Lake Malawi: Guide to East Africa’s Most Underrated Safari Destination

lake malawi

When people think of traveling to eastern Africa, they usually think safari.

But there is so much more to see and do that often gets overlooked due to the spotlight on these highlights.

In a region renowned for great migrations of land animals, Lake Malawi stands out as something different for nature loving adventurers before or after their search for the big 5.

As the world’s 9th largest lake, Lake Malawi sits within the boundaries of Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.  However, in Mozambique, it is called Lago Niassa and while in Tanzania, it is called Lake Nyasa.  It is Africa’s second deepest and third largest lake as well as being the southernmost lake in the East African Rift System.  As a popular safari destination, Lake Malawi is oftentimes referred to as the jewel in the crown of African tourist attractions.

The Landscape

Depending on water levels throughout the year, Lake Malawi is an average of 365 miles(587 km) long and 52 miles (84 km) wide, hence it being nicknamed the “calendar lake.”  Populated or highly visited shorelines can be found in eastern Malawi, southern Tanzania, and western Mozambique.  The Ruhuhu River flows into the lake on the northern end while the Shire River is the primary outlet on the southern end.  On an interesting side note, the Shire River itself is a tributary of Mozambique’s huge Zambesi River.

The Climate

Although the majority of the lake’s safari adventurers and tourists or visitors prefer the months of May through October when the climate is cooler and drier, Lake Malawi is truly a year-round destination.  June and July witness the coolest average daily temperatures of 78.8° F (26° C) while August and September see the lowest average rainfall of 0.31 inches and 0.20 inches (8 and 5 mm) respectively.

Depending on the time of year you visit and where you are located when you are staying near the lake, water temperatures will range between 72° F (22° C) and 81° F (27° C).  For all intents and purposes, it feels like a dry, tropical environment.  Although the weather will sometimes get chilly up on the northern plateau, the days along the shoreline with be dry, sunny, and warm.  In other words, you will have perfect beach weather during this period.  Not to mention the fact that this is also the best time to see wild game at their favorite watering holes.

Why Lake Malawi?

My response would be why not? Lake Malawi plays a hugely important role in the surrounding economy due to its rich harvest of fish.  As you explore the lake, you will note that numerous fishing villages dot the shoreline and the fishing traditional practices of the villagers attract a great many tourists throughout the year.  You may have to take an occasional detour in order to reach the beach, but the lake is readily accessible along much of its shoreline.

Although the lake attracted a number of settlements throughout history, many long stretches of uninhabited shoreline still exist.  One thing is certain, the sight of crystal clear lake waters lapping up and over the golden sands of the unoccupied shoreline reflects nature’s beauty and wonder on display for all to see when visiting Lake Malawi.  Another attractant is the many water activities that the lake offers such as kayaking, sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and water skiing, just to name a few.

Without a doubt, the lake area surrounding Lake Malawi National Park is the most picturesque part of this extraordinary body of water.  Here you will see hundreds of different species of vibrantly colored cichlids, a popular aquarium fish.  Furthermore, Lake Malawi’s natural scenery is positively scintillating with downward-tumbling trees carpeting the steep hills surrounding it, and a shoreline that is lapped by the bluest of waters and punctuated by numerous islands.

Consider a Malawi Safari

Overall, Malawi is one of the smallest countries on the African continent and is renowned for its always smiling, friendly inhabitants whose lifestyle is one that appears easy and slow.  Plus, Lake Malawi has all of the essential ingredients of the perfect beach holiday including crystal clear waters, iridescent fish by the thousands, and sandy coves that offer privacy and seclusion.  Plus, with its glass-like, ripple-free surface, you can understand why the water activities listed in the prior section are so popular in certain inhabited shoreline areas.

You might be asking yourself “a landlocked country that offers the ideal beach holiday or vacation?” You bet, but with some significant exceptions.  For instance, if you’re looking for a beach holiday that offers crowded beaches and high-rise condominiums, a mainstream tourist destination covered in soulless resorts, Lake Malawi is not the place to be.  On the other hand, if you want to see deserted islands covered in trees for you to lounge under, long stretches of shoreline void of footprints, and the fish eagles flying overhead, this is your next destination.

