Malawi is a warm and welcoming country that offers visitors wonderful scenery, fascinating parks and some of the friendliest people in Africa. A long and narrow landlocked country it covers more than 1000 kilometres from north to south while Lake Malawi, nearly 600km long and up to 80km wide, dominates the countryside. When David Livingstone arrived at the lakeshore in 1861, he was the first European explorer to see the Lake, and was so awestruck that he started missions here.
There is no country in all of Africa that has its geography so sculptured and determined by Africa's Great Rift Valley, the largest single geographical feature on Earth. This ancient 5 000 km-long geological formation bisects much of Africa from Egypt to Botswana and boasts a bewildering array of habitats and lush vegetation. Towering mountains, lush, fertile valley floors and enormous crystal-clear lakes are hallmarks of much of the Rift Valley - and Malawi displays them all. Fertile soils are a result of the Rift Valley and evidence of this is to be found everywhere in Malawi. Throw a seed to the ground and a plant grows.
Malawi's people are friendly and outgoing, while being rooted in a patriarchal tradition that has a strict dress code. It is one of Africa's more densely peopled countries with a population of 13 million, and the country faces formidable challenges similar to other countries on the continent. The realities of modern African conservation are very apparent in Malawi but all the more marked because of its small size and unique topography. Chief among these challenges is a rural population that relies heavily on the basic natural resources of soil and water and the bounty they produce.
For those keen on experiencing African culture in all its complexity and beauty, Malawi is definitely the best country for this. Wilderness Safaris is based in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, and Blantyre, the commercial centre, both of which are easily reached via London or Johannesburg, Harare and Zambia. From these cities, our vehicles provide easy access to aircraft for transfer to the main attractions, or across the border to Zambia.
The first and overriding impression of Malawi is its Lake (with a capital L). At approximately 600km from north to south and up to 80km wide, Lake Malawi, the third largest water body in Africa, constitutes roughly 20% of the surface area of this small country. It is a source of cultural reference as well as providing natural resources for the country's 13 million-strong population.
The Lake owes its existence to the Great Rift Valley, a fault system that runs north to south along the continent and is reputed to be the largest 'crack' on the land surface of the planet. This geological fault forms a trough in which the Lake and the surrounding lowland areas are positioned, flanked by plateaux and mountains. This combination of features ensures that one of the smallest countries in Africa is extraordinarily diverse, with a wide range of climate, altitude and landscape types, scenery, vegetation and wildlife.
Aside from open water, the unique bio-geographical province of the Lake harbours a wide range of underwater habitats including sandy, weedy, rock-sand interface and reed beds. There are also a number of islands dotted across the Lake, separated from the mainland by sandy flats and deep water. Along the lakeshore, sandy bays and boulder-strewn beaches give way to fertile floodplains interspersed with occasional swamps and lagoons in places, while elsewhere heavily wooded hills and cliffs rise steeply from the Lake. Much of its astounding underwater diversity is protected within the Lake Malawi National Park at Cape Maclear in the south.
Beyond the immediate orbit of the Lake, the floor of the Rift Valley rises steeply, the trough climbing to hills and gorges and their plunging rivers and precipitous valleys. The mountains and plateaux of Malawi form a dramatic and scenic contrast to the level surface of the Lake and its floodplains. The most extensive is the Nyika Plateau in the thinly populated north-east, while perhaps the most spectacular is the Mulanje Massif rising 2 000 metres out of surrounding tea estates in the south. These high areas are cooler and wetter than the plains, and covered in montane grassland and patches of evergreen forest with characteristic species in the Nyika National Park such as roan and eland.
Between these two main high altitude areas and as the country slopes towards the Luangwa River in neighbouring Zambia, the high ramparts of the mountains morph into the undulating plains of the Central African Plateau. This landscape is generally cultivated and supports a large part of Malawi's rural population.
At its southern extremity the Shire River drains Lake Malawi and flows through the country's lowlands en route to its confluence with the Zambezi River. In the densely populated southern reaches of the country lie Liwonde and Lengwe National Parks and the Majete Game Reserve, subtropical contrasts to the protected areas further north. This is where the bulk of the country's elephant population occurs and it is only here that the secretive nyala penetrates into Malawi.
Temperatures vary from below freezing (at night on the high plateau in winter - July) to 38°C (in the Lower Shire Valley in summer - December). To generalise is difficult but through much of the year, and in regions visited by travellers, temperatures during the day are usually in the mid-20s. In the short hot season, November-December, maximum temperatures may rise to the lower 30s. Lake Malawi's surface temperatures vary from about 24°C to 28°C.
There are a couple of anomalies that can occur i.e. the rains should stop in April and return in November but the north occasionally experiences summer rains and Zomba and Nyika can experience mist and drizzle throughout the year. Winds can brew up on the lake at any time. Zomba and Nyika National Park are at a higher altitude and are always chilly in the evenings, no matter what time of year. Lake Malawi and Mvuu are all at an altitude of about 400 metres above sea level and will be much warmer.
Rainfall varies greatly. Some years in the early 1990s were exceptionally dry. Really high figures are rare. Parts of the Lakeshore can receive 1270 to 1525 mm a year but Lilongwe's and Blantyre's figures are less than half that. Much of the rain falls in short but heavy bursts.