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Malawi – A peek at Lake Malawi and Travel Beyond consultant Pam Buttner

Posted August 27th, 2009 by Matt Bracken

Pam kayak sunset

Africa?  What’s all the fuss?

Malawi?  Where is that?  Is that in South Africa?

Safe to say that traveling to Africa was never on my radar. I never had the urge to go, except, I’m a sucker for a good opportunity and rarely let one go by. Fast forward six years… I have been back to Africa four times and lived there for two years.

People aren’t kidding when they say that Africa gets under your skin!

Funny side bar, have you noticed how travel to Africa is commonly referred to as ‘Africa – the whole continent’ rather than the specific country that you’re visiting?  I wonder why that is?

I digress.

“Life changing”, you hear that a lot too when you mention that you are going to Africa.  Is it life changing?  That depends on the traveler and the circumstances, but Africa does have this primal affect on the psyche that can change one’s perception on life – usually for the better.

So many times I have struggled to put the images, smells and sounds into words that accurately conveyed what I was experiencing.  It is just something that must be experienced for yourself!

KayakA25_800x600My first exposure to African travel was to Malawi, the wonderful little country that proudly boasts the tagline “The Warm Heart of Africa”.  I ended up going back a few years after my initial visit and spent two years managing a beautiful eco-friendly camp on Mumbo Island on Lake Malawi.

There is most definitely truth to that tagline of theirs!

Another tagline that you will hear while in Malawi is the “Lake of Stars”.  You’ll see the fishermen prepare their dugout canoes (mokoros) as you sit enjoying sundowners at the local watering hole along the beach. The fishermen are getting ready for a whole evening of fishing, they set up their dugouts with a plank of wood across the back that has these bright lanterns (four of them) fastened to it; the lanterns are fueled by a paraffin/diesel mixture and burn so incredibly bright, it hurts your eyes.

Copy of Lake of StarsAs the evening moves on, you look out towards the lake and all you see along the horizon are hundreds of these lights bobbing up and down.  It is indeed, a “Lake of Stars”!  The fishermen use the bright lights to attract the fish (kampango) and, as the full moon cycle evolves, you see less and less fishermen on the lake. The moon is just too bright and the lanterns aren’t effective.

“Lake of Stars” also refers to an annual music festival that is held in various locations along the shores of the lake (usually around the end of September/beginning of October).  More on that in another post!

Here are a few facts about Lake Malawi:

  • Lake Malawi National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984
  • Forms part of the Great Rift Valley
  • Sometimes called “Calendar Lake” – 365 miles long and 52 miles wide
  • The third largest lake in Africa; 8th largest lake in the world.
  • The world’s 4th deepest lake at just over 2,300 feet deep
  • Contains more species of fresh water fish than all of Europe and North America combined. Mostly famous for the species of cichlids that are wildly popular within the aquarium trade.Cichlid

There’s no shortage of water activities on the lake!  If you are at all curious about Scuba Diving, Malawi is a great place to learn and to earn your PADI certification; everything from Open Water to Master Diver courses are offered.  There are some wicked dive sites including a deep wreck dive just off Thumbi Island in Cape Maclear; it’s an unbelievable dive site during a full moon!

If diving isn’t your thing, try snorkeling, where the only thing you’ll miss is the sting of salt water.

Copy of n605175434_2894494_965944[1]Some incredible kayaking can be had on this lake!  I speak from experience as I paddled each and every day, anywhere from two to fifteen miles.  It was fantastic!  Most places/lodges along the Lake shore offer kayak rentals where you are free to explore the surrounding areas.  If you are in Cape Maclear, paddle over to Thumbi Island or through the gap between Domwe Island and the mainland; take a book, packed lunch, some beverages, snorkel, mask and fins and find yourself a little beach to chill out on and have a snorkel.

Sailing?  Yes, you can add that to the list as well!  There’s the annual Lake Malawi Sailing Marathon (the world’s longest freshwater sailing race) that can feature some pretty hectic conditions as the lake can surprise you with waves produced by the Mwera (South) Winds.  Not a sailor?  Follow the race and meet the crews at locations along the way.  You’re sure to have a good time!

Many mountain biking tours make their way from Lilongwe to the shores of Cape Maclear.  Mountain biking combined with kayaking tours are also available to give a bit of diversity.

Copy of n605175434_1636131_3329[1]There’s a lot to do and explore in Malawi.  I have only scratched the surface here.  I hope to expand on these topics a little more and to delve into the cultural side of Malawi.  So, stay tuned!

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6 Comments on “Malawi – A peek at Lake Malawi and Travel Beyond consultant Pam Buttner”

  1. Jim Bendt says:

    Makes you want to move to Malawi!

