A graceful country untouched by tourism; MALAWI

The strains of a native chantey waft over the palm trees and frangipani as three fishermen pole the dugout canoe toward the golden beach. Two young boys run to the shore to help unload the days catch. A woman passing by stops to watch, balancing the basket of logs she carries on her head.

Sound like an idyllic fantasy of life in an earlier time? This is an everyday scene in Malawi, a thin finger of a country wedged into a pocket of east-central Africa between Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique, and still unspoiled by Western tourism.

Leave the blue water, the golden sand, and the cavorting monkeys and move to the high plateau that rises from the lake, and you see round thatched huts clustering on the lush green hillsides among mango and papaya trees, purple mountains stretching beyond. It all resembles a diorama in New York's "Museum of Natural History," and large areas look virtually the same as when David Livingstone first laid eyes on the lake and the land over 100 years ago.

Malawi has practically everything an outdoor vacationer could want -- a glorious inland sea with all water sports, spectacular mountain ranges, and a 10 ,000-foot peak for mountain climbers, game parks, even artifacts from the stone age and cave paintings.

The nationals are hard working and unfailingly peasant. They are proud of their country and eager to share it with you. English is an official language (the other is Chichewa, a Bantu dialect) and is widely spoken. And you can see the country with modern comforts and convenience. Yet with all this, Malawi is still virgin country to most Americans.

The most striking geographic feature is Lake Malawi, at 355 miles long and 15 to 50 miles wide, the third largest lake in Africa. It lies in the Great Rift Valley, which cuts a dramatic geological swath down the continent from Ethiopia to Mozambique, and it covers one-fifth of Malawi.

At the southern tip to the lake, by palm-shaded beaches and quiet coves, lake shore inns provide water skiing, power boating, fishing, even aqualung and goggle fishing, not to mention just loafing in the sun. You may cruise the lake for a week on a steamer, visiting some otherwise virtually inaccessible villages in the north.

Hikers, fishermen, and more sedentary nature lovers can choose among a variety of terrains. In the southeastern corner of the country, almost on the Mozambique border, is Mount Mulanje, the highest mountain in central Africa, its 10,000-foot peak towering above lush green tea plantations. The steep but easily negotiable paths to the plateau climb through cedar forests. You can stay in huts belonging to the Department of Forestry.

Easier hiking and equally stunning scenery are at the Zomba Plateau, a flattop mountain that rises abruptly 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains to a heigh of 7,000 feet. the entire plateau is a forest preserve covered with meadows and wildflowers, pine trees and birdlife, mountain streams and lakes, and laced with walks and drives. There is pony trekking, and spectacular views lie in every direction. A charming inn perched on the rim of the plateau makes a stay of several days delightful.

Malawi might not spring to mind as a prime country for viewing wildlife, but in fact there are four national parks and several other game preserves with a varies and rich wildlife.

Nyika National Park, at 1,200 square miles the country's biggest game park, is rugged and remote in the far north. Its hills and valleys and mountain streams remind many visitors of Scotland. Herds of eland, roan, zebra, and reedbuck roam through the open rolling downs and forests of the Nyika Plateau, 7 ,000 feet high. Most game viewers find this the most beautiful of the Malawi parks.

Malawi became a sovereign state in 1964, after 73 years as a British Protectorate known as Nyasaland (nyasam in Chichewa means lake). The last 10 years were as an unwilling member, with Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and zimbabwe), of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. During the years of federation, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned to lead the independence movement after an absence of 40 years. He has always been head of government, first as prime minister, as President when Malawi became a republic in 1966, and as life President since 1970.

Dr. Banda is in close touch with every aspect of the government, and travelers are apt to encounter him opening a newly paved section of road or a new school in a rural district. "H.E.," as he is widely called, is clearly popular with the people, and these occasions are always celebrated with exuberant dancing by large groups of women wrapped in their special "H.E." cloth with the likeness of Dr. Banda.

Since tribal life of the Malawians is paternalistic, a paternalistic government seems to be accepted by the people. from citizens and visitors alike , the government expects -- and enforces -- strict codes of behavior. This means there is virtually no major crime, the streets are clean and safe, there are no beggars and, except for one block in Blantyre, not even street peddlers to hassle you.

It also means that visitors are expected to observe the country's strict dress code. Long hair on men is illegal. For women it is illegal to wear pants , except in a few clearly designated resort areas and game parks, and dresses must completely cover the knees.

Be prepared for a thorough baggage examination on arrival and a body search on departure all of it done pleasantly.

Here is a suggested itinerary.

Since you will probably arrive by air in Blantyre, explore the southern region first. In addition to Blantyre, the commercial and industrial center of the country, its chief attractions are Zomba, the former capital and now a university town at the foot of the Zomba Plateau, Mt. Mulanje, and Lengwe National Park.This is the most populous of the country's three areas, with over half of Malawi's 6 million people. It is generally low lying, and the Shire Valley can be very hot, especially in October and November.

Blantyre is a pleasant city of 250,000; its commercial center is concentrated in a small triangle and some of its sights spread out over a wide area.

Amid the conventional souvenir shops in the commercial area of Blantyre are several crafts shops with unusual masks and statuary. If you buy ivory carvings , be sure they are registered. You'll see many carvings of animals and human figures of wood and soapstone, and particularly attractive pottery.

You might be tempted to make Zomba, just 40 miles north of Blantyre, a day trip. Resist that temptation. Zomba is a charming town, with much to see and enjoy in addition to the delights of the Zomba Plateau described above.

Zomba was the capital of the country before it was moved to Lilongwe, and the legislature still meets here in the National Assembly chambers. There is a lovely botanical garden, with flame trees and jacaranda and gigantic bamboo trees, and the modern campus of Chancellor College, the liberal arts arm of the University of Malawi.

