Serene and seductive, Lake Malawi epitomises a country. Tanzania and Mozambique share the lake’s shoreline, but there’s no doubt that this lake has a Malawian atmosphere.
This stunning expanse of water extends beyond the horizon. Gaze across its glassy surface and you may quickly be lulled to sleep.
Lake Malawi is on Malawi time – slow, slow, slower than you may ever have experienced before. And that’s why it is such a wonderful destination to visit.
Here’s a guide to laying back and soaking up all the tranquility.
What and where is Lake Malawi?
Although it only ranks third in size on the list of African lakes, Lake Malawi is the number one to visit.
It’s the watery divide between East and Southern Africa. The northern end is in Tanzania, the east in Mozambique, and all the fun and downtime in Malawi.
Soaking up the laid-back Lake Malawi atmosphere
Villages along the lake are languid, a never-ending lullaby created by wooden shacks and tropical vegetation.
There are a couple of towns as well, but these have none of the bustle you will find at port towns on Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika. Nkhata Bay is one and it only has one supermarket.
Don’t visit Lake Malawi expecting many things to do. You can swim in the clear water, perhaps go snorkelling, or maybe rent a kayak for the afternoon.
Mostly you’ll be kicking back in a hammock, or on a wooden hut balcony, admiring how the water’s colour changes as the sun crosses the sky.
All along the lakeshore you’ll find pebble and sand beaches, golden stretches where you can lay out and take a break from everything.
Serenity reigns and you rarely get hassled. Lake Malawi is even too laid-back for beach sellers. Plus, the Malawian people are probably the friendliest and most warm-hearted of all on the continent.
Their warm lakeside smiles are a dream. And while the country is economically poor, it is incredibly rich in culture and togetherness.
This is where you go in Africa and do nothing. And while that can’t compete with the drama of an African safari, Lake Malawi has perfected the atmosphere for doing nothing at all.
How to Visit Lake Malawi
Not many people will fly halfway across the world to relax next to a lake. Unfortunately, you can’t really fly to Lake Malawi anyway.
Of all the countries in East and Southern Africa, Malawi is the poorest yet the most expensive to fly to. There is not a single direct flight here from the United States or Europe. The best options are connections via South Africa or Kenya.
However, Malawi is the ultimate overland stop. Traveling Africa overland is incredible but also tiring. Think long distances, dusty roads and too much excitement.
And then there is this lake. Finally, chance to lay back and do nothing, chance to forget about the road and re-energise. No hassle, no stress, nothing to do but improve your sun tan.
Whether you travel in your own vehicle, on an organised tour, or by public transport, Malawi is the most memorable destination of any long overland trip. Pristine Lake Malawi ensures you are completely relaxed, so you can fully enjoy all the attractions in neighbouring countries.
Getting around Lake Malawi
Malawi’s main north to south road runs parallel to the lake. So getting around is rarely a challenge. It’s just slow.
Note that buses in Malawi usually only leave when all the standing room is taken. Then after setting off they stop and pick up more people. But what do you prefer? Taking a busy bus to an empty beach? Or an empty bus to a busy beach?
Also note that there are very few gas stations in Malawi. Fuel is a premium product and often difficult to find. If you are driving, stock up and stay stocked up as best you can.
Lake Malawi Destination Guide
It’s 700 metres deep and close to 600 km long. Small overland camps are dotted along the lakeshore, idyllic places to rest either side of all the driving. Many of the best places to stay are hidden away, in secluded coves or along the lake’s golden beaches.
These lodges and overland camps are in wilderness settings, far from any towns. There may be a village nearby, but these beach retreats can be as cut off as any safari in the Serengeti.
Small towns and blossoming destinations also dot the lake. These are easier to reach for independent travellers using public transport. They are also a little livelier – better if you want to meet other travellers and share the lakeside beauty.
Note that relaxing on the lake with a beer isn’t necessarily the nicest thing. Carlsberg somehow won a 50-year contract to be Malawi’s exclusive brewery. Nobody else is allowed to make beer but them!
Most locals consume a different product, the locally grown and highly abundant Malawi gold. Just note that despite how much you smell and see it, this marijuana is illegal. Get caught in possession and expect to pay a bribe equal to whatever money is in your pocket.
Cape Maclear on the southern shore
A lazy backpacker hub on the lake’s southern end, Cape Maclear has a handful of small lodges and a peaceful atmosphere, along with the odd small party.
All the lodges are located on the same strip of water, so it gets a livelier backpacker atmosphere than anywhere else on Lake Malawi.
Senga Bay in the southwest
The popular choice of African travellers and the largest lakeside town, Senga Bay has a choice of upmarket accommodation and easy access from capital city Lilongwe.
It’s a good choice if you want to combine lazy days with the ambiance of a traditional market town.
Beautiful Nkhata Bay
Spread out along green cliffs in a large bay, Nkhata Bay is a place you visit for two days and stay for two weeks.
You can experience tradition in the town, then escape to some of the excellent lodges along the lakeshore.
All the good accommodation is tucked away but still easy reach to the town. So you can soak up the beauty and privacy, and still have a Malawian experience.
The best place to stay here is Butterfly Space, a non-profit eco lodge that has supported hundreds of children through training and development. Stay here and you relax, while helping the community.
Beyond the lake
Lake Malawi is unlikely to be your only destination in Africa. Check out the safari guides to neighbouring Tanzania and Zambia. And remember, it’s still connecting with your wild side even when you’re lounging by a lake doing nothing.