Malawi: Getting to the heart of it


With Malawi celebrating 50 years of independence from British colonial rule this July, we invited Blantyre-based Frank Johnston to take you on a tour of his adopted home, to show you why this little country is rightly known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’.


Mt Mulanje forms an imposing backdrop for the Lujeri tea estate (Photo by Frank Johnston)

This article was published in Issue 66 (Spring 2014)

Arriving in either Blantyre or Lilongwe, what you are most likely to notice first are the smiles; here even stoic officials smile as they say ‘takulandirani, or ‘welcome’ in ChiChewa, the local language. And you will feel welcomed. More than four decades after arriving here, I still sometimes puzzle over the typical Malawian willingness to smile, often with an Olympic grin, despite the country’s much-bruited poverty, under-development and assumed dejection.

Interactions with locals can be memorable. You might be speaking to a roadside vendor, a waiter at your hotel or an assistant in a shop when suddenly, out of nowhere, in the middle of the conversational flow, comes a sharp “good morning, sir!” With Western impatience you had forgotten the socially mandatory courtesies and are being reminded! Simply say, “good morning”, laugh off the correction to your brusqueness, and carry on…

Malawi offers the truest old-world courtesy you will find on the African continent. Travellers of some maturity may be impressed to learn that older people are deemed the most deserving of respect and given precedence in all social situations. I challenge you to find that in Helsinki or New York!

In Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa, award-winning author Sandy Ferrar describes the wind as the main formative influence on Malawi’s climate, agriculture and magnificent lake. So, as our famed mwera or southeaster wind blows in from the deep south, let’s begin our travels there.

In the south, that wind is called the chiperone because it gathers strength just over the border in Mozambique, around the conical Mount Chiperone. I have stood on the tea-growing slopes of Thyolo and watched the weather building around the mountain, 30 miles away. The wind sweeps in, dragging warm, moisture-laden air from the Mozambique Channel and hurls itself against the 10,000ft Mulanje massif in swirling clouds of clammy mist. In moments a beautiful day can turn into a climatic howler.

But Malawi usually offers a gentler option: Zomba Plateau, 3000ft lower and in the direct path of the wind, catches the cooling breeze minutes later.

The drifting mists and swirling rains sustain Malawi’s tea industry. They also give life to the once fabled – but sadly no longer so numerous – Mulanje cedars. On those many days when the skies are blue and the chiperone quiet, the wrap-around views from atop Zomba are glorious.

Looking across the sweeping plains towards Mulanje is almost painfully beautiful. The powdery sweep of Lake Chilwa, its island a mountain in its own right, is as magical as a fairy-tale.

Follow me as I join the chiperone in the lower Shire and the plains at the foot of our mountains to a place that holds my heart: Elephant Marsh. The marsh gets its name from explorers who were looking for the missing David Livingstone, reportedly murdered in what is now Malawi in 1867. As they slowly sailed and poled their way upriver they began shooting at the thousands of elephants along the riverbanks within the fertile marsh. A painting of this ‘sporting’ slaughter still hangs in the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington.

While today the elephants are a sad memory, this relatively unknown area remains staggeringly beautiful, with no rival for me outside Botswana. An adventurous tourist can pole through the marsh in a dugout canoe guided by a ‘pilot’ with a prodigious knowledge of the local bird and wildlife. Crocodiles bask along the riverbanks and pods of hippos wallow in the shallows; in the lower Shire River alone there are an estimated 8000 of the latter.

The lower Shire lies below the cataracts, that roiling body of water that blocked Livingstone’s progress toward our lake but is now the source of all Malawi’s brightly ‘green’ electricity. This natural river barrier lures anglers drawn by the tiger fish – a ferocious fighter – and other catches for the table, primarily bream and catfish.

Up in the mountain streams, cooled by the wafting breezes, imported trout thrive. Here Ku Chawe hotel, a surprisingly impressive structure perched on the edge of the plateau, makes full use of the local produce, from strawberries and golden (or Himalayan) berries to the daintiest, whitest baby potatoes, the perfect accompaniment to freshly caught and grilled trout.

An hour’s drive north, up the escarpment road that clings to the shoulder of the Rift Valley, we arrive in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, named after Livingstone’s birthplace and claiming to be the oldest modern-style city in Central Africa.

Blantyre’s chaotic streets bustle: the lilt of voices rises and falls as bicycles, buses, cars and animals jostle for space; fragrant scents of food mingle with the smell of dust and pollution; and on the pavements elegantly attired men and women carrying briefcases and handbags walk to work.

Most people who have lived here love the city. In 2001 Blantyre made headlines when a Mercer poll carried in the UK’s Guardian newspaper rated the city as the one “where the highest quality of life for housing, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment can be purchased at the cheapest price”.

