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

Will that be one stuffed piranha, or two, Sir?

14 03 2008

The spoils of travel

The spoils of travel




I once found myself seated next to someone with an elaborate tattoo of Big Ben on his forearm. I asked if he was from London, and he replied “No, but I visited there once.” I asked if he’d travelled anywhere else and he said he hadn’t, which I thought was probably just as well otherwise he’d be like a cross between a coffee table book and the painted man.


Souvenirs form a very important part of travel. I used to pick up the obligatory miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa; the White House snow globe; the Egyptian hieroglyphic bookmark; the three-legged, small, carved wooden rhino (cheaper than the ones with four legs) and the clip-on koala, wherever I went. After a few trips I realized that I always consigned them to a kitchen drawer or a box never to be seen again, and I became a bit more discerning in my purchases. The first realization was that I didn’t need to buy anything. I didn’t have to buy the piece of varnished wood shaped like Suriname, with a battery-operated clock on the right and a stuffed piranha on the left, or the pottery hippopotamus with an ashtray for a mouth.


Instead, I started to look for one great item to mark each trip. If I didn’t see anything that fit that description, that was fine. Better to return home empty-handed than with a small nodding-headed corgi from London.


First thing to do is discover what your destination is renowned for. See what arts and crafts they make best. It might be wooden carvings, leather goods, silk or gold jewellery. Next, decide whether you actually want something like that. There’s not much point in getting the genuine hand-made stuffed guinea pig if you’re never going to display it! Finally, do some research to find the best places to go for quality and price.  For me, the most important thing is quality. I don’t mind paying good money, but I want something exceptional: something that will not only be a nice addition to my home, but also a great reminder of my trip. And, if you’re really shrewd and take it to the next level, it can actually be a good investment.


Hotels, galleries and shops that cater to tourists are always the most expensive, but don’t abandon them completely because they often have the best quality. Buying from local markets gives you the opportunity not only to bargain, but also quite often to interact with the person who made the item. Look for local charitable or community organizations such as women’s shelters or orphanages where your money also ends up doing some good.  Check the internet for tips from other travellers and ask around once you’re there – although be wary of recommendations made by people who might be on commission!


Make sure that before you leave home you check to see what you can and can not bring back into your country – it would be very disappointing to carry a 7-foot tall wooden giraffe all the way from East Africa only to have it confiscated when you get home because the wood’s not properly treated. Not that I’m speaking from experience, of course!

 Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008