The Northern Region is somewhat unforgiving for the subsistence farmer in Malawi, as it is characterized by strong, rising mountains with rocky terrain. Forested lands run throughout the area. The highest points are found in the rolling grassy hills of Nyika Plateau, a vast expanse rising to over 3,000m and dropping sharply down past the beautiful waterfalls of Livingstonia to Lake Malawi. The Nyika Plateau is a bird-watchers paradise with hundreds of species of birds calling the plateau home, as well as hundreds of varieties of wild orchids which bloom November – March. It is not unusual to spot zebra and several species of antelope on the plateau, and leopard (although rarely seen) are increasing in numbers.
The cool temperatures and rich soils of the North are perfect for coffee plantations, and is the North’s major cash crop along with small farms for tobacco and tea. Along the Northern lakeshore, rice is often grown for personal consumption and for sale in other parts of the country.
To the far North, the city of Chitipa is an isolated town near the border of Tanzania. It is home to possibly 20 different tribal people with as many different languages spoken there. Mzuzu is the largest city and the Northern Region and is the main transportation point to Tanzania (North), Nkhata Bay (on the Lake) and Lilongwe (South). Mzimba, South-West of Mzuzu, is a smaller city with government offices and a large trading center.
Cities and Other Noteworthy Areas (starting from the north):
Chitipa: remote and isolated BOMA close to the border of Tanzania, accessed only through Nyika Plateau or a dirt road from Karonga. It is home to over 20 different tribal people and as many languages.
Karonga: The first large town after crossing the border from Tanzania. Lying on the lakeshore, Karonga can be uncomfortably hot and is prone to flooding. However, it is the perfect place for growing rice!
Nyika Plateau: Nyika Plateau is a huge vast grassland now protected as a National Park. Often people say the rolling hills remind them of Scotland! Nyika is home to over 100 species of birds and hundreds of species of orchids, growing wild throughout the hills. From one point on the Plateau, Malawi’s second highest point, you can see Tanzania, Zambia, Lake Malawi, and Congo.
Mzuzu: the Capital of the Northern Region, Mzuzu is a bustling city with quite modern amenities. Coffee is grown throughout the north, and Mzuzu is home to the country’s largest coffee roasting company. From Mzuzu, it is easy to get to the lakeshore, to Tanzania, or to travel south to Lilongwe.
The M-1: the apt name for the main North-South route through Malawi. It is the route traveled to get just about anywhere in the country, with roads branching off it like an odd tree. Most of the road is paved (although the condition of the tarmac can be bad) and nearly the entire road is only two lanes – one going north and one going south. The road connects to Tanzania in the far north and to Mozambique to the South. Because of the road’s placement, it is major trucking route between the Tanzanian port of Dar Es Salaam and Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
The Central Region
The Central Region is characterized by flatter terrain, with some mountains to the east as you move toward the Lake. The soil is rich in iron and the area has an excellent climate for growing tobacco, Malawi’s biggest cash crop. The flat expanses around Kasungu, near the border of the Northern region, are spotted with large, commercially owned tobacco farms. The capital of Malawi sits in the center of this region, with main roads going east to the lake, south to Blantyre, and west to Zambia. South of Lilongwe, in Dedza, the mountains suddenly rise again and offer cooler temperatures in the hot season and down-right cold temperatures in the in the peak of the cold season. Dedza is home to one of Malawi’s many anomalies: a large pottery business with some of the best cheesecake you may ever taste in Africa!
Cities and Other Noteworthy Areas:
Kasungu: The tobacco capital of Malawi, Kasungu transforms itself each year during the months of May, June and July. Tobacco farmers from all around the town come to the BOMA to sell their tobacco, and then to spend their money! Kasungu is also home to Kasungu National Park. While not thriving with animal life, it is not uncommon to see puku, buffalo, hippos, and occasionally you might hear a lion.
Lilongwe: Malawi’s Capital is a bustling city with great amounts of activity. As the capital, it of course is home to all the national government offices. International organizations, embassies, and other similar parties are usually based in Lilongwe where telecommunications, road systems, shops, hotels, and other establishments are among the country’s best. Lilongwe is also home to the Lilongwe International Airport, just north of the city.
