DISCLAIMER: Before going on a trip like this, I like to read blog posts that give me ideas of why I might want to visit a place, plus some practical tips. I don’t like to read too much detail because I want to see it for myself. This post aims to fit that bill.
Lilongwe: International flights land here or Blantyre. We went Frankfurt - Addis Ababa - Lilongwe with Ethiopian Airways.
Bridgeview Hotel - not the cheapest but excellent staff and good location for the Sososo bus. A taxi from the airport was 30,000 Kwacha (MK).
Airport tip - get cash from one of the several machines and then get a SIM card from Airtel, extremely helpful staff.
Sososo buses became our favourite way to travel. Comfy, free snacks, punctual even when there is a sermon before departure. Our trip to Mushroom Farm started here, via Mzuzu where we switched buses and then got out in Chitimba (Bridgeview booked us the tickets a couple of days before). The road was terrible, really terrible, after a particularly bad rainy season, so the journey took pretty much 12 hours.
Lake Malawi: After 12 hours on a bumpy bus, the first view of Lake Malawi was so welcome! We stayed at M’buta Lodge LITERALLY on the lake. Despite arriving in darkness, we couldn’t resist a swim. M’buta staff were extremely friendly and catered to our vegan needs for a lovely breakfast. Highly recommended.
Read this medical advice about swimming in the lake and buy medication at the pharmacy there.
Mushroom Farm: before booking to stay at this eco-lodge, read the transport information on their website. The road up is quite an adventure. Despite our initial misgivings about motorbikes, it is actually the most comfortable way to ascend the mountain and plenty of people will offer this service. Prices fluctuate hugely - due to petrol prices and how new to the country you look but enjoy the views on the ride up!
Talking about views - the Cob House at Mushroom Farm is a loo with the most spectacular view. The bathroom is open to the mountain side, remaining private but offering incredible scenes of the lake to the east and mountains to the north. Wow.
Quick review: Mushroom Farm has imaginative accommodation options, great food, a lovely yoga shala where monkeys can watch you. We enjoyed the communal dinners. Food and drinks - quite pricey. Rates suggested for guides and massages - too low.
Chombe Plateu hike - go early, drink water, enjoy the views as well as walking most of the way on the dirt road passed houses and small communities.
Manchwe Falls - you could find it on your own but the guide can give you extra info and context.
Livingstonia - really interesting town. The Craft Coffehouse was a nice stop and a guide can definitely give you history and facts about the place.
Travel to Nkhata Bay
How to get to Nkhata Bay had been the topic of conversation at all of our three dinners at Mushroom Farm. You can go via Livingstonia to Mzuzu or back down the mountain road. We did the latter, motorbike and then Sososo at about 8:30. From Mzuzu there are minibuses and sharetaxis. We were relatively comfortable in a share taxi but overcharged, it did however take aus all the way to…
The Beach House was not just next to the lake, but over the top of it! The hammock on the balcony was brilliant. The views of the bay and out across the water were great and the staff here were so helpful with various matters. Highlight - futila a traditional breakfast dish with sweet potato and ground peanuts. Due to our lack of organisational ability, Butterfly Space was only available for one of our nights in Nkhata Bay so we had to switch to…
Right next door the views of the sunset were stunning from the veranda of the Family Chalet (honestly it was all they had left but the hands down the fanciest accomodation we had). We enjoyed the paddleboards, comfy bed and friendly staff but the food was better and cheaper at Butterfly.
Day 8 and 9
Kayaking with Monkey Business
Being on the water and away from the bay meant we saw fascinating wildlife and had a glimpse at more rural life. However, the company was difficult to deal with - we agreed on one price and were then told another (apparently exchange rate related but this wasn’t believable) and the experience wasn’t worth the price we paid.
Not people to sit still for long, also on Day 9 we crammed in a visit to Kwanza Cocoa for a chocolate tasting!
We just needed somewhere to sleep in Mzuzu so found a cheap place on Airbnb which wasn’t at all where we expected it to be from Google Maps but we had an enormous and very clean room.
Travel to Zomba
Our good friend the Sososo whisked us back to Lilongwe. Again, we had heard about various different bus options to get to Zomba, including a lakeside bus. If we had more time we might have risked this but reports of the road put us off. From Lilongwe we took the Smart bus from Biwi bus station at 2:30pm. It was supposed to take 4 hours but took closer to 6.
