Most visitors to Malawi arrive in Lilongwe, which is conveniently centrally located. From here, it’s possible to embark on a circuit to the North or a circuit to the South. Both north and south of Lilongwe itineraries will sample the variety of Landscape, Wildlife, Lake and Cultural attractions that the country offers; and can be covered in 7 days; though 10 days would not be excessive.
Whole-country itineraries are also easily put together, either combining selected highlights of both north and south (possible in 10 days); or covering the majority of what both areas have to offer (14 days). Fortunately, distances are never that great, and with Malawi’s constantly changing scenery, the journeys are part of the attraction. It’s also now much easier to arrange air charter between the main places of interest – and at costs which are comparable to those for ground transfers.
Heading north from Lilongwe, Ntchisi offers an immediate escape to tranquil highland forests and is en route to the rugged wilderness of the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. The forested Viphya Highlands then form the spine of the country. Further on, into North Malawi, is the country’s third most important town, Mzuzu, which leads, via Rumphi, to the wonderland of the Nyika Plateau National Park and to the Vwaza Wildlife Reserve. Both are excellent game-viewing locations and the Nyika Plateau is Malawi at its most scenic. Heading east, the famous Livingstonia Mission and the historic town of Karonga bring you to Lake Malawi. Places to stay at its shore on the return to Lilongwe include the delightful Sangilo peninsula, the bustling Nkhata Bay and the beautiful beaches of Chintheche . Across the lake to the east there is the magical island of Likoma and the enchanting Mozambique shore. Once back into Central Malawi, the historic Nkhotakota and charming Senga Bay bring you within a short drive of Lilongwe.
Ntchisi Forest Reserve: beautiful unspoilt forested hills with accommodation now being transformed at Ntchisi Forest Lodge.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve: rugged wilderness of the Rift Valley escarpment, but also containing large mammal populations. Accommodation as at two new international-standard lodges: Bua River Lodge (opened 2010) and Tongole Wilderness Lodge (opening 2011).
Viphya Highlands: a scenic forested plateau. Good mid-market accommodation at Luwawa Forest Lodge with an emphasis on activities – also suitable for a relaxed forest escape.
Nyika National Park: unique scenic beauty of the rolling plateau; plus wildlife safaris. Other activities include mountain biking, trekking and fishing. High quality accommodation is offered at Chelinda Camp and Chelinda Lodge.
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve: complementary lowland wildlife area. Game viewing by 4×4 and on foot. Currently can be stayed in only as part of a mobile safari run by a tour company.
Lakeshore & Islands: plenty of lake-based activities, or simply relaxing on a beautiful beach. A choice of accommodation is provided at Chintheche by Chintheche Inn, Makuzi Beach Lodge or The Beach House. Nkhata Bay has good mid-market accommodation: Njaya Lodge and Safari Cottage. Further north is Sangilo Sanctuary, a real gem. Across the lake on Likoma Island is luxurious Kaya Mawa and on the Mozambique shore are Nkwichi Lodge in the unspoilt Manda Wilderness and Mbuna Bay Retreat, slightly further south.
Returning south on the western shore, Ngala Beach Lodge, just north of Dwangwa, has recently been upgraded under new owners, and the Nkhotakota Safari Lodge is on the beach but also gives access to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Back closer to Lilongwe, Senga Bay has the choice of the traditional colonial Sunbird Livingstonia Beach or the Safari Beach Lodge, set in a forest reserve and with some unique wildlife viewing opportunities.
Heading south from Lilongwe, highlands are soon encountered at Dedza, which has the added attractions of its famous pottery and nearby Chongoni Rock Art, a World Heritage Site. Continuing into South Malawi, Blantyre is the country’s largest town, with historical monuments and a variety of attractions close by. South of Blantyre, the Lower Shire Valley is home to no less that three national parks and wildlife reserves, all now being returned to former glories. East of Blantrye, is the magnificent Mount Mulanje and the beautiful Thyolo tea estates it overlooks.
Beginning the return north, the old capital town of Zomba and the famous views from Zomba Plateau are a short drive away. A little further on is Liwonde National Park, Malawi’s most popular and best established game park. Lake Malawi is reached initially at a strip known as the ‘southern lakeshore’ where you’ll be spoilt for choice of accommodation. From there it’s a short drive to Cape Maclear/Lake Malawi National Park and its range of attractions. Back in Central Malawi, Senga Bay is reached via the interesting Mua Mission, and then it’s a short return to Lilongwe.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve: Only a short distance from Lilongwe, offers the perfect start (or end) to a Malawi journey, with surroundings of endemic trees, birds and butterflies.
Dedza Area: the famous Dedza Pottery, is the largest handcrafted pottery in southern Africa, is a major attraction but its setting, as the base of Dedza mountain is also a draw. Nearby, the Chongoni Rock Art area is now a World Heritage Site. Accommodation is provided at the Dedza Pottery Lodge.
Around Blantyre: the Satemwa Tea Estates at Thyolo are beautiful, with stunning views across to Mulanje and the Lower Shire Valley. There’s also the added attraction of staying on a working tea estate in charming colonial managers’ bungalows. Game Haven is an impressive private game reserve. For climbers/trekkers, Mount Mulanje is a must, but accommodation is basic and trips are best arranged with a local tour company or InfoMulanje.
Lower Shire Valley: south of Blantyre, this previously neglected area is now becoming much more accessible. There are no less than three protected areas, all of which are now being re-developed. Accommodation is available at Fisherman’s Rest at the edge of the Thyolo Escarpment, overlooking the Lower Shire Valley just south of Blantyre. In Majete Wildlife Reserve, Thawale Camp and the Community Campsite provide a luxury en suite bush tents and camping sites respectively whilst a highly luxurious new lodge, Mkulumadzi, run by Robin Pope Safaris, opens in 2011.
Nyala Lodge has been welcoming international guests to Lengwe National Park for a few years now. Further south Chibembere Camp has a dormitory just outside Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, whilst inside the Reserve, Migudu Campsite provides tent pitches and the new Njati Lodge offers self-catering or fully catered en suite chalets.
Zomba Plateau: fabulous views and forest activities including walking, trekking and mountain biking. The Sunbird Ku Chawe sits right on the edge of the Plateau, offering upmarket accommodation and breath-taking views.
Liwonde National Park: Malawi’s best park for game, with safaris on offer by boat, 4×4 or on foot. Mvuu Lodge & Camp offer up- and mid-market accommodation beside the River Shire.
Lakeshore: on the southern/Mangochi Lakeshore lie The Makokola Retreat and Sunbird Nkopola Lodge. At Cape Maclear/Lake Malawi National Park, there’s a choice of Mumbo and Domwe Island camps, Danforth Yachting’s guest house & catamaran; the French-influenced Cape Mac Lodge or the upmarket Pumulani, Robin Pope Safaris. Slightly further north at Senga Bay is the choice of the traditional colonial Sunbird Livingstonia Beach or the Safari Beach Lodge, set in a forest reserve and with some unique wildlife viewing opportunities.
Each of Malawi’s regions, and the country as a whole, can offer itineraries at upmarket and mid-market levels. They can be relaxed, or packed with a variety of activities.
There are also plenty of specialist niche activities/tours which can be catered for, including: cycling; diving; eco-tourism; trekking; birdwatching; weddings & honeymoons; and many more. It’s also now quite straightforward to combine sections of Malawi with its neighbours. Malawi & Zambia is a long-standing combination, particularly utilising Lilongwe’s proximity to South Luangwa. Malawi & Tanzania and Malawi & Mozambique are now also possible, using air charters.