Three months ago, I stumbled upon an opportunity to live, work and adventure in Malawi – a small country located in southeastern Africa. I am always up for an adventure, so without much information I hopped on a plane and moved my life from San Francisco, California to Lilongwe, Malawi. Malawi is known colloquially as “Africa for beginners”. In 2014, Lonely Planet named Malawi as one of the top-10 travel destinations. So I’ve come to wonder….why don’t more travelers go?
After many mad adventures, deep reflection and talks with other globetrotters; I am now a firm believer that the small country of Malawi is the best-kept secret on the continent. Here is why you should drop all of your travel plans and make your way towards the “warm heart of Africa.”
- Lake Malawi
The very first thing any traveler will tell you about Malawi is that you mustn’t miss a visit to its massive lake. A UNESCO world heritage site, the clear waters of Lake Malawi are full of tropical cichlid fish and provide ample affordable fresh water scuba diving. Nearly the size of Belgium, the lake has a different vibe in various parts of the country. You can attend full moon parties and listen to the ‘sea-like’ waves roll in, island hop around Cape Maclear or go cliff jumping on the northern rocky coastline. Most backpackers become easily trapped in the friendly laid-back atmosphere of the lake. With accommodation available for every budget, this landlocked country can easily be viewed as an unspoiled tropical destination.
- Wildlife Viewing
You may have heard friends and family talking about going on Safari in South Africa or Kenya…but did you know that you can also see the Big 5 in Malawi? With Liwonde Wildlife Reserve and Majete Wildlife Reserve located close to other popular lakeside destinations, Malawi offers affordable options to see all the iconic species you can imagine. Malawi has some of the highest concentrations of hippos and crocodiles in all of Africa, you may not even need to enter a nature reserve!
- Incredible hiking and backpacking
If you need more activity during your holiday, Mount Mulanje is a breathtaking mountain trek surrounded by tea-fields that is not for the faint of spirit. Not as famous as Mount Kilimanjaro to the North, this trek still requires a guide and a bit of grit. There are plenty of operators who will organize your trip and facilitate logistics.
Africa’s answer to Ryanair is the new Dar Es Salaam based FastJet. They organize cheap flights from Lilongwe to several surrounding countries. If you are dying to tie in Malawi to a larger African trip you can now affordably fly to Tanzania or South Africa. This negates a lot of hassle that previous travelers experienced as public transport tends to be slow and arduous.
As an entire country, the general perception is that Malawi is peaceful, stable and safe for travelers. Without any recent conflict Malawians are known for being gentle and welcoming. Although the infrastructure and roadways aren’t great, they are generally safe and passable.
- Nightlife – restaurants, bars and events
A trip to Malawi wouldn’t be complete without a night or two in either Lilongwe (the capital) or Blantyre (the commercial capital). With a wide-range of ex-pats mostly working in the development or the tobacco industry you can find western bars and restaurants to satisfy most cravings. Malawi is famous for its cheap local gin and all-night dance parties. Moreover, neither of these cities have the overwhelming feel of other large African capitals. Without any tall buildings you can navigate both Lilongwe and Blantyre easily and take affordable taxis to most anywhere you need to go. Ex-pats also organize regular events. One of the most popular of these is the Lake of Stars Music Festival that feels just like a large western beach festival with some African flare.
- Friendly people
Malawi’s reputation as the “warm heart of Africa” is absolutely true. Most people wave and smile to everyone they pass. It took me some time to get used to the friendly banter and chat on the street. Having traveled throughout the developing world I assumed most people wanted something from me, when in fact, they simply wanted to chat. Also, if your car breaks down all the locals will do what they can to come to your aid – the entire village may even stand by the side of the road to observe.
One of Malawi’s famous authors William Kamkwamba said…“I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart.”
This is what Malawi does to those who come – more than a vacation… this country, it’s people and it’s colors will stick with you. It will allow you to get off the beaten path to explore, reflect and dream about possibilities powered by your heart.