Malawi! Where to begin? You are a long thin country, half of which is a body of water. You have layers of rubbish littering not only that body of water, but the land and streets. From time to time, you feel dirty. You are economically poor, of this I am certain. And since COVID, you are starved of tourism and your prices have become astronomical. But goodness me, you are beautiful! Your gentle skies meet the earth with soft brush strokes. Your dawns and your dusks break your nights and days with attention seeking urgency to behold and be thankful. And like gold dust on beaches of dirty sand, your people shine with kindness and humility – your people truly make you known as the Warm Heart of Africa.

 Our time in Malawi was simple. We did not need to wild camp once (which was a mixed blessing), and the facilities were always fair-good. Malawi has one main road that runs from it’s north to it’s south, plus a couple that link places together. The condition of the main road is not bad, but any other road in Malawi is appalling. But as I always say, this makes the journey more adventurous 😉 

We spent the first few nights camping at the only couple of lakeside camps that were available after having crossed the border… these were both in need of serious repair, and had rather been left to rack and ruin (but, oh the potential!) Whilst at these places we were able to get our bearings a bit, and get familiar with Malawi by map. It was here we realised we would probably be going from campsite to campsite (as opposed to wild camping) because the campsites are at all the best places and the country is too small for anything else! Plus, we had to think carefully because both our boys had their birthdays whilst we were in Malawi… Malachi turned 16, and Gabes 18!!! So we really wanted to make it special for them, but how was the major question! 🤷🏼‍♀️

It has to be said that it was in the not knowing that we drove on. Based on a couple of recommendations we drove what was supposed to be half an hours drive (according to Google Maps) up an enormously steep cliff (which turned the drive into 3 hours), to a place called Mushroom Farm just outside the town of Livingstonia. And how glad we are that we arrived at this place just in time for Malachi’s birthday… this campsite/ accommodation was a destination in itself. Perched high up on the edge of a cliff overlooking Lake Malawi, owned by an American couple who met whilst working for Peace Corps in Malawi – this entirely self sufficient place runs like clockwork.

Evidently we arrived at a busy time of the year (there was probably 3 other groups of people), but on the evening of Malachi’s birthday we booked to eat at their restaurant (every ingredient coming from their garden) along with every other person staying there. On the same night, they had a group from the village come to sing, and of course they serenaded Malachi in the local language and brought him a candle laden cake – and here a precious memory was made!

Wanting to explore the ‘inside’ of Malawi as well as it’s lakeside, we headed to Nyika National Park. Due to the condition of the roads, it took us an absolute age to drive the relatively short distance. But, it was absolutely well worth the effort… we even came across the most uncanny street food. Mice. 😬. No we didn’t try it, but we’ve been told a quite a few times that it’s delicious… I’m just not sure any of us could get past the hair. 🤢.

Nyika national park is not necessarily known for it’s wildlife (someone mentioned that there are elephants, but we didn’t see any)… it’s beauty is it’s real draw. Almost hard to believe when you hear it, but it is reputed to resemble the Scottish Highlands… this we had to see for ourselves. After an epically long and slow drive, we arrived at the park gates and were informed that it was another hours drive to the campsite. It took us two hours, but through the most beautiful landscape. Eventually arriving at the campsite in the dark, we quickly set up, ate something and went to bed. It was unbelievably freezing and the wind was biting. Waking up in the morning, I could see the Scottish Highlands spread before us… hills of wild grasses blowing in the wind on the backdrop of a moody grey sky. We spent two nights in this place, just soaking the glory of it in – finding it hard to believe that it exists in the middle of Africa, whereby just a handful of kilometers down the road the lake was basking in the warm African sun.

Making the slow trek out of Nyika, we headed back along the main road down towards the first major city in Malawi: Mzuzu. There was nothing special about this city apart from one thing. Shoprite. There was a massive, fully stocked brightly lit Shoprite supermarket. We absolutely were not expecting it, and walking into it had me in all sorts of emotions (it was the first proper supermarket we had seen for months). Firstly, elation… due to a sense of familiarity I think, plus the fact that you feel like a kid in a candy store. Secondly, overwhelmed… too much stuff, too much choice and way too expensive! Thirdly, a soft sense of disgust… like, really? We are SO spoilt in the society we live in, and do we ever just stop and appreciate all that we have? It actually felt like just too much.

