Malawi: hassle-free Africa

Malawi is sometimes referred to as the ``warm heart of Africa,'' a reference to both its location on the continent and the gentle warmth of its people. This country is also frequently called the ``Switzerland of Africa,'' because of its mountainous terrain and its non-aligned political stance. Possessed of a nearly perfect temperate climate, Malawi maintains strong ties with South Africa - trade and diplomatic relations, and regularly scheduled flights by South African Airways between Johannesburg and Lilongwe, Malawi's capital - while neighboring African states do not.

This position has recently caused some problems for the tiny country, including rock and firebomb attacks by Zimbabwean students last fall on the Malawi Embassy and Malawi's Airlines Office in Harare.

But these troubles have not penetrated into Malawi itself, which continues to follow a course set by its American-educated President for life, H. Kamuzu Banda.

Many travelers regard Malawi as one of the best choices among African nations for Americans to visit. It's relatively easy to reach, with its location approximately one hour by air south of Nairobi, Kenya. Prices are low for hotels, food, and tours, especially in comparison with most other countries on the continent. An allowance of $55 per day for the very best hotels and restaurants, plus tours and incidentals, is generous.

English, one of the two official languages (the other being Chichewa) is widely spoken, albeit with an accent that sometimes requires close attention on the part of an American. And planes and buses operate on timely schedules, with few hassles - amenities far less common in much of Africa.

In short, Malawi has a combination of many of the best things Africa has to offer tourists: game parks, beaches, mountains, and plentiful opportunities for tennis, golf, swimming, and hiking - all in a stable political climate.

What this country doesn't have is throngs of tourists, casinos, glitzy nightclubs, or fashionable shopping, but then this isn't the French Riviera.

Lake Malawi, at 380 miles in length Africa's third largest lake, offers weekly six-day voyages on the steamer MV Ilala II, with first-class facilities for 12 passengers and space for 350 in second and third class. This cruise provides an excellent way to see the lake, with its many scheduled stops at points of interest.

A three-hour drive to the north of Lilongwe takes you to Kasungu National Park, reputedly the best among the country's five national game parks.

Kasungu has adequate, if not luxurious, guest facilities at Lifupa Lodge. Visitors stay in private rondovals (small circular cement structures with thatched roofs and indoor plumbing) and sleep under mosquito nets to the crooning of hippopotami in the adjacent reservoir and the occasional gentle rocking of the rondoval when an elephant scratches its back on the outside wall.

Officials estimate there are about 1,000 elephants in the 800-square-mile park area, along with various types of antelope, such as the fantastic black sable, hartebeest, reedbuck, kudu, as well as zebras, baboons, buffaloes, and warthogs - plus a few lions and rhi-noceros.

The best time for game sighting is during the dry season (September through December), when the animals are forced to visit the dambos, or grassy river channels, for water. English-speaking guides can be hired to lead visitors individually or in groups to the best spots for animal sightings, at a cost of $2 per day.

Added attractions here are Kasungu's archaeological sites: rock shelters, paintings, and fortified villages from the later Stone Age. The first written account of these was made by David Livingstone and published in 1865 in his ``Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries.''

A three-hour drive south of Lilongwe brings you to Blantyre, the commercial center of the country. Founded by Church of Scotland missionaries in 1895 and named after David Livingstone's birthplace in Scotland, it contains the magnificent Church of St. Michael and All Angels, open to the public. And don't miss the well-appointed National Museum, also located here.

A perfect day trip out of Blantyre takes one through rolling green tea plantations, to Mount Mulanje, the nation's highest peak at 10,000 feet. It is possible for hikers in peak condition to climb to the summit and return in the same day. For the rest of us, there is the option of overnighting in a hut owned by the Mt. Mulanje Mountain Club of Blantyre and returning the next day.

Equally delightful is a visit to the Zomba Plateau, a 45-minute drive from Blantyre. This forest reserve, situated at 7,000 feet, offers breathtaking views of the Shire Highlands below and idyllic walks amidst pines and umbrella trees, wildflowers, and waterfalls. The nights were so cool during my visit that I required a roaring fire in the fireplace of my cottage.

It is not only the geographical contrasts that sum up Malawi. Its special combination of physical beauty, friendly people, temperate climate, modern hotels, ease of communication, and reasonable prices makes it truly the ``warm heart of Africa.''

If you go

British Air from London and UTA from Paris operate direct flights to Lilongwe. Regional carriers have frequent flights to and from Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Harare.

Sanitary conditions are relatively good, and the water is considered safe to drink without treatment. However, some innoculations are required.

In general, attire is casual, although by law women may not wear slacks, shorts, nor above-the-knee-length skirts except in game parks and at certain beach resort areas.

For additional information, contact the Malawi Embassy, 140 20th Street, N.W., Washington, DC, 20036; tel: (202) 223-4814. Or contact the Malawi Mission to the United Nations, 600 Third Ave., 30th floor, New York, NY, 10016; tel: (212) 949-0180.

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