Planning Your Lake Malawi Adventure

Despite how small the country of Malawi is geographically, it has much more to offer area-wise than most larger countries on the continent.  The ideal way for anyone to experience Lake Malawi along with the rest of the country is seeing its amazing landscapes, extraordinary bird life, and wildlife is by going on any of several safari tours that are currently available.  The right agent can direct you to a customized beach and bush adventure that you will never forget.

If you want your Malawi safari adventure to be the stuff that dreams are made of, here are a few suggestions/tips that you might find helpful:

  • Create a “must do/must see” itinerary for your safari (animal, cultural, geographical, etc.).
  • Decide how long you would like to visit and explore Malawi.
  • Determine the “how” of your safari or the type of accommodations you would like to have.
  • Figure out the timing or when you plan to go on safari.
  • List all the areas you would like to visit.

Bear in mind that there is an abundance to experience and see when going on safari near Lake Malawi and throughout the country itself.  For instance, a combination safari may offer a beach and bush adventure package.  On the other hand, it might offer Lake Malawi National Park aquatic adventures or the Majete Wildlife Reserve’s Big Five Wildlife safari to see buffalos, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinos.  Ultimately, the decision on the type of safari is a matter of personal preference.

Accommodation

You can now find a wide range of good lodges along the Lake Malawi shoreline.  In fact some lodges have been constructed close enough to the lakeshore yet surrounded by the natural beauty of the area.  For instance, between Mangochi and Monkey Bay, you  will find several pristine, white sandy beaches that are dotted with different types of accommodation.  The difference is that the lakeshore lodging reflects the true African character and architectural style, not some garish, high-rise, resort condo sitting among others on an overcrowded beach.

Also read: 19 Ways to Get Cheap Accommodation All Over the World

The Best Safari Travel Advice: Preparation Is (Almost) Everything

One thing you’ve got to get right t have an ideal trip is packing.  Packing light is vital, especially if you are carrying your luggage à la backpack style or taking multiple charter flights in between destinations.  Most charter flights limit you to 25 to 30 lbs. (10 to 15 kg) maximum in carry-on luggage.

We’ve prepared the perfect safari packing list for you here.

Additionally and circumstances permitting, think about packing clothing, medical supplies, school supplies, etc. in order to support the local initiatives of the community you are visiting especially those that are located near concession areas, reserves, and wildlife parks.  In other words, Pack for a Purpose when going to Malawi.

Currency

Malawi’s currency is the Malawian Kwacha (MK) and its most popular exchange activity occurs with the Pound Sterling (GBP/£) and the US Dollar (USD/$) while 1MK is comprised of 100 tambala (t).  Bank notes are issued in 200, 100, 50, 10, and 5MK.  Coins are issued in 1MK along with 50, 20, 10, 5, and 1t.  However, the tambala is no considered as being worthless and only used by locals.  On an interesting side note, Malawians do not expect a tip as many cafés and restaurants usually include a gratuity on your bill.

Personal Safety when visiting Malawi

For many years now, Malawi has been referred to as the “Warm Heart of Africa” due to the friendliness and hospitality that local Malawians are known for.  For expatriates and foreign visitors alike, this is not a travel destination that people view as dangerous.  The larger cities such as Lilongwe and primary tourism routes will see muggings and robberies occasionally.  So you are always advised not to venture out alone in the evenings.

Staying Healthy

Malaria can be a problem in Malawi just as it is in other African nations while the freshwaters of Lake Malawi are prone to bilharzia.  It is especially common in the waters surrounding the Cape Maclear area.  Unfortunately, this is a disease whose symptoms can take months to surface.  On a closing note, there is a 14% HIV prevalence in Malawi, meaning that 1 in every 7 adults has the virus.  These statistics are not meant to scare you away from traveling to Malawi.  They are only suggestions for maintaining your personal safety and staying healthy in the process.  After all, you want to be able to enjoy the memories of your safari for years to come.

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