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How to Travel in Malawi Without a Hitch

Travel in Malawi

Although Malawi is one of the smallest countries in Africa, it offers a wide range of real African experiences: game watching, magnificent scenery, wonderful hospitality and security. Formerly known as Nyasaland, it was part of the British administered Central African Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It took independence in 1964.

Nicknamed “The Warm Heart of Africa” – and anybody visiting Malawi will agree with this – it is landlocked and surrounded by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. The picturesque and vast Lake Malawi, which occupies about a third of the country’s area, separates it from Tanzania and Mozambique.

Planning a trip to Malawi in the near future?  Here are some tips to make your trip go as smoothly as possible:

Getting Around

Because it is relatively small, traveling in Malawi is easy and safe.

Car Hire: With relatively short distances between places of interest, reasonable road surfaces and little traffic, Malawi is ideal for driving yourself. Most main roads are tarred but narrow, with reasonably maintained surfaces. Driving is on the left. You can hire a car from well-known companies based in Lilongwe, the capital, and Blantyre, and desks at the airports. A number of the local tour and safari operators also offer car rental.

Air Travel: Malawian Airlines flies a number of times every day between Lilongwe and Blantyre, as well as connecting Malawi to its regional neighbors and through its alliance with Ethiopian Airlines. Malawi also has air charter companies that link most tourist destinations as well as the main towns. Ulendo Airlink for example, offers flights to key domestic and regional destinations from Lilongwe and Likoma Island.

Public Transport: There is a good network of inexpensive public buses throughout the country. Small mini-buses offer local journeys while larger coaches can be taken on the longer distance routes.

Taxis: Taxis are mainly found in the main cities. Fares are usually fairly low by international standards.

Lake Ferry: The famous Ilala, a 620-ton vessel that carries up to 400 passengers, travels the length of Lake Malawi (365 km) and offers affordable passage. Travelers can hop on and off at various locations.

Safaris and Tours: There are a number of companies that organize safaris or tours in Malawi. Options range from simple accommodation, to full-scale, tailor-made guided tours. For example, Kambuku Safaris provide vacation packages for groups, families, couples and even lone travelers. The Ulendo Travel group also offer visitors a unique safari experience combined with rich cultural heritage. Robin Pope Safaris offer intimate bush camps, rustic, yet sophisticated, lodges with the focus on stylish, highly personalized, 5 star experiences. Kumbali Lodge, set on 650-hectare forest reserve outside Lilongwe also offer luxury accommodation and a wide choice of dining and function rooms for conferences, private parties, and other events.

Climate

Best Time to Travel: Malawi has a sub-tropical climate, relatively dry and strongly seasonal. For most people the dry (winter) season from April through November is the best time of year to visit. The chance of rain is slim, daytime temperatures are generally pleasant (in the 20s Celsius) and the low vegetation and limited availability of water, mean that game viewing is at its best.

Personal Safety: Malawi is considered a safe country for tourists and Malawians are rightfully known for their friendliness. However, the usual precautions should be taken as would be advised for tourists anywhere.

Currency and exchanging money

Malawi’s unit of currency is the Kwacha (abbreviated to MK internationally; K locally). Banks in the towns are open weekdays from 8:00 to 13:00. Mobile banks operate along the lakeshore and in more remote areas. Travelers checks and foreign currency notes are widely accepted. There are 24-hour ATMs in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu for withdrawing local currency, only. Although payment in cash is still preferred, mobile payments and mobile payment apps are beginning to be accepted.

Kambuku Safaris for example, are pioneering this new trend of accepting mobile payments in Malawi. Powered by 3G Direct Pay Group, the system accepts VISA, American Express & MasterCard. Cross-border mobile payments through M-pesa, Airtel Money, Vodacom, Tigo and MTN are also be supported, in addition to debit and prepaid cards.

Culture

Dress: Dress is generally informal, but swimwear and skimpy clothing should be confined to the beach resorts. For safaris, “natural” colors (khaki, browns, etc.) should be worn in preference to bright colors. In the highlands, especially in the winter, it can be cold in the evening and sweaters may be needed. It can be very cold on morning or night safari drives, as well.

Food and Drink: Most hotels and safari camps serve “western” dishes with game and occasionally local foods such as Nsima, a thickly-mashed maize porridge served with Ndiwo “relish”, made of vegetables or goat meat. Soft drinks, beers, spirits, such as Malawi gin and South African wines, are reasonably priced and commonly available. Bottled water should be used in preference to tap water. Tea is widely and regularly consumed. It is one of Malawi’s major crops and thought to be among the best in the world.

Excellent fish dishes including usipa or utaka (similar to whitebait), asmpasa (similar to salmon), batala (butter fish), and kampango (similar to catfish). For dessert, Malawians may enjoy the local plain doughnut—mandasi.

Language Guide: While English is an official language, and widely understood, many indigenous languages are also spoken. The most common is Chewa (or Chichewa – the language of the Chewa). Here are a few Chichewa words and phrases which might come in handy:

  • Hello – Moni;
  • Goodbye – Tsalani Bwino;
  • How are you? – Muli bwanji?
  • What is your name? – Dzina lanu ndani?
  • My name is – Dzina langa ndi;
  • How much is this? – Bwanji ichi?
  • Thank you – Zikomo.

So, Malawi, here we come – “Tiyeni!” – Let’s go!