Nkhata Bay is a small, bustling fishing village of about 15,000 inhabitants, located about 50 kilometers from Mzuzu. Straddling the steep, verdant mountains of Malawi's rift valley, Nkhata Bay overlooks the lake like a lord overlooks his manor.
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Nkhata Bay has a long history of as a backpacker destination, and at the turn of the millenium it was a place to find "the cheapest diving course in the world" and dorm beds with breakfast for one U.S. dollar a night. After that some more expensive places have popped up, and tours by overland truck (far from all going through Nkhata Bay) have become more common way for seeing Malawi than independent backpacking. As such the town has several places to sleep but they're rarely fully booked.
The town is home to the Tonga people who are famed for their love of fine clothing — it's common to see older men dressed in full suits with Homburg hats, spats and canes!
As with most other destinations in the tropics, the seasons are defined by the rain rather than by the temperature. December to April is the rainy season while considerably less rain falls in May-November.
Mzuzu, 50 km from Nkhata Bay does have an airport but the only services there (by Uluendo airlink) are short hops from Chelina and Likoma Island plus non-scheduled flights from Lilongwe. The closest airports for getting in from further away, as of September 2020, are in Lilongwe and Blantyre.
The 1 bus station is in the middle of the town, next to the market. You can reach Nkhata Bay from the south via the Lakeshore road or west from Mzuzu, by minibus. The winding, scenic, hour and a half trip from Mzuzu costs about $4 on a minibus or $20 by taxi. There are regular buses from Blantyre and Lilongwe, the latter which are operated by the bus company AXA. There is no road access to the north.
- 1 Ferry Ilala, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. A ferry visits Nkhata Bay twice a week — once going north and once going south. The ferry arrives in Nkhata Bay at midnight between Saturday and Sunday, leaves early in the morning and then heads up to Usisya, Ruaware and ultimately to Chilumba. A lovely round trip involves taking the ferry north and then return on Tuesday when the ferry heads south to Cape Maclear via Likoma Island or east to Mbamba Bay, in Tanzania. This is the beginning of the so-called Mtwara Corridor, a project which aims to develop the road infra-structure from Mbabama Bay to Mtwara on the Indian Ocean. The ferry is a popular, albeit slow, way for travelers to see the lake and journey to other parts of the region. You can either sleep on the deck (great in nice weather) or, for those wanting a bit more luxury, try the ensuite cabin.
Take Highway M5 from Mzuzu or along the western shore of Lake Malawi. Nkhata Bay is 4 km off the road. The highway itself is paved and in a fairly good state, but in some places a bit narrow. From Mzuzu the distance is 45 km, from Salima 300 km. If driving from Lilongwe, the distance is about 370 km both via Salima (M14 and M5) and Mzuzu (M1 and M5).
If you need to fill up in Nkhata Bay, there's a Puma petrol station opposite to the People's cash'n carry supermarket.
Nkhata Bay is fairly small and walkable. Alternatively, you can hire a water taxi to take you from one end of the village to the other; this is also a neat way to see the coastline. Most of the hostels and hotels also have vehicles and you can usually hitch a ride when they head into town for supplies.
- The lake is what Nkhata Bay is all about. There is only one 1 beach at Chikale which is a gentle 20 minute walk from the town.
- One of the must sees of Nkhata Bay is the feeding of the fish eagle which lives high up on the cliff face south of Njaya Lodge. Trips can be organised by any of the lodges.
- If you have a vehicle at your disposal, you should visit the huge 2 Kawalazi coffee plantation located roughly half-way between Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay (as you travel towards Nkhata Bay, there's a small sign on your right). A very friendly Sikh manages it, and he's happy to take you around and show you how the plantation runs. The countryside around the plantation is also worth exploring if you want a break from the lake.
- The rubber and tea plantation at Chombe and research farms dot the land between Nkhata Bay and Mzuzu; hiring a bike is the best way to explore these.
Activities the town has to offer take place on or under water. Most of the lodges can arrange other day trips to points around the lake, and rent out fins, masks, kayaks and more. They can also organise longer 2 or 3 day trips either north to Usisya and Ruware, south to Kande beach or over to Likoma Island and Chisumulu Island.
When diving in Lake Malawi, you can see mouth-breeding cichlid fishes that are fascinating and represent the most diverse vertebrate radiation in the history of the earth.
- 1 Aqua Africa, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. A PADI certified dive shop on the north side of the bay. They offer cheap single dives and courses up to Divemaster, a good way to experience fresh-water diving in the lake. Aqua Africa operates a café and hotel too. Room rates are $40 for standard rooms and $80 for deluxe rooms. for example single dives from $50, open water course $400, several other courses.
There is a "Bureau de Change" and an ATM in town, another plus ATM on the road out towards Mzuzu. there are 4 banks in Nkhata Bay NBS, FNB, Malawi savings bank, Opportunity bank. the National Bank of Malawi and Standard Bank has a master card ATM in Mzuzu.
- 1 FNB. has a Visa card ATM.
- 2 The market. Traditional African market.
- 3 Rasta Kelvin, P.O. Box 155, Nkhata-Bay (in the second bay as you head towards Mayoka), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Crafts market. Another is located a few kilometers towards Mzuzu at a police roadside check point.
- There are also several "Rastas" posing as curio vendors. Aside from accommodation, food, and drink, these guys offer among the only options for taking your money.
