A stellar experience every time
Lake Malawi truly is an assault on the senses. From hearing the cry of the African fish eagle calling you in, the fresh Mwera wind against your skin, the taste of mango lingering on your lips and the sight of miles and miles of water meeting with the sky. Famously, Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone referred to Lake Malawi as ‘The Lake of Stars,’ with good reason. During the day, the light bounces across the deep azure water. While at night, the stars glimmer in the sky and are mirrored on the lake, as the fisherman light up their hurricane lamps for a night on the water.
Malawi is endowed with spectacular highlands and numerous water sources occupying a narrow, curving strip of land along the East African Rift Valley, where the origins of Lake Malawi lie. Also known as Lake Nyasa, this water body accounts for more than one-fifth of Malawi’s total area. It’s the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world. Roughly stretching 365 miles from north to south, it has been nicknamed ‘The Calendar Lake.’
The enormity and natural faulting of the Rift Valley plunges the northern parts of the lake to incredible depths that near 2,300ft (700 metres) below sea level. While the Rift Valley rises steeply in some places and gently in others, Lake Malawi covers some 11,430 square miles (29,600 square km) and extends beyond the border. The lake is fed by over a dozen rivers including the Rukuru, Dwangwa, Lilongwe and Bua rivers and flows out the Shire River through the adjacent Lake Malombe and joins several tributaries before joining the Zambezi River in Mozambique. Lake Chilwa provides a further drainage system, the rivers of which flow from the Chilwa-Phalombe Plain and neighbouring highlands. Across the lake there are many small unpopulated islands, with two larger inhabited islands near the middle of the lake, Likoma and the nearby Chizumulu islands.
With a wide array of fish species, old baobab trees that line its shores and thick vegetation covering the surrounding hills and slopes, Lake Malawi provides a globally distinctive eco-region. It houses one of the richest diversities of freshwater fish in the world and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. The most common and commercially significant fish found in Malawi include the endemic tilapia, or chambo (nest-building freshwater fish), catfish (mlamba) and minnows (matemba). The lake is also home to the iconic cichlid fish that are known and bred worldwide for their beautiful colours and striking patterns.
While on the islands and shores, there are immense clusters of boulders with lush green trees that cling between them – home to baboons and monkeys and a plethora of birds. Lake Malawi has one of the highest concentrations of African fish eagles on the continent and its cry can be heard frequently echoing across the sky. Surprising many visitors are the exploding plumes of what appears to be smoke, which are often visible on the horizon of Lake Malawi, hovering above the water and hinting at distant fires. The smoke is in fact vast clouds of lake flies, known locally as nkungo. The phenomenon represents an enormous gathering of billions of tiny flies procreating at certain times of the year.
With a huge diversity of fish, the rich harvest of the lake plays an important part in the country’s economy. Fishing villages scatter along the lakeshore. Fisherman will spend all day on their narrow, dugout canoes often staying overnight to drop their lines deep in the water. The surrounding land around the lake provides fertile soil for agriculture.
Malawi may be landlocked but the lake is its ‘inland sea.’ This vast body of freshwater is fringed by sandy gold beaches, scenic views and is also a water sports haven. Although trickier to find a good fishing spot these days, Lake Malawi still provides ample and enjoyable recreational fishing. The clear waters showcase the stunning and plentiful fish, perfect for snorkeling and deep-water diving. There are a number of lodges and places to stay along the Lakeshores that provide a wide range of options. Cape Maclear, also known as Chembe, remains a popular destination with its tranquil waters, laid back vibes and affordable lodges that host daytime excursions and water-based activities. The lake attracts a growing social and party scene and the internationally acclaimed Lake of Stars Festival takes place along its shores annually.
Although gaining more and more popularity and publicity, Lake Malawi still remains relatively untouched, providing an abundance of calm and raw beauty. Besides its striking scenery, the lakeside lifestyle is laid back and dreamy. Days are spent in a happy haze of beach strolls, boat trips, leisurely swims and cocktails – Malawi-style. It’s about getting your toes in the sand and water, with a Malawi gin and tonic in hand to watch the sunset at the end of the day.