MALAWI’S (and my) REPORT CARD
I am not a qualified critic nor have I got any basis for claiming the intellectual high ground. But here’s how I experienced Malawi.
- I arrived through Zobue in southern Malawi and left through Kasumulu in the far north. Both were easy and fairly quick, but the Zobue border control house was quite a drive from the Mozambican side – I actually thought I had missed it, and nearly turned around.
- Zobue is a big border crossing with many busses and trucks being strip-searched. Like with all borders, the process is confusing (almost deliberately so), and the customs officials are unhelpful (almost deliberately so) and don’t know the full process even if they were asked. However, I managed to get through without too much trouble.
- Had to buy third party insurance and they print off a very official-looking, square ticket with is stuck on the inside of your windscreen. This is compulsory and fellow travellers were stopped and fined for not having it.
- Leaving through Kasumulu was a big breeze, even though I overstayed my visa by a day. The official didn’t notice and just stamped me through.
- The main road (M1) that runs like a spine up the centre of Malawi and then along the lake in the northern part, is by far the best road in the country, even though it too, isn’t gold standard.
- Other “M”-roads range from very narrow with dangerously huge trucks barrelling down it (M5) to completely gravel with shocking ditches, sharp rocks and very slow travel (M9).
- I passed a lot of road works and hopefully that means that the general state of Malawian roads will improve. However, even the roadworks are being handled really badly and the detours can be very hairy.
- There are multiple police stops, some which are permanent fixtures. I got asked about my emergency equipment and to show my reflector vests once, but generally its a smiling conversation and a happy wave-through.
- English is very widely spoken in Malawi. I didn’t have a problem once being understood.
- The main indigenous language is Chichewa and learning a couple of phrases really helped (as with being in any foreign-language country).
- I bought a local Airtel SIM because that was what the agent said was the better of the two. I think it just had better branding and NMT, the green-coloured network and more local-grown, seemed to be much better.
- Very simple to get connected though. Bought a SIM card for a handful of kwacha, loaded it with enough credit to buy a data package and had some change credit for local calls. Data is cheap! (MK19,000 for 15GB valid for 30 days)
- Airtel had good-ish coverage in the main centres but poor to non-existent coverage in all of the pretty places (like Mulaje, Zomba, etc etc.)
Overall, Access gets a C. The roads in Malawi are a huge problem and, without the positives of language and friendly borders, or the so-so of the state of internet connectivity, Access would have been close to a fail.
- Where to even begin! Malawi is not just about the lake, although it’s a massive part of the draw here. I did really enjoyed seeing the lake from the various vantage points: way south at Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear; mid-lake at Nkhata Bay; island lake when we went to Likoma island; and northern lake at Livingstonia and Chilawera. And she is beautiful from every single angle. (There’s a definite bilharzia threat for the entire body of water, with a higher chance of contracting it in the southern half.)
- Monkey Bay is peaceful and relaxed. Cape Maclear is the “resort beach town” version, just a touch north of Monkey Bay.
- Besides the lake (and arguably equal to or even more exciting than it), were Mount Mulanje (I spent two days climbing to Chambe Plateau and back, overnighting in France’s Cottage) and Nyika Plateau (largest and oldest national park in Malawi, way north and a real b!tch to get to, but oh so worth it!)
- Nkhata Bay has its own magic and is the gateway to Likoma Ferry via the Chelmbwe ferry (what a crazy ride!) and the slower but more comfortable MS Ilala (when she’s running, which she wasn’t). I can’t recommend Nkhata and Likoma enough. Scuba, snorkel, kayak, meet other travellers, laze on the beach, hike, eat, nap… It’s all here!
- Livingstonia was incredible. Incredible in that I didn’t die in a car accident on the ridiculous road that hairpins nearly 20 times in the 12 km ascent. And incredible because the views once you’re (safely) at the top, are absolutely breath-taking.
- I spent a bit of time in Blantyre (hilly and spread-out – has good shops for restocking supplies) and Lilongwe (a sprawling, flat city in which, besides Devil Street, I struggled to find too much to get excited about).
State of the sites
- It is abundantly clear that Malawi is not a rich country. Yes, they have amazing natural beauty and beautiful nature, but not a very rich people or government.
- That means that not a huge amount of money is invested in maintaining the attractions that they do have and so a general state of disrepair hangs over most things here, from government-run parks to privately owned camp sites.
- That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a pride in what is Malawi, but just a general resignation that things are more broken than fixed and more out of repair than in repair.
- The two things that struck me the most in Malawi, on the negative side, was the rapid—and seemingly unchecked—rate of deforestation and how easily—and without conscience—the Malawians litter in their Lake. (Fortunately for them, the lake acts as its own massive vacuum cleaner and so there isn’t any permanent plastic island or anything, but it was still staggering.)
