The famous 19th-century Scottish explorer and missionary, David Livingstone left an indelible mark on Malawi. He is lauded for ending slavery in Malawi and the many statues and monuments dedicated to him all over the country show that he remains a popular figure to the locals. In fact, the strong bond between Scotland and Malawi continues to this day.
Taking centre stage is Lake Malawi – a shimmering mass of crystal-clear waters full of colourful fish and golden beaches that make one forget that this is a landlocked country. The nearby Liwonde National Park with its ancient baobabs and tall tropical palms is dominated by the Shire River, Lake Malawi's only outlet, which attracts high concentrations of wildlife to its fertile plains.
South of the lake, the dramatic peaks of Mount Mulanje and the Zomba Plateau are home to excellent hiking trails, lush valleys and tea plantations, while nearby Majete Wildlife Reserve boasts incredible numbers of wildlife. North of the lake, the Nyika Plateau with its rolling hills and grassy valleys looks more reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands than Central Africa, but with herds of zebras and antelopes.
This is a city divided into two - the modern, planned “Capital City” and the more organic “Old Town” with its bustling streets and markets. In between both centres, the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre is Malawi's only sanctuary for orphaned, injured and rescued wild animals, and plays an active role in conservation. The lovely wilderness area is a welcome respite in this hectic city.
Named after Livingston’s birthplace in Scotland, Blantyre is Malawi’s second largest city and its most appealing. Founded by Scottish missionaries in 1876, this is a compact town offering the country’s best selection of restaurants and bars, as well as a thriving music scene. With its hilly setting and notable colonial architecture, Blantyre is an excellent place to while away a day or two en route to Majete Wildlife Reserve. Make sure you try the barbecue quail (zinziri), a local favourite and central to its food culture.
Feeling more like an ocean, Lake Malawi is Africa’s third largest lake and is the central focal point on any trip to this nation. Formed by the Great Rift Valley, this 560-kilometre-long lake is lined with stunning sandy beaches and authentic mud-and-thatch mudzis (villages) of local farmers and fishermen. Scattered across the surface of the lake are numerous deserted islands that are ripe for exploring.
Lake Malawi National Park is the world’s first freshwater national park and a World Heritage Site that protects hundreds of species of tropical fish, making this a favourite snorkelling destination. Local and international visitors flock to the lake every September for the annual ‘Lake of the Stars’ music festival.
In 1992, Majete Wildlife Reserve was bleak – extensive poaching had wiped out the entire elephant population and whatever wildlife remained was just a shadow of their former numbers. With the help of incredibly successful conservation efforts by African Parks, Majete is now home to over 12,000 animals, including the Big Five, and over 300 species of birds. Located in southern Malawi, the reserve forms part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The diverse population of wildlife lives among gentle rolling hills, riverine forests, miombo woodlands and the powerful Shire River, which forges its way from Lake Malawi to the Zambezi.
Buoyed by the amazing success of Majete, African Parks took over management of Liwonde National Park in 2015 and the park is now reaping those benefits. There is an unspoiled beauty to Liwonde, with its thick woodlands, fever tree forests, ancient baobabs and palm trees scattered across the landscape. The beating heart of the park, however, is the majestic Shire River, overflowing with hippos and crocodiles and a favourite stomping ground of elephants. Liwonde is home to Malawi’s largest elephant population as well as thriving numbers of big cats.
African Parks manages two other wilderness areas in Malawi, making the future of wildlife preservation in this tiny nation extremely exciting. Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, located near the central shores of Lake Malawi, is the country’s largest and oldest national park and is currently experiencing large quantities of wildlife being reintroduced into the park. Mangochi Forest Reserve, connected to Liwonde National Park, is a beautiful mountainous area with small but rapidly growing numbers of elephants, leopards, and other wildlife calling the area home.
In northern Malawi lies the Nyikya Plateau. With its rolling hills dotted with stunning mountain outcrops and windswept grasslands full of heather, this really could be straight out of the Scottish Highlands – it is no wonder that Livingstone had such a strong connection to this country. Located at an altitude of 2,500 metres, this is the perfect escape from the heat of safari. Much of this area is protected under the Nyikya National Park and, apart from the stunning natural scenery and unique flora, this is also home to significant numbers of wildlife - large herds of roan, reedbuck, zebra and eland are common here, as well as leopards, servals and spotted hyenas.
There are also endemic species of chameleons, frogs, and toads, as well as over 400 species of birds, including several unique local birds and a variety of colourful butterflies. This is a popular park for trekking, mountain biking, 4x4 safaris and horseback riding.
Rising 1,800 metres in the south is the Zomba Plateau - another mountainous paradise of lofty waterfalls, pristine lakes, verdant valleys, and dramatic table-top peaks. Below is the town of Zomba, the former colonial capital of Malawi and worth visiting for its lively market and colonial architecture. The main draws, however, are the incredible hiking trails offering breathtaking views and an intense experience of peace and seclusion.
Further south is Mount Mulanje, Central Africa’s highest peak. Rising to almost 3,000 metres and covering an area of 600 square kilometres, this impressive massif of granite forms part of the Mulanje Mount Forest Reserve, famed for an amazing diversity of landscapes from lush valleys with tea plantations to the soaring rocky peaks that attract climbers and trekkers from all over the world.
Malawi is looking optimistically towards its future. Blessed with incredibly diverse natural beauty, extremely successful conservation efforts that have put the country back on the safari map, and a well-deserved reputation as being home to Africa’s friendliest people, the country is ready to shine on its own. Malawi may be small, but it has a lot to offer anyone wanting an authentic African experience.
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