Geography & Wildlife

Lake of stars

Running almost the entire length of the country, Lake Malawi (also known as Lake Nyasa) is the third-largest freshwater lake in Africa. The lake lies within a deep trough along the Great Rift Valley, which has existed for around two million years.

A lake of many names

The explorer, David Livingstone, came upon the lake in 1859 and called it ‘the lake of stars’, because light reflects in myriad flashes from the clear surface. At 365 miles long (and 52 miles wide), Lake Malawi is also known as the 'calendar lake', reflecting the number of days in a year (though any conversion to kilometres makes this title outdated).

One-fifth of the country’s land is taken up by Lake Malawi. Fed by rivers to the west, it has only one outlet, the Shire River (pronounced ‘shirry’) in the south.

Also to the south is Cape Maclear, a section of the lake which became the world’s first freshwater national park in 1984. The park includes several islands and a peninsula and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lake Malawi's waters are home to hundreds of fish species (probably over 500), some found nowhere else in the world, such as a large number of cichlids.Cichlids, by Alexandra Tyers (Flickr: Mitande Rocks mbuna) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Flocks’ of fish

Parenting fish

All cichlids provide some form of parental care for their young, which isn’t the norm in fish. Cichlids often prove devoted parents, caring for their young in a variety of ways. In Lake Malawi for example, many cichlids are mouth-brooders, which means either the mother or father keeps the eggs in their mouth until their babies hatch – and sometimes, well-beyond!

If you have an exotic fish aquarium, you may have some cichlids (pronounced ‘sick-lids’). With more than 1,300 species, these perch-like fish come in a wealth of variations and colours.

In the wild, most cichlids live in large groups known as flocks. Among the African Great Lakes, Lake Malawi has the largest flocks of all, both of mbuna (which means rock) and haps (short for ‘Haplochromis’) species.

One of the most striking cichlids is the marmalade cat (Labeotropheus trewavasae), which can be found around West Thumbi Island.

Haunting cry of the eagle

Malawi boasts over 650 different species of birds, including a large population of fish eagles who live around the shoreline of Lake Malawi and whose haunting cries can be heard from dawn until dusk.

Though many animals were once hunted near to extinction, particularly during the colonial era, the country now protects key wildlife in nine separate game reserves. In one of these, Liwonde, the endangered black rhino has been re-introduced.

A dangerous mountain

Mount Mulanje’s 3,000-metre summit is called Sapitwa, which is said to mean ‘Don’t go there!’ This warning stems from the fact that the mountain creates its own variable climate which can take climbers unawares if they aren’t properly prepared.

Landscape of contrasts

Malawi’s landscape also holds many contrasts, from wooded hills and rolling grasslands, to low-lying wetlands and high outcrops of rock rising up from nowhere. These are known as inselbergs (or ‘island mountains’) and Malawi’s Mulanje granite massif is one of the highest in the world.

Because of the country’s natural beauty, it is no surprise that part of the Malawian National Anthem sings praise to the land:

And mother Malawi
Our own Malawi, this land so fair
Fertile and brave and free
With its lakes, refreshing mountain air
How greatly blest are we
Hills great and valleys, soil so rich and rare
Give us a bounty free
Wood and forest, plains and fair
All Beauteous Malawi.