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Lake Chilwa
Region: South Malawi
Attraction Type: Landscape / Scenic


Lake Chilwa

Lake Chilwa is Malawi’s second biggest lake. But in times of drought, or even at the end of the dry season, it shrinks perceptibly. In the past it has been even bigger than today.

According to David Livingstone, Lake Chilwa (Shirwa) in 1859 reached almost to the foothills of Mount Mulanje, perhaps some 30 kilometres (19 miles) further south than today. This observation is probably broadly accurate for the lake lies in a natural depression which runs northwards from Mulanje and into Mozambique. In the past Lakes Chilwa and Chiuta were contiguous. In Livingstone’s day the lake was also much deeper, maybe even four times its present maximum depth of about three metres. Vast tracts of lake-bed sands or swamps now occupy areas previously under water. Today’s lake is forever changing size and depth in rapid response to fluctuations in rainfall.

There are inhabited islands in the lake, and even mobile stilted fishing villages during the dry season. Chisi and Thongwe islands must be some of the most remote communities in all Malawi. Thongwe is towards the northern limits of Lake Chilwa and its people live in much the same way as did their forebears a hundred years ago. Unfortunately, diseases such as cholera and the islands’ remoteness mean that visitors to Malawi are unlikely to witness these rather special places.

Lake Chilwa was designated a Wetland of International Importance in 1997, and supports massive populations of important bird species.