The ultimate guide to visiting Nkhata Bay
Nkhata Bay lies on the northern Lake Malawi shore, 400 km from the capital city Lilongwe. It’s a small sheltered port town and a focus for the Lake’s fishing industry. In the last few years, Nkhata Bay has increasingly become important as a tourist centre. Despite its small size, this bustling town has a lot on offer. A vibrant local market, many small shops, internet cafes, restaurants, bars and indeed, the beautiful shores and hills that lie the Lake Malawi where you can enjoy many activities.
Best time to visit
The best months to visit Nkhata Bay (and Malawi in general) are from May to September during the dry season. In this period the sky is often clear, and the weather is warm and chilly at night. The hot season runs from October to the end of December when temperatures can easily reach 30°, and the weather is more humid as the rains build up. The rainy season is from January to the end of April, with the most rain falling in March. Anyway, in this part of the country, it does not rain that much (and usually not every day), mostly in the very early morning hours, with the rest of the day hot and sunny.
Click here for more information about the disease in Malawi; keep in mind that bilharzia disease (schistosomiasis) is present in Lake Malawi so as in most of African lakes and rivers. Anyway, it seems that Nkhata Bay is a safe area since there has been no Bilharzia found in the water to date by European medical teams that test the water every year. In our opinion, you can’t be sure 100%, and it’s always better to take precautionary measures.
Malaria is also endemic, remember to take measures to protect yourself above all at night by applying mosquito repellent that contains at least 30% DEET. In case you need, there is a government hospital and a private medical clinic where you can get treatment for all minor illnesses. For any serious injuries, there are good hospitals in Mzuzu or better in Lilongwe. The medical expenses could be very high; therefore, don’t forget to stipulate travel insurance. We always made it with World Nomads. In case they also offer scuba diving insurance.
How to reach Nkhata Bay
If you are not travelling with a tour operator but you prefer catching the local transports, you can reach Nkhata Bay by bus. The easiest and fastest way from Lilongwe is to take the bus (Sososo company and Axa company run daily) to Mzuzu, and, once there, looking for a shared minivan or a taxi to Nkahata Bay. Lilongwe-Mzuzu takes about 6 hours, whereas Mzuzu-Nkhata bay takes about 50 minutes. There are also routes with shared minivan coming up/down the lakeshore direct from/to Nkhata Bay/Nkhotakota/Senga bay/Cape Maclear, but the road is not that good and takes time. For example, from Cape Maclear or Lilongwe (driving on the lake shore road) to Nkhata Bay takes about 9 hours (and you’ll probably have to change the mean of transport in Salima or Nkhotakota). Click here to see our itinerary through Malawi and general information.
The Ilala ferry
It’s the most famous steamboat of Lake Malawi, and it doesn’t need presentation. For those who want to live an unforgettable experience, a ride on Ilala ferry is a must. It cruises the Lake from Cape Maclear (Monkey Bay) to Likoma Island and Chilumba (north part of the Lake) stopping in some towns along the lake shores (Senga Bay, Nkhotakhota and Nkhata Bay) loading people and goods. It should take 3 days from Cape Maclear to Chilumba, but this is Africa, and the ferry is always late! Click here for more information. You can also arrange your ride and book a cabin through the accommodations in any towns where the boat stops. The ferry arrives in Nkhata Bay on Saturday afternoon from Likoma Island (travelling from the south side), goes north to Ruware and Chilumba for one night then returns to Nkhata bay to leave on Monday evening to the islands and south again. The dock is in the small port of Nkhata bay.
About the town
Nkhata Bay is a small town, but despite its size, it offers the right choice of restaurants and bars (all the accommodations have their own restaurant/bar). Our favourite restaurant in town is Kaya Papaya. Nkhata Bay has a couple of banks that can change foreign currency (better USD). There’s an ATM too where you can withdraw using your Visa card. Anyway, just to be on the safe side, in Mzuzu you’ll find several banks and ATM (one ATM is next to the Shoprite supermarket at Mzuzu Mall and other 3 in front of its car park on the other side of the road). Most of the accommodations accept the credit card too, but keep in mind that the credit card machine connection couldn’t work that well. If you cook yourself, you can find a small supermarket and the local market in the town centre. If you stop in Mzuzu, you can do grocery shopping at the Shoprite supermarket where you’ll have a wide choice of food and everyday necessities.