  2. Kelly Ritter says:

    Pam, great write up! So, I’m reading the article as I sit in Cape Maclear and look out at the “Lake of Stars” and straight at Thumbi Island! I know for those of us who has spent time here, Malawi is a difficult place to describe… or maybe it’s just that… indescribable…!? Next month will be 2 years since I moved to Malawi and I can’t seem to get enough!! The beauty and the atmosphere at the lake is something one wouldn’t expect to find in the middle of Africa… a nice surprise! And I think your write up gave a nice overview on lake life for the traveler!

    I’m gonna add to the scratched surface of exploring Malawi as I touch on some things that just quickly come to mind… Lake Malawi is definitely the biggest draw for tourists that come to Malawi and it’s definitely a nice combination for those who want to experience Zambia’s Luangwa valley (which offers some of the best game viewing in Africa!)… but for those who want to take in as much of this country as they can, make sure to consider adding some of the following to your itinerary:

    Liwonde National Park: offers a new gaming experience for the African safari traveler and does not lower the standard on luxury and accommodation. Boat safaris on the Shire River bring you eye to eye with some of the biggest Crocodiles in Africa and meters away from the elephants splashing in the water. (Side note: The inspiration for “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” books were found by Tolkien while spending time in Malawi’s Southern region… the Shire as we know it from Tolkien was named after the Shire Valley… and the scenery he describes is Malawi itself!)

    Off the beaten path (always my favorite!): The Illala is a cargo ferry that allows the adventurous traveler to get around with the goats! You’ve gotta have an adventurous soul and a good sense of humor for this one… if you’re light at heart and have the time, I definitely suggest giving some time for this journey!

    Combine a hike up Mt. Mulanje with some time at the tea estates and feel like you have gone back in time… the scenic views from Mulanje are absolutely stunning and hiking through the cedar trees will leave you with a smell you won’t forget! You don’t have to be a Kili climber to experience what Mulanje has to offer… 1 to 5 day hikes are available and porters and cooks can be arranged. After your hike take a few days to relax at one of the tea estates and experience real relaxation!

    Njobvu Cultural Village: Wilderness Safaris supports a local Cultural Village just miles away from Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park… the Cultural Village offers mud hut accommodations with mosquito netting and mattresses and is a great experience for those who are interested in learning more about everyday life in Malawi… I have been to “Cultural Villages” in other parts of Africa and often question how much is staged and how much is true… Njobvu Cultural Village offers a genuine Malawian day!

    Volunteer Opportunities: I love this part!!!! I know from experience that finding volunteer work (especially part time) in Africa can be a mission! And many of the programs you can find while searching the internet are very expensive… However, I’m pleased to say that is not the case in Malawi… there’s so much to do in here for volunteer work and you don’t have to pay a fortune to get involved… volunteer work is available for 3 days to 1 year, depending on what you want to get involved with… education, health care, malaria prevention, hunger relief, water projects, orphanages, agriculture, and the list goes on!

    Alright, maybe I should have written my own blog… hehe! But I think Pam is right here… the surface has only been scratched! Thanks for the write up Spam-Oh!! And, I look forward to you touching the surface of the cultural side of things!!!! Malawi misses you!!!!

  3. Dominique says:

    I was in Malawi and I expereinced exactly what Pam has described! It is not just a beatuiful place, but the people are extremely friendly and welcoming! Makes me want to go back!

  4. Dan Brits says:

    Spam Oh.
    You really have a way with words. You get it just spot on. It is as if we are living it in your words. I can feel your passion for what Malawi has to offer. There is no one better than you to make a dream holiday come true. To really feel what a place has to offer and then offer that to guests who want to travel there. Very well done.
    All the best in your endeavors and will catch you on the circle of life

  5. vaso says:

    In the autumn I wish to go to Malawi, what places still will advise.

  6. Pam Buttner says:

    You know, I think another blog entry about Malawi is long overdue (I have one in the works folks).

    Kelly, Dominique and Dan, I am looking forward to re-connecting with you this October (2010)!

    Vaso, September/October timeframe and has to be the hottest months in Malawi! If you like the heat, you will love it during this time. I would definitely recommend Nyika National Park – Chelinda Lodge. There are some exciting game viewing happening there! Being on the Plateau would mean somewhat cooler temps. Then you will need to head to the Lake for some much needed swimming/snorkeling/diving! There truly are many places to choose from!! I’m quite biased with Mumbo Island Camp after living there, Makuzi Beach Lodge just a little south of Chintechi is another huge favourite of mine. Of course, Likoma Island is quite beautiful. Anytime you want advice on Malawi, just drop us a line here at Travel Beyond.

    Stay Well!
    Pam (a.k.a Spam-oh!)