Situated towards the bottom end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the Republic of Malawi lies seemingly trapped by its far larger neighbours of Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. It’s often described as being the ‘warm heart of Africa’, a byline referring to the famously friendly nature of the Malawian people, and offers a rather unique natural history tourism experience. From the white sand shores of Lake Malawi, second deepest of Africa’s Great Lakes, to the cool heights of Nyika Plateau and the steamy sub-tropical lowlands of Liwonde National Park, Malawi is a must for the African bird and wildlife enthusiast.
Malawi is a long sliver of a country squeezed in between Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, covering some 118 484 km², of which a large proportion (some 20%) is made up of the waters of Lake Malawi, southernmost of Africa’s Great Lakes. The Great Rift Valley runs through Malawi from north to south, with Lake Malawi forming around three quarters of Malawi’s eastern border with Mozambique and Tanzania. The lake itself is up to 700 meters deep, putting some parts of the lake bed at over 200 meters below sea level. In addition to the lake there are peaks and plateaus, such as Nyika, Mount Mulanje and the Zomba Plateau, which rise up to as high as 2 438 meters above sea level, giving Malawi some dramatic altitudinal variation.
Malawi’s climate is moderated by this altitude, though in the low-lying parts of the south it is hot and sub-tropical, as expected, while the highlands are generally mild, though they can be quite cold during winter (May to August). Between November and April the warm air is conducive to thunderstorm build up, and most of the rain falls during these months.
Historically the country was first occupied by a small number of indigenous hunter gatherers before bantu speaking people began arriving from the north in the 10th Century. This wave of Bantu migration continued southwards, but some remained in what is now Malawi and formed ethnic groups based on common ancestry. After 1600 Portuguese and Arab traders began moving through the area, while the famous Dr Livingstone reached Lake Malawi in 1859 and paved the way for British occupation. The protectorate was named Nyasaland, which eventually became an independent Malawi in 1964.
Lilongwe is the capital city and main travel hub providing road access to the rest of the country. Several international airlines fly into Lilongwe, from where the main areas to the north and the south can be accessed by road. Malawi can also be accessed by road from the neighboring countries.
Summer: November to April.
- Malawi falls under a summer rainfall region.
- It can get hot to very hot in the south and other low lying areas, and is generally warm to mild on the plateaus and highlands.
Spring: September and October.
- As with most of Southern Africa, these two months make up a hot dry season (as opposed to the cool dry winter season).
Winter: May to August.
- Winters in the south and other low lying areas are generally mild. It can get cool to cold on the plateaus and highlands.
Although relatively small, Malawi has a large bird list of around 650 recorded species, thanks to its geographical diversity and position in south-central Africa, where the southern African and central African bird communities converge. Although poor in terms of endemics, with only one true endemic, the Yellow-throated Apalis, Malawi’s mountain and plateaus offer good chances of seeing some of Central Africa’s range-restricted and difficult to access montane specials. Moreover, the biologically rich sub-tropical lowlands offer bulk to be combined with the specials of the highlands to create an unforgettable African birding experience. Read more under ‘Malawi Birding‘…
From the depths of Lake Malawi to the heights of Nyika Plateau, Malawi boasts a diverse range of ecosystems and habitats. And while there is no doubt that the growing human population is having a huge impact on the country’s wildlife, as is the case across the continent, Malawi has a reasonable network of parks and protected areas and is in fact seeing a relatively recent surge in tourism. Read more under ‘Malawi Wildlife‘…