Swimming in the serene and secluded Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi), Tanzania
Although Tanzania is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination due to its numerous natural wonders, idyllic beaches and wealth of wildlife; hardly anyone ventures to the remote Lake Nyasa that lies in the southwest corner of the country.
While the vast majority of visitors head to the north to explore Ngorongoro Crater, go on safari in the Serengeti or climb Mount Kilimanjaro, others head to the island paradise of Zanzibar just off the coast in the Indian Ocean. This means that you will almost certainly be all alone when visiting this beautiful lake.
Also known as Lake Malawi, disputes are ongoing between Tanzania and Malawi as to where the actual border of this gigantic body of freshwater lies and in Tanzania, the region remains a backwater with just two small fishing villages lying on its shores.
Why is Lake Nyasa important?
Within Lake Malawi (aka Lake Nyassa) resides the largest variety of fish species found in any lake worldwide – somewhere between 800-1000! Notably, an overwhelming 90 percent of these species consist of cichlids that exclusively inhabit this lake. Additionally, the lake plays a crucial role as a migratory route for various bird species.
To get here is a journey in itself. If you have arrived in Dar Es Salaam, for example, the buses across the country will take you through national parks, past towering mountains and expanses of nothingness, stopping off at the small rural cities that dot the route.
The final stretch of the journey sees you take a falling apart bus that winds its way past remote villages on the way to Matema. Having finally arrived, the pristine lake stretches away endlessly before you, appearing like a massive inland sea. A tranquil part of the world, the beaches bordering the lake curve delightfully away into the distance and the mountains that line one side of it frame this picturesque scene beautifully.
Deserted during the day, the evening sees the beach become a hive of activity as families descend to the shoreline to revel in its freshwaters. Children run in and out, splashing happily in the water before daringly swimming out as far as they can.
From time to time, a lone boat returns to shore with its catch and at night many fishermen take to the waters to fish for the nocturnal Usepa which frequent the lake in such large numbers. Under the fall of darkness, their lamps light up the water and entice the fish to the surface. Nicknamed ´The Lake of Stars´, their lights add to the sparkle of the stars reflected in the waters of the lake.
While relaxing on the beach and swimming in the lake is heavenly, there are a number of great experiences to be had at Lake Nyasa. The mountain range bordering the lake makes for some great hiking and amidst the hilly terrain, there are a couple of waterfalls to discover; even more remote than the lake itself.
Kayaking on its waters is a dream and shooting across the water feels liberating as you are completely alone with your thoughts. Joining the fishermen at night is also a magical experience and huddled in the cocoon of light that is given out by the small kerosene lamps you feel safe and protected, surrounded by the darkness of the waters about you.
A beautiful and untouched part of your Tanzania trip, Lake Nyasa is a relaxing and laidback place to visit which will refresh and prepare you for the rest of the delights that the country has to offer.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
From Dar Es Salaam you will need to take a number of buses across the country to reach the village of Matema that borders Lake Nyasa. A nice way to do this trip (if you have time) is to stop off in the towns and cities that line the route. Morogoro, for instance, has some lovely mountains that are worth climbing, Iringa has some interesting and ancient historical sites and there are also a couple of national parks along the way where you can see elephants and giraffes.
To get your ticket head to Ubungo Bus Terminal in Dar and enquire at the kiosks where to get a ticket to the city you wish to go to. Buses usually depart early in the morning as they are not allowed to travel at night; this is a godsend as you already see wrecks lining some of the roads in the countryside…
Mbeya is the city you need to head to which is nearest the lake and the bus journey should take around 15-16 hours with police checks, rest stops and roadworks taken into consideration. There is also a train from Dar to Mbeya that goes once a week though this is quite unreliable and doesn´t always leave when it is supposed to (in fact it rarely does). It is also possible to fly to Mbeya though that is a lot more expensive.
From Dar to Mbeya costs around 50,000 Tanzanian Shillings (so about 22 dollars). At Mbeya, you will have to change and take another bus to Matema. This costs around 12,000 TZS and takes about six hours. Phew!
Do – Activities & Attractions
It feels absolutely amazing swimming in Lake Nyasa´s peaceful waters and lounging on the beach you will nearly always be the only soul. It really is off the beaten path.
A guide will almost certainly introduce themselves to you as soon as you step off the bus and they will tell you the activities on offer.
You can rent a kayak and go out on the lake´s waters or commission a fisherman to take you out at night; both are lovely experiences and well worth doing.
The scenery around the lake is beautiful and if you go hiking in the surrounding hills and mountains you will come across a few delightful waterfalls.
It is a very rural and quiet place, perfect for relaxing in the sun next to the pristine waters of the lake.
Stay – Accommodation
There are a few guesthouses, hostels and hotels to stay in and it seems as if they are nearly always completely empty. The upmarket ones line the beach while in the small village there are a couple of small guesthouses hidden away. They are generally very cheap to stay in and will cost around 10,000 TZS a night if not less for a room with a fan but no bathroom.
Eat – Restaurants
As it´s so near to the lake, you can find some really delicious fish dishes here. There are not too many places to eat so just stop off and see what they have as it really depends on the day. In general, though, the staple will be rice with spinach, delicious coconutty beans and the fish they have available.
If you get fed up of this or fish isn´t your thing, there is always the Tanzanian staples of chipsi mayai and mishkaki – an omelette with chips in it and various forms of meat skewers – both of which are always great!
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
From March to May it is the rainy season in Tanzania and as such, it may be hard to reach Matema as some of the dirt roads will be almost impossible to navigate.
As it is a huge country, the climate varies quite a lot so when deciding on what you would like to see and do in Tanzania it is always best to check the weather forecast as different parts are best to see at different times of the year.
As such it is best to avoid visiting Lake Nyasa during the rainy season.
Safety – Possible risks
Taking the bus in Tanzania can be quite a scary affair. The bus drivers seem to be daredevils and clinging to your seat as the bus lurches from side to side is quite a nerve-wracking experience. There are a number of bus ticket scams, so you want to always make sure that you buy your ticket from the correct kiosk.
Make sure to take malaria tablets when travelling in these remote parts of the country as some areas, especially those near to water, are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Tanzania is an absolutely incredible country to visit and as always how much you pay depends on the level of luxury you require. It can be ridiculously cheap and rooms in the most basic place can cost as little as 3 dollars a night. A meal too will only set you back a couple of thousand shillings.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Tanzanians, in general, are really friendly and it is very easy to travel around the country. In this remote corner of the country, you will stick out as an anomaly so it is best to always remain polite and dress with decorum. Having said that though, it is a very laidback place and people generally love visiting it.
Reality Check – Be Aware
It is a very remote place so it will take you an age to get here! But that is in part what makes it so worth it; the lovely scenery, the welcoming waters and the peaceful laidback vibe will show you a whole new side to Tanzania.
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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