Lake Chilwa is situated in the south of Malawi close to the eastern border with Mozambique and is the second largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi.
There is a large island in the middle of the lake called Chisi Island.
When David Livingstone visited the lake in 1859, he reported that its southern boundary reached as far as the Mulanje Massif, which would have made the lake at least 20-30km longer than it is today.
It has shrunk from around 1,750km2 at that time to around 650km2 today, though the level of water is greatly affected by seasonal rains and summer evaporation.
Within the last century, the lake has dried and filled up eight times.
This is because Chilwa is a vast but very shallow sump with no outlet, so its size is almost totally dependent on recent run-off from Zomba and Mulanje.
The lake margins are cultivated with rice during the dry season, and commercial fishing is also important.
Chilwa now produces roughly 20% of Malawi’s fish requirements, with some 35 villages with a combined 60,000 inhabitants pulling in more than 17,000 tonnes annually.
Mobile stilted fishing villages are set up on Lake Chilwa during the dry season.
The Danish International Development Agency donated funds to ensure the preservation of the lake and its wetlands, to improve the production of rice and other crops, and to help safeguard the habitat of the flora and fauna of the lake region.
The Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaption Programme (LCBCCAP) has been introduced to conserve the sensitive area, which is not only an important wetland for local fauna but also a major source for fish products in the region.
Lake Chilwa was designated Malawi’s first Ramsar Site, Wetland of International Importance in 1997, and supports massive populations of important bird species including flamingos, pelicans and the localised black egret, while the baobabs on Chisi Island host the likes of trumpeter hornbill and various snake eagles.
Getting there and away
Using public transport, and for overnight stays, the best access to the lake is at a fishing village called Kachulu, which lies on the western shore, roughly 30km by road from Zomba Town.
There is no bus run to Kachulu, but inexpensive minibuses and matolas leave when full from Zomba, or the turn-off just north of Zomba.
Guides from the Wildlife & Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM) will accompany you on a day trip using public transport.
From Kachulu, you can organise a boat to punt you across to Chisi Island, which consists of a couple of semi-submerged hills, and the ride takes about 30 minutes each way.
Bear in mind that dense reed beds pose a navigational hazard to inexperienced rowers, so don’t hire a boat without a local fisherman to take you around.
With your own 4×4 vehicle, you could explore the area by driving along the D221 east of Liwonde Town, then (at Nsarama) turning left onto the dirt road T393 to Mphonde village, 8km from the Mozambican border.