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As a kid who loved poring over atlases and learning random facts about the world’s countries (the nerdiness is not a recent development), I ended up with a very random list of places on my “bucket list’. Somewhere near the top was Malawi, thanks to being utterly wowed by the statistics about Lake Malawi. I finally had the chance to go camping by Lake Malawi, and it was everything I’d hope it would be.

Malawi, known as the warm heart of Africa, was one of my highlights during three months travelling overland from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa. Of everything in Malawi (and there’s lots), camping by Lake Malawi was my favourite.

Think lazy days where your only decision is whether you should stay by the “beach” (always a thrill in a landlocked country) or perhaps head out onto the water by kayak or by boat.

(I typically chose the former).

The laidback vibe of Malawi is perfect for camping or “glamping”, as I opted for. In my opinion, staying in a fancy and modern high rise would spoil the fun… this is about enjoying the simple things in life, and camping is a perfect way to experience it.

Introduction Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is 365 miles long, earning it the nickname of “calendar lake” and the position of the fourth largest lake in Africa.

What makes it incredible unique, however, is the abundance of marine life. It is home to more than 800 species of fish, including 30% of the worlds “cichlids”, a subspecies of fish that include angelfish.

Red and orange angel fish
Now that is a nice looking fish.

It’s not just that the sheer number of species in Lake Malawi that makes it unique. In some ways, Lake Malawi is like the Galapagos Island of East Africa. As it is very isolated, species have evolved uniquely in the lake.

In short, Lake Malawi is no ordinary lake. It’s absolutely enormous, and it’s filled with super interesting, colourful fish.

Where to go camping at Lake Malawi

Because the lake is so long, there are many towns and villages along the way that offer accommodation from the ultra-glitzy (not what we’re here for) and the ultra-rustic (that’s more like it).

Here are some of the common places to go camping at Lake Malawi.

Nkhata Bay in Malawi

Nkhata Bay

Although we passed through other points, it was Nkhata Bay where I spent most of my time in Malawi, and I loved it. It is located on the western shore of Lake Malawi, and is one of the biggest ports in the country.

It’s so beautifully relaxed and laidback – I could have stayed here for at least a week. The lake is beautifully clear, and there’s a sandy beach to relax on. There was hardly anyone around when I was there, which may not be ideal if you like things a little more lively, but it was just perfect for relaxation.

We stayed at Mayoka Village in the chalets ($35 USD) but you can also camp there for $5 per night.

Cape Maclear

At the southern end of Lake Malawi is Cape Maclear, which is particularly popular with backpackers and just a stone’s throw away from the UNESCO listed Lake Malawi National Park. The landscapes here are a little more pristine, with pretty beaches and dramatic coastline.

There are lots of good dive sites from Cape Maclear, and you can even go for walks to see inland wildlife like baboons and eagles.

There are a number of campsites and backpacker-friendly places in Cape Maclear, including Malambe Camp for camping, or Tuckaways Lodge, which has simple beachfront “chalets” from $40.

Likoma Island

One benefit of Nkhata Bay is that it is where the ferry leaves to Likoma Island, so you can fit in both. Likoma Island is an amazing, sleepy place. If you’ve ever dreamed of burning your laptop and moving to a faraway island (just me?), then you will love Likoma.

You can stay overnight on Likoma – Mango Drift is a popular backpacker’s lodge that is simple, friendly accommodation. You can camp for just $5 per night right on the beach, and they’ll even provide tents for $1 a night if you don’t have one. Or there are cute little beachfront chalets from $25 per night.

Monkey Bay

Monkey Bay is another one of the main ports along Lake Malawi, in the south. In particular, it’s popular among bird watchers because it has a lot of beautiful sea eagles (more on them soon). There’s also the sandy beaches since that’s a definite must for camping by Lake Malawi!

Mufasa Eco Lodge is the best budget option in the area and ideal for backpackers. It’s right on the beach and they can also help to organise other activities. Somewhat unusually, bookings can be taken online via Booking.com. Rooms start from $25.

Nkata Bay, camping by Lake Malawi

What to do while camping at Lake Malawi

There are lots of fun activities to do while camping by Lake Malawi. Whether your idea of “active holiday” means occasionally walking from the beach hammock to the actual beach, or trying some watersports, you’ll find plenty of options at Lake Malawi.