- There were more visitors in Malawi than I encountered in Zimbabwe, but not by much. It was shoulder season, which could have added to the emptiness, but I would have really loved to see more people spending tourism dollars here. The country needs it and the amazing places deserve it.
Service and knowledge at the sites
- Malawians know a lot about their country and take pride in who they are and what they have achieved.
- If you want to make a Malawian positively beam, then tell him or her that you cannot wait to come back again. This is the greatest compliment you can give a local.
- I never got stopped or stuck trying to gain access to any of their attractions, but service and infrastructure are true challenges in getting there in ease and comfort. The ferry ride to Likoma Island, is a prime example.
- As with Zimbabwe, tickets can generally only be bought in cash and the whole process is very, very manual and can be time-consuming.
Overall, Attractions gets a solid A. If payment and receipting were more automated and cash-less, I wouldn’t blink an eye to give that an A+.
Malawi is incredibly affordable. It is obviously also possible to travel here on the Platinum Standard (chartered flights taking you to beautiful paradises like Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island) which cost a lot more and aren’t truly African experience in my humble opinion. I managed to generally stay within my budget of $300 per week, all in. (220,000 Malawian Kwacha) and this got me a nice blend of camping, backpacking and lodging.
Currency is the Malawian Kwacha, which is about 700 to US$1 and 55 to ZAR1.
- Fuel: MK800 per litre of diesel was about standard.
- Camping: MK6,000 to MK10,000 per person per night was the general rate. ($10, which is similar to Zimbabwe and other countries)
- Lodging: $25 for the night at Aqua Africa in Nkhata Bay (a really awesome place to stay if you’re in that part of the country) and around $20 to $30 for bed nights in mid-range lodges and great backpackers.
- Food: Depends where you go, but the cities and higher-end lodges could be expensive. Paid $50 for a three-course meal at Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island (didn’t stay there but definitely work the price for the meal on the beach there!) There are Game and Shoprite stores in Lilongwe and Blantyre. I generally found them well stocked with everything I needed. Fresh fruit and vegetables at any and every market along the way, although some varietals (tomatoes, potatoes, onion, garlic) are way more commonplace than others (I really missed a variety of green vegetables).
Overall, Affordability gets an A.
ABODES, ABLUTIONS AND APPETITES
- There are some stand-out camping places: Lukwe in Livingstonia is an absolute must. Amazing views, great facilities and not badly priced. I also camped at (and can recommend) Chelinda in Nyike, Kazuni at Lake Vwaza, Likabula Forest Lodge at Mulanje and at Monkey Bay Beach Lodge (amazing!)
- The Trout Farm on Zomba was in a really bad state, which is sad because it is such a beautiful setting.
- Don’t assume hot water is always on offer. Also, there were a lot of problems with consistent electricity in Malawi; I don’t think I had a day when power wasn’t interrupted somehow. I have no idea how the locals manage their lives with such inconsistent electricity, but they do.
- Some absolutely amazing, affordable places to stay in Malawi.
- Top of my list must be Mango Drift, on Likoma Island. A real gem of a place and, considering that they need to pretty much bring everything from the mainland (and my first hand experience with the ferry), they achieve medal-worthy feats.
- Also really loved Aqua Africa in Nkhata Bay, as well as Mayoka Village there. Stayed at Mabuya Lodge in Lilongwe and Kabula Lodge in Blantyre, both of where were good for what they were (which was basically ex-pat traveler gathering places).
Food, drink and merriment
- Generally ate well (except that I missed veggie varieties, as mentioned).
- I really, really missed road-side eateries and, when I did stop and try the street food, I wasn’t thrilled.
- Joy’s Place in Mzuzu was an absolute gem of Asian fusion dishes.
- Many of the lodges (Monkey Bay Beach Lodge, Likubula Forest Lodge, etc.) did offer a set-menu dinner meal and these were always delicious and good value for money.
Overall, I ate well, kept clean and always found a happy reception wherever I went, so I can overlook some of the downfalls and give this a solid B.
- Malawi was all about managing my own expectations. I had never visited here before and was exceptionally excited about coming here because of how everybody else had raved about it. That meant that I have unrealistic expectations of what it could be and how magical an experience I would have.
- I managed to get over myself fairly early on, though, which was fortunate, so I could just let the country and it’s people flow into my experience with less pressure.
- I did want to get out of my car more at random places. Stop between my stops. And I found myself not eager about doing this, probably because I was on my own and felt I needed a wingman or woman to make the experience complete. On the few occasions that I did stop to ramble through a rural market or buy something to eat, I found it a difficult and stilted experience. Not sure what that’s about, but it was what it was.
- Met some awesome people; fellow travelers to share adventures with and also many locals that invited me in and showed me around.
Overall, a B, I think.