Most first time travellers to Africa will hardly have heard of Malawi at all, if not for the disastrous flooding that hit the country in March 2019. Now more than ever Malawi deserves exposure to international travellers: a boost in its tourism industry could only but help this beautiful, yet very underdeveloped African country. Read on for your ultimate guide to the top 3 budget lodges across Malawi, from campsites perched on the cliffs jutting out onto immense Lake Malawi, to safari camps in recently redeveloped Liwonde National Park.
Africa Wild Truck, Mulanje
Africa Wild Truck offers guided walks in the tea plantations around their lodge.
Love the mountains? This is your best bet! Tucked away on the far side of Mount Mulanje
, about 6 km from the Mozambican border, Africa Wild Truck is the ideal stop for overland trips, as well as an excellent starting point to hike up the mountain.
This Italian run lodge offers a vast range of accommodation which all include a continental breakfast of home made bread, jam, honey, juices, cake and more. The options range from camping at $10 per person per night, to the high-end lodge rooms at $50 per person per night. The best middle range option is their spacious mixed dormitory at $15 per person per night, with a fully fitted kitchen, bathroom and showers. The campsite, dorm and lodge are always impeccably clean, and decorated with exquisite taste (it shows that one of the owners is an architect!)
The lodge offers a restaurant service, featuring the best home cooked Italian food in Malawi: from lasagna, to pizza, via home made stuffed pasta such as agnolotti and ravioli, there’s something to please even the fussiest palates. Stefano, co-owner with his wife Francesca, supervises the excellent Malawian cooks Edna and Margareth. He is known for his generous portions and his favourite catchphrase is “The food must be finished, so make sure you don’t disappoint me!” (I’m pretty sure I put on at least 2 kg during my stay there!)
Africa Wild Truck offers guided hikes up Mount Mulanje, tea plantation and village/market tours, as well as longer tours further afield with their tour operator, touching destinations such as Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Kutchire Lodge, Liwonde National Park
During my drive in Liwonde National Park we came very close to an elephant…
Safari buff? Look no further than Liwonde! Kutchire Lodge is the well-hidden secret of Liwonde National Park
. For those of us out there on a budget, Kutchire offers the perfect alternative to posh Mvuu Camp, without missing any of the safari atmosphere.
Kutchire is situated just inside the park boundaries, overlooking a watering hole where animals often come to drink and bathe. I was lounging on their viewing deck sipping a gin and tonic, when three hippos appeared out of nowhere and lazily crossed the low water to have a sip and bathe in the mud. The uniqueness of Kutchire however is not so much their location, as their amazing tree houses. Connected by a suspended bridge, the two tree houses sleep up to four people each, and are very fairly priced at $50 per person per night, full board excluding alcoholic drinks. The houses are open and at dusk or during the night, nature speaks directly to you: elephants trudging across the garden, hippos snorting, and a myriad of birds singing their songs at dawn.
You might be in the middle of a national park, but food at Kutchire is worthy of the best city restaurants. Before your early morning safari drive, the staff will serve coffee or tea, and once you’re back you’ll be treated to a rich English breakfast. Lunch can be ordered as a packed light option, to take away on your afternoon boat ride, and hearty international meals are served in the evening in the open deck restaurant, which is often visited by elephants and other animals. When I was there, we were stuck for a good hour and a half, waiting for a small pack of elephants to move far away enough so that we could safely go back to our tree house!
Land and boat safaris come at $25 per drive per person, with an additional $20 park entry fee. Spy, their best guide, will take you on their 20-seater open safari vehicle, to admire the vastness of Liwonde National Park: from wide marshy plains to bushy areas where elephants often create havoc, Liwonde has it all, especially after the reintroduction of predators in recent times. The boat safari is simply stunning. The Shire river is fairly small if compared to more popular destinations like the Zambezi or Okavango, meaning you are never further away than 30 metres or so from the shore. In dry season especially (May to November) the animals flock to the river in search of water, and you’ll be sure to witness the most incredible animal behaviours.
Zulunkhuni River Lodge, Ruarwe
Sunrise from the dormitory at Zulunkhuni River Lodge
Love the water? Here’s your top lakeside relax destination! Perched on a steep hillside, with chalets and camping spots metres away from the water, Zulunkhuni River Lodge is the best place to run away from tourists and feel like the whole of Lake Malawi
with its impressive fish population is stretching at your feet. To reach Ruarwe, grab the Ilala ferry on Sundays at 5am, or hike about 5 hours from nearby Usisya, also accessible by ferry or via road from Mzuzu.
Zulunkhuni offers probably the cheapest and best value camping in Malawi, at $5 per night with own tent. Their camping grounds are immersed in the dense tropical forest that enshrines the lodge, and some spots feature beautiful views of the Zulunkhuni river running down into Lake Malawi with a splendid waterfall which roars day and night. Alternatively, grab a bed in their dorm for $10 per night, and enjoy the most breath-taking sunrises without even getting up from bed; or spoil yourself in one of their private chalets ($20 per person per night) or stone houses ($25 per person per night), with private access to the water.
Despite its remoteness, the food is nothing short of excellent. Breakfast and lunch are available until 4pm, while the evening meal is normally a set menu of up to three courses. During my stay, I tasted an excellent vegetarian curry and had the chance of sharing the meal with the family currently managing the lodge. As I was hiking to Usisya the following day, the chef even prepared a packed breakfast for me at no extra cost!
Ruarwe is as remote as it is packed with things to do. From the lodge, you can hike up the Zulunkhuni river to do some rock sliding or lounge in the fresh water pools along the way. The lodge also offers boat and fishing trips to nearby beaches, as well as village walks to Ruarwe, where you’ll have the chance to visit Nyumba ya Masambiro, the local community centre set up by Phunzira, a charity affiliated to the lodge. If you enjoy hiking, Zulunkhuni can organise one or two day hikes around the lodge, as well as help you to cover the longer stretch to Usisya, about 20 km south of Ruarwe. Make sure you ask for Samson to guide you: he’s an inexhaustible source of information and stories about Ruarwe and Malawi in general, as well as a very entertaining hiking companion.