Blantyre nestles in hills that rise to 5000 feet, and when the glorious jacaranda trees flower, from September to November, it is filled with a gentle perfume from the bauhinia (or ‘orchid’) trees. Follow the breeze to heritage sites like the Church of St Michael and All Angels, the improbably fanciful Presbyterian church. Here too is the Ryalls Hotel, built in 1922 and the oldest in Malawi. Central Africana’s gallery off Kidney Crescent offers the widest selection of arts, crafts, books and souvenirs, including much on David Livingstone.

Further north, on a newly-tarred road that replaced the colonial Governor’s single lane thoroughfare, opened with a great fanfare in 1908 and been repeatedly widened and resurfaced since, we reach Zomba, the capital of Malawi until 1975 and arguably the smallest and prettiest capital city in the former British Empire.

Those of us who have lived and loved in her sunlit gardens and patioed buildings on the lower slopes of Zomba Plateau believe she should be declared a World Heritage Site. Perhaps one day…

As the chiperone reaches the southern waters of the lake, near Mangochi (another well-planned colonial town), it undergoes a personality change: it has dropped most of its moisture on the peaks of Mulanje and Zomba, and its dry wind is now called the mwera.

The mwera sweeps in from the southeast with the long lithe body of Lake Malawi lying in its path. This fierce breeze whips up the water, providing vital aeration for the lake and allowing fish, a major food-source for locals and tourists alike, to breathe.

Lake Malawi is the third-deepest lake in the world, a remarkable 2200ft in the north. At such depths the water is devoid of oxygen and even fish suffocate. Yet heavy nutrients are washed in by feeder rivers. As the mwera sweeps up the 365-mile coastline of ‘the calendar lake’, it pushes the water towards the northern end. The resulting build-up here causes it to sink, pushing the nutrient-rich soup below southwards in an underwater wave towards the southern shallow end, where fish and other water creatures thrive.

It is a marvel that the bitter wind watering the Mulanje cedars and Malawi’s highland tea plantations should be the same wind that stirs the lake to feed the fish that feed the people. So when David Livingstone revised his description of the lake he first named ‘Lake of Stars’ to the less complimentary ‘Lake of Storms’, he accurately, if unwittingly, reflected the huge debt Malawi owes to that unruly but vital breeze.

As the wind changes its nature here, so too is Malawi’s varied topography transformed. Liwonde National Park follows the Shire River plains. Liwonde, together with the later-established Majete National Park, is proof of the country’s commitment to and phenomenal success in conservation.

Historically Malawi has seen a fluctuation from plains abundant with wildlife to barren tracts of land denuded by big game hunters and poachers in the early 1970s, to the gradual, increasingly spectacular, reintroduction of wildlife in the past few decades. The renewed populations of elephant, various large antelope species and even predators, is a fantastic draw-card for tourists. Particularly thrilling in Liwonde and Majete has been the successful reintroduction of rhino by, among many others, conservationist Bentley Palmer and African Parks expert Anthony Hall-Martin.

Recognising that it’s not just animals that need conserving, the Lake Malawi National Park was established north of Mangochi, around the Nankumba peninsula. The first freshwater park in Africa, it extends around historic Cape Maclear, through the same heavily forested hills that the antecedents of Malawi’s present tourists saw as they arrived from Southampton in their BOAC flying boats in 1949.

It’s on the glorious islands and beaches of this park that some of the most professional operators in the country welcome and enthral visitors. This is the source of the gem-like, colourful little fish known locally as mbuna and as ‘cichlids’ to the world’s aquarists. Around Lake Malawi’s tiny islands, and nowhere else on Earth, you find close to a thousand species and sub-species of mbuna. Live mbuna are exported, under strict control, to Germany and North America, and it’s a fair guess that a majority of the estimated 10 million US households who own freshwater aquariums have fish from faraway
Lake Malawi.

Photographing mbuna in their natural habitat can be difficult, but if, like me, you have a passion for photography, Malawi is a wonderful holiday destination. One of my favourite photographic canvases is the traditional dugouts and the visual drama of night fishing. On the darkest nights the lakeshores will suddenly and unexpectedly burst into light, creating a palette as enchanting as a Riviera promenade. Sunsets and sunrises are an excellent time to see the intrepid fishermen paddle out with flickering oil lamps balanced on their prows to act as lures for the fish.

Sunrise, wherever seen from, is washed clean and shiny by the rains, then coloured by the haze of winter fires, and presents photographers with an amazing rainbow of citrus oranges, reds and indigos.

The famous sixty-year-old MV Ilala remains the major vessel taking local passengers and tourists on memorable tours around the lake, to places still inaccessible except by boat. The even older Chauncey Maples, launched in 1902, is being refitted to revert to her original purpose as a hospital ship.

If you’re seeking adventure on this vast expanse of water, then Cape Maclear is the place to start. Howard Massey Hicks and his crewed catamaran provide a professional, informed and thrilling ride across the ever-changing colours and moods of the lake. For a more do-it-yourself form of watersport you can hire a smaller craft.

