Lilongwe, Dedza, Blantyre, Majete national park, Mulanji national park, Zomba national park, Liwonde national park, Cape Maclear, Nkhotakota wildlife reserve, Mzuzu, Vwaza wildlife reserve, Nyika national park, Livingstonia and Karonga.
The area of Africa now known as Malawi was settled by migrating Bantu groups around the 10th century. Centuries later in 1891 the area was colonised by the British. In 1953 Malawi, then known as Nyasaland, a protectorate of the United Kingdom became a protectorate within the semi-independent Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The Federation was dissolved in 1963. In 1964 the protectorate over Nyasaland was ended and Nyasaland became an independent country under Queen Elizabeth II with the new name Malawi. Two years later it became a republic. Upon gaining independence it became a one-party state under the presidency of Hastings Banda, who remained president until 1994, when he lost an election. Since 1994 Malawi has a democratic, multi-party government and until 2014 four general elections were held. It is also one of two countries in Africa that had a female president (2012-2014), next to Liberia. Unfortunately she lost the elections in 2014 from the brother of the former president in corrupt elections, as there were more votes than registered Malawians.
Malawi is among the world's least-developed countries. The economy is heavily based in agriculture, with a largely rural population. The Malawian government depends heavily on outside aid to meet development needs, although this need (and the aid offered) has decreased since 2000. The Malawian government faces challenges in building and expanding the economy, improving education, healthcare, environmental protection, and becoming financially independent. Since 2005, Malawi has developed several programs that focus on these issues, and the country's outlook appears to be improving, with a rise in the economy, education and healthcare from 2007 on.
Malawi is fully landlocked and borders with Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. It is one of the smallest countries of Africa and next to that Lake Malawi is almost one third of the country. Just like the Netherlands it has an estimated population of almost 17mln.
Muchenji Border Crossing and Lilongwe
After driving the 50 metres through ‘no man’s land’ to the Malawi immigration office the formalities were quickly done. We filled in the forms for our visas, got our carnet de passage stamped and 30 minutes later or so we drove in Malawi towards Lilongwe.
We drove past a couple of small towns when we came across our first police roadblock. We were stopped and the grumpy police officer asked for Wilfred’s license and insurance papers (for third party insurance / WA-verzekering). Wilfred gave him the documentation and almost immediately without looking at the papers the police officer started yelling: ‘This is no insurance! Why didn’t you buy insurance at the border’. Although Wilfred immediately recognized this as a bribery attempt he calmly explained that we have an international insurance that also covers Malawi, but the man just didn’t want to listen to reason. All of a sudden he shouted: the fine for no insurance is MKW15.000, you pay MKW 10.000 now without ticket’. Wilfred refused and clearly stated that the highest fine is only MKW5.000 and that since we have insurance we were not paying any fine whatsoever! Less relevant, but true; we explained that we just crossed the border and had no money… since he was after a bribe we expected this would make him realize it was useless to keep us. This really pissed off the police officer and he yelled at Wilfred: ‘You are detained!’. So we just parked the car and the famous waiting game began… Wilfred started to make small talk with the other police offers at the road block... joking about the very hot weather and so on. Finally after realizing we weren’t going to give him any money Wilfred gets the papers back (even though it were all copies this was nice of him) and he is free to go.
So we continued our drive to the Barefoot Safari campsite 10 kilometres before Lilongwe. The campsite is very nice with grass pitches and you can really see that emerald season has started…we were the only guests. In Mana Pools Wilfred did the regular check up of our truck and noticed that we need to replace the fan belt. We bought a new one in Lusaka, but we had not replaced it yet. After 10 minutes or so the fan belt is installed…he ran the truck stationary for ten minutes or so, adjusted the fan belt a bit…and job done.
Judith has not been feeling well for the last seven days and she consulted via whatsapp the KLM Health services and got a reaction within 10 minutes. We needed to buy some antibiotics at the pharmacy. She sent a photograph via whatsapp to ensure we got the right medication and again they confirmed within 10 minutes that this is the correct medication and hopefully she would feel better within the next couple of days.
Dedza and Blantyre
Our next stop is Dedza pottery in the border town of…Dedza. It has a small lodge, restaurant and campsite. The drive there led us through some nice mountainous landscape with lots of agriculture. Most of the houses are built of stone and tin roofs compared to the mud huts and thatched roofs in Zambia. Also every town we drove through had a lively market in the middle of town, right next to the ‘highway’. People were walking everywhere and we needed to drive very slowly through these markets.
