateau in the north and in the regions of Mt. Mulanje 3,050 metre (10006.5 feet), and Mt. Zomba 2,135 metre (7004.5 feet). The Shire highlands in the south are lower. To the north there are rugged highlands with rolling hills in the Nyika and Vwanza plateaux, whilst in the South, traversing the escarpment that forms part of the Great African Rift Valley, lie the lowlands of the Shire Valley.

More than 300 bird species have been recorded in the Nyika Plateau, including the Den Ham's bustard, the Malachite Sunbird and Red Winged Francolin all found in the grassland area, whilst the Cinnamon Dove, Bartailed Trogon and Starred Robin are found high in the forest canopy, particularly the Chowo forest near the Zambian Resthouse. Four birds found on the Nyika plateau that have not been recorded anywhere else in Malawi, the yellow Mountain Warbler, Churring Cisticola, Cracking Cloud Cisticola and Mountain Marsh Widow. It also contains three butterfly species and one species each of Chameleon, Frog and Toad which are found nowhere else.

South Lungwa National Park:

The Luangwa Valley is an ideal environment for wildlife game viewing, with large numbers of animals near lagoons and rivers together with the shady Mopane woodlands and thickets. Many regard this as one of the finest parks in Africa, with plenty of opportunity for close up photography.

The park supports a large Elephant population in addition to Monkey, Baboon, Warthog, Hyena, Wild Dog, Giraffe, Zebra, Buffalo and Antelope. Lions laze in the noon day sun whilst keeping watch over their prides and prey, and Leopards find the riverbanks and thickets an ideal hideaway. For those interested in the native flora and birdlife, the walking safari gives ample time for the leisurely observation of these abundant attractions at close hand and the night safari gives us a fantastic opportunity to see nocturnal predators.

Kasungu National Park:

The Kasungu National Park is Malawi's second largest (over 2,000km2) lying at approximately 1000 metre (3280.8) feet above sea level. It is situated in the Central Region. The park's vegetation consists mainly of Miombo woodland broken up by grassy river channels, known locally as Dambos. A number of rivers flow through the park, the most important of which are the Dwanga and the Lingadzi, A tributary of the Lingadzi, the Lifupa, dams as Lifupa Lodge which creates the spot for game viewing within the park, especially to see the resident hippos. Kasungu is famed for it's population of Elephants, though poaching is, even today, a big problem. Just as Elephants it also boasts a large variety of buck, including Sable, Roan, Kudu, Impala and Hartebeest as well as Buffalo and Zebra. Predators in the Park include, Hyena, Wild Dog and Serval.

Nkhotakota Reserve:

Nkhotakota Reserve is situated 115km (71.4 miles) to the North East of Lilongwe, on top of the Rift Valley escarpment above the lake. It is the oldest established reserve in Malawi. The Bua River cuts through the middle on route to the lake and provides a excellent spot for a bit of fishing for Mpasa and Lake Salmon (permits are required). There are no open plains but Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard and Hyena can all be found in this area. Birdwatching is especially rewarding with more than 300 species being recorded, including Pel's Fishing Owl and Palmnut Vulture.

Lake Malawi National Marine Park:

Lake Malawi National Park was only designated a National Park in 1980 was established at the southern end of the Lake to protect the unique diversity of tropical fish living there, some not found anywhere else on earth. The National Park is the most important freshwater fish sanctuary in Africa and it was the first park in the world to give protection to the marine life of a tropical deep water, Rift Valley Lake.

The Nankhumba Peninsula, forms the centrepiece of a miniature archipelago of twelve islands, and encompasses Cape Maclear, where scuba diving and snorkeling are popular activities. The underwater game viewing experience matches anything that the land has to offer. The natural habitats has resulted in an extraordinary concentration of different species of plants, animals and birds, quite asides from the hundreds of species of fish that can be found in the region, the most famous of which is the Mbuna Chichlids.

Geography and Climate

Malawi is a landlocked country located in southern central Africa along the western side of part of the Great Rift Valley of Africa. Covering a total area of 118,484 sq. km, it stretches some 900 kilometres north to south and between 90 and 161 kilometres east to west. Around one-fifth of the country is inland water. Malawi is bordered by Tanzania to the north and north west, Mozambique to the east, south and south west, and Zambia to the west.

Lake Malawi is the largest of the five lakes in the country, and is the third largest in Africa, covering a total area of 23,310 sq. km. High plateaus rise up from the shores of the lake to the west, north and south, the highest point being Mount Mulanje, near Blantyre in the southern part of the country. Varies from cool in the highlands to warm around Lake Malawi. Winter (May to July) is dry and nights can be chilly, particularly in the highlands. The rainy season runs from November to March. Around Lake Malawi, in winter, the climate is particularly dry with pleasant cooling breezes.

