We did almost no research prior to entering Malawi. We just heard that lake Malawi was a cool place so we planned to head that way. We got some advice that Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear were the best places to experience the lake so those were the only places we planned to stop. Our overland plan of visiting 8 countries in <4 months was a bit overambitious ….so Malawi was one of the places we had to limit our time.
Our arrival into Malawi was exciting – we were so happy to be off the horrible roads in Mozambique and back into a country with some infrastructure. The border crossing took longer than expected, about an hour but no major problems. We were surprised at the hilly landscape. We expected Malawi to be flat!
As we approached a mountain pass that leads down to lake Malawi, disaster struck. The brakes suddenly stopped working. EEEK! Worst nightmare come true! We pulled off the road and tried to figure out what could have happened. The sun was setting and I didn’t have any service on my phone, but somehow Garrett had one bar and he was able to get a call through to his mechanic. They figured out that there must be a crack in the brake line. To keep the pressure in the system, he clamped off the broken pipe which meant we would only have 3 functional brakes….but that was better than nothing. We hobbled at a snails pace down the mountain pass and slowly made our way to Monkey Bay. It is incredibly nerve wracking driving in Malawi at night….its pitch black and the roads are packed with people who seem to want to get hit by a car! Thank goodness we didn’t hit anyone!
I randomly picked Monkey Bay Beach Lodge for our accommodations and it turned out to be wonderful. It was run by a terrific south African guy who was super helpful. We spent the next day cleaning and organizing all our stuff. I got the contact for an auto-electrician who assisted with fixing the ignition, AC and the headlights. The lodge had a welder on staff who helped us fix the metal rack in the back of the landy. All the rough roads in Moz caused it to collapse. They had to pull it out and reinforce all the hinges. It was a very productive day. Monkey Bay Beach Lodge had the best internet I have experienced in Africa so I was quite happy to get a lot of work done as well.
Monkey Bay Beach Lodge sits on the edge of the bay right on the water. It is actually the former president’s house that was renovated into a lodge! We were really impressed with the beauty of the lake and how clear the water is. I would have been happy to just spend a week there relaxing. Monkey Bay is so peaceful and you will not find many tourists. Its just locals living their normal daily lives. It was a tough decision to leave and move on to Cape Mac Clear….but we had heard it was a much better spot so we didn’t want to miss out!
You have to drive about 35 minutes through the Cape Maclear National Park to reach the main town. It consists of a small strip of lodges and a few restaurants on the water. Overall there were very few tourists. We were surprised. Cape Maclear is touted as a major backpacker destination and also a big party spot. We found it to be quite dead- especially at night! This is likely due to the recent change in the cost of visas. You now have to pay $75 to enter Malawi which is cost prohibitive enough to remove Malawi from the destination list of budget conscious backpackers.
We stayed at Thumbi View Lodge which is attached to Cape Maclear Divers. We got upgraded from our budget room to a lake front bungalow which was an awesome treat. You can walk right out to the lake to swim or take a dip in their pool. They can assist with finding you a guide or arranging lake activities.
Food is a bit tricky in Cape Maclear as there are only a few places that make food to order. Otherwise you have to order in advance. The dinner at Thumbi View was decent but nothing special. We also had lunch at Fat Monkeys Beach Lodge which had a nice location at a secluded edge of the lake front strip.
We only spent two days at Cape Maclear so we didn’t fully explore all the activity options. Our main interest was in diving. We had never done diving in fresh water so it was an exciting change. Lake Malawi has more species of fish than any other lake in the world and is most famous for cichlids. These are tilapia-like fish that come in all colors, shapes and sizes. It has been reported that there are up to 1000 different sub-species of cichlids in Lake Malawi.
Our first dive was a night dive in the Aquarium. The cichlids shimmer against the dark granite blocks like silvery stars twinkling all around you. We saw some crabs and catfish as well. The next morning we dove at a shipwreck site that was at about 90ft – we couldn’t believe how deep the lake was. The visibility was pretty poor but we are told at times that is can be crystal clear. We saw a huge catfish and a few other new species of fish, but again all the cichlids were the main attraction. It was so nice to dive in fresh water because you feel so clean afterwards.
We chose to dive with the Scuba Shack at Cape Maclear Ecolodge by chance, but I’m glad we did. All the proceeds from diving go directly to their community development project called HEED (Health, Education, Economic Development). We visited the HEED center across from the lodge and were really impressed with how much they have accomplished in the community. Especially with creating environmental awareness and providing sources of income for the local community. We were really impressed with how clean the lake was despite how much the local community utilizes it for washing/cooking/cleaning/fishing. Cape Maclear is a protected reserve so there are a lot of resources available to keep it clean. I fear what other areas of the lake look like that are not protected!
We spent an afternoon taking a boat trip to around the lake. We visited Thumbi island and did some snorkeling. I think I enjoyed the snorkeling more than the diving because the water is so clear at the surface and many more cichlids aggregate. Our guide also fed the fish with some bread so they would swarm around us. It felt like we were swimming in an aquarium. All the colors and patterns were so impressive. I was quite mesmerized by them. There were so many, you could even reach down and catch them with your hands!
After snorkeling we found some fish eagles on the other side of the island. Our guide tossed some fish in the water so we could watch them swoop down and catch. It was awesome! Next we visited Otter point which is a picturesque collection of boulders. It actually looked just like the famous rocks on La Digue island in the Seychelles. Stunning!
We really enjoyed lake Malawi and would have spent an extra day had we not needed to make a stopover in Lilongwe to fix the car. We found a place called KwikFit which was able to change our shocks which had gotten totally destroyed by the roads in Moz. Lilongwe reminded us a lot of Gaborone. It was very small for a capital city, very spread out with only a few tall buildings.
We stayed at the Capital City Motel which was pretty awful! We actually refused to pay full price because of how bad it was – they wanted $40 and we agreed to pay $20. The manager didn’t even argue because he knew they were overcharging people!
Our last memory of Malawi was getting pulled over about 20k from the border. The police officer refused to accept our insurance, although it was what they instructed us to get at the border and had been accepted by every other police roadblock across the country. We tried every which way but there was no getting out of this one. We paid had to pay $10 on the spot. Although she wrote us a receipt, we felt like that money was definitely getting pocketed. Oh well, out of all the times we’ve been stopped and could have gotten in to big trouble – this was our first ticket of the trip!
If we could have spent more time in Malawi, I would have liked to drive south through the old capital of Zomba and through the tea plantations of Blantyre. They have some nature reserves worth visiting too – if you are into birding and hiking.