Malawi was my favourite country this far on my African trip and Lake Malawi is the undisputed highlight. The people are extremely open and friendly. There is less hard-sell or children begging for money, like in other African countries. It is also quite safe compared to elsewhere in Africa. Outside of the big cities, you can leave your wallet sitting somewhere and expect to come back and find it still there with no money missing.
Unfortunately, like many countries in Africa, corruption has hampered the development of the country and the infrastructure is extremely poor. Some areas suffer from frequent power cuts and WiFi coverage is sparse. I had to get SIM cards from 2 different networks (Airtel and TNM) due to patchy coverage.
It is also extremely expensive to get there. Flights, like everywhere in Africa, are extortionate and the $75 (at time of writing) tourist visa is steep. This, along with the poor infrastructure discourages visitors, which is a shame.
Malawi is a beautiful country quite undeveloped for tourism. The centrepiece is Lake Malawi, share also by Mozambique and Tanzania. The third biggest lake in Africa, it is so big, you cannot see one side from the other.
Apart from just chilling out, there are plenty of activities on the lake, such as snorkeling and diving. Many boats trips also feed the fish eagles and you can see these amazing birds swooping down to catch the bait.
Note, that the lake is infested as certain points with Bilharzia, a water-borne parasite carried by snails. The snails live in sandy areas near the shore and feed off reeds. The parasite is absorbed instantly through the skin when in contact with infected water. So, if you swim off the shore or near rocks, it is unlikely you will be infected. However, it is extremely difficult to avoid all contact, as the water you shower in and is used for cooking also comes from the lake. The disease cannot be prevented, but it easily treated.
I took a taxi from Lilongwe airport directly to Monkey Bay. I intended to stay only a few nights here on my way to Cape Maclear, but ended up staying a week. The main reason was the awesome lodge I stayed at, Monky Bay Beach Lodge, a totally chilled place located in a military base. It was a much higher standard of accommodation than what is on offer in Cape Maclear. Cape Maclear also suffers from noise polution – loud bars (often empty) at night, followed by religious chanting early in the morning.
Likoma Island is one of two islands belonging to Malawi, but located on the Mozambique side of the lake. Due to a British missionary presence on the island, it was assigned to Malawi and not Mozambique when the borders were drawn up after WW2.
To get there, I took the former steamship, the Ilala. The journey took about 18 hours and I booked a cabin for about $40. The boat travels slowly and stops for at least 3 hrs at each stop to load and offload passengers and cargo from small boats which come out to the Ilala as most villages do not have ports where the ship can dock.
The island suffers from acute power shortages and is quite remote featuring only 2 lodges with budget accommodation. The atmosphere on the island is really special however. You can walk from village to village and the reception you get from the local children is incredible. They are so happy to see foreigners (Muzungu) and have their photo taken.
From Likoma, I took the slow boat to Nkhata Bay. As the Ilala only runs once per week and the fast boat was out of service, I was forced into this 6 hour torture ride. The boat was a total death trap, filled to over-capacity with passengers and cargo, and lurching ominously to one side. We managed to get to Nkata Bay, however, without sinking.
One day, I made a tour of the tea plantation and weed plantations. We drove for some hours to a remote village, followed by hours of hiking to remote fields only to find one solitary plant. The local weed, known as “Malawi Gold” is reputed to make more revenues than the official largest export, tobacco. It forms part of the three “Big Cs”: cannabis (chamba), tea (chambe) and tilapia (chambo). A local expat told me the story of when he went into a fish shop and accidentally ordered chamba. Everyone in the market burst out laughing and he was completely oblivious!
In Nkhata Bay, I stayed at the Mayoka Village Beach Lodge, another super-chilled place with chalets right on the lake or with fantastic views. Each chalet is individually designed – mine had a bathroom with a tree going in the middle and an outdoor shower with views of the lake!