Every year, when the mwera is blowing its fiercest in July, the Lake Malawi Marathon attracts sailing entries from around the world. This has been billed the longest freshwater competitive event on the planet and these hardy sport tourists brave ferocious wind and wild weather to test their seamanship.

Another highlight of the calendar is The Lake of Stars Festival, launched by Will Jameson in 2003 to encourage international tourism to Malawi, drawing inspiration from events like WOMAD and Glastonbury. The 2014 event takes place from September 26-28.

Follow me as the wind brings us through Lilongwe, a bustling metropolis with a distinctively African flavour. Since becoming the capital city in 1975, Lilongwe has grown rapidly, especially in the past twenty years following the end of founding father Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s rule.

Despite criticisms of the firmness of his governance, Dr Banda is remembered fondly in the capital as it was his initiative to create Malawi’s new hub, literally ‘in the bush’. He is buried in a mausoleum in the city and locals and tourists alike visit this and the adjacent memorial statue.

North of Lilongwe lies Kasungu, the heart of Malawi’s tobacco industry and birthplace of the redoubtable Dr Banda. Here is yet another legacy of his thirty years in power: the Kamuzu Academy. It has been dubbed by its detractors the ‘Eton of Africa’ or ‘Eton in the bush’. Despite this, it is without question an architectural and educational masterpiece on a continent boasting few such.

With the wind at our backs we can follow two roads to Malawi’s beautiful north. The longer, the M5, takes tourists through the fast-developing Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, then along the lakeshore from the old slaving centre in the port of Nkhotakota to Nkhata Bay, one of several small ports on Lake Malawi and, with Chintheche, the second busiest resort area on the lake.

The other road winds its way over the 7000ft Viphya Plateau. Here the Forestry department planted hundreds of thousands of acres of pine trees for a once all-important pulpwood and paper making project, which now appears to have been abandoned.

Finally we arrive in Mzuzu, the capital of the north and Malawi’s fastest growing city. Mzuzu has its own university and maintains strong links with historic Livingstonia, at Kondowe, a community established by missionaries and once the foremost education centre in the region.

Although Mzuzu is increasingly used as a base for touring the north, the city does not yet offer the high hotel standards and tourist facilities that both its sister cities in the south possess.

The north is a region for the traveller, rather than the tourist, despite its attractive historic heritage, wildlife, scenery and greenery. Hopefully more government interest will see this region developed and opened up to more people.

Here you will find treasures like the Nyika Plateau, which welcomes at most 1500 visitors a year. Rising to over 8500 feet, the plateau has its own microclimate and unique topography. This was Malawi’s first national park and despite the tiny number of visitors to the area, it was expanded in the 1970s to cover all of Malawi’s territory on the plateau and its slopes, a much smaller portion being controlled by neighbouring Zambia.

Wide rolling grasslands stretch to the horizon and fall into blue plains far below. Herds of antelope, from the reedbuck to the roan and the massive eland, roam the hills which, during the rains and after Christmas, are covered in the yellows, reds and blues of exotic ground orchids.

Malawi’s conservation efforts have proved so successful that today elephants occasionally wander across the grasslands from the lonely foothills below. If you are lucky you could see leopards hiding in the pine woods here. It’s the easiest place in Malawi to spot this elusive predator.

Gales are rare on the Nyika, and most visitors claim it conveys a unique peace and calm. It’s a marked contrast to the huffing and puffing mwera-chiperone that so enlivens the south, stirs up the lake and has been our companion for most of this trip.

It is difficult to list all of Malawi’s tourist attractions, hidden gems and travel wonders, such is the diversity packed into its narrow confines. In my forty-two years here, as the country grew into her independence, I have seen huge development in the tourism industry, and every year brings more infrastucture. Although small, Malawi now offers a complete experience for visitors seeking a combination of wildlife, dramatic scenery and beach relaxation. Plus, the welcome is just as friendly as ever, and the smile as wide.

Getting there:

Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways and South African Airways all offer connections to Malawi. Malawian Airlines (now part-owned by Ethiopian Airlines) offers local services and a connection to Johannesburg, while Proflight Zambia connects Lilongwe with Lusaka.

Getting around:
Ulendo Airlink operates the largest internal scheduled and charter air network, connecting most of Malawi’s main tourist destinations. The country is easy and safe to drive around, and most centres are served by a well-maintained road network. 4WD is required for most wildlife reserves and some of the more remote destinations.

When to visit:
Malawi is a year-round destination with daytime temperatures generally between 20°C and 30°C and at no time does climate make travel uncomfortable. The rainy season is November to March, and the coolest months are April to August. Birdwatching is excellent between November and April and the orchids of Nyika are best seen between December and March/April.

English is the official language and is widely spoken. Of the local languages, Chichewa is most common.

Not currently required by citizens of most Commonwealth countries, Europe and the USA.

Further information: is one of the best country websites we’ve seen, packed with practical information, travel contacts and downloadable brochures.





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