The setting of Dedza pottery looked very nice and we decided to stay for two nights allowing Judith to recover a bit more and to have our laundry done. The restaurant is renowned in the region for its delicious cheesecake with youngberries and cream and of course we tried it… we can confirm; a little piece of heaven. In the pottery we saw a nice small plate with drawings representing Malawian life, which we purchased. Hopefully we can get it home in one piece.
Our next stop is Blantyre, the second largest city of Malawi. Not because we like major towns, but as a necessary stop to get money changed at the bank since we cannot get the money we need from the ATM as you can only get €45,- (40 banknotes of MKW1000,-).
Majete National Park and Mount Mulanje
Majete National park is the game viewing park of Malawi, but noting special (yet) compared to all the nice national parks in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.
African Parks has taken over the management of this park in 2003. They reintroduced around 3000 animals to the park over the last years, such as lions, black rhino’s, hyena’s, nyala’s, sables, and roan antelope. Making it Malawi’s only ‘big five’ park. The park has a diverse vegetation of riverine valleys, miombe woodlands and is situated in the Rift valley.
We only stayed two days in Majete NP as the temperatures were souring to 45 degrees during the day (and ‘cooling’ to 35 during the night). We were very pleased when it was late afternoon and time for a game drive that we could do in the cool air from the aircon (even if it was just for an hour and half). As it is the end of the dry season many animals find there way to the waterholes or the shore of the Shire River. It doesn’t take much effort to see many of them. A beautiful sight was watching buffalo’s chase away elephant to be able to drink water.
Inside the border of the Majete NP is also the only place where power is generated with the water supply of the Shire River and dam. Power supply is very unreliable in Malawi as the water levels are very low and during our stay in Malawi there hasn’t been a day that we didn’t experience a power outage. Hopefully when the rainy season starts it will improve the power supply in Malawi. Due to the lake of power our diet is mostly vegetarian food as we do not trust that meat is kept properly, except for the lodges that run generators during the power outages.
Our next stop is Mount Mulanje, renowned for it’s tea plantations and the drive is very scenic. We planned to camp near the pools on the foot of the mountain on a campsite. When we arrived we were overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to offer their services to us…from guiding walks to selling woodcraft, etc. Not five persons approach us, but at least twenty of them. As the campground is fully open and they got onto the campsite we decided to stay elsewhere. We are used to being approached by people all the time, but this felt almost intimidating.
The nest day we travelled further to Zomba and Zomba plateau.
Zomba, Zomba Plateau and servicing the truck
Zomba and Zomba Plateau
Zomba is the old capital of Malawi from 1891 till mid 1970’s and has a nice cool climate due to it’s elevation. The main attraction of the region is the Zomba Plateau, 1800m high and carpeted with strands of pine trees. When we drove the snaking road up to the plateau passed many locals transporting huge amounts of timber on bicycles down from the plateau. We drove many small roads on top of the plateau with amazing view of the surroundings below. One of the roads we drove got narrower by the metre…and at one point the road became so narrow that we decided to turn around.
On the iOverlander app, which we use to find campsites, we read about a small Italian restaurant and campsite with raving reviews for their fresh pasta’s. We liked the place so much that we ended up staying there for three nights. Even when the truck needed to be serviced in Blantyre we drove back to this place instead of sleeping in Blantyre.
Servicing the truck
After driving another 9.000 kilometres we planned for service in Blantyre at the Toyota dealer. When Wilfred called and planned our appointment at 10.00AM he asked how long the service will take….a typical African/Dutch misunderstanding; the guy said three hours, but meant at 15.00PM, so what we thought would just take a couple of hours took almost 5 hours…but the truck is ready for it’s next 10.000 kilometres.
Liwonde National Park and Lake Malawi
After a couple of cool nights in Zomba we headed again to high temperatures. This time in Liwonde National Park. This park is also along the Shire River, but more to the north than Majete NP. We did a boat tour on the river and saw many different birds and some elephants drinking or bathing in the river. Highlight was a large monitor lizard lurking at the nest of a crocodile to feed on the eggs and the croc defending them.
Lake Malawi is a large fresh water lake and has many different sorts of fish, mostly chambo and white baits. On our way towards northern Malawi we stopped at different places along the Lake; Cape Maclear, Senga Bay, Ngala Beach and Ngara.
