A to Z of Adventure Travel: M is for Malawi

9 04 2009


“If we hide here long enough, perhaps Angelina Jolie will find us first.”  (Nyika Plateau)


Until Madonna started visiting orphanages there, Malawi was relatively unknown to many people. This small South-east African country is bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and offers some of the most picturesque scenery in southern Africa.


Although not a great destination for the Big Five, Malawi is a wonderful addition to any classic safari or for anyone seeking somewhere a little different. The country’s most popular attraction is Lake Malawi, a crystal clear freshwater lake that teems with tropical fish and is lined by pristine beaches, unspoiled wilderness, small villages, farmers’ fields and a few rustic lodges and luxurious resorts. Although not as safe as the government sometimes like to suggest thanks largely to the presence of bilharzia, Lake Nyasa as it is also known is still a perfect place to fish, relax and swim. Resting on the shoreline at sunset, sipping a cool drink and listening to the haunting call of African fish eagles is just about as good as Africa gets!


To the country’s north sits Nyika Plateau, a beautiful montane highland plateau that’s more reminiscent of Scotland or northern Europe than Africa. At over 2,000 metres altitude, the park offers great hiking and horseback riding amid rolling plains and thick forests. Immortalised by Laurens van der Post’s classic “Venture to the Interior”, the park has likely changed little since the great South African author visited more than half a century ago. Although looking like Europe, the plateau is home to plenty of wildlife including hyena, zebra, roan and eland and one of the highest populations of leopard in all of central Africa. Sitting around a campfire in a pine forest clearing on a cool evening and hearing the ‘sawing’ sound of a leopard is a surreal yet unforgettable African experience. Nyika offers few amenities so trips need to be properly planned.


Although not exactly a shopper’s paradise, Malawi is famed its wooden carvings that include small tables with interlocking legs carved from a single piece of wood and intricately detailed chairs. Although often also found in neighbouring countries, Malawi offers the highest quality – and best prices – and it’s often possible to purchase them in small markets from the actual artisan who made them.


Amongst Africa’s least developed countries, Malawi has a limited tourist infrastructure but no shortage of warmth and friendliness for those who visit this beautiful and largely undiscovered country.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 12

29 10 2008

 “I would rather describe it as rustic.”                  (Nyika Plateau, Malawi)



“If the room’s $29.95, skip the complimentary breakfast.”


         Gary Mule Deer




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan



(answer to yesterday’s Spot the Imposter: Venice on left, Vegas on right)

Winds Of Change

21 05 2008

Salima Bay

Malawi: Any way the wind blows…

At home, a wind is just a wind. We are rarely excited by prevailing air currents and certainly never wax lyrical over a gale. But when travelling, especially in an exotic locale, we suddenly gush all poetic at breezes and rave about zephyrs, chinooks, sciroccos and mistrals.


When your day is not consumed with overtime, rush hour traffic and reality television, you become more relaxed and more in tune with the natural elements. You notice the subtle differences in light between morning and evening, the stillness of water at dawn and the hum of insects.


However, it is gentle breezes and invigorating gusts that become something very special indeed.


It is a breeze that carries the first hints of sea air as you near the coast or that refreshes at the end of a long hot day. It is a strong wind that invigorates when hiking atop cliffs or near the summit of mountains, or that heralds the approach of a storm. It is a gentle current that transports the tantalising scents of fresh baking and spicy cooking or the perfume of colourful blossoms. And a steady blow that whips up the dust that stings your eyes, or that rattles your tent flaps and signals the arrival of dawn. But in the darkness, when it makes long grass sing, tree tops whisper and coarse scrub hiss it takes on a paranormal quality that resurrects ancient superstitions and fears.


It was a very cool evening on the shores of Lake Malawi near the Tanzanian border and we huddled around our campfire on the sands and hunched against the chill. Our circle was tight as we watched the fire steadily glow and the embers listlessly drift towards the starry night sky. We sat in silence, the lake invisible in its inert ebony and the only sound the occasional crackle of the fire. Everything was still and crisp.


Just beyond our group stood our night-watchman. He was a local man who we’d hired for a couple of dollars and armed with a large kitchen knife to wander around our tents while we slept. He stood quietly just beyond the glow of the fire, and shivered despite the heavy grey blanket that was wrapped around his shoulders.


“Come and join us” someone called to him as we all moved over to make room.


“No, no.” he answered. “The wind will blow me into the fire if I come closer.”


We looked at each other curiously.


“But there is no wind,” we replied. “Come over here, it’s cold by the water”.


Still he refused. Finally, someone got up and led him over. The orange glow of the flames illuminated his face and revealed eyes wide with caution and discomfort. He squatted down amongst us but still seemed ill at ease. No sooner had he joined our circle than a massive gust blew in from the lake. It roared and whipped the sand into our faces, fuelled the fire into a mighty inferno, sent embers flying, and knocked us all off-balance.


The night-watchman bounded to his feet and fled away from our group, disappearing into the darkness. The gust disappeared with him and all was still and silent once more. The fire died down. There was no conversation. There was nothing to say.


Perhaps it was all just a coincidence.


Or perhaps not.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom: No. 3

29 04 2008

explosives 2

Malawi: It’s a blast!

“Don’t look back: something might be gaining on you.”


– Satchell Paige



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Revolutionary Designs

2 04 2008




“The House of Che”


“Why is the t-shirt guy on your money?” she asked, while closely scrutinising a 3-peso note.

“That’s Che Guevara,” the guide patiently explained. “He’s one of our revolutionary heroes, and was also the president of our bank.”

“Oh, I thought he was a fashion designer or something.” she answered before casually strolling past me to take another photograph of Havana.

In a perfect world all meadows would be emerald green and filled with fluffy bunnies, weekends would be 5-days long, restaurants would distribute free glasses of classic single malt scotch instead of water, and everyone who travels would be forced to take a little written examination before they head overseas. Just simple questions like: Do you know where you’re going?

You can always get so much more from any trip if you’ve taken a bit of an interest beforehand. You don’t have to memorise an encyclopedia or attend evening classes on “The History of Terracing and Rice Cultivation in Bali” before you travel, but having a very basic knowledge of any destination, its culture or even just its most current events can heighten any experience and certainly make local interactions much richer.

In 1994 P.M. (ie: pre-Madonna), I was travelling through Malawi just a few weeks after their first-ever democratic election. Their independence leader and long-time dictator – Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda – had overstayed his welcome and been asked to leave office earlier that year. During his three decades of rule he had utilised his powers by banning such things as travel books that said nasty things about him, female visitors wearing pant suits and male travellers with long hair. He had been a rather discerning despot.

The election had gone well and the people were still celebrating their new rights. Everywhere we went, they would whistle and hold up two fingers to signify their recent introduction to two-party democracy. Whenever we stopped or walked down the street, they would come and share their happiness with visitors from fellow democratic countries, bubbling with enthusiasm and elation.

It was only luck that had me in Malawi at such a momentous time in their history, but I will always regard it amongst my greatest travel highlights…even if I couldn’t buy a commemorative t-shirt!

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008