Malawi came under democratic leadership in 1993 which brought with it a new era of stability after the dictactorial rule of Malawi’s first independent prime minister and president, Dr Hastings Banda. Historically a key country on the slave trade routes, Malawi was visited by the explorer David Livingstone in the 1850’s and his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade is noted by Livingstone memorials in many of Malawi’s towns and villages. Nicknamed ‘the warm heart of Africa’ Malawi’s native population is well known for its friendliness towards visitors. The beautiful country is scenically varied with spectacular mountain ranges, vast nature reserves and national parks to explore, making it an ideal destination for backpackers.
Malawi has a tropical climate with its dry season lasting from April until October. The dry season brings with it unbearable heat but the conditions are less oppressive from May to July although this does mean wildlife is less frequently spotted around the visible watering holes of the national parks. Temperatures vary between the highlands and lowlands with high humidity in the lowland regions and night time temperatures below freezing point in the highlands.
Things to see and do
Lilongwe has been Malawi’s capital city since 1975 when President Banda, born just north of the city, gave it its name. Visitors can experience traditional African life in the busy streets of the old town whilst there are a range of western facilities and luxury hotels in the recently modernised city centre. Interesting sites include the State house which is today host to Malawi’s parliament, a small nature reserve and the colourful scenes of Malawi’s busy street markets.
With a population of half a million, Blantyre is Malawi’s largest and busiest city and the country’s centre of commerce. Whilst the city is surrounded by sprawling suburbs there are several sites of historic interest in the city centre including Mandala house, the oldest building in Malawi and headquarters for the African Lakes company, the museum of Malawi, the Carlsberg Brewery and St Michael and All Angels Church.
Situated forty miles north of Blantyre lies Zomba, which served as Malawi’s capital city before Lilongwe took the title in 1975. The town is marked by signs of colonial settlers, for example a World War 1 memorial clocktower, the residence of the town’s former commissioner and the Cobbe Barracks which is home to the famous Malawi Rifles. Also worth visiting are the botanical gardens, the old parliament buildings and, more sombrely, the Mikuyu Jail which saw the death of many political prisoners during the turbulent reign of President Banda.
Lake Malawi is a huge expanse of water covering a fifth of the country’s total area. Home to over 600 species of freshwater fish, the lake is an important part of the country’s economy and its banks are lined with little fishing villages. Lake Malawi is a popular tourist attraction offering boat trips and a range of watersports and, with depths of up to 700m, it is renowned as one of the best freshwater diving sites in the world.
Malawi boasts nine national parks and game reserves which lie across spectacularly varying terrain. In the north is the highland Nyika Plateau and the marshy Vwasa Reserve. In the central region are the Kasungu and Nkhotakota game parks, both of which are home to the ‘big five: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinocerous. Further south in the Shire Lowlands are the Lengwe national park, the Mjete and Mwabvi national parks and most famously the national park of Liwonde. Additionally, to the east of Lake Malawi lies Cape Maclear, the world’s first freshwater game reserve. There are numerous tour companies based in Liwonde and Blantyre that offer safaris by boat, 4×4 and horseback.
One of Malawi’s most spectacular sites is the bare rock mountain of Mount Mulanje which, at 3000m towers over the country’s eastern region. There are marked routes up the mountain and explorer huts situated at notable points. Several tour companies offer guided camping treks up the mountain either by a strenuous rock climb or more gentle walking route. Visitors to the mountain will witness a range of vegetation and wildlife such as antelopes, klipspringer and various species of birds as well as some of the most stunning views in Africa.
Malawi is one of Africa’s most visited countries and as a result there is plenty of accommodation in the main cities, particularly in Blantyre and Lilongwe, and along the banks of Lake Malawi. Accommodation ranges from luxury hotels to hostels and traditional self-catering lodges surrounding all the main tourist sites. In most of the game reserves there are campsites which also offer various self catering and catered accommodation options.
Malawi accommodation has a comprehensive list of basic and luxurious accommodation by region.
The British Embassy, Lilowenge offers help and advice for British nationals travelling to Lilawe.
Malawi has two major airports, Lilongwe International Airport 26km north of the city and Chileka Airport which is 13km outside of Blantyre. There are direct flights served by Air Malawi once a week from London to Lilongwe and daily Air Malawi flights to Lilongwe via Nairobi or Johnannesburg. Visitors can also reach the country by road, either from Tanzania, Zambia or Mozambique.
Compared to most other African countries, Malawi is considered a relatively safe country and violence against tourists is uncommon. It is advised that visitors are immunised against polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis and take malaria tablets prior to and during travel. Like most African countries Aids is one of the country’s most destructive diseases and although Malawi has organisations which deal well with HIV positive citizens, visitors are warned to be cautious if coming into contact with blood or bodily fluids.
There are two large public hospitals in Blantyre and Lilongwe and private hospitals in Lilongwe and Mzuzu. It is advised that visitors take out medical insurance before travelling to cover any emergency treatment needs.