Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi)

Split between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, this 585km-long Rift Valley lake, enclosed by tall mountains, is arguably the most scenic body of water in Africa. Although the Malawian part of the lake is more popular with travellers, the Tanzanian portion is perhaps more attractive, particularly Matema Beach on the northeast tip of the lake, where the combination of a stunning location and affordable accommodation more than justify the relatively minor effort required to get there. Unfortunately, the rest of the Tanzanian part of the lake – with the exception of the workmanlike Itungi Port – is relatively inaccessible. The only accessible place on the eastern lakeshore is Mbamba Bay, a lovely village that is linked to Songea by road and to Itungi Port on the western shore by ferry. Lake Nyasa boasts little in the way of terrestrial wildlife – vervet monkeys are common in some areas – but it does support a wide variety of birds, most conspicuously the vociferous fish eagle. The lake is also known for its great variety of fish and in particular its colourful cichlids.

Lake Nyasa is most often referred to today as Lake Malawi, a name which, despite its widespread international usage, has no historical veracity. During the colonial era, and in recorded descriptions predating colonialism, the lake was universally referred to as Nyasa. The appellation Malawi came into use as recently as 1964, when the first post-independence government of the former Nyasaland Protectorate renamed both country and lake in order to nurture popular mystical associations between the new leadership and the legendary mediaeval Maravi Empire. Understandably, the neighbouring states were not particularly inclined to be influenced by this act of political expediency, and today the same body of water is known officially and colloquially as Lake Malawi in Malawi, Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique.

Climatically, arriving at the lakeshore might take some adjustment if you are coming from the cool highlands around Tukuyu. Less than 500m above sea level, Lake Nyasa can be swelteringly hot, though the breeze – sometimes a howling wind – that comes off the lake generally cools things down at night. Lake Nyasa has a bad reputation for cerebral malaria, so take your pills, continue to take them for four weeks after you leave the area, and get to a doctor quickly if you display malarial symptoms during that period.

KYELA Kyela, the gateway town to the Tanzania part of Lake Nyasa, comes as something of an anticlimax after the breathtaking 1,000m ascent from Tukuyu – with tantalising glimpses through the lush montane escarpment to the blue waters of the lake far below. Scruffy, sweaty and scenically unmemorable, Kyela is stranded some 10km inland of the lakeshore port of Itungi, and possesses all the oppressive attributes of the tropical lakeshore climate, bar the all-redeeming waterside breeze. It is also one of those irritating towns, so rare in Tanzania, whose more youthful residents are evidently unable to conquer the impulse to yell ‘Mzungu!’ at any passing European. With Matema Beach beckoning to the north, you’d be unlikely to stay in Kyela out of choice, though you may need to should you intend to catch a ferry. Fortunately, should you sleep over, Kyela’s long-standing collection of tawdry shoestring guesthouses has of late been supplemented by a smattering of decent budget hotels.

Getting there and away The normal approach route to Kyela is the 140km road from Mbeya, which passes through Tukuyu at the midway point and is surfaced except for the last 5km stretch between the junction to Songwe (on the Malawi border) and Kyela itself. In a private vehicle, this road can be covered in two-and-a-bit hours without stops, while regular buses from Mbeya take about four hours, stopping at Tukuyu on the way. This is one of the most scenic roads in Tanzania, so be sure to get a window seat. Regular minibuses run between Kyela and Tukuyu, taking one hour to make the journey, and Mbeya taking around three hours.

Buses from Mbeya all stop at the junction for the Songwe border post, 5km before the road from Mbeya enters Kyela, from where it is normally easy enough to catch a lift to the border post, though bicycle taxis are also available. Be warned that if you are intending to travel through to Kyela, local bus conductors are used to foreign travellers disembarking at this junction, and it may require some convincing before they accept that you know what you are doing! Arriving at the border in the late afternoon used to be unwise, because there was no accommodation, and transport on to Karonga in northern Malawi was thin on the ground. These days, however, there is an excellent guesthouse at the border (see Where to stay below) and there is also plenty of onward transport.

Lake Nyasa Ferries Due to the formidable natural obstacle formed by the Livingstone Mountains and associated ranges along the northeast of Lake Nyasa, no roads worth talking about connect the ports on the eastern and western shores. The best – indeed the only – way travellers can take a look at the more remote parts of Lake Nyasa, or get between the eastern and western shores, is the erratic ferry service that connects Itungi Port to Mbamba Bay. It’s a wonderfully scenic trip, with the Livingstone Mountains rising sharply above the clear blue waters of the lake, and visits a number of ports that are otherwise practically cut off from the outside world. Luxurious, however, the boats are not. Facilities are very basic third-class only, and schedules somewhat whimsical, as the ferry stops interminably at one fishing village after the next, to be greeted by a flotilla of local dugouts whose occupants thrust fish, fruit and other goods at the passengers in the hope of a sale.

