In Malawi, culture's the quest October 07, 2002 Share 1 -- I>>Senior editor Andrew Compart visited Malawi in Africa. His report follows: ost Americans making their first trip to Africa likely will end up on a safari looking for lions and elephants in a country such as South Africa or Kenya, not on a visit to this small African country bordered by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique.But U.S. tourists returning to Africa may find a lot of appeal in this friendly, peaceful enclave of culture and soft adventure.Tourism officials and tour operators for southern Africa also encourage packaging Malawi with other countries on the continent."It's more for the discriminating sort of client, someone who travels extensively and wants to see something different," said Stacy Fiorentinos, director of wildlife programs at Park East, a tour operator in New York.Park East, for example, touts the culture, the interaction with locals, the unique and abundant marine and bird life, and a different type of safari.My trip provided many examples.First, the culture.The most common sight here may be the children, who smile, wave and give thumbs-up signs as tourists pass by -- emblematic of a country that seems to pride itself on its slogan, "The Warm Heart of Africa."During our stay at Club Makokola, a resort by Lake Malawi, we visited a fishing village called Nantchengwa, where small children vied for the opportunity to hold our hands as we talked to villagers.Throughout our trip, several of us -- accompanied by our hosts -- visited bars, where we danced to African music and mingled without a hint of trouble.We also took a trip to Mua Mission's KuNgoni Art Craft Centre, where the elaborate wood carvings and workshop viewings are a must for art lovers.Prices for carvings range from 50 cents to $300 and, at this level of craftsmanship, even the most expensive pieces are a bargain. (An important tip: Shoppers may have trouble paying here with anything other than local currency.)Mua Mission, founded in 1902, also offers a $5 guided tour of the Chamare Museum, with extensive information on the country's Chewa, Ngoni and Yao cultures.Malawi also has many attractions for soft adventure and relaxation.The country's greatest geographical feature is Lake Malawi, which covers a 352-mile stretch down the eastern side of the country.The Le Meridien Livingstonia Beach and Club Makokola resorts are suitable for Westerners who want to relax and enjoy the view, perhaps as a respite on a trip that has included some hard adventure.Livingstonia is a 90-minute drive from Lilongwe airport, while Club Makokola includes an air strip for access by Air Malawi -- efficient, clean and friendly on my flights -- or by charter.At night, fishermen use flares to attract fish, giving the lake its nickname, "lake of stars."The resorts also promote fishing, boating (including a sailing marathon/race on the lake each July), bird-watching, snorkeling and scuba diving. Lake Malawi boasts more than 500 species of fish, many of them exclusive to this body of water.Agents, however, should warn their clients about a potential health risk.Malawi tourism officials insist it is safe to go into the water, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns about the risk of contracting schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, which is spread in fresh water by infected snails.Research into how to reduce the risk of contracting the ailment is continuing, which suggests it remains a problem in at least some areas.U.S. visitors to Africa think safaris, and Malawi has its share. But at Mvuu Wilderness Lodge, located in Liwonde National Park on the banks of the Shire River, a stay proves memorable."We try to offer something that's really intimate, a true wildlife experience," said Ryan Brayshaw, who manages the lodge with his wife, Leanne.The lodge accommodates 10 people in large, tented suites. Each looks out over a lagoon that may be visited by hippos, crocodiles, monkeys and other animals.Mvuu also has a camp with lodging for up to 40 people. It is less expensive and tends to attract families with children, managers at the property said.What do visitors see here? As four-time visitor Catherine Munzy put it, "If you want to see the Big Five [lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, elephant], you don't come here. But if you want to see [other types of] wildlife, you come here."For example, the park had only two lions, but many smaller cats. On land, tourists should expect more brush and smaller animals than they may be used to on a safari that features education and interaction.Water safaris for viewing crocodiles and bathing elephants are touted as a unique feature. Birding also is a big attraction, with more than 400 species. A rhino sanctuary has seven of the animals, but they are not easy to spot.Mvuu also offers bicycle trips into local villages and overnight stays at a traditional, rural Malawian village.Another soft-adventure option is Mount Mulanje, which Malawi touts as its premier hiking and rock-climbing destination. The numerous routes range from hours to days to traverse.The highest peak rises to nearly 10,000 feet, and the mountain features waterfalls, streams and gorges.Ride to mountain offers unexpected rewardsBy Andrew Compartometimes the biggest rewards from traveling in a foreign country come from the experiences on the way to the day's destination.These moments can come from an unexpected delight, a cultural insight, a random stop in a rural community, interaction with friendly locals or simply the view from a car window.Malawi provided plenty of such moments.Consider, for example, our ride to Mount Mulanje.Our main intent for the day was simply this: Ride to the mountain, hike for a few hours and come back. But other treasures awaited.We took our van from Blantyre in the morning but made a planned stop just outside Blantyre in Limbe.We briefly visited the Limbe market, where I saw tempting fruits and vegetables, colorful spices -and a woman nonchalantly carrying a live chicken, her right hand clasped around its neck and wings.Presumably, she was bringing it home for a meal, perhaps taking it alive to ensure it is slaughtered according to Islamic law.Soon, we were again on our way to Mulanje, passing tea plantations all along Thyolo and Mulanje roads.For the next hour, we passed rolling hills of tea fields in several shades of lush and vivid green, interspersed with trees and crisscrossed by walking paths for the workers. We stopped at one of the fields to take pictures and to talk to a plantation supervisor.We took off again but made a pit stop in the town of Luchenza to buy water and soft drinks. A person in our group spotted a band walking down the street with makeshift instruments. He offered them $1 to play.The body of a guitar was a gasoline can attached to a wooden guitar neck, but you wouldn't know it by the sound. Some members of our group danced, and villagers gathered to watch, smile and laugh.We continued on our way, passing more tea fields -- and something else. To our left, a huge crowd of yellow-clad people gathered.Yellow is the color of the Malawi president's political party, and he was scheduled to appear in a few hours for a campaign rally. In one section of the crowd, near the stage, a group rehearsed its dance for the president's arrival.After stopping at the pre-rally for some mingling and photos, we were back on the road.Soon, Mount Mulanje appeared, rising high above the tea plantations at its foothills. We had reached our destination.It was only midday.Where to book, when to goMalawi bookings and information:• A good place to start is the Regional Tourism Organization of southern Africa's Web site, at www.retosa.co.za.• U.S. tour operators that offer Malawitrips or packages include Sita World at (800) 421-5643, Value Holidays at (800) 558-6850, Nature Encounters at (800) 529-9927 and Park East at (800) 223-6078.• When to go: It depends. Malawi touts May and June as cooler than summer, but still green and especially good for photography. Game-viewing is best during the hottest times of the dry season, when the animals are forced to visit water sources. Bird-watchers are said to enjoy the best sightings in October and November.