julia dimon/for metro toronto


Senga Bay, a popular tourist spot and fishing village, is located on the southwestern part of Lake Malawi.


julia dimon/for metro toronto

A few minutes walk in Senga Bay’s fishing village leads you to the natural beauty of this quiet brook.

Drawn to its fresh waters, cheap scuba diving and relaxed beach vibe, travellers passing through Malawi are sure to visit Lake Malawi, the country’s main attraction.

The third largest lake in Africa, Lake Malawi is a great place to chill, meet other backpackers and earn your PADI open-water diving certification without breaking the bank.

Popular spots include Kande, Cape Maclear and Senga Bay. Located on the southwestern part of Lake Malawi — and just a few hours drive from the capital, Lilongwe — Senga Bay has several budget accommodations. I chose Cool Runnings, a cozy, no-frills hostel located on the beach, but getting there is a bit of a mission. At Lilongwe’s bus station, I found a minibus going to Salima, forked over the 350 Malawi Kwacha ($3 Cdn) and waited for the bus to fill up. Patience is most important when travelling in East Africa. Buses don’t depart until every nook is filled and passengers are crammed in like circus clowns.

With a packed bus, we drove across green fields and tobacco plantations toward Lake Malawi.

Once in the small town of Salima, I hopped out of the bus and into a Matola. This pick-up-truck-turned-public-transportation is affordable but certainly not comfy — I spent the trip wedged between a live chicken and a stack of luggage.

After a harrowing and cramped journey, I arrived at Cool Runnings. Samantha, the owner of the hostel, introduced herself with a warm smile and a firm handshake. A fit and freckled woman, the thin white Zimbabwean explained a bit about the area. “Lake Malawi is known as Calendar Lake because it’s 365 miles from top to bottom; 52 miles at its widest point and 12 major rivers flow into it.”

There was much to do in the surrounding area: snorkelling, boogie boarding, catamaran rides and market tours. There were even organized boat trips to nearby islands like Lizard Island — a.k.a Bird Turd Island — to see the giant monitor lizards.

Samantha reminded me that Senga Bay, unlike many other parts of Lake Malawi, is free from Bilharzia, the treatable but microscopic parasite carried by snails. I could swim and shower freely in the water without having to take Bilharzia pills.

Relieved, I thanked her for the info, dropped my bags and set out along the beach to explore the fishing village. The setting sun cast a warm hue over the wooden dugout canoes. Fisherman sat in small groups, detangling dainty pink nets with calloused hands. The scene was picture-perfect. As I grabbed my camera and set up the shot, I was scolded by a group of camera-shy fishermen. As with many Africans I’ve met, they didn’t like to be photograph­ed. Probably didn’t help that many fisherman working around Lake Malawi were illegal immigrants who fled civil war in neighbouring Mozambique for peaceful and prosperous Malawi. But the local kids loved photos and took any opportunity to steal the spotlight. When a digital camera appeared, the kids squealed with delight, grabbing at it with sticky little fingers.

This was my visit to Lake Malawi, an off-the-beaten track locale that delicately balances local culture and touristy beach life.

Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.

julia’s tips

  • Rainy season in Malawi means public transportation is extra slow and many routes are washed out. Lake Malawi waters, normally crystal clear, look dark and muddy. Though travellers can still have a good time during the wet season, it’s best to visit from May through August.

  • Many travellers have enjoyed the shores of Lake Malawi so much they’ve mistakenly overstayed their free 30-day visitor’s visa. If you want to stay longer than a month, you must apply for an official extension.