Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde National Park is the closest thing Malawi has to a traditional game park. Dominating the west, the Shire River overflows with hippos and crocodiles and is a favourite stomping ground for the abundant elephants. Waterbucks are also common near the water, while beautiful sable and roan antelopes, zebras and elands populate the flood plains in the east.
Night drives can reveal spotted genets, bushbabies, scrub hares, side-striped jackals and even spotted hyenas. Several black rhinos are protected within a separate enclosure as part of a rhino breeding program, and there's a rich and colourful array of birdlife. October to January is particularly good for birdwatching, as migratory birds, including Bohm's bee-eaters, set up summer camp.
One of the real pleasures of a trip to Liwonde is boating along the river, the water dotted with purple lilies and statuesque palms framing the hills behind. Morning or evening, you're virtually guaranteed to see hippos and likely to see crocodiles, fish eagles, and a whole host of other water birds.
Mt Mulanje (also called the Mulanje Plateau) rises steeply from the undulating plain of the highlands, surrounded by near-vertical cliffs of bare rock, many over 1000m (3280ft) high. The cliffs are dissected by vegetated valleys, where rivers drop in spectacular waterfalls.
It is often misty here and Mulanje's high peaks sometimes jut above the cloud, giving rise to the local name 'Island in the Sky'.
This is one of the finest areas for hiking in this part of Africa. There are clear paths up the mountain, several huts and stunning scenery. Up on the plateaus there are clear mountain streams (safe for drinking) and swimming holes where you can cool off in the icy water. You need to register at Likhubula Forest Station, 15km (9.3mi) from Mulanje town.
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
For one reason or another this reserve seems to be one of Malawi's best-kept secrets, but it's possibly your best chance to get up close and personal with elephants and well worth a visit. Vwaza is an ideal destination for any budget; it's compact and accessible, the accommodation is close to the main gate, and public transport here is straightforward.
The main camp is conveniently located a safe but rewarding distance from the hippo-heavy Lake Kazuni, which also lures impalas, buffaloes (rumoured to be particularly aggressive here), waterbucks, elands, roans, sables, zebras, hartebeests and pukus. The big attraction however, is the 160-plus elephants within the park. There are regular parades in front of the camps and between July and September, diners at Kazuni Safari Camp often have to share their personal space with bulls munching on nuts around the restaurant. Vwaza's birdwatching is also excellent - this is one of the best places in Malawi to see waders. The best time of year to visit is in the dry season; just after the rainy season, the grass is high and you might go away without seeing anything.
All tourist activities, places to stay and charter flights are operated by the Nyika Safari Company.
When to go?
The best time to visit Malawi overall is in the dry season, which lasts from late April to October or November. If you're coming to see wildlife, make it late in the dry season, when animals converge at water holes. But beware, the heat can be unpleasant, especially in the lowlands. The landscape is much more attractive and conditions less oppressive from May to July, but there are fewer animals about. The early dry season is the best time for birdwatching; it's also exceedingly hot, exceptionally wet or both.
Travel Visa Overview
Citizens of Commonwealth countries, the USA and most European nations (except Switzerland) receive a free, automatic 30-day tourist visa at the point of entry. Extensions (also free, and up to a maximum total stay of 90 days) are easy to arrange at the immigration offices in Blantyre and Lilongwe.
British-style plug with two flat blades and one flat grounding blade
If you are travelling in endemic areas such as much of Malawi, it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own, and impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects.
HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) develops into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which is a fatal disease. Any exposure to blood, blood products or body fluids may put the individual at risk. The disease is often transmitted through sexual contact or dirty needles - body piercing, acupuncture, tattooing and vaccinations can be potentially as dangerous as intravenous drug use. HIV and AIDS can also be spread via infected blood transfusions, but blood supplies in most reputable hospitals are now screened, so the risk from transfusions is low. If you do need an injection, ask to see the syringe unwrapped in front of you, or take a needle and syringe pack with you. Fear of HIV infection should not preclude treatment for any serious medical conditions. Most countries have organizations and services for HIV-positive folks and people with AIDS. For a list of organizations divided by country, plus descriptions of their services, see www.aidsmap.com.
Also known as bilharzia, this disease is carried in freshwater by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible.
Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present, such as Cape Maclear and other areas around Lake Malawi. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well.
A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure.
Malawi has a single wet season, from December to March, when daytime temperatures are warm and conditions humid. May to August is dry and cool. September and October can become extremely hot and humid, especially in low areas. Average daytime maximums in the lower areas are about 21°C (70°F) in July and 26°C (79°F) in January. In the higher areas, the climate is pleasant, with temperatures averaging around 20°C (68°F)between November and April, and 27°C (81°F)from May to October. Average night-time temperatures in the highlands are low, sometimes dropping below freezing on clear nights in July. On the lakeshore temperatures are higher.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
Hominids are known to have inhabited the Malawi area as long as two million years ago. The remains of settlements of modern humans dating back some 100,000 years have been found on the shores of Lake Malawi. Evidence suggests that these were the same Boskopoid people who inhabited much of this part of Africa: the ancestors of the pygmies in Central Africa and the San ('Bushmen') of Southern Africa, who now survive only in isolated pockets.