Dedza: Up in the Western Mountains, near the border of Mozambique, is the town of Dedza. The mountains make for a beautiful setting, but in the cold season the temperatures can be surprisingly cold (especially being so close to the warmer regions around Lilongwe). Dedza is home to one of Malawi’s many anomalies: a pottery center with beautifully handcrafted and hand painted wares. The pottery also has a café where cheesecake and quiche are standard on the menu. Just south of Dedza, the M-1 road runs along the border of Mozambique. You can still see buildings that suffered shelling during that country’s many years of civil war.
The Southern Region
The Southern Region is host to Malawi’s highest peak, Mt. Mulanje, and Malawi’s lowest (and probably hottest!) point, the lower Shire Valley. Beautiful, lush green tea plantations are found around the Mulanje massif and near the town of Thyolo (pronounced “Chyo !-lo). A hike up Mulanje (no less than a two day hike from the base to the top) affords you spectacular views: on a clear day you can see all the way to the lake!
Liwonde National Park, in the Southern Region near the town of Zomba, is home to Malawi’s most diverse and populous large game reserve. Unfortunately, continued poaching threatens the animals in Liwonde (as well as all the game reserves in Malawi). Zomba is also home to the beautiful Zomba plateau, another plateau of un-rivaled beauty, crystal clear streams, and numerous species of small animals.
Blantyre is the largest city in the south and is Malawi’s commercial capital. Main thoroughfares run north to Lilongwe and West to Mozambique and Harare ( Zimbabwe). A southern route runs to Thyolo, Mulanje, and the lower Shire Valley. To the north of Blantyre is Zomba, home of University of Malawi and one of the most lively markets in the country.
Cities and Other Noteworthy Areas:
Liwonde National Park: Malawi’s best game park with elephants, buffalo, hippos, several species of antelope, and recently-introduced rhinoceros. The park’s lodging sits right on the river, and in the wet season is only accessible by boat. Sadly, poaching and natural disaster greatly limit the thriving of the animals here and in most other parks around Malawi.
Zomba: Once Malawi’s capital, and though all government offices have moved to Lilongwe the city still retains its sense of importance. Zomba is home to University of Malawi and several businesses. The Zomba Plateau rises steeply from the town. On the plateau is the Ku Chawe Inn, once a retreat house for government officials and now privately owned and open to the public.
Blantyre: The Southern Region’s Capital is also the nation’s commercial capital. Its close proximity to Harare, Zimbabwe (about 6 to 8 hours across Mozambique) and its international airport are a perfect place for goods to be bought, sold, and traded. Close by, in Limbe, is one of Malawi’s busiest and exciting markets. If you can’t find it here, you can probably do without.
Mulanje and Thyolo: Mulanje is Malawi’s highest peak. Tradition says if you climb the massif, spirits will either leave food out for you or they will see to your felling off the mountain. With cabins set up and paths well worn, Mulanje is a hikers dream. Three to seven day hikes can show you breathtaking views, glorious waterfalls, steep rock walls, and cool mountain woods. However, fogs will roll in quickly and hikers have been known to get stranded. Guides are available to lead both the skilled and novice. Around Mulanje and the town of Thyolo are some of Malawi’s largest tea plantations. Bright vivid green surround the towns where the tea is eventually picked and dried to a dark brown, then sold throughout the country and in other parts of the world. Tea is Malawi’s third largest cash crop, behind coffee and tobacco.
The Lower Shire Valley: The lowest part of Malawi is also quite possibly the hottest part as well. The marshes of the Lower Shire Valley give way to lands that are only 50 meters or so above sea level. The heat can be unforgiving and can take incredible energy for those who are unaccustomed. The Shire River travels through here and on in to Mozambique where it meets up with the Zambezi River.
