The ultimate guide to visiting the Lake Malawi National Park
Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, is the southernmost Lake of the Rift Valley system’s African lakes. Located between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, it is the third-largest Lake in Africa: about 580 km long and 80 wide at its widest point, it reaches even 700 meters deep. With various landscapes ranging from rocks overlooking the water to beaches of fine golden sand, its waters are famous for snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, boat rides, beautiful swimming and other activities.
David Livingstone reached the Lake in 1859 and nicknamed it the “lake of stars” because of the many fishermen’s lanterns on the boats cruising it and resembling stars in the sky from a distance. Lake Malawi is crucial for the population living around it since it provides food, fish sources, drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectricity. The Lake also features several islands, but it has only two inhabited: Likoma and Chizumulu Island.
Need to know about Lake Malawi National Park
At the southern end of the Lake is located the beautiful Lake Malawi National Park. It was the first freshwater park in the world and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. The Lake is defined as “the large aquarium” as it contains the most significant number of tropical fish species from any other lake in the world, including about 1000 species of cichlids. Many cichlids species from the Lake are very popular among aquarium owners because of their bright colour.
The base of all the activities around the Park is Cape Maclear-Chembe village. Here, you can enjoy the lake by arranging boat tours with snorkelling and fish eagles feeding, scuba diving, kayaking, village tour, hiking, and soaking up the warm sun on the beach.
When to go
The right time to visit the Cape Maclear is during the dry season, from April/May to September/October (from June to August when the temperature is cooler and the sky mostly clear). The hot season runs from October to the end of December when temperatures reach more than 30°, and the weather is humid as the rains build up. The rainy season is from January to the end of April.
How to get there
If you are not travelling with a tour operator but prefer catching the local transport, you can reach Cape Maclear – Chembe village by bus. The easiest and fastest way from Lilongwe is to take the bus. The Axa bus company leaves daily from Lilongwe (and Blantyre) to Monkey Bay, and the price is around 10 USD. Once there, for a few MKW, you can take a Matolas (it’s a pickup where you sit on the back), a small motorcycle or a minibus taxi. The other options are a private transfer arranged through your accommodation or renting a car in Lilongwe. The road to Cape Maclear is in good condition (as are most of the roads in Malawi). Only the last few kilometres are gravel/dirt. Lilongwe – Cape Maclear takes about 3 hours. Click here to see our itinerary through Malawi and general information.
A fun way to reach or leave Cape Maclear could be by the Ilala ferry boat. There are also routes with shared minivans from Monkey Bay up the lakeshore direct to Nkhata Bay/Nkhotakota/Senga bay/ but the road is not that good.
It’s the most famous steamboat on Lake Malawi, and it doesn’t need a presentation. For those who want to live an unforgettable experience, a ride on the 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 arrange your ride and book a cabin through the accommodations in any town where the boat stops.
About Chembe village
Chembe is a wide village that lies along the Lake’s shore, but it doesn’t offer much. Therefore, all the accommodations have a bar and restaurant. Anyway, you’ll also find some small restaurants like Makata’s Bar & restaurant, Banapaya (our favourite! It’s on the beach), Thomass, Chikaya Malawian Restaurant, Mungo Restaurant & Bar or Hiccups Pub.
A thing not to be missed in the early morning is a walk on Chembe beach (on the right side of Fat Monkey Lodge) to see the fishers. Around 6 a.m., the fishers get back from the night fish crowding the shore, sharing the night’s catch with the villagers. Some of these fish will be settled on wooden tables to be sundried and later sold to the fish market.
Chembe has a very long beach, and you’ll find the most pristine sand and clear sea on the west side of the village towards Otter Point. The east side is very dirty since many houses are next to the shore and the fishers’ boats. Not to be missed, it’s the incredible sunset, said to be the most amazing in Malawi.
At night, from 7 p.m., you can walk along the streets of Chembe (on the east side), where you’ll find small local shops and stalls selling street food.
Last but not least, for an enjoyable experience, the children of the village will be very happy to meet you at the “afterschool” Tipezananso, a project created and funded in 2005 by a dutchman and run by locals (located a few minutes on foot from Fat Monkey Lodge).
Where to sleep in Cape Maclear
Chembe offers a wide range of accommodations, from camping and dorm to room and chalet. The beach’s most beautiful and pristine part is on the west side towards Otter Point. We slept at Fat Monkey Lodge with our tent (they also have dorms and rooms). If you prefer to stay on the west side, we suggest Mgoza Lodge. Click here to see other accommodations in Cape Maclear.
Click here for more information; keep in mind that bilharzia disease is present in Lake Malawi, as in most African lakes and rivers. It’s always better to take precautionary measures and wear water shoes when you walk in the shallow or on the beach to avoid the contact between your skin and the sand. When you are in Lilongwe, you can go to a Pharmacy and buy the medicine to prevent the disease. In Chembe, we only found the medicine to treat schistosomiasis.