We stayed at Trinity Homes and Treats. DON’T REQUEST LAUNDRY HERE! We were charged over 30 Euros for a load of laundry which was returned to us still damp. Even without the laundry, this was on the pricey side for Malawi. We didn’t really get the service we expected here and there was no view or other redeeming feature.
Hiking on the Zomba Plateau was one of our best days! I really enjoyed the motorbike ride up, ascending 800 m of elevation from the town. Jonas was the best guide, stand by for more about the community-based conservation being championed by Jonas to prevent deforestation and restore woodlands to help both nature and the local population.
Day 12 and 13
Liwonde National Park
Zomba town and market were nice for some shopping and we had a drink at the African Heritage Centre. We were all set to face a minibus or shared taxi situation to Liwonde when we managed to get a private taxi for a reasonable price and it was a hassle free and comfortable journey.
Kutchire Lodge picked us up from the petrol station in a safari vehicle - I was so excited! We bumped and bounced the 5 kilometres to the lodge and moved into our tree house.
We loved it here too. Our tree house overlooked a part of the river, with the national park itself on the other side. The bedroom, bathroom and veranda were basic (and a little bit scary given the height!) but had everything we needed and being able to watch from our verdana as a troop of baboons had fights, attempting to jump over the water with their impala side-kicks watching was exactly what we had hoped for.
TOP TIP: if you plan to do more than one game drive, do morning and evening on the same day and you only have to pay park entrance once. The boat ride doesn’t require entering the park.
Travel to Dedza
This was our least favourite travel day! We enjoyed a relaxed boat ride before being dropped back in Liwonde town. We thought we had agreed a share taxi all the way to Dedza Pottery, but the driver sold us on to a minibus, which waited and then stopped every few kilometres. We did get delivered to Dedza Pottery without extra charge, with the final part up yet another bumpy road on a motorbike!
Dedza Pottery is a strange oasis. It’s like being transported to a European village. The climate here is cooler, the garden is lush, with rose beds and an expansive lawn. The room was large with a lovely outdoor area too. The staff were friendly and they made us a vegan meal despite having nothing on the menu, but the food prices were the highest we’d paid.
TOP TIP: Sisha nyama in the town was so good we ate there twice. Nsima and two or three different vegetable and bean dishes for 1 or 2 Euros. A lift to town, plus a delicious and inexpensive meal is probably still cheaper than staying at the Pottery!
Hiking Dedza Mountain was another highlight. We couldn’t have had a better guide than Samuel (his Whatsapp number is +265 995 94 68 89). We walked directly from the Pottery and Samuel new the small and interesting paths to take. Tough couple fo hours to reach the summit, but totally worth it.
Samuel was once again our guide to see the cave paintings. This involved a car and driver, an hour long bumpy road (was this the worst road of them all?) and then more than an hour hike through a village, up the side of a mountain to reach the biggest of the caves. It was cool to see the paintings but motorbike would probably be more comfortable, and it all took longer than we thought. The second and third caves were much easier to access but the paintings are less impressive.
Our last bus journey was my favourite. Someone we met in Liwonde suggested catching one of the big buses from the road block. The main road between Blantyre and Lilongwe is traversed by at least three or four different companies. They don’t officially stop at road blocks (police checks are frequent and normal throughout the country) but we were told to ask the police to help us. I really wasn’t sure of this plan, but I knew we’d easily get a minibus if it didn’t work. Of course it worked seamlessly! The police officer told us exactly where to wait, we had time to buy some homemade crisps, before a Captain Tours bus showed up and welcomed us onboard for the journey to Lilongwe. Amazing. We got on at Dedza road block at around 6 pm and the journey to Lilongwe took about an hour and a half.
We struggled to find somewhere to stay in Lilongwe that wasn’t expensive or in an inconvenient location. Kasha Premier was just about in a convenient location but the tiny room and meagre breakfast were disappointing for the price. Just give me real coffee and I’ll be happy! They did however provide a reasonably priced and very comfortable ride to the airport.
It was a whirlwind tour for sure! On reflection (and if you prefer to make your mind up yourself please don’t read on) Mushroom Farm was the most unique place we stayed, with incredible views and really nice food - however the journey to get there given our time-frame was too long. If we did it over…!