But the heart of the town is the lively open market, sheltered by a gargantuan tree, and packed with produce and goods. You'll see piles of tiny bananas, pawpaws (papayas), pineapples, and passion fruit, familiar vegetables like carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and tomatoes piled like totems in 10- tambala ( 13) towers of six, and less familiar food like cassava sticks. Peanut flour, corn flour, and white flour are piled into high cones, and you can buy dried fish, fresh meat, and live chickens.

Wherever you stop -- at a procession of women leading a group of adolescent boys and girls to the next village, at a roadside grove of banana trees, at women pounding maize into flour -- the Malawians are likely to cluster around your car, smiling and clapping their hands. Sometimes they spontaneously sing and ululate for you (ululating is a rapid clicking of the tongue and a sign of approval). Azungusm (whites) are still a curiosity in many rural areas.

And, contrary to reports from other African countries, Malawians love to have their pictures taken. The children, especially, are delightful, often mimicking the movements of your hands on the camera as you photograph them. It is this accessibility of native life that makes travel in Malawi so unusual and beguiling.

At the southern tip of Lake Malawi is Mangochi and the Lake Malawi Museum, with fishing artifacts of the lake people from the stone age to the present, and the boats that sailed the lake.Nearby are the lakeshore hotels, set among the fishing villages and the extraordinary baobab tree, with their thick sturdy trunks and elegant spindly branches, that looked to David Livingstone like a huge carrot planted upside down. From here you can tour Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear, a gorgeous cove and pristine beach, and site of an early mission.

From the lakeshore resorts there are two routes to Lilongwe. Both take close to four hours. One is via the town of Salima, the other, more interesting and beautiful, climbs the steep escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, through stunning upland scenery to Dedza, where you can see several rock shelters with stone-age paintings. You are now in the central region.

Lilongwe is the new capital of the country, and it is instructive to see how a successfully developing agricultural country presents a modern face to the rest of the world. Three miles north of the old provincial town of Lilongwe is the new capital, a planned city, built with the financial help of South Africa. Capital Hill is spacious, and among its gardens and lawns are set the crisp white ministry buildings and cantilevered circular glass meeting rooms. Long vistas and broad tree-lined avenues lead to the contemporary office and bank buildings of the city center. The new Capital Hotel is as charming and as well run as any traveler could want.

You can see the new Malawi in the planned section and an older colonial Malawi in the old town, with its markets, Indian shops, and commercial bustle. Between the two, in the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary, is a wilderness of overgrown vegetation and high bamboo bushes, with monkeys, snakes, corcodiles, and beautiful birds, and you get a feeling of what Africa looked like before the bush was cleared.

When to go. May through October is the dry season. The rains start in November and are heaviest from December to March. Lake weather is temperate most of the year, and the lake is calmest from March to May, with little rain but occasional winds and squalls from May through August.

How to get there. British Airways once flew direct from London to Blantyre, but now one must change at Nairobi for Air Malawi or at Dar es Salaam for Air Tanzania. A 14/45- day excursion fare from New York to Blantyre is $1,513, and it allows two stops in each direction. Air Malawi is represented by KLM in the United States. Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are served by several carriers.

Where to stay. All prices are double room and breakfast. In Blantyre, Mount Soche, $41; Ryall's, $32; Shire Highlands, $25. In Zomba, Ku Chawe Inn, $22 and In Lilongwe, Capital Hotel, $50 and $62; Lilongwe Hotel, $31 and $36; Lingadzi Inn, $22. In other towns government rest houses provide adequate accomodations at low rates. They are decribed in a Hotel's Guide booklet.

How to get around.By car: There are several good car hire companies for driving within Malawi. Hall's Car Hire charges $25 a day of $150 a week plus 25 cents a mile for a small car, $35 a day or $210 a week plus 35 cents a mile for a four- or five-passenger car. Its prices are representative. UTC, because it carries comprehensive insurance in several African countries, is the only company that allows its cars to cross international borders. A driver costs about $4 daily, plus $6 a night allowance on the road. Gasoline is about $3 a gallon and is widely available in the southern region and in cities, less frequently on the road, and in limited locations in the northern region. It is always wise to fill up whenever you see a pump. The main roads in the southern and central regions are tarmac, and the dirt roads are well-graded. You don't need a four-wheel drive in the dry season.

By boat: The lake steamer, Ilala, sails every Friday morning from Monkey Bay, returning on Thursday at noon. Round trip, $172 for one of the 10 first-class berths. If you don't travel first class, third class, where you sleep on deck, is said to be more pleasant than second class. Book through Malawi Railways Ltd., PO Box 5492, Limbe.

By plane: Air Malawi flies daily between Blantyre and Lilongwe, and six times a week on to Mzuzu.

Tours: Soche Tours & Travel Ltd., PO Box 2225, Blantyre, offers a variety of tours out of Blantyre and Lilongwe, can arrange cars and drivers, and book ship and hotel accommodations for group or individual travel.

Information. Excellent maps and tourist information are available, especially three booklets -- "Hotels Guide," "A Guide for the Visitor, 1980/81," and "The Lake and the Great Outdoors," with information about camping, sports, fishing, and mountain climbing. Contact the Malawi Mission to the United Nations, 777 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10017, (212) 755-8470 or the Department of Tourism, Box 30366, Capital City, Lilongwe 3, Malawi.

Currency information. Currency control regulations are strict. Declare all currencies you are carrying; there is no limit on importing currency, and you can export only 20 Malawi Kwacha ($25), which are not convertible abroad. Change currency only at authorized places, and keep all receipts for departure. Credit cards are widely accepted, particularly American Express, Diners Club, and Visa. Barclay's Bank offices are numerous.

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