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How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

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Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Zambia Safari: The Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Zambia Safari: The Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Our previous game drives were all a precursor to our big Africa treat – a 3-night safari in South Luangwa National Park.  Located in northern Zambia, the park is known for its high density of big cats, among other wildlife.  The end of October is an excellent time to go because animals are easier to spot – the brush is thin and animals all gather at the same, limited water sources.  We went with a safari company called Kiboko, which would drop us off in Malawi at the end of the trip.

Zambia safari africa travel

We saw too many animals to picture in one post, so here are the highlights.  These beautiful zebras were a frequent sight. We even caught one scratching it’s butt on a tree stump.

zambia zebra africa travel

Impalas are everywhere in the park. They’re quite dainty antelopes with distinct markings.

impala africa travel

These baby warthogs are called piglets.  Moments later they started chasing the antelope in the background.

warthog africa travel

Baby baboon hangs on tight.  This arrangement doesn’t deter mama baboon from jumping from limb to limb or trying to steal human food.

baboon africa travel

These two waterbucks were best friends a minute ago and will be best friends again several minutes later.

zambia safari africa travel

It’s unusual to see the whole hippo.  Mostly we saw half-submerged hippo heads. Can you tell which ones are babies?

hippos africa travel

As the sun gets hotter, animals take naps.  We caught these two baby elephants napping together.  Other elephants were also napping around them, with one elephant standing up to keep guard.

elephants africa travel

One of my favorite sightings – the guinea fowl, with a bright blue head and polka dot feathers, runs kind of like a turkey.

guinea fowl africa travel

And then there were the lions.  We got word at afternoon tea that there had been a buffalo kill sighted.  On our evening game drive, we headed straight for it.  Most of the lions had finished eating and were lounging about.  These two – a young adult and one of the older lions – were last to eat.

lion africa travel

Here the alpha female tolerates her playful cub.  Later, she swats him away.  Don’t you know Mommy’s digesting?

lion africa travel

Lions in a food coma.

DSC_1312

On our final night drive, we were able to catch this leopard.  Our guide was able to get out in front of his path so we could watch him walk by. Sorry for the blurriness!

leopard africa travel

Our Zambia safari was more than we expected.  We saw a remarkable number of animals, had some great times with our fellow travelers, and enjoyed the camp where we ate, slept, and went for afternoon swims between game drives.  There is nothing like seeing animals in their natural habitats.  If you get a chance to go on a safari – you should.

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls is more than a waterfall. It’s the hub of a host of adventure tourism activities that sprawl across three countries. We spent two weeks there partaking in a canopy tour, the best one-day white water rafting in the world, two safaris, a swim in Devil’s pool, a sunset cruise, and of course, a day at the falls, which are amazing. And what we did doesn’t even count some of the most popular activities; bungee jumping, a gorge swing, or a helicopter tour. While we did a lot, we still took a slow pace and ended up spending much of our time like hippos, submerged in the pool or lazily drying next to it.

But any visit to the falls is ultimately framed by two questions: Where to stay (Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)? and When to go (high water or low water)?

Where to stay? Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Let’s be clear, no matter where you stay you’ll be able to see the falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. It’s fairly easy to cross the border and return in a single day. Doing so requires 3 taxis.  From Zimbabwe you take one taxi to the border ($5), one across the border ($5), and one to Livingstone ($10). Then repeat on the way back. There are plenty of taxis lined up at each point. Just make sure you get a Kaza Visa when you fly in. It’s $50 but allows for unlimited border crossings between the two countries. Otherwise, you’ll get hit with serious visa fees each time you want to cross.

Still, the question remains, which side to choose?

Seeing the Falls

For views of the falls Zimbabwe is definitely a stronger choice. The falls drop from Zambia and fall in the river that divides the two countries. From the Zimbabwe side you can walk the entire length of the falls and there over a dozen viewing points which face the falls head on. Also, we enjoyed finding monkeys who make their home in the rainforest on the Zimbabwe side.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe Travel

The Zambian side however offers a view from the side of the falls that is dry during low-water. During high-water your limited in your perspective and during low water you can’t see much at all. This photo is from the Zimbabwe side, but you can see what you might view from the Zambian side.  This whole area is covered by a wall of water during high season.

