Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Adventures in Malawi: The Warm Heart of Africa


A couple of weeks back I got the chance to visit Malawi, the small, landlocked country located in southeast Africa. This is a place that is off the radar for most travelers, but is definitely worth putting on your bucket list, particularly if you're looking for new destinations in Africa or you're looking to avoid the crowds that are more common in the more well-known destinations on that continent.

Let's face it, most travelers heading to Africa are likely to visit Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa as they go in search of the quintessential safari experience. Those places are beautiful in their own right, and are classic adventure locales for a reason. But, they can also get extremely crowded, especially during the high season. A place like Malawi offers many of the same experiences –– along with its own unique options –– without having to contend with lots of other tourists. In fact, the quiet, peaceful nature of the country is one of its biggest assets.

When I arrived in Malawi –– bleary eyed and a bit groggy after 20 hours of travel from the U.S. –– I wasn't sure what to expect. I flew into the capital city of Lilongwe, which quickly displayed much of the same character of a large African city in terms of open markets, lots of activity, and plenty of people walking to and fro. But the city also featured a surprising amount of green space, with parks and open areas making it feel less crowded than its population of 1 million would lead you to believe.

After a very long flight from New York City to Johannesburg, followed by a couple of hour plane ride to Lilongwe, I was definitely ready to relax. I'd been traveling for more than two days when you counted my trip to NYC from my home the night before the flight to Africa. I found plenty of peace and solitude at the Kumbali Lodge, a quiet refuge in Lilongwe where visitors can escape, without really wandering too far from the urban center. Kumbali is a beautiful setting for travelers to catch their breath after arriving in Malawi. It also happens to be where pop singer Madonna stays while she's in the country with her Malawi-born adopted children.

Relaxing at the lodge was a great way to catch up on some rest before embarking on a longer exploration of the country itself. It wasn't long after we arrived that I spotted a couple of large baboons wandering through the trees, while small bush babies scrambled through the trees overhead. It was a good reminder that I was indeed in Africa, and while more exotic creatures were to come further in the trip, it is always fun to spot primates in the wild –– something that doesn't happen in back home in the States.

It didn't take long to discover why Malawi is described as the "Warm Heart of Africa." The people there are incredibly welcoming and accommodating. Everyone we met, from the staff at the lodges we stayed in to the individuals we interacted with on the streets, were very friendly. Many were interested in saying hello to us, scrambling to get a better look at the tall, outgoing, and boisterous Americans who had come to their country. I've been lucky enough to have visited a number of countries across Africa, and while many are friendly towards tourists, I've yet to find one that rolls out the welcome mat like Malawi. Warm heart of Africa indeed.

On our second day in country, we took a brief morning tour of Lilongwe, giving us even more of a chance to take in the cityscape there. It was a Sunday morning, so many of the inhabitants were on their way to church and most of the businesses weren't open just yet. But it is always enjoyable to observe a small slice of life when visiting a place like Malawi. Everywhere you looked there were people bustling about, with friends and family happily greeting one another as they went about their day.

After our tour, which included a stop at the tomb of Hastings Banda –– the founding father of the country, we were off to our next destination, which was the Blue Zebra Island Lodge on Lake Malawi. I'll share a lot more about that in my next post, but I will say that it is another peaceful, utterly spectacular setting, that was altogether unexpected in a landlocked African country.

En route to the lake however, we had the chance to leave the larger city behind and see the smaller towns and villages that can be found across the country. We even stopped to meet a trio of young boys who were selling a distinctly Malawian snack that neither myself or my companions were ready to try. The boys were selling mice on a stick for anyone who was looking for a quick bite. The mice were reportedly dried and salted, but had little other preparation done to them. A sight to see, but not one to eat.

Our ride through the Malawi countryside revealed a country that is green, beautiful, and enchanting, even in the early days of winter. That's long after the rainy season greens everything up, although during my visit is still looked alive and flourishing. That would generally be the experience I would have across my entire week there, bouncing from Lilongwe to Lake Malawi and later to Liwonde National Park, the country's safari destination. From a natural landscape standpoint, Malawi certainly didn't disappoint, with rolling hills, tall peaks, and beautiful beaches. There truly is something for just about every kind of traveler in this lovely African country.

I'll post a couple of more stories on my Malawi experience over the next few days, with more insights on the adventurous things to see and do there. The first few days were certainly more relaxed, which was welcomed after such a long travel experience. But the fun was yet to come, and Lake Malawi would show us a side of Africa that we didn't expect.

Part 2 coming tomorrow.

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