Where to sleep
Nkhata Bay offers a good choice of affordable accommodations. If you have your own tent, many of them have a small area for camping. The accommodations usually have a restaurant, a bar and can arrange all the activities in the area and help you in your transfer to other destinations. We slept at Mayoke Village, a lovely resort on the hilly shore of the Lake (it has a small area for camping too).
- Nyaya Lodge (one of our favourites since it has a small sandy beach and it’s next to wide Chikale beach, the only one in Nkhata bay);
- CBR hotel (in front of Chikale beach);
- Ilhala bay lodge;
- Butterfly space lodge (another favourite one).
What to see and do in Nkhata Bay
All the activities in the area can be arranged through your accommodation. In the town centre, you’ll also find very few local tour operators.
Nkhata bay is basically a hilly area with high cliffs, very different from Nkhotakota and Cape Maclear, two locations famous for their wide beaches. The only nice and easily reachable beach in Nkhata bay is Chikale, located 5 minutes drive from the town centre towards the south. You’ll find beautiful beaches from about 30 km south of Nkhata Bay.
Lake Malawi is the third-largest Lake in Africa, well known to contains the most significant number of tropical fish species from any other lake in the world. Therefore, don’t miss the opportunity to swim in the clear water of Nkhata Bay. If you like snorkelling, the accommodations usually provide free snorkelling equipment. In case you wish to learn how to scuba dive (or you want to scuba diving), you can contact Aqua Africa scuba diving school that offers PADI open water courses (1 to advanced) and diving excursions (even at night).
The Maru Lake Malawi Research centre: it is a conservation and education centre located in Nkhata Bay that conducts conservation and monitoring programs on Lake Malawi. You can join The Maru RC in their boat ride explorations and scuba dive of the Lake to support their research and conservation efforts and indeed to know more about the famous Lake’s cichlids. In associations with Aquanuts Divers, they organize PADI dive training courses where you’ll also learn about the Lake’s biodiversity and ecology. The Maru offers short term volunteering and long term internships opportunities. During this time, you’ll learn field research methodologies for water quality monitoring, underwater population and biodiversity surveying and fisheries monitoring. Click here for more information.
Another excellent way to enjoy the clear water of Nkhata Bay is by Kayak. The accommodations on the Lake usually have kayaks for the customers. There is also the chance to spend more days kayaking to discover fantastic beaches, fishing villages and indeed the incredible landscapes of the Lake. The local tour operator Monkey Business (located on Chikale beach) offers different tour from half a day to a few days down the coast. The most popular is the 4 days kayaking trip which will take you up the Lake to the beautiful Usuya and Ruarwe bush-camping on the beach.
4. Boat tours
It’s a nice trip to explore the hilly shores and high cliff of the area. The boat tour usually includes a stop for the fish eagle feeding, snorkelling, cliff jumping, and the visit of a fishers village. We visited the small traditional village on Lusukwe beach. It was really interesting to see how the fishers dry the catch of the night before selling it at the market.
5. Village walks and hikes
If you like hiking, don’t miss to explore the Bungulu hills with their beautiful 360° view of the area. It’s also fascinating to have guided walks and hikes in the surrounding villages where you can see the real village life and have lunch with a family. You can contact Joseph, a lovely young local guide, at +265 881306708.
6. Horse riding
For all horse lovers, it’s an excellent opportunity to explore the beautiful area of Nkhata Bay and stay in close contact with nature. The Kande Horse Stable offers all levels of riding experience from the novice through to the experienced rider (horse riding lesson for both children and adults, grooming lessons, beach/bush/swim ridings, sunset riding, stable management, farmhouse lunch…).
It’s a great experience of life, such a beautiful way to help kids and give a valuable contribution to the local community. Butterfly Space, an eco-lodge on the shore of the Lake, offers a volunteer package with no costs for volunteering. The only things you need to pay for are the food, drinks and accommodation. Here, you’ll have the chance to experience many projects ranging from teaching local children to environmental demonstrations. Click here for more information.