Malawi, known as the Warm Heart of Africa, is nestled in between Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. When I first arrived here in 2005 and piled into the back of an open truck with hordes of colourfully dressed girls, the country instantly lived up to its reputation. The girls chatted with us for over four hours on our bumpy journey! We didn’t really understand each other, but the enormous smiles and happy faces were enough to serve as the basis for solid friendships during our time together on the road.
Malawi is perhaps most famous for its dominant geographical feature; Lake Malawi is where visitors come to enjoy local culture, warm clear water and wonderfully sandy beaches almost all to themselves. While tourism is slowly picking up along th
e lakeshore, visitors can still relax or go kayaking or diving without stepping on others’ toes! Of course, the appeal of this small hidden gem of Africa extends beyond the lake, all the way to the peaks of Mulanje Mountain, the highest peak in Central Africa.
If you are staying in the cities of Blantyre or Lilongwe, you have plenty of options for day trips away from urban hustle and bustle. Many people choose to head straight to the lakeshore or Luangwa National Park, but there is another option: village visits.
The Responsible Safari Company has partnered with some extraordinary rural communities eager to welcome travellers on day visits to their villages for close-up glimpses of Malawian culture. Visits can include an afternoon playing with the children in a small orphan care centre, visiting a community project or watching traditional dancing and sampling some local delicacies. Overnight village stays are also a possibility.
Each visit has one thing in common: it always culminates in everyone singing and dancing – and that includes the visitors! A village excursion is also a fantastic way to ensure your visit to Malawi benefits local people.
If you are looking for a truly unique gift, check out the handful of stalls situated at the base of Mount Mulanje. Here, local artisans prepare and sell crafts made from Mulanje cedar wood. As well as smelling gorgeous, it is ideal for carving intricate patterns and inscriptions.
While the Mulanje cedar is a endangered species, we have it on very good authority that selling these items – a key source of income for local communities – helps stop villagers from getting involved in the all-too-frequent illegal logging activities that remove huge quantities of this precious wood. The amount of wood used for curios is very small and can be sustainably replaced, especially when compared to what is destroyed by logging, so we are comfortable advising travellers to support these craftsmen! Even if you are not buying it is fascinating to spend time watching them.
Another highlight of shopping in Malawi is a visit to the fruit and vegetable markets. Our favourite is Bvumbwe market. Set amidst the tea estates, this small market has some of the best produce in the country.
The food of Malawi is perhaps not its strongest point, unless you are an adventurous eater looking to sample the field mice or caterpillars sold on kebab sticks along the side of the road!
Off the beaten track, though, we do have two favourite family-run places that always keep us coming back for more. The first, called Veg Delight, is in Blantyre and run by an Indian family. The owner, Aisha, is a fantastic cook who offers delicious all-vegetarian Indian and Chinese food.
The second is one of the highlights of hiking Mulanje. After your descent, you can be sure of a delicious freshly baked pizza at rustic Pizza Basilico. Positioned to give stunning views of the mountain, it delivers each and every time with some of the best food in Malawi.
A river boat safari is one of the best ways to appreciate the wildlife and beauty of Malawi’s national parks.
On a recent visit to Majete Wildlife Reserve, we were passengers on a lodge boat equipped with a hamper of nibbles and gin and tonics, when we eased along the riverbank to where a group of elephants was feeding on a small island. After about 20 minutes of wonderful family interaction, the elephant mothers edged their babies toward the water. One by one they then swam across the deep river, babies dipping in and out of the fast-flowing currents and mothers doing an incredible job of ensuring everyone got across safely. Emerging on the other side, the whole family waited until reassembled and then, after a quick dry, headed off into the forest. An incredible sighting!
Once a year, the Lake Of Stars music festival comes to Malawi. In 2004, event founder Will Jameson visited Malawi and, inspired by events like Live Aid, WOMAD, and Glastonbury, dreamed of having a music festival on the shores of the lake. Lake of Stars Festival, though, would use arts-tourism to generate revenue and exposure for the country.
We have just been to the 2011 festival and it was fantastic! Under the Malawi skies, international and local bands performed right on the beach and the atmosphere was incredible. We danced the night away to the likes of Beverley Knight, The Foals and Freshly Ground.
The festival happens every October and many travellers visit Malawi at this time to combine their travels with this unique event, staying at the cool backpacker havens of Cape Maclear and Senga Bay.
All year round, for an exclusively local feel, catch the Black Missionaries, usually playing on the weekend in either Blantyre or Lilongwe.
The original version of this post appeared on The Travel Word, a blog that showcases responsible, sustainable and local travel for whl.travel, one of the largest global online travel-booking networks catering to independent travelers headed off the beaten path, often in the developing world. whl.travel today taps into the strengths of local tourism experts who, alone, are local leaders, but together have become a forceful planet-wide presence for the right kind of tourism, bringing to major markets all the local opportunities that can have such a positive impact on hosts and visitors.