Malaria is also endemic. Take measures to protect yourself above all at night by applying mosquito repellent containing at least 30% DEET (the accommodations usually have a mosquito net in the room). There’s a medical clinic, the Billy Riordan memorial clinic, that can help you with all minor illnesses. For any serious injuries/illnesses, you have to go to the Monkey Bay Hospital or 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.
Important: Do your own research before travelling through official websites and contact the Health Department to get more information about the health situation in Malawi.
What to see and do in Cape Maclear
|The Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association organises boat trips and other activities. We suggest contacting Maxwell and Peter, both accreditated guides, for arranging your daily tour in Cape Maclear (WhatsApp +265 999015092). Click here to find out about our activities in Cape Maclear.|
1. Boat trip to West Thumbi Island and Otter point: it’s the classic tour to enjoy the Lake’s beautiful environment. The boat ride will take you to Thumbi island to experience the fish eagle feeding, snorkelling among hundreds of colourful cichlids, and have lunch with fresh fish on Thumbi beach. The other stop is at Otter Point, a small and wild rocky peninsula where you can climb up the rocks and dive in the Lake’s clear water. You can also arrange a Sunset cruise in the afternoon, waiting for the beautiful sunset on Lake Malawi sipping a cold drink.
2. Boat trip to Ilala gap: it’s a nice trip to explore the Cape’s east side through the Ilaga Gap channel between Cape Maclear and Domwe Island. The ride includes stops for the fish eagle feeding, snorkelling and lunch.
3. Kayaking: most of the lodges have kayaks and canoes. If you want to enjoy this beautiful natural area on your own, you can rent a kayak and paddle out to Thumbi Island or Otters Point or have a relaxing trip along the shore.
4. Hiking Trails: Don’t miss the Nkhunguni hill trail if you like hiking. Surrounded by lush and uncontaminated nature, you’ll reach a high viewpoint giving you a bird’s eye view of the Lake. After the hike, you’ll cool off at Otter Point. The walk duration is around 3 hours, and the difficulty is moderate. At the beginning of the hike, you’ll notice a missionary grave marking the last resting place of the malaria-struck missionaries of the Free Church of Scotland who came to Cape Maclear in 1875 and attempted to set up a new Mission.
5. Fishing: it’s an excellent opportunity for fishing lovers to enjoy the Lake, trying to catch some fish such as Chambo or the Lake Malawi Tigerfish (they provide all the equipment). Another option is to go out with a fisher and its wooden canoe and fish with a hand line. For a truly authentic experience, you can also ask to join the local fishermen during a night fishing trip and see how they face their daily life.
6. Hippo Viewing and local Dancing at Kasankha: you’ll have a boat ride to Kasankha bay to see some hippos and a stop in a village to attend the “Gule Wamkulu” traditional dance.
7. Scuba diving: Lake Malawi is also a paradise for divers. The dive shops can also arrange open water/advanced/divemaster courses or a discover scuba lesson.
8. Beach barbecues: it’s an excellent way to enjoy the night with a Malawian style BBQ eating fish, chicken and duck served with rice and vegetables.
9. Other activities: The guides can easily discuss the trips or additional destinations/activities.
Other places in Lake Malawi National Park
Mumbo Island: around 45 minutes by boat from Chembe, the small Mumbo island (only 1 km wide) offer the opportunity to escape to a beautiful and uncontaminated tropical paradise in the Lake Malawi National Park. The island has never been populated and is still in its natural state. The only accommodation is Mumbo Island Camp, and it’s quite expensive. They offer all the activities such as boat tours, hiking, kayaking, snorkelling and scuba. Click here for more information about Mumbo Island.
Domwe island: it’s the biggest unpopulated island on the Lake (the circumference is 11 km) and features a combination of the island itself and African bush environments. It offers several hiking trails in the middle of uncontaminated nature. There’s only a basic camp with a few safari tents, a tent site, a self-catering kitchen with a dining area, a bar, and a private beach. Click here for more information.
Monkey Bay: it’s a small town well known to be one of Lake Malawi’s main ports. Monkey bay is where the famous Ilala ferry docks and begins its weekly ride up and down the Lake. Anyways, there are some sandy beaches and rocky headlands to explore. There are just a few lodges in this area, such as Monkey Bay Beach Lodge, Mufasa eco-lodge, Nkhudzi Beach Lodge (20 km south of Monkey bay) and Norman Carr Lodge (12 km south of Monkey bay and features beautiful beaches in the surroundings). The lodges offer several activities such as hiking, boat tours, kayaking, scuba, snorkelling, and cultural tour in the villages (including traditional food and dances).