But long story short, we did stock up (at enormous cost), and left as quickly as we could. Back on the lakeside road, to a place highly recommended to us by a couple of people we met along the way; Ngala Beach. Here we stayed for a few days and did some work… but what a place to be! Owned by a Malawian/ British couple, they simply bought this piece of land by the lake and turned it into the simplest loveliest little campsite right on the beach. I think the most wonderful thing about it was it’s serenity. We were the only people there… we said if this place was in South Africa you would have to book months in advance! They had kayaks there which the kids took full advantage of, and we were privileged enough to witness fly clouds over the lake. The fly clouds of Lake Malawi are somewhat of a phenomenon… they gather above the water according to the weather (ie they are not constant or predicatable), and when they do appear locals catch them in large woven baskets and make burgers from them. 😬

We were sad to leave, but in the name of keeping forward momentum, we moved on. And this time to find somewhere we could celebrate Gabe’s 18th birthday, but without any recommendations to go by. So we just drove, and prayed we would find somewhere.

Well, we did. Having stopped at a couple of places and just not feeling it, we drove until it was dark to place we had a good feeling about; Norman Carr’s Cottage. There is a National Park called Cape McClear on Lake Malawi which we had heard is very touristy and can tend to feel quite dirty. We wanted to avoid it, but figured it was popular for good reason. Norman Carr’s Cottage is accommodation situated just outside the National Park… it has a few rooms, and a place you can camp in the garden. And it was just perfect! Owned by a South African couple who have been in Malawi for 20 years, this place is situated on the lakeside. The original house was owned by Norman Carr – a British conservationist who was responsible for establishing many of Africa’s National Parks and therefore preserving not just wildlife but the natural vegetation of the various areas. Indeed if it wasn’t for the establishing of these parks, the land would have been eaten up by farming. This cottage was the place Norman Carr came to reflect and write.

The beautiful couple who own this place baked Gabe the most beautiful cake, sent us out on a sunset cruise on their old boat and gave us wine to celebrate in style. We had the best day, and again the memory of it will be so great because of the kindness of people we don’t know. A common theme on this journey of ours.

Leaving here, we also left the lake. And made our way to a campsite on the outskirts of Liwonde National Park. We chose not to go into the park, but just enjoyed so much the absolute peace of this place, camping beside a baobab and soaking in the sunsets.

Travelling beyond the lake to the south, we honestly didn’t expect much – largely because the lake had offered us such beauty. But we were in for a surprise! The south of Malawi is absolutely beautiful! Our first stop was Zomba, the old capital of Malawi.

Here there is plenty of colonial British architecture (sadly a lot of it left to ruin), and an old botanical garden. We had heard that the plateau above the town was a wonderful place to see, where you could camp and could hike through the forests up there – we were so looking forward to it. We drove the road up from the town to the plateau to find the campsite in the forest. Only to be mortified by what we saw. Deforestation, deforestation, deforestation. ‘They’ were literally stripping the mountainside… ancient trees hacked down and packed up… truckload upon truckload of logs were being transported away. We couldn’t even access the campsite, and hiking trails were inaccessible because of the machinery. Full of sadness, we made our way back to a campsite in town. Here we learned that the people of Zomba are deeply saddened by the loss of their forests. They told us they are ripped down in the name of development, and whatever efforts they make to stop it, are thwarted at every turn. We made peace with going for a walk in the botanical garden… fairly tame to what we are used to in South Africa, but beautiful nonetheless. Huge trees flanking a flowing river was enough for us to breathe in deep and enjoy the clean air, huge butterflies and the antics of cheeky baboon families!

