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Though landlocked in the heart of Africa, Malawi has been blessed with a generous splash of water in the form of Lake Malawi, which encompasses over a fifth of the country's area and stretches from beyond the northern tip to about two thirds of the way south. Maybe it's the lake, but something makes Malawi a refreshing destination. Sure, the country has had its share of hard times - thirty years under the harsh rule of Hastings Banda, for example - and is mired in characteristic African poverty, but the people are hearty and welcoming and their land is a tourist's playground. Predictably, water sports are popular, whether you want to stick your head under the water or you'd prefer gearing up for some windsurfing, sailing or water skiing. But the country's varied geography provides ample opportunity for the photographer in you: tall mountain peaks, sometimes stretching above the cloud line, make for absolutely stunning scenery.
The area of Africa now known as Malawi had a very small population of hunter gatherers before waves of Bantus began emigrating from the north around the 10th century. Although most of the Bantus continued south, some remained permanently and founded tribes based on common ancestry.
David Livingstone reached Lake Malawi (then Lake Nyasa) in 1859, and Malawi was originally known as Nyasaland under the rule of the British. In 1944, the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) was formed by the Africans of Nyasaland to promote local interests to the British government. In 1953, Britain linked Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia in what was known as the Central African Federation (CAF), for mainly political reasons.
In 1961, Banda's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) gained the majority in the Legislative Counsel and Banda was elected prime minister in 1963. The Federation was dissolved in 1963, and on July 6, 1964, Nyasaland became independent from British rule and renamed itself Malawi. Under a new constitution, Malawi became a single-party state under MCP rule and Banda declared himself president-for-life in 1970. Despite his political severity, however, Malawi's economy while Banda was president was often cited as an example of how a poor, landlocked, heavily populated, mineral-poor country could achieve progress in both agriculture and industrial development.
Under pressure for increased political freedom, Banda agreed to a referendum in 1993, where the populace voted for a multiparty democracy. Following the elections, in late 1993, a presidential council was formed, the life presidency was abolished and a new constitution was put into place, effectively ending the MCP's rule. In 1994 the first multi-party elections were held in Malawi, and Bakili Muluzi became president. Muluzi remained president until 2004, when Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika was elected. Although the political environment is described as "challenging", as of 2009, the multi-party system still exists in Malawi. Multiparty parliamentary and presidential elections were held for the fourth time in Malawi in May 2009, and President Bingu wa Mutharika was successfully re-elected, despite charges of election fraud from his rival.
Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa, bordered by Zambia to the northwest, Tanzania to the northeast and Mozambique to the south, southwest and southeast. It lies between latitudes 9° and 18°S, and longitudes 32° and 36°E. The Great Rift Valley runs through the country from north to south, and to the east of the valley lies Lake Malawi (also called Lake Nyasa), making up over three-quarters of Malawi's eastern boundary. Lake Malawi is sometimes called the Calendar Lake as it is about 587 kilometres long and 84 kilometres wide. The Shire River flows from the south end of the lake and joins the Zambezi River 400 kilometres farther south in Mozambique. The surface of Lake Malawi is located at 457 metres above sea level, with a maximum depth of 700 metres, which means the lake bottom is over 200 metres below sea level at some points. In the mountainous sections of Malawi surrounding the Rift Valley, plateaus rise generally 914 to 1,219 metres above sea level, although some rise as high as 2,438 metres in the north. To the south of Lake Malawi lie the Shire Highlands, gently rolling land at approximately 914 metres above sea level. In this area, the Zomba and Mulanje mountain peaks rise to respective heights of 2,134 metres and 3,048 metres.
What Malawi lacks on great national parks teeming with wildlife, it more than makes up for it with friendly people and first of all: Lake Malawi. There are however a few parks which are especially awarding just because there is not so much wildlife and tourist numbers are not as high as other parks with small traffic jams.
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Lake Malawi is one of the largest lakes in Africa and is even in the top 10 of the world. It is also known as Lake Nyasa and is the southernmost lake of the Great African Rift Valley. It is one of the best places in the world apart from the open sea/oceans to snorkel and dive. The lake is teeming with tropical fish and there are several towns along the lake's coastline that are great to stay with lots of hostels and nightlife. The southern portion is called Lake Malawi National Park and is one the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Many travellers will stay at least for days, if not weeks on end. Although part of the lake is located in Mozambique as well, most travellers will visit the lake in Malawi, with better infrastructure and accommodation.
