Blantyre, the warm heart of Africa

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One of southern Africa’s oldest cities, Blantyre in Malawi combines the graciousness of English colonial architecture with the bustle of a modern African metropole – with stunning natural wonders just on its doorstep.

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Drive an hour outside of Blantyre and you could be climbing a mountain, or driving through one of five national parks. Or you could be lying on a beach on the shore of Lake Malawi. Before you do though, choose to spend some time in Blantyre, and experience its many delights.

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One of the oldest cities in southern Africa, its founding predates Harare, Nairobi and Johannesburg. At one time it was crowned the city with the best quality of life in the world. Blantyre is home to the imposing brick Church of St Michael and All Angels, the first permanent church built between the Zambezi and the Nile.

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The church is not even the oldest building in Blantyre. That would be Mandala House, a beautifully preserved Victorian building with a wraparound porch, wrought iron details and large windows. Set in a verdant garden, Mandala House is now home to a cafe, gallery and archival library.

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Blantyre is slow. It takes its time. It is children sauntering to school clutching homemade toys and footballs wrapped with string. The Warm Heart of Africa – Malawi’s famous tourism slogan – is rickety bicycles dallying past piles of cassava and handcrafts. It is the Museum of Malawi and wood carvings for sale. It is also a frivolous city of bars and dancing, and casinos open night and day.

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The city is grandly beautiful, surrounded by three mountains: Ndirande, Mchiru and Soche. Once a year they draw spectacularly fit people for the gruelling Three Peaks Walk. This 48-kilometre trek starts early in the morning and ends, 13 hours later, at the Blantyre Sports Club.

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Malawi had lost most of its wildlife to poaching or human encroachment on natural habitat. But it is still an ornithologist’s dream, with 400 species of birdlife that include fish eagles, love-birds, bee-eaters, barbets and fish eagles.

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About an hour from downtown Blantyre is Majete, a 7 000-hectare reserve and home to Malawi’s boldly successful wildlife reintroduction programme. Over the last decade African Parks has restocked the reserve and the neighbouring Liwonde National Park with 2 500 animals. Today the two parks are home to leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo – species once incredibly rare in the country.

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A boat safari on the Zambezi River is the highlight of a visit to Liwonde and Majete. You spot hippos, crocodiles, storks and egrets, and elephants trumpeting on its banks. If you’re really lucky you may even spot one of the three lions released here in 2013.

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Malawi is a majestically beautiful country only recently waking to the value of tourism. Landlocked yet it is still possible to have a beach vacation. It has upgraded its roads and restocked its reserves. Its warm heart is waiting to welcome you.

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