Getting into Malawi

I’ve been reflecting on country names. The countries I’ve been disappointed with seem to begin with an M: Malta, Mexico, Mauritius. This doesn’t bode well for Malawi, though the rule doesn’t always apply; Mongolia and Myanmar were lovely. The legacy of Madagascar is still with me. I have a decidedly dodgy stomach and rows of drive you demented sand fly bites that are far itchier than mosquito bites and seem to irritate for twice as long. But this week has been a zillion times better. The flight from Nairobi to Lilongwe takes off on time and it lands on time. There is no queue at immigration, they don’t make me pay for a visa and my luggage comes straight out.

Malawi - in a Nutshell

  • Wikipedia tells me that Malawi is nicknamed "The Warm Heart of Africa" because of the friendliness of its people.
  • It's also one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • The part of Africa now known as Malawi was settled around the tenth century, by migrating Bantu groups.
  • In 1891, the area was colonised by the British as the British Central African Protectorate. It was renamed as Nyasaland in 1907. and in 1953, incorporated into the semi-independent Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
  • In 1964, Nyasaland became an independent country as a Commonwealth realm under Prime Minister Hastings Banda, and was renamed Malawi. Two years later, Banda made himself president and converted the country into a one-party presidential republic. Highly repressive dictatorship followed.
  • Democracy and a multi party system were restored, in 1993
  • Lake Malawi, also called Lake Nyasa, takes up about a third of Malawi's area. That's a big lake.
  • To the west, the Great Rift Valley runs through the country, from north to south,. The terrain varies from plateau and mountainous in the north (up to 8,000 feet) and the gentle rolling hills of the Shire Highlands, in the south.

The Road to Liwonde

The scenery on the road south, from the capital, Lilongwe, to Liwonde National Park is diverse. Much of the country side is dust dry, and difficult to cultivate. The bush is flat, dotted with tall fingered candelabra cacti, but it soon gives rise to volcanic mountain ranges. The villages are still poor, but neat, with rectangular thatched mud brick huts, interspersed with rondavels. My guide/driver says that the huts marked with blue and white flags belong to the local witch doctors.

In the highlands, the roads are lined with market garden produce, especially what the Africans unfathomably call Irish potatoes (to distinguish them from sweet potatoes). The people are very friendly, the roads are mainly tarmac and the driver speaks English. Forget anything as run of the mill as frogs. Today’s roadside offering for dinner is barbecued mouse (whole, complete with skin and whiskers).

In Search of Pachyderms - Liwonde National Park

My lodge is definitely Paradise Postponed. There are river and driving safaris on offer but there is no need. The fauna line up to greet me. There are circles of goggle eyed hippo wallowing in the river as we cross on the ferry, the babies skipping to safety in deeper water with a giant splash. Crocodiles bask on the banks and they slide in more elegantly as they spot us. Though it is mating season and a few are too heavily involved in their mock tail thrashing fights to notice.

The swallows are nesting on the roof of the boat itself and perch impudently on the back of the seats as we chug along. Vultures flock overhead, but these are not the birds of ill repute. There are no big cats here and therefore no large carcasses. So the vultures in paradise have become vegetarian and they live on palm nuts.

Don't Shut Your Eyes

I have a beautiful semi-tented chalet on the edge of watering hole. For some reason I have been given the honey moon suite. I try not to be ironic. There is an outdoor circular bath with hot water. I can hear the warthogs chomping grass from my balcony and having a shower is like being on Kit Kat advert. I open my eyes to see the tail end (literally) of a troop of vervet monkeys swinging across the trees above. Then impala and kudu come to stand and stare.

There is an evening game drive to watch more antelope: bush buck, water buck, sable antelope and zebra, (the sort with stripes that go right under their stomach), monkeys and baboon all frolicking. On the river a group of elephants meander down for a drink. There are giant drooping termite hills, which remind me of the sorting hat at Hogwarts. As the huge red sun goes down a table is set by the river and I drink gin and tonic and listen to the hippos making their bathroom noise calls.

Nocturnal Wanderings

Perhaps I spoke too soon. There is a drum in my room to beat if I feel threatened by the animals on their nocturnal wanderings (I keep having to squash the impulse to give it a whack) and a horn to sound if I am in imminent danger, if I’ve been bitten by a snake, is the example quoted. The black mambas live in the tall palm trees, hiding amongst the fruit. After dark we have to be escorted to and from the dining room. Rightly so, it seems. In the morning, there is hippo and elephant dung on the paths. I'm an expert on telling the difference now. The hippo dung is dark and full of grass, as that’s all they eat. The elephant dung will be flattened by the baboons who fasten on it instantly and search for undigested fruit.

In Search of Cichlids - Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi National Park is listed as a UNESCO heritage site, due to the unique species which inhabit the water. Who knew that there are freshwater tropical fish? (Of course - that’s how they stock domestic aquariums.) Or that the beaches on the lake are beautiful pristine sand? Lake Malawi is sometimes called the Calendar Lake, as it is about 365 miles long and 52 miles wide. I have views of tropical islands from my window – my last part of call is a yacht resort run by a South African couple. Howard is a little over interested in making sure that I participate in all the activities, I hope his wife doesn’t mind.

Most of the boats are named after the Lion King. So it’s a quick zip out in Hakuna Mutata, their little speedboat for an initial tour ‘to see if the couple kayaking in Nala are all right’. Poom-Bah is the little inflatable tender. Next day, we go on a round the island tour, snorkelling in big wooden Shenzi. The cichlids, that lurk under the little islands, all have posh Latin names and are multi hued and multi patterned. They are famous for being visited by David Attenborough. The water is decidedly chilly and I'm told I should now get checked for schistosoma, which is present in the lake. Overall, I think the swim was worth it.

Sunset on Lake Malawi

Friday, Howard informs me that I am going sailing on the little Dart catamaran. (I don’t think C’est La Vie has anything to do with The Lion King?). I naively take my camera and snorkelling gear, only to be informed that we are racing round the island, against the clock. That evening, a sunset cruise on the large catamaran, Howard’s pride and joy, called Mufasa, of course. The last involves gin and tonic and then champagne. Fortunately, Mufasa has GPS and an automatic pilot. I am required to spend my last night in Africa sampling African cocktails and shooters – not least the ‘Bushman’s Balls’, mixed by barman ‘Wazzer’ Warren. It’s a good way to finish.

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