Malawi was looking like another of those countries where we may have been leaving the moment we arrived, with daily reported power cuts, poor Internet and a US Government website declaring that a letter of approval was required for Americans – we needed good Internet, enough power to keep Andreas laptop charged, but most importantly not to be turned around at the Zambia Malawi border post. Fortunately only the one report stating an approval letter was found so we took the chance and decided to head east out of Zambia. Our entire adventure really revolved around getting to the enormous Lake Malawi where we had provisionally reserved a private room at the Thumbi View Lodge, perfectly located on the lakeshore of Cape Maclear.
Sunset on the shores of Lake Malawi
Getting to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, from South Luangwa in Zambia was an adventure into itself. Flatdogs Camp dropped us off in the small town of Mfuwe where we would be able to get transport to Chipata, the closest large city – we were told there are guys with cars that make the trip multiple times a day and that it wasn’t worth getting into town at a crazy early time for a bus. So far so good and we hopped into an empty car that was indeed going to Chipata. We pulled out of Mfuwe in what was looking like our own private transportation, slowly realizing that this definitely wasn’t going to be the case. The vehicle was no more than a midsize and by the time we were a few miles into the drive there were eight of us squeezed in like sardines! Four in the back was intimate but doable, it was the four in the front that looked slightly sketchy – with two in the passenger seat and then a third sitting kind of underneath the driver. To maximize profit the guy in control then decided to bang out the journey in as short a time as possible, driving at breakneck speeds on crappy Chinese built roads. We were happy that we couldn’t see out of the front window for the two hour drive!
Arriving unscathed the driver organized us another ride to the Mwani/ Mchinji border post, this much shorter ride being far more relaxing. We had no problems crossing the border with no demand for visa letters, the single entry fee being $75 each for US and UK passport holders.
The ride to Lilongwe, around 120km away, started off a little shady as our so called ‘taxi driver’ suddenly pulled over saying that we would need to switch to his brothers car as it was safer for all the police checkpoints up ahead. We were suspicious to say the least, deciding to go ahead with the swapover anyway – we must have passed through at least half a dozen checkpoints where each time the car was given the once over, each time given the go-ahead to continue. With absolutely no need to have been wary we safely arrived at Kiboko Town Hotel in the center of bustling old town Lilongwe.
Neither of us thought much of Lilongwe so after a single night in the capital stuck with our plans to head straight down to Cape Maclear on the southern shore of Lake Malawi. Once again we had no idea as to how the internet would be so this could have turned into a brief return journey! Due to only having half a day to make it the 215km and the bus changes involved we decided to take a private shuttle with Jacob Luciano of Red Rose Travel, substantially more expensive than we would have liked at almost $100 but guaranteed to get us there comfortably.
Lake Malawi was as impressive as we had imagined, both in its ability to sustain the countless fishing communities around its shores, its natural beauty and epic sunsets. The only downfall being the presence of Bilharzia, a waterborne parasite that once in the body can make a nasty mess of internal organs! This wasn’t enough to stop us taking the occasional swim or snorkeling with a rainbow of cichlid fish – the disease was nothing that a good dose of praziquantel taken 8 weeks after being in the water wouldn’t fix.
Four nights allowed us to discover Cape Maclear by kayak and take an island hopping boat daytrip, both requiring a $10 per person National Park day fee. Off the water hiking to the top of nearby Mt Nkhunguni with its spectacular lake views was a great way to spend half a day. We were still left with ample time for relaxation and seeking out other lodges and gift shacks along the small towns main dirt road. Discovering such a tiny piece of Africa’s third largest ‘Great Lake’ gave us plenty of reasons to see more, from the Mozambique and Tanzania shorelines to off the beaten path islands, reasons for a revisit are endless.