All going well, two Tanzanian ferries ply the Nyasa lakeshore, though it is often the case that one or the other boat – very occasionally both – is in dry-dock for repairs. Following flooding and the build-up of a sandbar blocking the Itungi Port, in mid 2008 ferry services were diverted to a temporary port in Kiwira around 5km further south along the lakeshore from Itungi. The Itungi Port is expected to be dredged in 2009; until that time all services will continue to depart from Kiwira.

In theory, the MV Songea leaves Itungi at around 07.00 on Monday and Thursday and arrives at Mbamba Bay at midnight the same day, after stopping at Lupingu, Manda, Lundu, Nindai and Liuli. After arriving at Mbamba Bay, the Monday ferry turns around more or less immediately, to arrive back at Itungi at 17.00 the next day. The Thursday ferry continues travelling on to Nkhata Bay in Malawi, arriving some time on Friday, before starting the return voyage to Itungi. The smaller MV Iringa leaves Itungi at 07.00 on Tuesday and arrives back on Wednesday afternoon. This stops at most lakeside villages, including Matema, but doesn’t go as far as Mbamba Bay. The above timings are very approximate. Due to the unpredictable nature of the service you are best advised to check the current schedule with the TRC office just outside of Kyela. Tickets cost US$10/4 first/second class. Meals are available on board, as are sodas and beers.

More comfortable than either of the above boats is the Malawian MV Ilala, which normally crosses between Nkhata Bay and Mbamba Bay and back once weekly. In theory, it leaves Nkhata Bay at 01.00 on Tuesday morning, arrives at Mbamba Bay three to four hours later, and then starts the return trip at 07.30. In practice, the MV Ilala is just about always six to twelve hours behind schedule, and when it falls too far behind, the crossing to Mbamba Bay is omitted from its weekly voyage.

There is no accommodation in Itungi or Kiwira. You will have to spend the night in Kyela and get a vehicle to the port at around 05.30 on the morning of departure. Vehicles leave from in front of the TRC office, 1km out of town. There is a booking office at the TRC building, but as the ticket officer travels with the ferry it serves no practical function. You can buy a ticket while you wait for the ferry to be loaded up. If you go all the way to Mbamba Bay there is a fair selection of accommodation there, as well as transport on to Makambako (on the Tanzam Highway) via Mbinga, Songea and Njombe, all of which boast several guesthouses. See our website,, for more details of this route.

Where to stay


A Kyela Resort Ø 025 254 0158;  e better than anything in town, this pleasant new lodge 1.5km from town just off the road to Tukuyu offers quiet, clean en-suite rooms with fans, mosquito nets & hot water. There’s also a decent garden restaurant. Around US$25/30 sgl/dbl.

A Matema Beach Hotel (30 rooms) Ø/f 025 254 0158; e This confusingly named hotel (it’s nowhere near the beach & certainly not in Matema!) 500m before the turn-off to Kyela is another well-priced new option just out of town. The attached restaurant serves meals in the Tsh1,000–3,000 range. US$15/20 spacious en-suite sgl/dbl with AC & TV; US$30 executive suite with computer & internet, sitting room & balcony.



A The Oberoi Park (8 rooms)Ø 025 254 0395. This smart hotel 200m from the bus station has spotless en-suite rooms with dbl bed, fan & running water. It’s easily the best place in the centre, though the lack of mosquito netting in this climate is a serious oversight. Around US$8 dbl

A MSM Lodge This agreeable lodge is situated in Songwe about 1km before the border post with Malawi. All rooms have fans, netting & running water. There is a beer garden & snack bar in the green grounds. US$6/8 sgl/dbl banda with common showers; US$9/10 en-suite.


A Pattaya Hotel Ø 025 254 0015.Also quite close to the bus station, this is an above average guesthouse & the rooms are clean & have fans, but once again no mosquito netting! US$6/7 en-suite dbl/twin.

A Makete Half London Guesthouse (7 rooms) Situated right opposite the bus station & market, this has rather gloomy though reasonably clean en-suite rooms with fan & mosquito netting. US$6 dbl.

Where to eat The New Steak Inn Restaurant, opposite the market, is clean and comfortable, and while the tantalisingly elaborate menu rather overstates the culinary options, it does serve a decent plate of chicken and chips for Tsh1,500.

