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Malawi Country Information

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Black Panther in MalawiMalawi is a landlocked country located in southeastern Africa. It is bordered in the North and East by Tanzania, on the east, south and southwest by Mozambique and to the west by Zambia.

The country lies within the Great African Rift Valley system. Lake Malawi, a body of water some 360 miles long and about 1,500 ft above sea level, is its most prominent physical feature. Much of the land surface is plateau between 900 to 1,220 m (3,000 to 4,000 ft) above sea level.

Elevations rise of over 2,440 m (8,000 ft) in the Nyika Plateau in the north and in the regions of Mt. Mulanje 3,050 m (10,000 ft) and Mt. Zomba 2,135 m (7,000 ft). The Shire highlands in the south are lower with elevations from 610 m (2,000 ft) to 900 m (3,000 ft). To the north there are rugged highlands with rolling hills in the Nyika and Vwanza plateaux, whilst in the South, traversing the escarpment that forms part of the Great African Rift Valley, lie the lowlands of the Shire Valley.

Dawn at Lake MalawiLake Malawi is the county's centerpiece. Like an inland sea it has endless palm fringed beaches, enclosed by sheer mountains, making it undeniably the focal point for Malawi's tourists. Malawi is a landlocked country located in southeastern Africa.

Malawi is blessed with no less than nine national parks and wildlife reserves. In the north are the unique Nyika Plateau and the Vwasa Reserve. These complement each other, one a highland, the other a lowland marsh area. The central region has two vast game areas; Kasungu National Park in the west and Nkhotakota Reserve in the east, near the Lake.

Lake Malawi ShoresTo the south, the best known national park is Liwonde, along the River Shire, but there are also three game areas further south in the Shire Lowlands: Lengwe National Park and the wildlife reserves of Majete and Mwabvi. Near the southern end of Lake Malawi is the world’s first freshwater national park at Cape Maclear.

The big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) can be seen in Malawi as well as a splendid range of antelope and other smaller cats such as caracel and serval. Hippos are to be found in large numbers, so much so that they are almost symbolic of Malawi’s prolific wildlife. The variety of fish, over 600 species, to be seen in the Lake Malawi National Park is unequalled anywhere else in the world.

Malawi’s birdlife is renowned. Best known is the fish eagle to be seen at the Lake and along the River Shire but, as with the Lake’s fish, the range of species is breathtaking.

Hippo & Calf in lake MalawiA safari in Malawi is sure to be a memorable experience; plenty of game but none of those convoys of 4x4 vehicles characteristic of some other African game parks. Malawi offers all type of safari - walking, horse riding, by boat or in a 4x4.

In addition to Malawi's varied parks and reserves, not far from the country's western border lies one of the continent's greatest game reserves, Zambia's South Luangwa National Park. This park is most easily accessed from Lilongwe and Malawi.

One of Malawi's other neighbours, Mozambique, also has a reserve most easily accessed from Malawi. This is the Manda Wilderness Community Reserve - a genuine unspoilt wilderness which meets the shore of the lake to the south east of Malawi's Likoma Island.

Community-based conservation initiatives are beginning to result in the return of the big game.

The Landscape

Lower Shire Valley, Malawi Malawi is one of Africa’s smaller countries, a little over 45,000 square miles (117 000 sq km), of which about 20 per cent is occupied by Lake Malawi – Africa’s third biggest lake.

Much of the country lies within the great Rift Valley of eastern Africa, with Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the east and south.

Malawi’s northern boundary comes within nine degrees of the equator. The country stretches southwards to 17°S.

The Rift Valley floor at the lakeshore is almost at sea level but the bordering plateau rises to between 1600ft (490m) and 5000ft (1500m). The highest peaks in Malawi touch 10,000ft (3000m) while the Lower Shire Valley (pronounced Shiray) in the south is at a meagre 500 ft (150m). These great contrasts help to make the landscape of Malawi one the most varied in all Africa. The scenery, including its cloak of vegetation, presents an ever-changing vista.

Lake MalawiSuch is the great size of Lake Malawi and the narrowness of the Rift Valley, that there is little space for lakeshore plains. In north Malawi, between Nkhata Bay and Livingstonia, the Ruarwe Scarp marks the very edge of the Rift Valley, plunging over 5000ft (1500m) from the Viphya Highlands straight into the lake. Further south, in central Malawi, there are plains but rarely do these extend more than 15 miles (25 km) from the shoreline. Here and there are floodplains, often farmed but occasionally flooded in the rainy season. Shallow depressions, called dambos, characterise some of the lowlands.