Liwonde National Park
Following a southerly route towards Blantyre and our flight back to South Africa we joined forces with an English couple, our next stop being Liwonde National Park. Once ravaged by poachers the 220 sq mile park is making a comeback, restocked with elephant, a variety of antelope, hippos, cheetah, and some strategically placed black rhinos. The few lodges scattered in and around the park and entry fees are minimal compared with the likes of Botswana and Zambia, a perfect reason for us to head off on safari once again – we found a good deal at Liwonde Safari Camp; European owned, cheap, with an extremely friendly owner and staff. To top it off the data on our Malawi SIM card worked a treat meaning that Andrea could work and we wouldn’t have to leave for a few days!
Rustic accommodation at Liwonde Safari Camp
This place was all about living rustic but being inside the park also meant sharing the camp with whatever decided to pass through. Our $60 a night ‘luxury’ double safari tent was situated on the edge of camp, still only a short walk from the dining and bar area, but in the pitch dark it may as well have been in the middle of the Kalahari. One evening Andrea and I came face to face with a hyena and on the same night an elephant or two came wandering along the trails – we didn’t have to pay to go see wildlife when it came to us instead! It was still worth paying the $25 plus $10 park entry fee for a 3-4 hour game drive, especially when we came across a family of cheetahs sitting in the bush staring at us. Moments like this ensured that being on safari never got old.
Although we never got to see lions or the parks black rhinos it was well worth the visit. During the time we were there we saw very few other tourists and considering this park has only recently gone under the management of African Parks there was an amazing abundance of wildlife. The lodge was a perfect place to chillout, listen to the owners stories and enjoy the sunsets from its wildlife viewing decks.
Barely an hour shared minibus ride from Liwonde, Zomba would be our home for the next 6 nights. Famous for the dramatic Zomba Plateau and supposedly for its English colonial architecture, we assume hidden away in a super secret part of town as the only old building we came across was the Zomba Cricket Clubhouse. We spent most of our time between the African Heritage coffee shop and hikes on the plateau. Joined by our English friends our slightly out of town accommodation came in at the equivalent of $21 per night per couple and for a small additional fee we had the use of a spare 4WD Toyota! Owned by an English guy the lodging was amazing, an old farmhouse on the Mpalanganga Estate with views down to our next destination of Muhanje. To make our lives even easier we could get our cooking and washing done by a super friendly local family that lived on the property.
The town itself had little to offer other than a bus station giving us a way out, a couple of okay supermarkets and a decent coffee shop, presumably existing for the towns small expat community. Still, it was rustic and we liked it that way! The plateau on the other hand gave us days of adventure and exercise, its hiking trails leading off in every direction. Many of the trails seemed to exist for the masses of locals that are allowed to pay a pittance to be able to gather dead wood, either for themselves or for making charcoal – it was amazing to see men, women and children carrying loads on their heads that made us hurt just watching. Knowing that a lot of the wood was probably chopped down and not already dead, and seeing kids as young as 5 emulating their siblings and parents was a sad sight!
As well as great hiking Zomba provided us with a couple of Wow moments, the first coming after a plateau hike when the 4 of us decided to go get tea at the Sunbird Ku Chawe hotel. Certainly not a 5 star resort so we didn’t even bother to look at the menu for pricing; not a smart move! The $15 bill had to be wrong – one pot of tea with 1 teabag, supplied with 4 cups. This was Malawi and they produce tea, obviously very expensive tea if purchased at a Sunbird hotel!
The other occasion occurred at a police checkpoint that we had to drive through to get from town to our accommodation. A police officer came over to the window and with a grin on his face asked for a Fanta to which we replied we didn’t have a can or bottle of the fizzy orange drink – but that we had just bought oranges and he could willingly have one of those. His officer friends were laughing at the side of the road as he walked away from our vehicle with an orange. We found out later from our hosts that to be asked for a Fanta is asking for a bribe!