Lake Malawi is the country’s most famous natural feature, covering nearly 1/5 th of the entire country. It is sometimes referred to as the “calendar lake” because it is nearly 365 miles long and about 52 miles wide. It is the third largest lake in Africa, the 13 th largest lake in the world, and one of the deepest lakes in the world. It is home to over 1,000 species of fish and provides an obvious source for food to both those along the lake and Malawians living farther to the west. Malawians catch fish in two traditional ways: netting and a traditional fishing rod. Netting takes just about all day (or sometimes several days in the lower seasons). A group of two or three “dug-out” canoes (carved from old tree trunks) lay a 300 meter long net parallel to the coast in the early morning. At dusk two groups of “pullers” slowly drag in the net from the shore. The net slowly scrapes along the bottom of the lakebed and can potentially bring in a hundred or more fish.
The traditional fish rod consists of a one-meter long thin stick of bamboo with a three to five meter long piece of string tied to the end. A home made hook with a worm or an insect is tied to the end of the string. The bamboo rod is bent back and released, sending the string and hook out into the water. The trick is to pull at just the right time. Give it a try when you visit the lake!
Malawians are skilled in the craft of drying fish, so the lake’s fish are found throughout the country’s markets. Kampango, similar to catfish, is quite popular as is usipa, a small fish similar to sardines. However, chambo, a delicate white fish, is probably the most popular and flavorful. (Chambo has recently been introduced to American diners, who know it as “tilapia.”) Remember: you have not eaten your fish until you have eaten its head!
The people on the lakeshore depend on the lake for a number of resources well beyond the plentiful fish. The water is used for bathing, washing clothes, and even drinking (although this is highly discouraged, as the drinking water may not be clean). Lake flies are caught in large quantities, mashed in to patties, and make delicious food worthy of celebrations. Trees growing on the lakeshore are carved into “dug-out boats,” skillfully maneuvered around the lake with ease by the locals. And the fertile, damp soils are excellent for all of the varieties of bananas that grow in Malawi and the rice farms that are found along the lake.
To the north on Lake Malawi is the town Nkhata Bay, where the rocky shoreline and peaceful bay has allowed numerous small resorts to flourish for intrepid travelers s eeking a respite in an inexpensive hut or hostel. Likoma and Chisamulu Islands in Lake Malawi are both flat, largely unspoiled pieces of land. The islands are closer to the shore of Mozambique and many cultural practices and norms have spilt over from this close neighbor. A ride on the Ilala, Lake Malawi’s large commercial ferry, is the only way to and from the islands to the mainland of Malawi, although small boats often ferry back and forth between Mozambique and the islands.
To the far south is Monkey Bay, home to the Lake Malawi National Park, the first fresh water national park in the world. Lake Malawi National Park is home to some 350 species of fish which are found nowhere else in the world! Many of these fish are cichlids, popular around the world for aquariums. Cichlid farms raise the fish and ship them around the world. If you have an aquarium with cichlids, there is a good chance the fish can trace its roots back to Lake Malawi!
Cities and Other Noteworthy Areas (from the North):
Nkhata Bay: Nestled in to the rough, rocky terrain of Nkhata Bay are several resorts, better billed as “backpacker places.” These hostels have taken advantage of one of Malawi’s treasures: the scenic beauty of the lake with somewhat cooler temperatures than many other parts of the lakeshore. It is not uncommon to see the rough and weary traveler, backpack in tow, settling for a week or more to relax and enjoy the lake.
Likoma and Chisamulu Islands: Within the Mozambiquan waters of Lake Malawi are two islands still under the governance of Malawi. A long and interesting history, the islands were originally inhabited to intercept slave traders traveling between Malawi and Mozambique. Today the islands continue to have strong connections to their nearest neighbor, with small boats going to Mozambique almost daily. To get to the mainland of Malawi, islanders must take one of two weekly trips made by the lake’s ferry, the Ilala.
Monkey Bay: At the Southern end of Lake Malawi is Monkey Bay, home of the Lake Malawi National Park, the first fresh water national park in the world! Hundreds of species of cichlids are found in these waters with every color of the spectrum represented. Snorkeling at Monkey Bay is like an underwater safari, every turn of the head brings on something new. On your way to Monkey Bay you will see hundreds of the great baobab trees. Their stately presence all around the lake remind you that they have been keeping watch on Malawi for thousands of years.