The climate is generally subtropical. From May to August it is cool and dry, with July being the coldest month. Temperatures range from 15.5 to 18 degrees Celsius (59.90 F to 64.40 F) in the plateau regions and from 20 to 24.5 C (68 to 76.10 F) in the rift valley areas. September to November is hot and dry with temperatures ranging from 22 to 25 C (71.60 to 77 F), and 27 to 30 degrees Celsius (80.60 to 86 F) in the plateau and Rift valley respectively. From mid-November to April it is hot and wet with 90 percent of the annual rainfall occurring during this time. December and January are the wettest months. Total annual rainfall averages between 760 and 1,015mm with some areas in the plateau recording more than 1,500mm each year.

People and History

Malawi has an estimated population of 10 million with an annual population growth rate of 1.9 percent. Population growth is a critical problem in Malawi as most of the suitable land is already under cultivation. Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa with 171 persons per sq. km of arable land. The main ethnic groups are the Chewa, Tumbuka, Yao and Ngoni.

English is the official and business language in Malawi. Chechewe is the national language and is widely spoken throughout the country, although Chitumbuka is the dominant language in the northern region. Malawi has a varied religious make-up comprising of traditional religions and Christianity (Catholic, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Anglican) with Hindu and Muslim minorities.

The first Malawians to leave traces of their lives were knappers of sturdy stone axes and scrapers some 100,000 years ago. From the 3rd Century AD modern African peoples settled in villages on the shores of Lake Malawi. The Chewa founded the important Maravi empire at the southern end of the Lake in the 16th Century, trading with the Portuguese on the coast, while the Yao built an empire around the area of Blantyre and Zomba. In the 19th Century the Ngoni, relatives of the Zulus, swept up into Malawi and soon settled in the area. The Swahili set up on the shores of the Lake, establishing links as far north as Zanzibar.

The course of Malawian history changed when Scottish explorer David Livingstone, thwarted by the Cahora Bassa rapids on the Zambezi river, turned his small steamer north up a tributary, the Shire river, towards the great lake he had heard report of. Greatly impressed by Lake Malawi, he returned two years later to what he called `the Lake of Stars'. There was sporadic settlement by other British missionaries and settlers from the 1860s. Britain installed a consul in 1884 to look after the interests of her citizens. The present borders were drawn up as the British Protectorate of Nyasaland in 1891.

The country gained independence in 1964 and became a Republic within the Commonwealth. In 1994, Malawi became a multiparty democracy under the present President, Dr. Bakili Muluzi, who is serving his second term in office. The next general elections are scheduled for June 2004.

The new constitution guarantees freedom of speech, religion and assembly. Malawi's civil administration is committed to the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability. The government encourages investment and is looking to the private sector to assume the leading role in the economic development of the country. Malawi has a hybrid legal system. Criminal and civil law is based on English common law. However, unlike the United Kingdom, Malawi's written constitution guarantees protection of investments, irrespective of ownership.

The horrors of Slavery in Africa: At the height of slavery in the mid 19th century, the Swahili Arabs together with other tribes are believed to have either killed or sold into slavery 80,000 to 100,000 Africans per year! Those taken from Malawi and Zambia would be brought to one of the Arab trading centres such as Karonga or Salima where they would be sold to 'wholesalers'. They were then crammed into dhows (traditional wooden sailing boats - you still see them today) and taken across Lake Malawi.

Once on the eastern bank they were marched across Mozambique to the east coast of Africa, usually chained or tied to poles made of wood to prevent escape. Many others were forced to carry Elephant tusks as ivory was a major commodity. Any slave too ill or weak to make the journey were abandoned and died of dehydration or were eaten by wild animals.

At the coast, the slaves were once more loaded back into dhows for the journey north to Zanzibar Island -Tanzania. They were packed tightly lying on top of one another in several layers in the hold of the boat. There was no food or water and conditions were terrible! Those who died (Many did, especially if crossings took long due to poor winds) could not be removed until the journey ended. Those who survived were sold once more in the large slave market in Zanzibar and then shipped to places such as India and Arabia. Slavery had existed in Africa for many years, but as demand from outside Africa increased, the Swahili Arabs began to push into the interior to increase their supply.

Between 1842 and 1856 David Livingstone had been exploring in Africa and on his return to Britain spoke at meetings about the undiscovered interior of Africa and the horrors of the slave trade. He returned to Africa in 1858 and travelled to Malawi in September 1859 finally reaching Lake Malawi - which he named Lake Nyassa. Throughout his journey he came across major slave routes, one that passed through today's town of Mangochi (closest town to Nanchengwa Lodge, has a great market which is well worth a visit) Through the rest of the 1860's missionaries came to Malawi to build missions. They suffered terribly from malaria and conflict with the local people.

Modern day Malawi is still very rural and poor. The people are fantastically friendly which is why it is known as the 'Warm heart of Africa' - and it is a land of mountains, plateau's and an enormous lake. Essentially a rural subsistence life, thousands of Malawians lively hoods are derived from the lake and fishing related activities. In big and small markets throughout Malawi shining silver piles of dried fish 'Usipa' are sold. Closer to the lake fresh fish is available. 'Chambo' is the most delicious!