Lazing by the beach

My activity of choice. Even though it’s technically not by the ocean, you’d never know from the look of the sand and sea. I loved spending lazy days by the lake, catching up on plenty of reading and occasionally stopping to grab a banana and chocolate milkshake.

Nkhata Bay in Malawi

Horseriding

Horseriding is quite a popular thing to do by Lake Malawi, and there are a number of places offering rides. However, not all are created equally – I’d highly recommend researching how humane and ethical they are beforehand, and even stopping by to check out the horses.

One good option in Nkhata Bay is Kande. Honestly, it’s not the cheapest option ($45 USD per hour), but you know that the horses are well looked after, which is the most important thing.

A sea eagle with a fish in Malawi

Bird watching

When I arrived in Malawi, I knew a lot about the fish, but I didn’t know as much about the birds! Of course, they tend to go hand in hand, and Lake Malawi has an abundance of beautiful sea eagles. After all, cichlids make a great snack!

I got the chance to see many amazing sea eagles when I went on a boat cruise on Lake Malawi. These can easily be arranged by your accommodation, or hiking is another option.

Boats on Lake Malawi

Canoeing

Undoubtedly one of the best ways to explore Lake Malawi is by canoe or kayak, as the environmental impact is much less than by a motorised boat. It’s also so calm and peaceful, and lots of fun!

When we were at Nkhata Bay, we were very lucky that some locals let us borrow their boat and paddle around the bay. However, you can also hire them. It’s best to ask your accommodation, but TripAdvisor tells me that Cape Maclear EcoLodge hires them out in Cape Maclear.

Cliff jumping

*** IMPORTANT!!! *** Cliff jumping can be extremely dangerous. Water can be shallower than you think and objects can be under the water – this can cause injury or death. Be very careful – check with local guides as to whether somewhere is safe, and then check yourself to make sure that the water is deep and clear.

With that very serious warning in mind, jumping into the cool clear water of Lake Malawi can be a great thrill. I wasn’t game, but Tom had a great time (and didn’t catch any bugs).

Swimming in Lake Malawi

Boat cruises

Boat cruises are one of the most popular excursions onto Lake Malawi, and they really are great fun. You can simply head out to spot wildlife and enjoy the views, but I recommend bringing some local beer along to keep you refreshed!

There are some options online, but again it’s easy to arrange a cruise once you’re at Lake Malawi. Sailing is a great option as it causes less pollution than the motorised options.

Diving and snorkelling

Thanks to my severe lack of swimming skills, I didn’t actually get to try either snorkelling or diving at Lake Malawi. That’s a shame, because I have heard great things about it!

Given Lake Malawi has some 4% of the world’s fish, it is quite the undersea adventure to dive or snorkel there. Many of the lodges offer free or low cost snorkelling gear, or you can take an organised trip. Aqua Africa is a British diving company with a great reputation.

Eating and drinking by Lake Malawi

I’m going to be 100% honest: Malawi’s cuisine isn’t exactly earth shattering. There’s some tasty dishes, but it’s not something I personally rave about.

Especially if you are on a budget, then cooking for yourself is a great choice. You can pick up lots of fresh produce from the local markets, which is a bit of an adventure in itself. Most backpacker-orientated lodges have their own kitchens, so you can save your money for other activities!

That said, if you don’t want to cook, there are some good options.

Nightlife

As you’d probably expect, if you are camping at Lake Malawi you’re not going find any big nightclubs. However, there is a laidback nightlife scene if you just want to enjoy a few drinks.

Many of the backpacker lodges and campsites have bars. They can be fun, but I personally prefer the more local haunts. One of my favourite evenings in Malawi was watching Real Madrid play Barcelona in a crowded beachside pub.

Restaurants

Most resorts, lodges and campsites have some kind of cafe/restaurant that will do simple meals. Seafood is usually a good option, with “chambo” a particularly popular style of fish that is often used in curries.

Cape Maclear has a few good options for eating out, including Banapana, while Tiku Manepo is a tasty local joint in Nkhata Bay.

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