5 reasons to make Lake Malawi your next destination


If you haven’t considered Lake Malawi as a destination already, an image of her azure blue water and picture perfect beaches will probably do the trick. But if you need a little more, here are five reasons that will make you wish you were already there…

1. You get to travel on the MV Ilala

The MV IlalaFerry is legendary. This lady of the lake was built in Scotland and started her weekly journey around the country in 1951, providing a lifeline to the islands and many remote villages on the lake shore. Traveling on this mini Titanic, with her wooden decks, brass ornaments and friendly staff is a not-to-be-missed experience. From the bar on the top deck, you can enjoy the shoreline or the stunning lake while the ship slowly makes her way to your destination. It is a great place to meet interesting characters and swap tales of your travels. Imagine yourself sitting on the deck, the wind blowing through your hair, the African sun still glowing on your skin and a Malawi gin and tonic in your hand.

This is undoubtedly the best place to experience the true beauty of the ‘Lake of Stars’. Lake Malawi was given this nickname by the 19th century explorer, David Livingstone who saw the beauty of the lake by night. It is a magical sight when the Milky Way shows her stunning face in the skies above the lake while the fishermen, in their small dugout canoes, dot the horizon with their sparkling lamps that they use to attract fish. On board is a surprisingly good restaurant (we recommend the chicken salad) and the cabins for your overnight journey are small but sufficient. The Ilala leaves Monkey Bay in the South on a Friday, reaches Chilumba in the North on a Sunday stopping off at various points along the way, then back-tracks South to arrive in her home port on a Wednesday.

2. You get to swim with the cichlids

Snorkelling and diving in the lake is like swimming in a freshwater version of ‘Finding Nemo’! The clear waters at the shoreline play host to many fish. Most of them species of cichlid: small and colourful freshwater fish indigenous and often unique to Lake Malawi. Over 1000 species have been described, and new species are discovered annually.

It is not just their colours and patterns but also their highly organised breeding activities that make them very interesting. All species show some form of parental care for both eggs and larvae, often nurturing free-swimming young until they are weeks or months old. Many cichlids are mouth breeders. They incubate their eggs in their mouths as soon as they are laid. If you are lucky you will see a mother cichlid scoop up her fry with her mouth when danger (probably you) approaches. Don’t worry, she is not going to eat them. She will release them once the danger is gone. Her mouth is their safe place. Would you like to experience this for yourself? Most lakeshore lodges have snorkel sets that you can borrow or rent and there are scuba diving facilities on Likoma Island as well as in several places on the mainland.

3. You get to visit an unexpected tropical island

Think clear blue water, beautiful beaches, impressive granite rock bays, baobab trees and a friendly island vibe. You have just described Likoma! Likoma, and her smaller counterpart Chizumulu, are situated on the Eastern side of the lake. They are little parts of Malawi in Mozambican waters. In 1861, Likomawas placed on the Anglican map by bishop ChauncyMaples who founded an Anglican mission post on the island. This stayed the main quarters of the Anglican church in Malawi until after the Second World War. Because of this, most islanders enjoyed good education and almost everybody could read and write.

The most recognisable building on the island, the beautiful St Peter’s cathedral, is definitely worth a visit. It is surprisingly big, the same size as the Winchester cathedral in the UK. The church was built between 1903 and 1905 with locally sourced granite and a lot of dedication. The most striking parts are the skilfully made stained-glass windows and the crucifix that is cut out of a tree from Chitambo (in Zambia), the village where David Livingstone died in 1873. Likoma is a divers’ paradise, it has facilities for many different water sports, is great for bird watching and cultural visits and it’s, well… relaxing.

4. You get to enjoy some of the world’s whitest beaches

You know what the problem is with many of those seemingly picture perfect beaches? They are often disappointing. When you finally arrive, they are often not as clean and white as they were in the photoshopped picture. Or, you need to share them with many other travellers who were also looking for their perfect paradise. If you want to avoid this, you should hop across the lake to the Mozambique shore from Likoma Island and you will have the most idyllic white beach, on the edge of a thick lush forest all to yourself.

