Lake Malawi occupies one fifth of the country’s total area. It is the 3rd largest fresh water lake in Africa and the 9th largest in the world. The Lake drains an area larger than Malawi itself yet, surprisingly, only one river, the Shire (pronounced "shiray" – the old spelling) flows from it. Eventually, the water spills into the Indian Ocean via the River Zambezi.
The surface of the Lake is 1550ft (470m) above sea level. In the north it is quite extraordinarily deep: 2300ft (700m), plunging well below sea level. This reflects the enormity of the natural faulting of the Great Rift Valley which is the origin of the Lake itself.
For much of the year the Lake is placid, a gentle giant, but, especially when strong winds blow north or south, it can become an angry monster. Because of its potentially rich harvest of fish, the Lake plays an important part in the country’s economy. Fishing villages are scattered along the length of the lakeshore and the traditional industry and practices are an attraction to visitors.
Access to the Lake is possible along much of its length but it should be noted that it is usually necessary to take a short detour off the main roads in order to reach the beach. Despite the attraction the Lake has to settlement, there are long stretches of totally uninhabited golden sand lakeshore, and plenty of opportunities for visitors to enjoy activities on and in the waters.
The lakeshore in the far north has a few small lodges offering accommodation for visitors, especially along the shore below the Livingstonia Mission. Most are pretty straightforward but a hidden gem is Sangilo Sanctuary just south of Chilumba.
Karonga is a place of growing interest. It has an interesting but turbulent history as a centre for the notorious nineteenth century slave trade. Now the town is the site of a new museum focused on both it's cultural history and the recent archeological finds of dinosaur and hominid bones. The town has simple accommodation on offer.
Nkhata Bay is better described as a large village rather than a town. It is at the most northerly point on the Lake reached by David Livingstone. Its small sheltered harbour is a focus for the Lake’s fishing industry but it is also becoming increasingly important as a tourist centre.
There is a variety of accommodation on offer, most in the form of camping sites and small lodges. Njaya Lodge has the best reputation in town. There is a rapidly developing concentration of watersport facilities here. The longest established SCUBA diving operation on Lake Malawi is found here - Aqua Africa. As well as diving courses and casual dives, they have en suite accommodation and a number of lake activities available. Safari Cottage offers self catering accommodation comprising 3 bedrooms, kitchen, living room, dining room and a verandah overlooking the lake.
Off the eastern shore of the Lake is Likoma Island: a little piece of Malawian territory in Mozambican waters. Its history – the setting up here of the headquarters of the University Mission to Central Africa (Livingstone’s mission) in the 1880s – caused it to be retained by Malawi when the Lake was divided politically after World War II.
Likoma’s claim to fame is its cathedral (the size of Winchester’s) on which work began in 1903. This vast building has some most interesting features including stained glass and carved soapstone.
The island is otherwise somewhat barren although it has some pleasant beaches. Nearby is another tiny island, Chizumulu, also Malawian territory. Access to Likoma is currently by boat or charter aircraft. Accommodation on Likoma is limited but includes a new, very attractive, luxury beach lodge, Kaya Mawa.