MATEMA BEACH The long sandy tropical beach at Matema is perhaps the most beautiful anywhere on Lake Nyasa–Malawi. Situated on the lake’s northern tip, Matema lies in the shadow of the Livingstone Mountains, which rise sharply to an elevation of nearly 2,500m within 4km of the lakeshore, with the Poroto Mountains set further back on the western horizon. Matema Beach is relatively undeveloped for tourism, certainly by comparison with such legendary Malawian backpacker hangouts as Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear – which has its pros and cons. On the minus side are the facilities, which might politely be described as unexciting: a couple of decent if decidedly institutional church-run lodges that serve basic meals of the fish-and-ugali ilk and operate a no-alcohol policy. The flip side of the coin is that Matema, unlike the more popular and buzzing Malawian beach hangouts, doesn’t yet come across as a budding resort whose soul is gradually being eroded in order to accommodate the requirements of international travellers. Refreshingly rustic and uncompromisingly African, Matema is the kind of place you could settle into for a while: swimming in the deliciously warm (and reputedly bilharzia-free) water, chatting to the local fishermen, undertaking local excursions, or just waiting for the sun to set behind the Poroto.

Getting there and away The two main roads to Matema converge at the small junction town of Ipinda, about 10km inland of the lake as the crow flies and 27km from Matema by road. Coming from Mbeya or Kyela, the normal route to Matema leads from the surfaced road between these two towns about 3km north of Kyela, from where it’s a straightforward 14km run to Ipinda. Coming from Mbeya, a rougher but shorter 46km back route to Ipinda, via Masoko Crater Lake, runs from Tukuyu, where you need to turn left at the main intersection on the Kyela road, passing Langboss Lodge to your left after about 1km.

Direct public transport to Matema is restricted to a daily bus to and from Mbeya, passing through Tukuyu, Kyela and Ipinda, but since this bus arrives at Matema after dark and leaves again at 05.00, it’s not all that convenient. It is easier to get to Matema using light vehicles. If you can’t find a pick-up truck running directly between Kyela and Matema, you should find one from Kyela to Ipinda. There is also the odd pick-up truck running between Tukuyu and Ipinda via Masoko Crater Lake. The daily bus aside, there is normally some private transport between Ipinda and Matema, especially on Saturdays, and most vehicles will stop to pick up passengers for a small fee. Should you need to spend the night in Ipinda, there is a basic but adequate guesthouse behind the bank. It is also possible to walk between Ipinda and Matema in two to three hours, following the Lufirio River to its mouth 3km west of the mission. On the day before you plan to leave Matema, it’s worth asking the mission whether any of their vehicles are heading to Ipinda the next morning.

The ferry that leaves Kiwira/Itungi at 07.00 Wednesday arrives at Matema an hour later. It also stops at Matema on Thursday afternoon on its way back to Kiwira/Itungi. Ferries to Mbamba Bay do not stop at Matema. The Lutheran Guesthouse in Matema can arrange for a local canoe to take you to Itungi Port for Tsh2,000, and it should presumably be possible to make a similar arrangement privately for a transfer in the opposite direction.

Where to stay

A Blue Canoe Safari Camp (8 rooms) m 0783 575451/0683 045754; e; Formerly called Crazy Crocodile Campsite, this relaxed owner-managed beach camp offers the choice of ensuite beach bungalows, simple bamboo huts or camping. Activities include snorkelling, birding and various guided excursions. A good restaurant and bar are attached. US$70/90 sgl/dbl bungalow; US$15/20 bamboo hut; US$5 pp camping.

A Matema Lake Shore Resort (8 rooms) Ø025 250 0010; e; This smart beach resort on the western fringe of Matema is popular with expatriate families. The comfortable en-suite double-storey beachfront chalets have private verandas, and a restaurant serves decent meals & chilled soft drinks, but no alcohol. US$30 dbl.

A Matema Beach View Lutheran Centre (14 rooms) m 0787 275164; e; This well established church-run lodge has bandas with 2–4 comfortable beds & mosquito nets clustered above the beach. A canteen serves substantial but uninteresting set meals, which must be ordered in advance. No alcohol served. From US$20 ensuite dbl.


Excursions from Matema Beach In the stifling heat of the lakeshore even the shortest stroll can feel like a major excursion, for which reason the best time to explore is the early morning. One pleasant 15-minute stroll leads along the beach east of Matema to the small fishing village of Lyulilo, renowned locally for its Saturday pottery market (see box, Kisi pottery, page 534). If you walk out there along the beach, you might want to return by a rough dirt road that runs a short distance inland, passing through lush tropical vegetation – plenty of birdlife – and neat traditional Nyakyusa homesteads.