Nkwichi Lodge in the Manda Wilderness is a tranquil oasis and the perfect backdrop for a relaxing holiday. The sand here is so fine and soft that it actually squeaks when you stand on it. In the local chiNyanja language, Nkwichi means ‘squeaking sands’. The lodge is committed to offer sustainable tourism with a determination to preserve both the environment and the surrounding communities. The spacious chalets are artfully integrated in the environment and give plenty of privacy. The lodge’s outdoor bathtubs and star beds are the kind of experiences that appear on bucket lists and you should try them for yourself to feel utterly spoiled and relaxed. If you are looking for an indulgent escape from your everyday business (and that perfect beach) you have found your destination!

5. You get to hike in a unique and mostly untouched hiker’s paradise

Travel to the rugged Northern part of the lake shore and you will encounter a world so remote, that it may as well be on an island. No roads connect this place to the rest of the mainland because the steep mountains make it impossible to build one. You can choose to explore this region by boat but to make it really come alive you can come ashore and hike from one place to the next. It feels like you are traveling back in time as you make your way on the centuries-old lakeshore path past steep mountains, deep waters and small fishing villages. There are no cars or motorbikes, just boats and friendly people who will make sure that you never get lost.

When you stroll over the beaches you will see that fishing is the main source of income. However, don’t expect big trawlers lining the shore. Fishing is done with the quintessential dugout canoes and small wooden boats. Traveling slowly through this piece of the country makes you gain a deeper understanding of what it must be like to live in a place so remote. There are two lodges on this beautiful strip between Nkhata Bay and Mlowe.

Kelly White is Director of the Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium. Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium aims to provide you with the best information to make Malawi your tourism destination.

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Comments (8)

  1. Kirsty Emerson says:

    Obviously I don’t know much about Lake Malawi as I never knew that you would get a ship of the size of the MV IlalaFerry on there. It’s even more of a shock to me that you can do a mini cruise as well.

    I’m a bit torn as I am attracted by the 1951 old-fashioned glamour of the boat. However, my problem is that I am not a great sailor. Now that I know how big the lake is I suppose that it’s inevitable that you will get some real weather which might make the sea a bit too rough for me.

    Is there any season when Lake Malawi would be calmer as it sounds a great little voyage?

    • Sue says:

      Following on from Kirsty’s question about water / weather conditions on Lake Malawi what are the best times of the year to visit? I expect that there is a rainy season and I would want to avoid that. Also, I struggle in baking heat and wouldn’t cope in really high temperatures.

    • Kelly White says:

      HI Kirsty & Sue
      The lake waters do remain fairly calm through most of the year. There are only occasional bouts of rough waters. Those are most likely in July and August when a south-easterly wind blows. Otherwise, the best time of year to dive us September to December, with Mat to August also good. Water temperature is highest in November.
      In general weather terms, Malawi’s rainy season is November to April, which is also the hotter time of year. You can still travel in Malawi in those months. The country is green and lush and the rain is usually a short lived downpour in the afternoon. But people tend to choose the dry season, which has the added benefit of offering the best game viewing in the national parks.

  2. Graham says:

    Before I read this I didn’t have the foggiest idea as to what a cichlid was, for all I knew it could have been one of those bravura shark experiences where you are lowered into the waters in a supposedly shark resistant cave.

    I was very relieved to hear that it was like being in the middle of “Finding Nemo” but with all those different species around it can’t be that easy to find Nemo.

    It must be a great opportunity to do some brilliant underwater photography.

  3. Sasha Reid says:

    I’ve only been snorkelling once and I loved it, but the water quality wasn’t particularly fantastic. I imagine the clear water and so many species here make Lake Malawi an excellent spot. It’s impressive that the MV IlalaFerry has been going strong since 1951, not many sea crafts could say the same with having such a long heritage and such regular excursions. I wonder whether you could do any snorkelling on the drop off points during the ferry excursions, if you’ve already rented your gear? Then again, Likoma also sounds pretty good for water activities, and I’d definitely want to check out the Cathedral at the same time. I had no idea that even existed and yet it’s a pretty big one! You learn something new every day…!

    • Kelly White says:

      If you have your snorkel gear with you, then you can jump into the Lake wherever you wish! Aim for rocky areas because that’s where the cichlids tend to feed.

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