There's only one thing worse than the cold of a Canadian winter...
That's someone talking (or writing) about winter while everyone else is trying to enjoy the glorious Canadian summer!
How do you like to beat the winter blues?
Might we suggest Malawi?
Not long ago, I actually had the pleasure of meeting one Mike Varndell (left) in Toronto.
Mike is the founding manager of Malawian Style and a man on a mission to promote Malawi as a better value alternative to the more traditional African safari scene.
When we met, Mike was in the midst of a rather impressive itinerary, engaging with travel professionals in person and across North America and Europe.
But what's so special about Malawi?
Malawi is sometimes referred to as the Warm Heart of Africa, a reference to its particularly welcoming culture.
Despite being landlocked, its massive freshwater features and huge variety of Darwin-inspiring cichlids has much to offer in terms of beach and aquatic activities, including snorkeling, scuba, and more.
In recent years, Malawi has seen a resurgence in the number and variety of animals to be seen on safari. Parks Africa investment alongside a massive anti-poaching effort has allowed much wildlife to return to the area, including Big Five favourites.
Why Malawian Style?
Actually, while wondering how best to describe the why, it occurred to me that we'd be best served with a little interview style Q&A with Mike himself:
Shy: You founded the business in 2009, is there a particular person you couldn't have done without; someone who's inspired you or to whom you otherwise owe a great deal of your success?
Mike: Oh, there are so many people to whom we owe our success... We've such a great team and the group of guides is fantastic. We're always getting recommendations through our head guide, Eddie. You can see our team online but you remember last we met, I mentioned our sales manager Tapiwa? She had her first opportunity to travel outside of Africa during our engagement and did such a great job in Dallas.
We've also had volunteer help from people who've later gone on to support the business from abroad, during my travels I stayed with a former-volunteer, Abbie. She's helped us work through itineraries and refine what we're offering from another perspective.
We've had plenty of help with the website and now the business development has had a boost with an investor.
Shy: You're near-constantly on the road the last little while, as many entrepreneurs have to be. Is it always for the growth of the business?
Mike: I tend to always say, "never always for work, never just for play". I try to stick my travel together. I've got my brother's wedding in New Zealand in December, I'll travel through Singapore and meet with people and of course I've always got my business card with me. I do try to enjoy the lifestyle here in Malawi though. Last week I was in the bush, there's no mobile service and no Wi-Fi, no phone. I like to take the opportunity to learn about new lodges and new locations.
Shy: Malawi sounds great, but I know you were living in London [England] for a time, what made you leave in the first place?
Mike: Well, I went to uni [university] in South Africa, I needed to head to a market with a decent currency in order to start up a business.
Shy: Was there a Eureka! moment? Something that inspired you to leave London?
Mike: I think I always wanted to get into tourism, I did consider opening a lodge myself. When it came to planning the business it became clear that supporting the existing lodges was far more efficient.
Shy: What has been the most exciting change you've seen among the travel community in Malawi since you've started Malawian Style?
Mike: A lot, so much has changed. There were massive problems when we started, fuel, oh. There was always a shortage of fuel and we'd have to queue [line up] for days. We've seen things grow in the group sectors, the FIT [Foreign Independent Tours] from mid to now high end [value]. The infrastructure in the country for roads and now air links, it's far better. We're really well connected to Zambia for air link now.
People are just more aware now of Malawi as a destination and seeing the incredible combinations of travel with Zambia.
Shy: What has been the one thing you're most glad hasn't changed much over the last ten years in Malawi?
Mike: That's quite a tough one [pauses]. I think it's probably that the local Malawians are still so friendly. Still the same kind of people. They're still the way they have been despite the influx of tourism. It's still a safe place and everyone is so warm.
Shy: Your business prides itself on its local focus, being sustainable, its community engagement, and you even have a fair amount of volunteer options for visitors. Which effort do you hold most dearly to heart?
Mike: I would like us to focus further on being more eco-friendly. That's where I'd most like to be involved. There are conservation funds, community funds... we've got to give back to Malawi. Make our success first so we can look to making another success.
Shy: If you could name an experience not to be missed in Malawi, something endemic, what might you recommend?
Mike: Ohh, that's a question for who's doing the visiting. I mean going off to rock pools, doing the water activities we've got here. You can go and track black rhinos by foot [walking safari]. Lake Malawi has 800 species of tropical fish. You can also get up and close with the local community, you can get some real immersion in the local towns and with the people.
If you're not already sold, here's a 15-second summary of Malawian Style
Want to learn more? African safari has never been more affordable, write us today!