A sliver of southern Africa dominated by the Great Rift Valley, compact Malawi hides a surprisingly diverse interior, with little known parks and reserves that feel truly unspoiled, tremendous hiking through pristine highlands and across vast plains, and, at its heart, a dazzling freshwater lake. Backpackers on grand tours of Africa often cast Malawi as an unexpected favourite, thanks to the gently seductive landscape and markedly friendly population.
One fifth of the nation's area is taken up by Lake Malawi, the third-largest lake in Africa. Described by explorer Dr David Livingstone as "the lake of stars" when he stumbled across it in 1859, its mirror-like tranquillity hides swarms of iridescent cichlid fish, and its shores are enveloped by a beguiling landscape of wide escarpments, hidden coves, pristine sandy bays and dark, wooded hills.
Two of Malawi's best-known retreats reside on the lake's shores. Cape Maclear in the south is a golden sweep of sand backed by dense bush and granite hills, centred on the village of Chembe. Nkhata Bay, on the lake's northern side, hosts a cluster of affordable lodges, strung out along the lakeside and hidden in small, rocky bays. There are dozens of other appealing options around the lake, from bare-bones reed huts to the much-lauded and recently revamped Kaya Mawa (00 265 9993 18358; kayamawa.com; doubles from US$626/£417 full board) – a collection of Flintstones-style dwellings built around the boulders of a rocky bay on Likoma Island and featured in dozens of glossy magazines.
The lake is only part of Malawi's charm. Shrouded in a cotton-wool haze in Malawi's deep south is the imposing Mount Mulanje, a impressive hunk of dark, twisted rock that looms 3,000m above the surrounding plains and tea plantations. Mount Mulanje is known locally as the "island in the sky". This is prime hiking territory: the mountain is criss-crossed by a clearly marked network of walking trails. The available routes last from one to several days and there's a collection of well-maintained huts along the trails in which travellers can spend the night.
Between Mount Mulanje and the lake, Malawi's former colonial capital, Zomba, sits beneath the towering Zomba Plateau. Part of the sprawling Shire Highlands, it's an atmospheric jumble of woodland and pine forest, home to prolific birdlife, giant butterflies, baboons, and rarely seen leopard. A popular walk is the one-day potato path (on account of the potato farms that use it), which leads from the centre of town to the plateau and back. These days, the country's politicians operate out of sleepy Lilongwe. Livelier and more interesting is the commercial and industrial centre of Blantyre to the south.
To the far north is the Nyika Plateau, a starkly beautiful wilderness where antelope wander over open grassland and thick woods hide leopard and hyena. From here, you can hike to the colonial hilltop town of Livingstonia, in 1894, the Free Church of Scotland founded a mission in the cool mountain air after heat and malaria foiled earlier attempts at Cape Maclear and Bandawe.
Infrastructure is fast improving, with a number of areas benefiting from wildlife reintroduction programmes. Since 2003, more than 2,500 animals have been relocated to the Majete Wildlife Reserve ( african-parks.org) in the country's south. It is managed by African Parks, a non-profit enterprise that seeks to "take direct responsibility for managing and financing national parks to ensure their survival". The organisation is attempting to restore the area to its original levels of biodiversity. Eight leopards have been relocated to the park from South Africa since late 2011, with lions to follow this year.
Accommodation and roads have been upgraded, and the park is now home to two high-end lodges. Last year saw the opening of the solar-powered Mkulumadzi (00 265 1 794 491; mkulumadzi.com; doubles from US$612/£408 full board) where the stone chalets have vast private viewing decks overlooking the Mkulumadzi River.
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Past and present
Dotted across Malawi are remnants of former imperial occupiers, from the wide verandas of old tea planters' houses in the south, to missionary churches at Mua and Likoma Island (pictured), and the sobering relics from the 1800s, when Arab trader Salim Bin Abdalla oversaw a large slave market at Nkhotakota.
Unlike in Kenya or South Africa, Malawi's nine national parks and wildlife reserves don't hold the promise of predator sightings, but they are also blissfully free of 4x4 traffic jams and they provide excellent opportunities to get close to wildlife on foot. Elephant, hippo, zebra and antelope make appearances.
The wild side
Wildlife viewing is best at the end of the dry season (October and November) when vegetation is sparse and animals converge at watering holes.
Liwonde National Park, 160km north of Blantyre in southern Malawi, is home to elephant herds, hippo, crocodile, zebra, antelope, hyena and more than 400 species of bird. It offers canoe safaris on the Shire River. The park is also at the centre of a black rhino re-introduction programme ( rhino.malawi.net).
In central Malawi, to the west of the lake, the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve has 1,800sq km of woodland and grasses. Experience the wildlife here by hiking and fly-camping. It has Malawi's last lion population as well as elephant and leopard.
Amid the dense heat of the deep south is Mwabvi, Malawi's smallest and most remote wildlife reserve. It is managed by Project African Wilderness (00 265 1 946 173; projectafricanwilderness.org) and has two beautiful campsites – Chipembere Camp and Migudu Camp. It may be short on big game but it is also peaceful. Camping costs $5 (£3.30) per person per night. Then there's the new Njati Lodge, from $45 (£30) per person.