Blantyre & Mt Mulanje
Another 70km further south took us to Blantyre; Malawi’s second city, our departure point to Johannesburg, and gateway to our planned 3 day hike at Mt Mulanje. At this location in Malawi we were really close to Mozambique but the info we found only told us of poor roads, little infrastructure (so probably no internet), and we’d be in a part of the country that was sketchy to say the least. Back to South Africa it was then!
Standing atop the 9,849 ft summit of Sapitwa Peak, Malawi’s tallest point, with our guide Vincent
With nothing really to say on Blantyre other than it has a bunch of excellent coffee shops and places for a tasty lunch, our favorites being Mijn Kitchen and La Caverna (Cafe Mandala). We also lucked out on an awesome airbnb just on the edge of town which we pretty much had to ourselves – kitchen and big screen TV access for the World Cup included!
The surrounding area was another story, with endless tea plantations and beautiful rolling and often mountainous countryside. Typically we headed out of town using packed to the hilt shared minibuses, our first destination being the plantation at Satemwa Tea Estate – the attached Huntingdon House looked like the perfect place to stay, beyond our budget but worthy of a visit. What we didn’t know was that once we arrived at the entry gate the house was a further 5km walk through the estate, still making for an enjoyable walk through various types and vintages of teas. Although not the picking season seeing the occasional colorful worker in the vivid green fields of tea was a great sight.
Besides our onward flight the main reason for being in Blantyre was its proximity to Mt Mulanje. I had come across a couple of great reads online regarding the hiking in this region and decided that Andrea and I should tag one of the massifs peaks, specifically the countries highpoint, 9849 ft Sapitwa Peak. As well as being the highest point in Malawi it’s also the highest in central Africa. With a goal and dates in mind all we needed was a guide, apparently necessary due to the potential of getting lost! We found Vincent of Mount Mulanje Tours after seeing a poster on the hotel wall in Lilongwe, a local guy who knows the region well and works with his brother to show off the mountains and support the less fortunate in their community.
Early on Friday morning we met Vincent at the Limbe minibus parade and took the packed bus to Mulanje. After a quick stop for food the three of us jumped on the back of moto’s for the 12km ride to the recently ransacked Likhubula forest station. Registering took a few minutes and with a porter in tow we hit the trail towards our first night accommodation at Chisepo hut.
The conditions at this still relatively early hour were not the best with cloud covering everything around us, very typical of this mountainous terrain. Fortunately the further we walked the longer the glimpses of the surrounding hillsides became – hopefully the weather would be on our side as Mt Mulanje had the potential for some stunning scenery. Scenery that was looking like we would be the only people experiencing over the weekend. There had recently been an incident where a park ranger had shot and killed a local illegally taking wood, and this in turn had caused an entire community to retaliate and wreck the Likhubula forest station. Whilst in Zomba a week earlier we had heard that this area was still off-limits!
Hiking in an area without mass tourism was the perfect way to spend a weekend, and whilst not far away from civilization we still felt so far removed. The weather remained on our side, the bonus being blue skies and amazing views from the summit of Sapitwa Peak. Our second night was spent at France’s Cottage, another rustic cabin that had seen better days but was more than adequate for the three of us – especially considering we paid only a Dollar each!
The hiking was never too strenuous and with relatively easy access from Blantyre/ Lombe made for a great weekend of cheap adventure. We found lots of useful information on the Mountain Club of Malawi website and can recommend Vincent as a reliable and more than competent guide.
Mt Mulanje Hiking
Guide for 3 days, up to 3 people – $75
Porter for 3 days, max 18kg- $60
Cooking for 3 days, up to 3 people, must bring own food -$15
Mt Mulanje National Park – $10 total
Accommodation dependent on hut – $1-2 per day
SIM Card & Coverage
Carrier: Airtel, Usage: 10.5GB
Arrival: Chipata -> Lilongwe, Carrier: Shared taxi, Cost: $cheap pp
Departure: Blantyre -> Johannesburg, Carrier: Malawian Airlines, Cost: $239 pp
June 5th – June 25th 2018
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