Cape Maclear is mostly aimed at backpackers and a very busy fishing town on the southern shores of the lake close to a National Park that mainly exists of the lake. It has many tourist stall along the main road of the small village and many, many lodges along the beach. Senga Bay is the closest beach town to Lilongwe and many people visit this small fishing town on the weekends. There is also a nightclub very close to the campsite…we didn’t get any sleep that night! We loved Ngala Beach with its white sandy beach and grass pitches just before the beach. Wilfred even got a nice birthday cake for his birthday.
Vwaza Marsh and Nyika Plateau
Central Malawi has two national parks (relatively) close together; Vwaza Marsh and Nyika Plateau. Our first stop was Vwaza, which is located to the southeast of the Nyika plateau and to the north of the floodplains of South Rukuru River and covers an area of approx. 1,000 km2. The park is characterised by Mopane and Miombo woodland and marshy wetlands, which normally attracts a significant number of birds to the reserve. Vwaza Marsh is rarely visited by tourist, largely due to poor road conditions, difficult terrain and inaccessibility (during the rainy season). But also since 2003 the lodge and campsite have not been maintained and are in very poor condition. The variation in animal number of species type may vary from season to season as they cross the border with the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. It turns out that at the start of the rainy season, most animals are in Zambia, so we only see a couple of hippo’s, crocs and impala’s.
Our drive to the Nyika plateau was over a gravel road in various conditions; corrugation (‘wasbordjes’), wooden bridges (are they really sturdy enough to cross with our truck??) and mountain passes. It is only a hundred kilometres, but the drive took over 4 hours with some heavy rainfall.
The Nyika Plateau lies in northern Malawi, with a small portion in north eastern Zambia. Most of it lies at an elevations between 2,100 and 2,200m, the highest point being 2,605m at Nganda Peak. It is roughly a diamond in shape, with a long north-south axis of about 90km (and an east-west axis of about 50km. It towers above Lake Malawi and the towns of Livingstonia and Chilumba. It is very different in scenery from other parts of Malawi, consisting of rolling hills with little streams in broad valleys, and rough grassland with clumps of pine trees.
The views on the plateau were amazing and the rolling hills reminded us of the Scottish Highlands. Also the wildlife on the plateau was impressive; we saw reedbucks, herds of roan antelope, zebra’s and elands. When we arrived at the campsite the temperature dropped from 30 plus to only 18 degrees. It felt chilly and the camping attendant made a nice fire for us. We were hoping to spot a leopard or hyena, as they roam in the area around the campsite. We did hear the hyena’s howling in the night, but were not lucky enough to see either one. During the evening the temperature dropped to 8 degrees and we needed all of our blankets to keep us warm during the night.
Chitimbe Beach, Livingstonia and Ngara
After our visit to the plateau we camped (yet again) on the shores of Lake Malawi. On a campsite with Dutch owners, who moved to Malawi 8 years ago. Normally their campsite is very busy since the overland trucks use this place as a stop over on their trip from Nairobi to Cape Town. We were however the only guests that evening and the view from our bed during sunrise (at 5.15AM) is very nice!
From there it was a very short drive to Livingstonia, which was founded in 1894 by missionaries from the Free Church of Scotland. The missionaries had first established a mission in 1875 at Cape Maclear, which they named Livingstonia after David Livingstone, whose death in 1873 had rekindled British support for missions in Eastern Africa. The missions were linked with the Livingstonia Central Africa Company, set up as a commercial business in 1877. By 1881 Cape Maclear had proved extremely malarial and the mission moved north to Bandawe. This site also proved unhealthy and the ‘Livingstonia’ Mission moved once again to the higher grounds between Lake Malawi and Nyika Plateau. This new site proved highly successful because Livingstonia is located in the mountains and therefore not prone to mosquitoes carrying malaria. The mission station gradually developed into a small town. Nowadays it is mentioned in all the travel guides as a highlight of Malawi; with the Mission Church, Stone House and the David Gordon Memorial hospital (once the largest hospital of Central Africa)…but we disagree! It is nothing more than a dusty little town, which you can only reach via the worst road we have driven so far on this trip ! Fifteen kilometres of sharp rocks, sparse passing options when you encounter huge lorries. Even though our campsite boosts very nice views towards the Nyika Plateau and Lake Malawi…we will never visit Livingstonia again.
From Livingstonia we headed further north towards the border with Tanzania. As the terrible 15 kilometres from Livingstonia to the main raid took more than one hour we decided to make an extra stop in Ngara at the Floja Foundation which is run by a welcoming Dutch couple that runs a day care centre (and has a small campsite to help in the funding).