About 2000 years ago these 'Stone Age Malawians' came under pressure from another race of people, the Bantu, who were gradually migrating into the area. The Bantu brought knowledge of iron working with them, giving them the edge in both agriculture and warfare. Eventually, the Bantu completely dominated the earlier inhabitants. Further migrations brought Bantu peoples from the Congo region, via Tanzania, into northern Malawi. In the south, groups came from present-day Congo (Zaïre) and established a kingdom that ruled the southern area of the country.
The early 19th century brought two significant migrations. The Yao, from northern Mozambique, invaded the highlands of southern Malawi, killing the more peaceful local inhabitants as they went, or capturing them for sale into slavery. The Yao, brandishing firearms supplied them by Arab traders on the east coast, were one of several African tribes who supplied slave traders by raiding the interior. About the same time, Zulus from present-day South Africa began moving into southern Malawi and eventually spread throughout the country, overpowering many local tribes.
The first Europeans to arrive in Malawi were Portuguese explorers who reached the African interior from the east coast of present-day Mozambique. The most famous European explorer to reach this area was David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary who first travelled in Malawi in the 1850s. Despite poor relations with the indigenous people and the ravages of malaria, many Scottish missionaries established missions and convents in Malawi, usually resulting in the death by fever of the missionaries and very few converts among the Africans.
Though less successful at their stated aim, the missionaries did manage to blaze the way for various adventurers and traders, who in turn made Malawi such a hot property that colonisation wasn't far behind. It came in 1878 in the form of the Livingstonia Central African Mission Company, a Scottish concern whose object was the development of a river route into Central Africa and the introduction of trade. The British government made the Shire Highlands a protectorate in 1889, and expanded its holdings to include much of the land on the western side of Lake Malawi, calling the colony 'Nyasaland'.
As British control expanded, trade and the number of foreigners in the area increased - and so did indigenous resistance to colonisation. In the early 1900, Reverend John Chilembwe organised the first serious anti-British effort when he led an attack on a large estate that resulted in the death of its white manager. The colonial authorities crushed the movement, and no major bids for independence surfaced again until the 1950s.
The British joined Nyasaland with the Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), a move that deepened resentment against colonial rule. The Nyasaland African Congress, which had been formed in 1944, was led by Dr Hastings Banda after the federation was announced. A year later, the colonial authorities declared a state of emergency, jailed Banda and went on a rampage that left 52 Africans dead. Opposition continued, strengthened by the release of Banda in 1960. The British negotiated with Banda for elections, which were held the following year and were capped by the overwhelming victory of Banda and his party (now called the Malawian Congress Party). Shortly afterward the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved, and Malawi declared its independence in July 1964.
Banda's rule proved to be harsh. Those of his opposition who weren't silenced were driven into exile. Through his business dealings, Banda also controlled the economy completely. As if that weren't enough power, Banda declared himself 'President for Life' in 1971. A cosy relationship with South Africa helped the construction of the new capital, Lilongwe (it had previously been at Blantyre), which opened for business in 1975.
The first elections since independence were held in 1978 - a farce, really, considering that Banda personally vetted everyone who intended to run, disqualifying 90% of the field right off the top by submitting potential candidates to an English test. As the 1980s wore on it became increasingly clear that Banda was Malawi - running the political system, the ruling party and the economy. One newspaper estimated that 250,000 people disappeared or were murdered during Banda's 30 year reign. By the 1990s, however, opposition to Banda's totalitarian one-party rule grew, spurred on by the end of the Cold War and the drying up of aid to the west's 'client states' - such as Malawi.
The critical moment came in 1992, when Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter condemning Banda, touching off demonstrations throughout the country. When donor countries cut off all non-humanitarian aid until Banda agreed to relinquish power, the final nail in the coffin went home. Over 80% of the electorate took part in a 1993 referendum, voting for a new system over Banda by a 2-1 ratio. Despite the brief threat of a military coup, multi-party elections went ahead the following year.
Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim from Machinga in the south, emerged as the new president. Muluzi immediately freed prisoners, re-established freedom of speech and the press and lifted the unofficial night curfew that had marked the Banda years. Banda himself was tried in 1995 for ordering the murder of three government ministers but was acquitted, later apologising for any suffering he may have 'unknowingly caused'. He died in 1997.
Muluzi won over 50% of the vote in the 1999 presidential election. In 2002, he attempted to change the constitution to give himself life presidency. While he was feathering his nest, the country was going through a catastrophic drought, and a water hyacinth problem was choking Lake Malawi and surrounding waters. Compounding this litany of misadventure was a sky-high AIDS/HIV infection rate that received precious little resourcing, and an intake of thousands of refugees fleeing instability in Zimbabwe.
In 2004, Bingu wa Mutharika was controversially elected to the presidency. Since then, governance of the country has been hampered by vicious political infighting, corruption and poor economic performance. In 2006, in an increasingly tense political environment, former president Hastings Banda was rehabilitated, as Mutharika unveiled a large mausoleum in his honour and announced his intent to continue Banda's work.
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