10 things I love about Malawi

Posted by Sarah Duff on 18 November 2011

After a two-week trip to Malawi in a Mini Countryman in September with photojournalist Lisa Johnston for a Getaway Magazine assignment, I’m totally hooked on the country and keep encouraging people to go. I’ve written about the whole road trip in my blogs but if you want the short version – here it is: 10 things I love about Malawi.


1. Friendly people

Malawi really is the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ as all Malawians claim it is. I’ve travelled to a lot of friendly countries (Thailand was top of my list before going to Malawi) but the ‘Warm Heart’ definitely takes the cake. Just remember to drop your South African paranoia/cycnicism when you cross the border.

2. The lake

Lake Malawi is the third largest in Africa and the ninth largest in the world. That means it’s pretty big. It actually looks like the ocean in some parts, and Lisa and I kept on referring to it as the sea. It’s the reason most people come on holiday to Malawi (although there are some great wildlife parks to explore – we left those for our next trip). The water is warm, (mostly) crystal clear, and the snorkelling and diving are great. There are about 1000 species of cichlids in the lake, so there’s stuff to see when you’re face down in the lake breathing through your snorkel. The lake looks pretty different everywhere we stayed – wavey and sea-like at Senga Bay and Kande Beach; turquoise, still and exquisite at Nkhata Bay; calm and reedy at Mangochi.

3. Mayoka

Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay was our favourite backpackers on the trip. Built on terraces on the shore of Lake Malawi in beautiful Nkhata Bay, Mayoka Village has all the right ingredients for a perfect backpackers: gorgeous location, comfortable and affordable accommodation with great views, vibey restaurant and bar, friendly owners and a chilled out atmosphere. Go swimming or snorkelling in the crystal-clear lake, take a rowing boat out, or go for a hike on Bungulu Hill or do guided tour of the village. Don’t miss out on the different free activities on offer every day, such as an afternoon boat trip on Tuesdays and live music in the bar on Sunday nights. Camp on a terrace overlooking the lake, stay in a dorm or sleep in a Robinson Crusoe-styled chalet (some of which have ensuite bathrooms). The restaurant serves delicious meals and has pizza evenings (my favourite dishes were a giant banana pancake for breakfast and chickpea burgers with potato wedges for dinner).

Cost: Camping is $5 (approximately R40) a person a night, a dorm bed is $8 (R64) a night in a big dorm room (sleeps eight) and $12 (R96) in a small dorm room (sleeps four). Chalets with shared bathrooms are $14 (R112) a person a night and ensuite stone cottages are $20 (R160) a person a night .

Contact Mayoka Village: Tel +265-999-268-595, email [email protected], www.mayokavillagebeachlodge.com

4. Lake of Stars

Now in its eighth year, the Lake of Stars, an annual music festival on the shores of Lake Malawi, is the country’s biggest tourist event. It draws 3500 people, brings in $1 million into the local economy and has been called “˜the world’s most spectacular music festival’. The festival was started by an English guy who came to Malawi on his gap year. Will Jameson thought up the Lake of Stars as a way of promoting Malawian musicians, attracting tourists to the country and developing the economy. The festival does all three while still managing to be rather a lot of fun.

Over three days at the 2011 festival there were 70 acts, ranging from local hip hop musicians to big indie UK band Foals, to South African pop group Freshlyground to local and international DJs, spread across three stages and bars on the beach. Lisa and I had a great time – we loved the music, chilling out on the beach and in the resort’s swimming pool, swimming next to (famous!) musicians and drinking lots of sachets with Sprite (see love number seven).

Cost: Tickets for this year’s festival were $90. Check out the tickets page for updates on the 2012 price.

Contact: www.lakeofstars.org

5. Domwe and Mumbo islands

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a traveller who doesn’t like island hopping. Even if you’ve never done it before it sounds like something you’d want to do, right? I can definitely recommend Lake Malawi as a pretty awesome place to do an island hop or two. Kayak Africa organises trips to two islands off the mainland at Cape Maclear – Domwe and Mumbo islands. You hop in a kayak, paddle yourself to your island destination, while Kayak Africa brings your luggage. Domwe Island has a rustic, chilled out camp with tented rooms on stilts, an open-air dining, a shower under a baobab and fantastic views of the sunset. It’s an affordable stay – at only …. (and … if you’re camping) it’s in a backpacker’s budget.

