I>>Senior editor Andrew Compart visited Malawi in Africa. His
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
Tourism officials and tour operators for southern Africa also
encourage packaging Malawi with other countries on the
"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
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
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
The country's greatest geographical feature is Lake Malawi,
which covers a 352-mile stretch down the eastern side of the
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
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
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
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
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 rewards
By Andrew Compart
ometimes 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
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
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
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
We continued on our way, passing more tea fields -- and
something else. To our left, a huge crowd of yellow-clad people
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 go
Malawi 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 Malawi
trips 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.