- 4 Peoples Supermaket (Nkhata Bay Peoples Store) (downtown Nkhata Bay). Peoples supermarkets are the largest retail chain in Malawi with 80 retail shops spread across the country.
Aside from the lodges, which all have restaurants, there are several independent restaurants in town, which change regularly. If you have a dollar, you can find a burger, Malawian pizza, or a great Chambo (fish) dinner.
For a particularly good local restaurant, find the large tree in the middle of the market; here you will find reasonably priced, good food to enjoy on benches beneath the branches.
- 1 Kaya Papaya, ☏ , . A new restaurant in town offers Thai food, pizzas, cakes, shakes, juices and very tasty cocktails for reasonable prices. It's easy to hang out all day on its atmospheric topdeck overlooking the football ground and town centre, enjoying a good meal and fine music.
There are a number of local bars in Nkhata Bay. Additionally, small tourist-friendly bars spring up regularly.
- 1 The Dive Deck Cafe, Aqua Africa (Behind the ferry dock), ☏ . 8:00-8:00. The Dive Deck commands some of the most spectacular views across the bay. You can prop up the bar and enjoy an ice cold “Green” or relax on our comfortable sofas choosing which fillings to have in your homemade wrap. It’s also a great place to compare notes with other customers after you come back from your dive.
- There are several places to sleep in Nkhata Bay and representatives from these will meet the ferry when it arrives.
- There is a government rest house in town, but most travelers find municipal accommodation run down and depressing.
- 1 Njaya Lodge, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Complete with its own guard-goose, it's among the most popular, especially with backpackers, despite being about a mile or two outside town. In 1993 an English couple Paul and Claire Norrish bought some property on the Lake and built a budget lodge. Since then word of mouth has led Nkhata Bay to become popular with independent travelers. The lodge is based on sustainable tourism principles and the staff who work at the lodge have all been working their since it opened and many of them actually helped to build the lodge. Situated high atop a mountain overlooking the lake, Njaya offers cottage accommodation ($60-80/night).
- 2 Mayoka Village (in the south of the town), ☏ . Mayoka is a very popular lodge well known in the area for its scenic location, vibrant bar and very friendly atmosphere, including an outstanding weekly barbecue made from locally sourced food. Great place to meet up with and chill out with other travelers. Located on the far side of the bay, either walk around or phone ahead for a boat pickup from the dive shop. Make reservations a couple of days ahead of time as they can get booked up. Tell them when you plan to leave as they have been known to kick people out ahead of time, leaving one little time to pack and find another place to stay. camping/dorm beds. camping own tent $5, dorm bed $12, cottages $20 per person, chalets $30-50.
- 3 Butterfly Space, PO box 211, ☏ . Check-out: whenever as long as no bookings. offering private chalets as well as a small, but pretty bar, right on the water. The lodge has a private beach, internet/information centre and snorkeling equipment available. There are a number of community projects that butterfly are involved in, including the local nursery school, youth club on site, playgounds building, and computer lessons through the non-profit internet centre. Get involved and enjoy the homely atmosphere. camping/dorm beds/Chalet/chalet with own bathroom. Mk1000/2000/4000/5000.
- 4 Big Blue Backpackers, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. More relaxed than Mayoka village and they have a big common room with a big screen TV with dstv which is fun to hang out in and kick back with other travellers. Also a large bar and restaurant with a diverse menu and a panoramic view of the lake. camping/dorm beds/single/double rooms. MK2000/3000/4000/6000.
- 5 Kande Beach Resort, about 40 km south of Nkhata Bay, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Popular with overland trucks, this resort has camping, dorm rooms, single, twin and doubles. Activities include a great horse riding tour, scuba diving with the experienced team at "Aquanuts", there are catamarans and canoes for hire, and you can get great food at the "soft sand cafe" camping $5, dorm bed $10, sgl cabin $12.50 pp, beach chalet $25, dbl chalet $40, triple chalet $50.
There are two Internet cafés in town, on one of the side roads off the main road. The speed is very slow, although better than some other places in Malawi. It costs 400 MWK/hour. A new one has opened up at Butterfly Lodge. The fastest one is at Aqua Africa but there are only two computers and it cost 600 MWK/hour.
As with most places be careful walking at night and do not carry all your cash with you, especially walking between the town and the lodges to the south. A frequent problem is Rastas trying to sell marijuana who are working with police to shake down tourists for bribes.
Note that while guesthouses may claim that Nkhata Bay is Bilharzia-free there is evidence that this claim may not be entirely accurate. Since treatment is simple and inexpensive travelers are recommended to not take chances and take the single-dose medication within a month of contacting the water. Delaying treatment until symptoms appear can cause irreversible problems since Bilharzia is a parasite the makes your organs bleed. It cannot be medically detected until 6 weeks after exposure. Anyone going into the water is advised to take the medication as it costs roughly $2 in most African countries.
Suitable destinations for excursions of 2-3 days in length include:
- 3 Usisya (north).
- 4 Ruware (north).
- 5 Chizumulu Island. The smaller of the two islands in Lake Malawi...
- 6 Likoma Island. ...and the bigger one
Those travelling to Mzuzu will find frequent minibuses leaving throughout the day from the town centre. There is a daily 6:30AM commuter bus run by AXA which travels down the lake shore, passing through Nkhotakota and Salima before arriving in Lilongwe.