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.