Mumbo Island, a bit further out from Domwe (meaning more paddling workout), is more expensive, and rightly so. The camp and island are the stuff of honeymoon brochures: incredibly picturesque and unbelievably romantic. On a tiny island next to Mumbo’s main island, tented rooms with hammock-adorned balconies look out on the vast expanse of turquoise lake, and are connected to the main island with a wooden walkway over the see-through lake. There’s a lovely, small beach for drinking beer on and contemplating whether to leave your normal life behind forever and move to the island, two-seater kayaks, snorkelling equipment, a chess board and a small library. Simple but delicious meals, such us butternut pizza and lasagne, are served buffet-style in the restaurant. It’s quiet, laid back, gorgeous and there’s nothing to do other than relax. That’s my kind of island.

Cost: Domwe Island: R500 a night a person for a fully-furnished safari tent (park fees included), R150 a person for a tent site (if you bring your own tent, add R100 to rent a dome tent for the night). It costs R240  night to hire a chef (for one to four people). You need to bring your own food to the camp.
Mumbo Island: R1800 a person, including three meals a day, purified water, tea and coffee (alcoholic and bottled drinks are extra), all activities and equipment (except SCUBA).

Contact: Kayak Africa, www.kayakafrica.co.za, [email protected], 021-783-1955

For more of my enthusing about the islands, read my blog.

6. Cool Runnings

This Senga Bay backpackers is one of those feel-good places that you want to tell everyone you know about. Run by Sam, a Zimbabwean nurse, Cool Runnings is a super chilled, cosy backpackers on the shores of the lake where you can laze about under the flamboyant trees, go for boat trips to Lizard Island, walks on the beach or just read a book on the veranda overlooking the lake. It’s also a great place to stay at if you want to get involved in community projects  while you’re in Malawi. Sam has started several projects which you can volunteer on (you can also donate blood at the local hospital like we did and get some free biscuits from Sam). Accommodation ranges from camping in the garden, dorm beds, to four ensuite rooms. There’s a small bar overlooking the lake and a restaurant that serves fantastic home-cooked meals such as butterfish with baked potatoes and salad.

$4 for camping, $8 for a bed in the dorm, $35 for a room with a bathroom.

[email protected], or check out the Cool Runnings page on Facebook.

7. Sachets of booze

Well this is more of a love/hate relationship. Love in the sense that sachets provide ridiculously cheap alcohol (very important to try out if one is doing a backpacking assignment – one must be authentic at all times and do one’s research thoroughly) and hate in the sense that said alcohol is also disgusting and produces rather terrible hangovers.

Cost: MK (Malawian Kwacha) 20 (less than R1)

8. Chilli sauce

I’m a chilli-addict and have to add some kind of spicy condiment to almost everything I eat. I had forgotten my travelling bottle of Tabasco on this trip, so was delighted to find hot chilli sauce wherever we went.

Cost: Free at restaurants across Malawi

9. Road blocks

Forget the road blocks you’re used to encountering on African travels – Malawian ones are completely different. You have a bit of a chat (How are you? Where are you going? It’s hot today. Where are your husbands?), are sometimes solicited for food (I’m hungry, what’s that food you have on your backseat? Can I have some?) and are flirted with (‘I love you’ was the first thing the policeman said to us at our first Malawian roadblock). Rarely are you asked to present your driver’s licence, temporary import permit, third-party car insurance, or anything else of official value.

Cost: A banana, orange or Jungle Oats cranberry breakfast bar if the policeman is hungry.

10. French toast

This may seem a weird choice. French toast, I hear you say, in Malawi? Well it’s not exactly traditional Malawian food but all the backpackers cook it for breakfast and I had some really great ones on the trip. My favourite was at Gecko Lounge in Cape Maclear – it was perfectly fluffy and had the ideal moist, yet dense texture. What can I say – I love French toast.

Cost: Around MK 600 (around R30)




Malawi in a Mini: the blogs

Malawi in a Mini: Joburg to Lake Malawi

Road tripping around Lake Malawi

Island hopping on Domwe and Mumbo

Lake of Stars festival

Heading home from Malawi

How to do Malawi in a Mini


There’s a petrol crisis in Malawi at the moment, but things are improving and people in Malawi have told me that they think the situation should be resolved in the next couple of months. Just check with people in Malawi before you leave for your trip, and take some big jerry cans (cover them up at the border – they do sometimes pour the petrol out).


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