Nyika National Park is the first, largest and highest national park in Malawi. It was established in 1965 and is located in the north of the country on an average altitude of about 1800 meters above sea level. The park is over 3200 square kilometers big and apart from seeing wildlife is a good place to go trekking, mountain biking or even horse riding. Wildlife includes elephant, buffalo, lion and one of the highest concentrations of leopard in this region.
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Although Liwonde National Park is not quite as full of wildlife as the other parks, it has a wonderfully peaceful quality to it. Set in a lush marshland, the Shire River is full of hippoes, and there are plenty of waterbucks and other smaller antilopes grazing. A canoe trip on the river is a relaxing experience, and the views over the river beautiful. To get there, take a bus to the town of Liwonde, and get off at the bus station (last stop) from there, you can walk or take a bicycle taxi to the park entrance, about 5 kilometres away. At the gate, you pay for the park entry, and ring ahead to your chosen guest house for a pick-up- walking alone is not permitted.
Situated not far from Blantyre, the star of this reserve is Mount Mulanje itself, a multi-peaked massif rising up to 3,000 metres from the surrounding plain. Though the massif contains a variety of endemic bird, reptile, and tree species, its popularity can be traced more to its hiking opportunities, supported by a network of mountain huts offering cooking and sleeping facilities.
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The lake of stars is an annual, huge (at least by African standards) festival lasting three days in central Malawi, close to a popular tourist centre, Nkhata Bay. The actual festival takes place in Chintheche, a small town about 1.5 hours south of Nkhata Bay. The dates aren't set, and change slightly each year. Usually though the festival is held during early September. The festival attracts both big, international names, as well as local artists. It is advisable to book accommodation well in advance.
Much of Malawi enjoys a tropical climate with hot and humid weather year round. There are however some differences within the country that are mostly related to the altitude of places. The capital Lilongwe for example is relatively cool with temperatures in the cooler June to September period just around 23 °C during the day and just around 10 °C at night. Other places are warmer in general but as most of the country is on a relatively high altitude it is not as hot as many other surrounding countries, although during the hotter months of October and November temperatures can still get well above 30 °C during the day. May to October is the dry season and from December to April the rainy season, with most rain falling from January to March.
Air Malawi is the national airline of Malawi and has its base at Chileka International Airport (BLZ) in the southern city of Blantyre. Destinations to and from there include Dar es Salaam, Harare, Johannesburg, Lilongwe, Lusaka and Nairobi. South African Airways flies to and from Johannesburg.
From Lilongwe International Airport (LLW) near the capital there are flights to and from Harare, Johannesburg, Lusaka and Nairobi with Air Malawi. Air Zimbabwe flies to and from Dar Es Salaam, Dubai, Harare and London. Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg are served with their respective national airlines.
It's easy to get to Malawi with your own wheels and border crossings with Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania are relatively straightforward, though have your papers and insurance in order. You can use most border crossings decribed below at the public transport section. Roads are generally in a relatively good shape on the main routes that is.
Buses connect the southern city of Blantyre with both Harare in Zimbabwe and Tete in Mozambique, stopping en route in the latter one. There are even buses from Blantyre all the way to Johannesburg, with several companies (City to City, Ingwe, Vaal Africa and Translux) making the trip on a daily basis. It takes about 26 to 30 hours and you can also stop in Harare or Tete.
From Lilongwe there are buses all the way to Lusaka in Zambia, as well as to and from Dar es Salaam several times a week. To Dar es Salaam, buses also stop in Mzuzu in northern Malawi and Mbeya in southern Tanzania.
For Zambia, you can also travel in stages by taking a minibus from Lilongwe to Mchinji and a shared taxi from there to the border. Once you've crossed over the border to Zambia, there are shared taxis waiting- it's about a thirty minute ride, costing around K15,000 to town.
From Chipata, buses usually depart early in the morning to Lusaka.
There are possibilities to get to Tete in Mozambique in stages by taking several bush taxis and minibuses towards the border and onwards across the border to Tete. Anotehr border crossing is between Chiponde in Malawi and Mandimba in Mozambique. From here, there is at least one truck daily between to Cuamba and daily vehicles to Lichinga as well.
