Nestled between East African giants, Malawi might be small on the map but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s one to miss. Situated on the one of the largest lakes in the World, Lake Malawi this place is big on heart and this place has plenty of things to keep you busy.
Population: 15 million
Currency: Malawian Kwacha. AUD$1- 130K
Economy: GDP (PPP)- $11 394 (137th); GDP (PPP) Per Capita- $885 (172nd)
Human Development Index: .493 (160th)
Sporting Trivia: We arrived in Malawi to the sound of football on the radio. It was an international match down the road in Lilongwe as part of the country’s Independence Day celebrations. The Malawian side kept the home fans happy with a 2-1 win over Lesotho on this occasion celebrated with the sounds of vuvuzelas filling the sky across the capital.
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Malawi was a welcome break after the transport tribulations of Mozambique and you need to look no further than a spot by the Lake if you’re after a place where you can recapture the vibe after a tough week of overland travel on the road.
Visa Requirements: One of the easiest African Visas to get your hands on – Victory. Most western nations don’t require a visa to enter Malawi and getting into the country is a pain free process, you’ll be done within about 5 minutes and on your way.
Learn the Lingo: 75% English speaking – Malawi is pretty easy to get by in with English alone, however, you’ll learn a few of the basics in some of the local languages, which is something that is certainly appreciated by Malawians.
Lilongwe beats in the heart of Malawi, a mix of all the good things that come with a big city and unfortunately the all too familiar downsides as well. If you head to Old Lilongwe, you’ll find the nicer areas in town, but across the town is where you’ll find all the action and the hustle and bustle of city living in East Africa.
How did we get there: From Tete in northern Mozambique we took a shared taxi to the small border crossing. If you want to head east first, there are far more taxis heading to the border crossing at Bilantyre, however you will need another van to the border from there. After clearing immigration, we boarded what we would consider an illegitimate wagon which took off in a cloud of smoke to escape the border post patrols. Immediate departure and an hour long trip to the capital set us back 400K ($3).
Where did we stay: Mufasa’s Backpackers Lodge. You can’t go past this place simply on the basis of its name. The place was actually full when we rocked up as it doubles as home to US Peacecorp volunteers in town. The hostel and the volunteers were good enough to let us throw down a few mattresses in one of the dorms for 1300K (AUD$10) a night. It’s a pretty nice place in Old Lilongwe which has a few bars around and a cool atmosphere and plenty of the basic facilities such as the Net café next door.
Getting a feed: Cheap meals proved difficult to find in Old Lilongwe amongst the expat scene, and for any local street food or produce you’ll need to get in early before the sun sets. Our advice is if you are over in the main side of town satisfy your hunger while you can and you’ll save a fortune. If like us you arrive late, you’ll find some value amongst local Indian flavours – naan and chapati which were by far the cheapest snacks we could find on any menu – 200K ($1.70).
Out on the town: A little place called Diplomat Bar is the main hangout in the area. Midweek you’ll find a crowd at the hostel which has a pretty chilled little bar with fair priced drinks at 160K ($1.40) for Carlsberg.
Traveller scene: We were smack bang in the middle of the expat part of the town, which continues to grow. Lilongwe is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa in terms of population and it is beginning to show with many new businesses opening and the local infrastructure coming under pressure to cope with increasing demands.
Learn from us: You need to be on your toes at the Lilongwe transport centre – we were picpocketed trying to salvage our bags amongst the confusion but thankfully recovered the sum. The area around the bus stop right in the heart of town is pretty hectic and can be fairly dodgy so rather than wander aimlessly just try grab a taxi to get wherever you need to go.
@ Nkhata Bay
One of the better known spots along the banks of Lake Malawi, Nkhata Bay is a great little stopover as you head north. If you want to get a feel for life in small village, go for a paddle in the lake and just relax, then this place is a must.
Getting there: Despite the recommendations (AXA or National Express) we opted for Restoration Express service from Lilongwe for 100K cheaper than the others. The 1200K ($9.20) trip took a while to get going and it’s a longer trip than anticipated – longer than you’ll get told. For spiritual folk you also have the joy of a bit of a biblical sing alongs and then the awkwardness when the hat gets passed around. This bus takes you as far as Mzuzu and from there amongst the darkness, despite what some overly eager taxi drivers might say, shared taxi’s do still run (the last around 7pm) and you can grab one to Nkhata Bay for 400K ($3) for an hour trip.
Where did we stay: Big Blue Star Backpackers. This is a pretty special place, the location itself is something else. Add to this professional staff who will do anything for you along with cable tv, free wireless and the extras of free canoeing and snorkelling and you’re set for a great stay. There is camping, privates and dorms available – dorms set you back 700K ($5.40).
Getting a feed: it’s not like going gong to a desert camp morocco but All accommodation offers some food options. Some of them expensive, others have reasonable value. One of the best things about Nkhata Bay is how close the town is so you can wander in and eat with the locals. Right across Malawi, you can’t look past the street food of choice – Chips/French fries with salad. A plate will set you back 100K (80cents) and we won’t lie – it‘s a real treat. It can be slightly hard to find a great deal of variety so if you want to knock up your own sandwiches you can buy massive avocados and fresh produce for almost nothing at the markets in town.
On the town: Follow the locals to the bars, although perhaps don’t follow them too closely as many of them are more than merry by 9pm. It still remains a bit of mystery as to how this happens as you don’t actually see much alcohol consumption. Part of the answer though lies in the ‘shake shake’, an alcoholic mix you’ll find packaged in a milk carton style box. It was described to us as warm lumpy milk which tastes like vomit – but something you have to try. Naturally we shaked and baked and we can safely say the vomit description is pretty apt. Nkhata Bay has a handful of good local spots, the biggest expat bars are those in the local hostels depending on the night. All the hostels have small bars and reasonably priced beers if you just want to chill.
Learn from us: Our canoeing skills were terrible, either take the proper wooden canoes or make sure the canoe is fully blown up. We were spinning around in more circles on the lake than a washing machine cycle.
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Highlight: The tranquillity of Lake Malawi gave us a chance to relax before the final stretch in Africa. It provides a perfect backdrop if you just want to relax on its shores or alternatively get out there on the water for a spot of fishing with locals or dive under for some snorkelling. The varieties of tropical fish found in freshwater are truly incredible and something not to be missed.
Biggest surprise: Malawi is a great place for a few beers and even better you’ll be joined by locals. Be prepared though the locals will have gotten a head start and will be pretty jolly by 9pm. A mixture of beer and shake shake seems to do the trick quite nicely. It’s a great atmosphere here, so head out for a few beers, you’ll be surprised and have a great chance to talk with the locals.
One thing you can do to break down a barrier: Malawi faces many significant issues and it’s people are on the whole desperately poor. It is a country though that you get the feeling that things are heading in the right direction in terms of development and social projects.
One issue that continues to be ignored is on the front of human rights. Homosexuality remains illegal in Malawi, and many are still jailed for their sexual orientation. Recently as a result of a large public campaign for their freedom, the Malawian President pardoned two people from life imprisonment due to their sexual orientation. However, the spectre of harassment remains for this couple and many other Malawians are still forced to hide their personal lives for fear of imprisonment.