Victoria Falls Low Water Travel

Price

Some older research online says that Zimbabwe is cheaper so we were not so pleasantly surprised to find some of the highest prices we’ve seen anywhere in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The reason being that after a bout of hyper-inflation (you can buy 10 billion dollar notes in the street) Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar as its currency. The dollar is strong now so prices are expensive. A driver confided to us he was afraid the strong dollar would keep away the local tourists who normally come around Christmas. On the bright side, you can get $50 bills from ATMs which comes in handy when traveling across Africa.

Zambia was much cheaper for expenses like food and accommodation. However, the cost for activities, which are priced in US dollars on both sides of the falls, are pretty much identical.

Infrastructure

We encountered both scheduled and unscheduled power outages on both sides of the falls but they were definitely more frequent of the Zambian side. Apparently Zambia is dependent on hydro-electric power and when the river is low electricity becomes harder to produce.

Our first night there was a mess. Power went out in our hostel, taking the water pump with it. We ventured into the street to find comfort in a nice dinner and found the whole city was in darkness. Fortunately the super market had a generator. It was packed, and people were sweeping the floors to prep for closing, but we got some sausages, bread, and cheese and made due.

The Towns

Victoria Falls is a small tourist town, built completely around the falls. The main street is mostly tour companies and places to buy souvenirs. Baboons hang out in the streets. You see the occasional warthog. The OK supermarket is pretty well stocked. You can also walk to the falls from the town, which is quite charming.

Livingstone on the other hand is a proper city with more options for restaurants and night life and two substantially nicer supermarkets.

Black Rhinos

The only activity that can’t be easily done from both sides is a game drive in the private Stanley and Livingstone game reserve. They are a certified participant in the black rhino breeding program and are probably the single best place to get a chance to see this very endangered species amongst other animals.

Black Rhino Victoria Falls Travel

Overall

We had a better time in Zimbabwe. But this may be largely due to the number of unexpected outages in Zambia, a lack of air circulation at our hostel (Fawlty towers) which led to very unpleasant nights and the fact we met a lot of great people at our backpackers (Victoria Falls Backpackers). We did find the souvenir markets to be better and more affordable in Zambia and transportation in and out of the area is easier and cheaper to arrange.

When to go? High Water v. Low Water

Victoria Falls gets its fame from being the longest waterfall in the world. However, this is only really true in high water. During high water you can see the fall in all its 1.8km glory and there’s enough mist to drench anyone who gets near. As one guide told us, “you may as well bring shampoo.”

But we were there during low water. At first we were disappointed that there was no water for over half of the falls, but we ended up being glad we visited during this time since low water season has many distinct advantages.

1.Devil’s Pool & Livingstone Island – On the edge of the main falls there’s a spot called Devil’s Pool where you can safely swim right up to the edge of the falls and look into the gorge while water drops from the cliff just a few feet away. It’s a phenomenal experience and not an option during high-water when it would be impossible to not be taken over the edge.  The featured photo also shows us on Livingstone Island, which is the entrance point to Devil’s Pool and only accessible during low water.

Devil's Pool Victoria Falls Travel

2. Rafting – Obviously we didn’t raft in both seasons but apparently some of the best rapids are closed during high water for safety reasons. Low water has the reputation of being the best season for rafting. Will says it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.

3. Animals – If you also want to go on a safari low water is a better time for two reasons. 1) There’s less water so animals are more concentrated around the areas where water exists. 2) The bush is dry and it’s easier to spot animals. During high water, leaves and green bushes end up obscuring your view.

Still if seeing ‘the smoke that thunders’ in its full Discovery Channel scope is your sole focus you want to make sure you’re there during high-water. (High water is Feb-Aug, with a peak in April, Low water is Sept-Jan)

All the best!

Ciao,

Elizabeth