The train journey from Malawi to Nampula in Mozambique is one of the few remaining great train journeys in Africa. The scenery is stunning, the track passes between towering inselbergs and in 2nd class its comfortable enough with waiter service, reserved seating and the option to reach out the window to buy from people with baskets of food at the many stations. It runs in each direction on alternate days except Monday: Nampula to Cuamba on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and Cuamba to Nampula on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. 3rd class costs M175, second class M331, and there's no first class. The train departs at 05:00 every day (except Monday) and takes 10-12 hours. You need to book the day before. The journey is from Cuamba to Nampula (all within Mozambique) meaning that you have to make the border crossing to/from Malawi by local chappa and bicycle and thats lengthy.
There are ferries between southwestern Tanzania and Mozambique via Malawi on the MV Songea between Mbamba Bay and Nkhata Bay. From here it goes on to Likoma Island (Malawi), Cóbuè and Metangula (both in Mozambique) on the MV Ilala. The MV Ilala departs from Monkey Bay (Malawi) at 10:00am Friday, arriving in Metangula (via Chipoka and Nkhotakota in Malawi) at 6:00am Saturday, reaching Cóbuè (Mozambique) around midday, Likoma Island at 1:30pm and Nkhata Bay at 1:00am Sunday morning. In southern direction departures are at 8pm Monday from Nkhata Bay and at 6:30am Tuesday from Likoma Island, reaching Cóbuè at 7:00am and Metangula at midday.
Air Malawi has scheduled flights between Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre and Club Makokola on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. Jakamaka Air Charters offers chartered flights to several specific tourist destinations including the Nyika and Liwonde National Parks and Likoma Island, but are relatively expensive if you are not with a group.
Central East African Railways operates the train lines in the country. The main line runs north from Blantyre to Balaka and south from Limbe to Nsanje although some parts are still not recovered from the floods years ago. Passenger trains to and from Lilongwe don't exist. Trains are slow and crowded and most tourist use buses instead. Unless you are a train ethusiast of course.
The road network in Malawi is in a surprisingly good shape and main roads are tarred, albeit potholed in some places. Many other roads are all weather gravel roads. During recent years, more and more companies offer rental cars and Lilongwe and Blantyre are the best places to arrange on (both downtown as well as on the international airports). Traffic drives on the left and you need an international driving permit.
There are several bus companies offering daily links between the major cities. Shire Bus Lines has the most buses, including both express services as well as buses which include more stops. It takes around 5 hours from Lilongwe to Blantyre, 7 hours from the capital to Mzuzu in the north of Malawi.
The Ilala passenger ferry travels up and down Lake Malawi between Monkey Bay and Chilumba, stopping at many towns and villages in between, including several on the Mozambique side of the lake and Likoma Island.
Visa are not required by the following nationalities:
Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Fiji, Finalnd, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Samoa, San Marino, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sri Lanka, Saintt Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, Sweden, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
All other nationalities need a visa.
See also Money Matters
The Malawian kwatcha fluctuates regularly, so it is advisable to check rates before exchanging money. ATM's are only located in larger towns. The ATM's are also frequently out of money (especially on a Sunday), and only distribute small amounts per transaction. Some hostels and vendors will accept US dollars, and there are plenty of places in Lilongwe and other larger towns which will exchange your cash.
Food in Malawi is much of the same as in rest of Southern Africa - the staple food is maize porridge, nshima, eaten with vegetables or, if you can afford it, meat. Bread is commonly eaten for breakfast. In northern part of the country, you can find chapatti as a part of the tanzanian influence. In Lilongwe, there are plenty of fast food outlets, as well as some surprisingly good Italian food. Chicken and chips is a popular dish especially for young people when eating out.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Malawi. There are two exceptions though. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering Malawi overland. And you need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Malawi) where that disease is widely prevalent.
Still, it's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Malawi. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. Also note that Southern Africa and thus Malawi as well has a high percentage of people with AIDS.
See also Travel Safety
Although Malawi is reasonably safe, pickpocketing in (especially) buses does happen; also, take extra care in the busy market area. Taxis are generally safe. Apparently the stretch of road from Lilongwe bus station to city centre is often targeted by pickpockets.
See also International Telephone Calls
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