Close to the lakeshore, about 500m past Lyulilo, Pango Cave (also known as Likyala Cave) was an important Nyakyusa sacrificial site in times of drought, before missionaries arrived in the area and forbade the practice. The cave harbours a significant bat colony, and a small waterfall close by tumbles into a cool, clear pool. The rocky lakeshore between Lyulilo and the cave hosts a large variety of colourful cichlids, and makes for excellent snorkelling, but you’ll need your own gear to explore it. If you don’t feel like walking, the Lutheran Mission can arrange a local boat to take you to the market or cave for around Tsh1,000 per person.

Although the main regional pottery market is held at Lyulilo, the pots are mostly crafted at the village of Ikombe, which is the place to visit if you want to see potters at work or buy pottery on days other than Saturday. Ikombe can be reached on foot by following a rough footpath along the lakeshore past Lyulilo. Better, however, to travel there by canoe, which takes about 30 minutes in each direction, and costs Tsh1,500 for the round trip if organised through the Lutheran Mission in Matema.

In the opposite direction, heading along the beach for about 3km west of Matema, the extensive papyrus beds at the Lufirio River mouth offer excellent birding as well as a chance of seeing crocodiles. Hippos are resident a short distance upriver. Once again, you have the option of walking from Matema or of arranging a local canoe at the Lutheran Mission, which costs Tsh2,000 per person for the round trip.

A one-hour walk inland of the beach leads to the Mwalalo Waterfall – or more accurately a series of waterfalls formed by the Mwalalo River as it tumbles down the escarpment of the Livingstone Mountains. The Mwalalo River is the sole source of fresh water for the village and mission, who are concerned that travellers visiting without a guide might pollute it. For this reason, you need permission from the village council and a local guide to visit the waterfall, all of which can be easily arranged through the mission for Tsh2,000 per person. More energetically, the mission can also arrange guided day walks up the Livingstone Mountains.

One warning: crocodiles are not resident on Matema Beach, but they are common on rockier and shallower stretches of the lakeshore and at river outlets, where they kill villagers with a frequency that suggests you should definitely ask local advice before swimming, except on the main beach. Best, too, to avoid swimming anywhere after dark – crocs have been known to travel long distances at night.

(c) Philip Briggs 2012


One thought on “Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi)

  1. philipbriggs says:

    The Battle of Sphinxhafen

    The penultimate stop on the southbound ferry trip from Itungi to Mbamba Bay is Liuli, whose attractive natural harbour is looked over by the sphinx-like rock formation referred to by its German name, Sphinxhafen. Liuli hosts the largest mission in this part of Tanzania, and it’s the burial place of William Johnson, the Anglican missionary who co-founded the Likoma Mission on the eponymous island in Malawi. Johnson is one of the most fondly remembered missionaries who worked in the Lake Nyasa area; for 46 years he preached all around the lake, despite being practically blind and well into his 70s when he died in 1928. His grave at Liuli was for several decades a pilgrimage site for Malawian Christians.

    Somewhat improbably, Liuli witnessed the first naval encounter of World War I, an incident trumpeted by The Times in London as ‘Naval Victory on Lake Nyasa’ and by a participant, Mr G M Sanderson, as ‘pure comedy’. Shortly after the outbreak of war, the British Commissioner of Nyasaland dispatched the protectorate’s only ship, the Gwendolyn, to destroy its German counterpart, the Hermann Von Wessman. The Gwendolyn’s captain, Commander Rhoades, was informed at Nkhata Bay that the Wessman was docked for repairs at Sphinxhafen. He sailed into the harbour in the cover of dawn with a somewhat nervous crew. The only gunner was a Scots storeman who had trained several years previously as a seaman-gunner and who freely admitted that he remembered little of his training. After several misfires, caused by a combination of dud ammunition and rusty aiming, a shell finally connected with the German boat.

    ‘Immediately afterwards,’ wrote Sanderson several years later, ‘a small white dinghy put off from shore, in which was a European clad in a singlet and a pair of shorts pulling furiously for the Gwen. Rhoades ordered “Cease fire“ and blessed silence fell. It was his drinking pal [Captain Berndt], the skipper of the Wessman, with whom every meeting was a drinking party. The dinghy came alongside and its furious occupant leaped to his feet and, shaking both fists above his head, exclaimed “Gott for dam, Rrroades, vos you drunk?”’ It transpired that news of the war had not yet reached sleepy Sphinxhafen, and when Rhoades informed his old friend that he was now a prisoner of war, Sanderson wrote that ‘one could see his anger turn to horror as he realised his fatal mistake.’

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