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Lake Malawi – the depth is in the details

Lake Malawi: what you need to know

Lake Malawi, a huge landlocked body of water within the South Eastern country of Malawi, is arguably one of the most famous lakes in Africa. Originally named Lake Nyasa by David Livingstone in 1859, after ‘Nyasaland’ (the British Protectorate name for Malawi before the country gained independence in 1964). It is also known by a few nicknames: ‘The Lake of Stars’ being the most famous one (also coined by Livingstone). Without a tide, the waves on the lake only come from the wind so when there is no wind, the waters are still and form a perfect mirror reflection of the stars – and with all the fishermen out at night in their dugout canoes, their lanterns twinkle across the lake like the night’s sky!

Another nickname is ‘The Calendar Lake’, as it is approximately 365 miles long, 52 miles wide at its widest point and 12 main rivers flow into it. The lake covers an entire third of the country from top to bottom, and forms a natural boundary between Tanzania and Mozambique. The lake is a valley formed by the opening of the East African Rift where the tectonic plate was split into two and estimated to be 1-2 million years old! It is the second deepest lake in Africa, the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, and home to the most species of fish – Lake Malawi has a greater diversity of fish species than the whole of Europe and North America combined!

One interesting historical fact about Lake Malawi is that it saw some action during World War I! When the war was declared, Captain Rhoades, captain of the SS Gwendolen on Lake Nyasa was ordered to ‘sink, burn and destroy’ the Hermann Von Wissmann, the only German Empire boat on the lake. It was sunk by a single cannon shot from the SS Gwendolen and this battle has thereafter been known as the British Empire’s first naval victory of World War I!

fish eagle, lake malawi

Wildlife of Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi and its surroundings are a haven for nature and wildlife, and the southern part of the lake is protected within the Lake Malawi National Park, which in 1984 was listed as a UNESCO heritage site; this was formed to protect our precious lakeside wildlife species and particularly the colourful and infamous little cichlid fish within the lake itself.

There are estimated to be over 1000 species of these endemic fish and you can find them in aquariums all over the world. In addition to that, you have the tasty chambo and kampango fish, which feed the lakeside communities and make excellent fish curries! The lake is dotted with fishing villages between long stretches of uninhabited sand, that live off the lake. A delicacy to these locals, is the kapenta fish (similar to an anchovy), they are often dried out then added to relish and ‘nsima’ (maize) – a tasty local dish and a must-try if you ever get the chance.  

Not only is the lake home to a range of colourful underwater creatures, but around the islands, you can spot water monitor lizards, otters, freshwater crocodile and sometimes hippos. There is also a prolific array of bird species from the magnificent and iconic African fish eagles, to the bright and bold kingfishers – get the camera ready and patiently watch as these magnificent birds catch their daily meal.

mumbo island, lake malawi

Where to stay

With white sandy beaches and crystal clear, blue waters, the lake is a big draw for tourists that visit Malawi and it boasts an array of beautiful lodges – from the high-end resorts to rustic island retreats. Lake Malawi is perfect for the adventurous traveller with many exciting activities to enjoy. Some of these include kayaking around the islands, boat safaris, stand up paddle-boarding, freshwater scuba diving, snorkelling and wake-boarding, to name a few! Discover the quiet and sandy beaches of Likoma Island and Chintheche in the north, to Senga Bay in the centre, and down to Cape Maclear and Mangochi in the south.

View the Lake Malawi lodges.

How to get to the lake

A combination of road travel or flights can get you to almost anywhere on the lake. 5 scheduled one-hour flights a week from Lilongwe will whisk you to the gorgeous Likoma Island, or flights to Mzuzu and a short road transfer to Chintheche will satisfy your northern appetite. Whereas Senga Bay is just a short 1h20m drive from Lilongwe and is a favourite among the Lilongwe residents for restful weekend getaways, who can pop over after work on a Friday. For those looking for a little more action and vibe, the southern lakeshore can be accessed easily from both Lilongwe and Blantyre and takes about 3.5 hrs from each.

fishing lake malawi

Cape Maclear

Cape Maclear bay sits within Lake Malawi National Park; and Chembe village, which is just set back from the lodges and resorts that hug the shoreline, is surrounded by a natural paradise of thick bush and rolling hills – keep your eyes peeled for the mischievous baboons and little bushbuck that can be seen on your scenic drive-in.

Cape Maclear is a hub of activity on the lake with meaningful cultural experiences to be had as well as all the joys and activities of beach life. Immerse yourself in the vibrant backpacker area or tuck yourself away in quieter retreat for some ultimate restfulness. Enjoy traditional dhow safaris, snorkelling with the cichlids or sunrise hikes in the national park that will reward you with unparalleled views over this magnificent twinkling lake.

Lake Malawi offers the perfect escape and anyone who visits her shores is captured by her beauty and grace forever.

If you would like to visit Lake Malawi, contact us today.

cichlids lake malawi

Check out our trips to Lake Malawi
Tours including Lake Malawi

Are there crocodiles in Lake Malawi?

In short yes! This is their home! However, crocodiles are cowards, they do not like living around people for 2 reasons. 1. They eat fish, and in areas where people are, the population of fish is lower due to the local fisherman. 2. Crocodiles like murky water with lots of reeds, the lodges and resorts tend to be situated on white sandy beaches with crystal clear water so it is unlikely you will see any near your lodge. If you do, it’s likely to be far away and not keen on getting to know you! Please inform the lodge staff if you do spot one.

What is Lake Malawi used for?

Lake Malawi is a beautiful body of landlocked water. It is used as a water source, transport, electricity and most importantly as a food source from fishing!

Is it safe to swim in Lake Malawi?

Yes, it is safe. We would advise taking precautions against Bilharzia after your visit just to be safe, this is a single dose of pills that are perfectly safe to take whether you have it or not. Whilst the risk of Bilharzia is low, it is present in some areas of the lake, particularly in the more popular areas. Malaria is present in Malawi so please do ask your doctor for advice on anti-malarial medication to take before your trip.

How deep is Lake Malawi?

At its deepest, Lake Malawi is 706m but its average depth is 292m.

How big is Lake Malawi?

Lake Malawi is one of the largest lakes in Africa. The area of Lake Malawi is 29,600 km² and the length is 580 km.

Where is Lake Malawi on a map?

Lake Malawi covers around a third of Malawi and serves as a border with Mozambique on the eastern border of Malawi.

What main rivers flow into and out of Lake Malawi?

The largest river that flows into Lake Malawi is the Ruhuhu River from Tanzania, and the largest river that comes out of the lake is the famous Shire River which flows through Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve – and is the crocodile’s and hippo’s home of choice!

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