The Lake itself is a great inland sea, some 360 miles (580 km) north to south and up to 50 miles (80 km) wide. Much of the time this tideless, freshwater lake gently laps the golden beaches which surround it. But on rare occasions it can show its anger in a fierce storm. Its fish-rich waters are home to the mbuna, colourful tropical fish in greater abundance here than anywhere else in the world.

To the south, Lake Malawi drains into the River Shire which flows over 300 miles along the Rift Valley floor. On its way to join the Zambezi, the Shire tumbles over rapids and falls as well as flowing quietly across broad plains.

Away from the Lake and the Shire Lowlands, much of Malawi is part of the Central Africa Plateau. This gently undulating land, where not farmed, has a natural vegetation of deciduous woodland – brachystegia, acacia or combretum.

Rising to even greater heights are Malawi’s true mountains: the whaleback plateau of Nyika and the mountainous Viphya in the north, the Dowa Highlands in the centre and, in the south, the two great massifs of Zomba and, highest of all, Mulanje Central Africa’s grandest peak reaching over 10,000ft.

The Climate

Malawi’s tropical climate is moderated across much of the country by altitude. Two seasons can be recognised; the dry season lasts from April through to November while the wet season lasts some four months, December to March.

Squeezed in between these two seasons is a hot and rather humid period which generally characterises November and early December. Over the last decade or so, the wet season has often been delayed. Rains which used to start in early December now, quite regularly, don’t occur until the New Year.

Even in the so-called wet season, the rains are usually short-lived storms, as is typical of the tropics, and at no time does the climate seriously inhibit the traveler.

Much of the country is at an altitude which keeps potentially high temperatures down to very acceptable levels. Only in the Lower Shire Valley can temperatures become unpleasantly high, and then only in the summer months.

Although the period May to October is often described as the ideal time to travel in Malawi, the rainy season is attractive for the displays of orchids on Nyika Plateau, for birdwatching in some of the Reserves and for seeing Malawi’s vegetation at its most lush. The main drawback of a visit in the wet season is in driving the dirt roads including those within the game parks. It also has to be borne in mind that, as everywhere, game viewing is best towards the end of the dry season.

Temperatures vary from below freezing (at night on the high plateaux in winter – July) to 38°C/100°F (in the Lower Shire Valley in summer – December). To generalise is difficult but through much of the year, and in regions visited by travellers, temperatures during the day are usually in the mid-20sC/mid-70sF. In the short hot season, November-December, maximum temperatures may rise to the lower 30sC/upper 80sF. Lake Malawi’s surface temperatures vary from about 24°C/75°F to 28°C/82°F.

Rainfall varies greatly. Some years in the early 1990s were exceptionally dry. Really high figures are rare. Parts of the Lakeshore can receive 50 to 60 inches (1270 to 1525 mm) a year but Lilongwe’s and Blantyre’s figures are less than half that. Much of the rain falls in short but heavy bursts.

The People

Malawi ChildrenWith a population of approximately 12 million, Malawi is one of the more densely peopled countries of this part of Africa. Most of the population is rural (85 per cent), living largely in fascinating traditional villages. The largest town is the conurbation Blantyre-Limbe (the commercial "capital") in the south followed by the capital city of Lilongwe in the central region. Mzuzu is the only large town in the north. Zomba, once the capital, has, until recently, been the seat of the parliament.

The Great East African Rift Valley, of which Malawi is a part, has been home to man from the earliest days of Homo sapiens. Many of today’s Malawians are descendants of the Bantu people who moved across Africa and into Malawi for hundreds of years up to the fifteenth century.

The nineteenth century history of the country was one of turmoil, inter-tribal skirmishes and the slave trade. The slave routes from Africa’s east coast to the interior crossed Lake Malawi. Thousands never even survived the journey.

The great explorer-missionary, David Livingstone, is intimately connected with Malawi’s history and there are many sites and monuments to be seen which remind today’s visitors of this. As Dr Livingstone was helping to put an end to slavery, the country was becoming increasingly under European influence. The British Central Africa Protectorate (later to become Nyasaland) was established in 1889.

After World War II the pressure for independence grew, led, from 1958, by Dr Hastings Banda. In 1963 Banda became independent Malawi’s first Prime Minister and, later, Life President. His autocratic rule lasted until 1993 when Malawians voted for a change to a multi-party democracy. A year later, Dr Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front, became the country’s new President and he successfully fought a second democratic election in 1999. His term ended in 2004, when Bingu wa Mutharika was elected President.

The people of Malawi are accurately described as the friendliest on the continent. It is they who make this country the Warm Heart of Africa.

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Susan Leeper

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