Most of Malawi's 15 million inhabitants are subsistence farmers. The main ethnic groups are: the Chewa, in the south and central area; the Yao, in the south; and the Tumbuka in the north. To learn more head for the KuNgoni Centre of Culture and Art (00 265 1 262706; kungoni.org), at Mua Parish, 160km south-east of Lilongwe. It is dedicated to greater understanding of Malawi's culture and history and houses an art gallery, carving workshop and museum.
The Cultural Museum Centre at Karonga (00 265 1 362574; palaeo.net/ cmck), in the far north of Malawi, highlights fossil discoveries in the Rift Valley, most famously a dinosaur skeleton, "Malawisaurus", up to 140 million years old. There's also the lower jaw of homo rudolfensis, a 2.5-million-year-old man.
Ancient paintings are concealed in the caves and hills around Dedza, 80km south-east of the capital. The Chongoni Rock Art Area, a Unesco World Heritage Site, has the densest concentration of rock art in central Africa. The symbols found here still have cultural relevance for the Chewa and the sites are still venues for rituals even today.
Lake Malawi is the perfect playground for snorkellers and novice divers. There are no powerful tides, and although crocodiles cruise Malawi's rivers they are seldom spotted in the lake. What you are likely to see are cichlids. More than 1,000 species of this brilliant tropical freshwater fish make diving in parts of the lake like exploring a giant fish tank as vast numbers of fish of every hue dart in and out of underwater caves and canyons.
Most lakeside accommodation will hire out flippers and snorkels. The most popular diving spots are Senga Bay, Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear. In Nkhata Bay, Aqua Africa (00 265 1352284; aquaafrica.co.uk) offers the Padi course for US$375 (£250). Visibility is best between August and October.
For a magical experience just above the waterline, kayak past otters and fish eagles to Mumbo Island (00 27 21 7831955; kayakafrica.net), near Cape Maclear. A few days' snorkelling, paddling and gazing at a night sky lit by impossibly bright stars and fishermen's lanterns costs from US$580 (£387) full board.
The more basic Domwe Island Adventure Camp is almost as romantic and has safari tents and tent pitches from US$25 (£16.70) per person self-catering.
Where to stay
The Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve has two new options: the riverside cottages of Tongole Wilderness Lodge (020-8123 0301; tongole.com; US$550/ £367 double full board) and the modest tents of Bua River Lodge (00 265 888 203981; buariverlodge.com; doubles $100/£67 full board).
The log cabins of Chelinda Lodge and stone cottages of Chelinda Camp sit in the highlands of Nyika National Park (wilderness-safaris.com; cottages from $470/£313 full board, lodge from $650/£433 full board).
To wallow in 1920s colonial atmosphere, the Satemwa Tea Estate (00 265 179 4555; satemwaulendolodges.com) has two options: B&B at elegant Huntingdon House costs from $340 (£227), or the simpler Chawani Bungalow, sleeping eight, costs $175 (£117) a night, self-catering.
In Lilongwe, the Kiboko Town Hotel (00 265 1 751 226; kiboko-safaris.com) offers B&B from $69 (£46). Mabuya Camp (00 265 1 754 978; mabuyacamp.com) is a good city choice for budget travellers and has chalets for $25 (£16.70) and dorms from US$10 (£6.70).
In Blantyre, Casa Mia (00 265 1 915 559; blantyreaccommodation.com)is a good mid-range B&B option; doubles start at $80 (£53).
Getting there and getting around
The best time to visit Malawi is during the dry season (May to mid-November). Exodus (0845 805 0140; exodus.co.uk) has a 16-day trip taking in Liwonde and Nkhotakota National Parks, Lake Malawi, and Zambia's South Luangwa National Park from £2,049, including flights from Heathrow, camping and most meals.
Local tour operator Land and Lake Safaris (00 265 1 757 120; landlake.net) organises one-week tours from £927 per person, including accommodation, most meals and activities but not international flights.
The capital, Lilongwe, is no longer served by direct flights from Britain. The cheapest options are likely to be from Heathrow via Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airways (0800 635 0644; flyethiopian.com) or via Nairobi with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com), with fares starting at about £750. South African Airways (0870 722 1111; flysaa.com) flies to Lilongwe and Blantyre via Johannesburg. Malawi's Swift Air (00 265 994 3 243 38; swiftairmalawi.com) also flies from Johannesburg to Lilongwe and Blantyre, and offers internal flights to the major towns of Mzuzu and Karonga.
AXA Malawi (00 265 1 874254; axamalawi.com) runs a premium non-stop, air-conditioned coach between Blantyre and Lilongwe twice daily (four hours; 3,500 Malawi kwacha/£13) as well as more rustic stopping services running all over the country.
Crowded minibuses whizz between Malawi's towns and villages on a leave-when-full basis. In rural areas, hopping a "bus" may mean sitting in the back of a pick-up truck.