The real reason we visited both Zomba and Blantyre however, was slightly different. Over the years, we have had quite a few Malawians working for us. One of whom was our dear Ishmael, and the other is lovely Nedson, whose families are from Zomba and Blantyre respectively. We decided we wanted to visit them, largely to convey a message to Ishmael and Nedson that they are  important to us and that their culture and heritage and personal lives have significance. The visits were similar in that their families lived rurally and off the land. But the two visits were also entirely different in nature; one left us with a sense of emptiness – it felt like the family were expecting us to come and rescue them, or give them something. The other family were completely honoured that we had even thought about coming to see them. I don’t know what causes people to think in such different ways, but it was an interesting experience, and actually very touching – it was a privilege for us to have a small glimpse into their lives, and for us to play with or chat to the children for a bit. 

Heading south from Blantyre, we wanted to see the green landscape that the map was telling us was there! So we headed straight for a place called Thyolo, which is an area dedicated to the farming of tea, established in the colonial years. We camped at Thyolo sports

ground, which was quite something to see… clearly built in an era gone by, by tea estate owners for their own use. Walking into the main building felt like stepping back in time… it was nostalgic for me personally and reminded me of old pub buildings and club houses in England. Quirky, antiquated, out of date… will never change;) The grounds were beautiful though, and we spent a couple of nights camped by their swimming pool.

On our way out of Thyolo we stopped by an old chapel to look inside. An very friendly older white chap approached us from around the back of the churchyard, and explained that he and and his friend were just busy burying his friend’s fathers ashes. His friend then came to say hello and after chatting a bit he told us that we should read the book written about his father, called Kangaroo Kay. Of course the first thing I did after saying goodbye was to Google Kangaroo Kay (can’t help myself 🙄)… born to Scottish pioneers and known as Malawi’s last colonial, he was a tea planter (aka, the entire Thyolo was established by him) and explorer of mid Africa. Somewhat of a character he was loved and admired by everyone around him. Maybe one day I’ll give the book a read, but for now I’m quite chuffed with the fact that we bumped into his ashes. 😬

Before heading south to the border with Mozambique we decided to spend a couple of nights in Majete… the only national park in Malawi to have the Big 5. It was certainly very beautiful there, and I think we covered all the roads, but alas we still did not see the much searched for lion! An elephant or two and plenty of buck as usual. But! We did hear the magnificent roar of a lion very close to the camp at night, which we had never heard before, so we were super happy about that!

Lastly, but by no means least we headed to Mount Mulanje right in the south of Malawi just before the border. Mulanje is the centre of Malawi’s tea growing industry and the foothills of the mountain are indeed just that… acres and acres and acres of tea plantations. It is a beautiful town, full of trees and old buildings. In fact we camped in the grounds of the old golf course, and indeed it was very similar to the sports grounds of Thyolo… serving the same purpose of providing generations of white farmers with a gathering place. The mountain itself is splendid and draws mountain climbers from all over the world.

Driving to the border, it was tea plantations all the way. And despite the fact that these farms have had to rip out indigenous forests as far as the eye can see, they are a sight to behold in themselves. Tea plantations are the brightest yellow green, luminous in intensity. It is beautiful to behold, and the sight of workers picking tea leaves feels so antiquated and traditional – it’s like you don’t expect it to still happen like that. But it does. And probably will for decades to come.

Before I wrap up, I think it’s important to mention that Malawi is economically very poor – you can feel it and see it (and we now have quite a lot to compare it to). It is said that there was very little fight from the people of Malawi in it’s struggle for independence… the tribes that form the people are gentle and easy going, and you can still see it.

The country is suffering – the cost of living is expensive, not just for tourists but for everyone and they have little choice but to accept it – opportunities are scarce. I guess that is why we have so many Malawians working in South Africa. But whether South Africa does Malawians any favours, I really don’t know.

And so just like that, our time in Malawi was over. Four weeks of being amazed at how beautiful and underrated this country is, and four weeks of enjoying the gentleness and warmth of it’s people. It is not a country full of tourism, but it has quite an established white community (people originally from SA or Zimbabwe, or even those born and raised in Malawi) – this makes the country quite approachable from an outsiders point of view. I think it would be an amazing country to go to, to get a very real taste of Africa without feeling as though you have jumped in the deep end. So if you get the idea that you want to explore this beautiful continent a little further, don’t think twice about whether you should head for Malawi – you’ll love it!