Often cast as travellers’ unexpected favourite country on the continent, teeny-tiny Malawi hides a surprisingly magnificent interior. There are little-known, unexplored parks, tremendous hikes through incredible terrain and, of course, the seductively beautiful lake at its heart. But there’s also a surprising lack of information out there on how to actually plan and design a trip – and we’d like to change that. So, if you’re planning an adventure to Malawi (or Zambia!), or are simply looking for some juicy inspiration for your next African expedition, look no further than our ultimate Malawi travel guide…
1. Safari your way around the country
Whilst Malawi might not be known for its abundant wildlife, there are a couple of animal and safari hotspots just waiting to be discovered. The first is Majete Wildlife Reserve, a true rags-to-riches success story that’s now a Big Five reserve with game drives, walking safaris and idyllic boat cruises all on offer. Second in our Malawi travel guide is Liwonde National Park. Possibly the country’s most famous wildlife area, it’s a beautiful melee of tall palms alongside squat baobabs and ambling herds of ellies as well as cheetah, leopard and lion. These aren’t the kind of places where you’ll find an animal around every corner, but they do offer good game viewing in blissful peace and quiet.
Combine both Liwonde and Majete in our route An adventure through the hotspots of Malawi. Accommodation-wise, Mvuu Lodge occupies a prime real-estate spot, right on the banks of the river in Liwonde, and in Majete, Mkulumadzi really is the bees-knees.
2. Learn about Malawi’s conservation efforts with African Parks
Malawi’s conservation efforts have gone from strength to strength in the last few years, thanks largely to African Parks. A magnificent non-profit NGO, the organisation is currently involved with Liwonde, Majete and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Their model is to partner with local governments and communities to address wildlife and community issues surrounding the parks and, when ready, help facilitate wildlife relocations to speed up the recovery of animal populations. In all three locations in Malawi guests may visit the headquarters and learn about the ongoing work and research and what’s being done to secure a future for Malawi’s wildlife.
We recommend using our route ‘A wilderness retreat in northern Malawi’ as a base for designing a conservation-focused Malawi trip. It combines some time in Nkhotakota (the only available accommodation option here is Tongole Wilderness Lodge) with a few days on the shore of the lake, stops in Liwonde, and Majete can easily be added.
3. Explore the shores (and waters) of Lake Malawi
With its translucent, turquoise waters and idyllic beaches, Lake Malawi has long attracted explorers, travellers and safari-goers looking for a good dose of relaxation. It’s also one of Malawi’s most iconic and talked-about attractions (it does take up half the country after all!) and one that we certainly couldn’t leave out of our Malawi travel guide. Water activities are unsurprisingly excellent (think sailing, snorkelling with the colourful cichlids and even kayaking and paddle-boarding) but land bunnies won’t be left out either with plenty of trails to explore on bike, foot or even horseback. Or simply lay back, relax and watch the world go by…
Lake Malawi can be added on to just about any Malawi or Zambia itinerary and we suggest leaving it until the end to really max out your R&R time (have a look at this route here for inspiration). There’s plenty of accommodation to choose from too including dreamy Kaya Mawa set on its own private island, eco-chic Mumbo Island Camp, and forest-dwelling Pumulani Lodge in the south.
4. Relax amid the tea plantations of the southern Shire Highlands
No Malawi travel guide would be complete without a mention of the rolling tea plantations in the south of the country around Mulanje. After tobacco, tea and coffee are Malawi’s biggest exports and a visit to a tea estate is well worth it – especially if a decadent afternoon brew and fresh-baked cakes sounds up your street. Satemwa, established in 1923, is one of the biggest farms and their unique tea producing techniques have been in the family for generations. Take a stroll and watch the ladies picking leaves in the fields, then settle down on the veranda and sample the varietals; with everything from misty oolongs to fragrant green infusions and spicy tea-infused cocktails, you’ll be there until sundowner time!
If you’d like to spend longer relaxing amid the bushes in tea country, add the charming, 1940s Huntingdon House to your itinerary. Otherwise, pop out to the Satemwa Estate from Blantyre – it’s a mere 45-minute drive from the centre of town.
5. Spend a little time in Lilongwe
Like most safari countries, you might find yourself having to overnight in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, before or after your trip. Banish all thoughts of room service and dodgy TV however, for the city is lively and a little bit eccentric and there’s plenty to do that might make you want to stay longer than your 24 hours. In the centre of town, leave time to scour the stalls at the craft market in the old town, take a tour of the area around parliament, and then pay a visit to the orphaned and rescued animals in the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. An hour outside the city in the stunning Dedza region is the Dedza Pottery & Ceramic Workshop. For road-trippers, it’s the perfect stop off on the way south, but just as lovely for a day trip too.
Our favourite place to stay in Lilongwe is the sleek and ever-so-stylish Latitude 13. Complete with swimming pool, shady sun terrace, contemporary restaurant and a buzzing cocktail bar, you might not want to leave the four walls…
6. Hike in the Mulanje Mountains
Malawi’s topography is dramatic to say the least and Mount Mulanje is no exception. Rising steeply into the clouds from the glimmering hills below, it’s Malawi’s highest standalone mountain and can be seen for miles around. There are several routes and pretty trails to choose from (some harder than others) and hikes range from two hour meanders around the forests to multi-day expeditions with expert guides, camping in cosy rest huts along the way. If you’re aiming for one of the many peaks of the massif, you’ll need a good pair of hiking boots (and a guide!), but shorter walks are equally as rewarding and beautiful – and on both, you’ll have the opportunity to cool tired feet in burbling streams and swim in some of the many rock pools.
7. Combine your trip with a few days in Zambia
This might be a Malawi travel guide but rather like a good G&T, Zambia and Malawi are just made to be enjoyed together and we couldn’t not make mention of one of our favourite combinations. The wildlife-filled parks of Zambia (think the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa in particular) are the perfect complement to Malawi’s pristine landscapes and unusual activities, and when you’re this close to Victoria Falls it really would be rude not to pop up to the world-famous waterfall for a day or two. Don’t let logistics stand in your way either – with direct flights from the South Luangwa to Lilongwe, you can flit between the two as you please.
8. Go off-grid in the Nyika Plateau
Last but not least in our Malawi travel guide is Nyika Plateau, a unique national park more akin to the Scottish Highlands than the hills of Africa (with perhaps a little more sunshine!), that’s the place to go for something different. The air is fresh, the scenery is stunning and there are a multitude of ways to enjoy it from game drives and nature walks to cycling adventures and even horseback safaris. The park also has the highest diversity of birds anywhere in the country and amid the 400-plus species, you’ll find Denham’s bustards and wattled cranes in the grassland areas and endless bulbuls, spurfowls and sunbirds in the forests. Even if you’re not a birder, you won’t fail to enjoy an hour or two in the sunshine watching them flitter past…