A tour of Lake Malawi
‘It is happy days for everyone. Happy days folks!’
This is Matthews (his first name), guide at Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park – a nature reserve on the Shire River, flowing south out of vast Lake Malawi. No wonder he’s happy: the park is a haven. It teems with animals – from giant, lumbering elephants, to tiny, squeaking elephant shrews – offers jobs to local Malawians, and puts great big grins on the faces of tourists like myself, who arrive quite unprepared for its beauty.
Mvuu is the first stop along a route which will take me from the Shire River, north to the beaches and islands of Lake Malawi itself, then further north again to the wilderness of Nkhotakhota nature reserve, and finally the cooler, higher plains of the Viphya plateau. It’ll be a journey full of natural wonder and cliché-busting realisations about a poor but far from broken African nation. People are helpful everywhere you go in Malawi, making it a fun place to travel around. What the country lacks in infrastructure you can make up for by simply getting into the laid-back swing of things. You’ll always seem to get where you’re going, and it’s a place where it’s definitely worth taking the scenic route.
Matthews, for one, knows the value of taking the time to look. ‘The bush is my college,’ he states, while showing my photographer and me how much we still have to learn. We’re being driven – in a gargantuan four-by-four truck – through dense scrubland, within which, somewhere, black rhinos lurk. I strain my eyes, but the animals elude us – which is no bad thing. The severely endangered species was introduced to Liwonde in 1993, and needs close protection from predators. Being hard to spot is to their advantage. But we don’t leave the safari disappointed: our truck can barely make it back to base for the number of elephants, kudu, water buffalo, impala and baboons lining the roads.
Life’s a beach
It’s mid-morning the next day, and we’re on the road again. Our driver’s sweatbox Subaru taxi is bouncing through the dusty town of Salima, a few miles inland. Outside the lusher terrain of Malawi’s several nature reserves, there’s little greenery along the roads during the dry season – just a series of dilapidated huts, and the occasional town full of shops and bars with straight-talking names: Donna’s Eggs; Abdul’s Techno Centre; Uncle B’s Nightclub. We’re heading towards Kasankha Bay, on the lake’s shore, where we’ll wait for the boat that will take us to our next destination.
We’re staying for three nights on Nakatenga, the smallest of the Maleri Islands: a paradisical speck of land a short way off the shore.
By the time a speedboat arrives to pick us up, a late-morning breeze has chopped up the lake’s surface, and our ride is bobbing about in the surf at wading distance from the beach. Matt is the manager of Blue Zebra Island Lodge, where we’re heading. He’s also our captain. ‘Do you want to go fast?’ he asks. The only reasonable answer is ‘yes’, and within seconds we’re clipping across the waves at a speed completely out of sync with the normal pace of Malawian life.
We dock at a small bay on the island’s north side, where we’re shielded from the wind. Suddenly, everything is calm. The island itself is small enough to walk around in under an hour; its guests are accommodated in a string of swanky canvas tents, spread at intervals around its perimeter. We spend the days kayaking, snorkelling and water-skiing, then kick back with a cocktail as the sun goes down. My photographer starts playing Paul Simon out of his tinny iPhone speakers. The generator turns off for the night, leaving us in candlelight – the flickering wicks matching the twinkling stars above us.
Of bees and baboons
All too soon, we’re back on the mainland in a rickety taxi, powering up the road northward to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve on the banks of the Bua River. Our driver is Gift, a speed demon and reggae fan (like many Malawian drivers he’s got a stack of bootlegged cassette tapes in his car). ‘This district was developed because it was Dr Banda’s area originally,’ Gift explains, referring to Hastings Banda, who led Malawi to independence in 1964 then imposed a totalitarian regime on the country for three decades.
Gift speaks about Dr Banda without resentment, but there’s also a palpable note of optimism, of faith in the new order, in his voice. Things are looser now, the strictness which characterised Banda’s rule long gone.
We arrive at Bua River Lodge, a well-appointed camp on the fringes of the reserve. The river’s low during the October dry season, and the crocodiles are not happy about it. They flop and thrash about in what’s left of the water while we drink beers on a nearby rock. Clifford, our guide, assures us that he’s never witnessed a croc attack a human… yet. We’re better off looking out for the red ants who’ll try to bite our ‘soft parts’, or bees who appear shortly before sunset and ‘go for the eyes’.
I’m rather fond of my eyes, so I’m glad to see that Bua’s sturdy wooden huts house those now familiar canvas tents, with mosquito nets over the beds. Behind our hut there’s an outdoor shower, with hot water. Lodge staff keep a fire going under a makeshift water tower (an oil can on a stack of bricks) so that I can enjoy something close to five-star comfort while flashing the passing baboons.
Bua River Lodge is a wonderful place to stay. The dinners are delicious – think big tasty salads with decent wine (an expensive indulgence in Malawi). The views are stunning and the architecture of Bua’s grander wooden structures, like the dining room, is impressive. I picture the place in the rainy season, verdant and humming with life.
I get a wake-up call when I see a park ranger with a machine gun sat in the Lodge reception. It’s easy to get lost in the romance of a setting like this, but outside our tourist bubble there’s always the dangerous reality of the bush.
Up to the woods
Our final destination is Viphya, where the elevation makes for a different atmosphere to the scorched, dusty landscape of Malawi’s south. Here we’re in the forest. It’s a greener, hillier landscape, where trickling streams have carved out deep valleys and tall pines top the ridges. The climate is cooler and the mosquitoes are gone. It’s the perfect location for all kinds of outdoor pursuits, and Luwawa Forest Lodge serves as a good base for adventure. Hiking, fishing, kayaking, archery and mountain biking are all offered – though if you choose the bikes, you should be prepared to sweat if you want to keep pace with the Lodge’s ultra-fit guides.
Bird-watching is also a Luwawa speciality, and in the day we head out to see what we can spot. Not being a twitcher, I’m not particularly fazed when we spot an Anchieta’s tchagra, but I’m assured that some guests wait for weeks for a glimpse of this rare little marshland bird, which may become more elusive still if its habitat is stripped away. Running parallel with Viphya’s idyllic walking trails are bumpy, red dirt roads, along which logging trucks fly at perturbing speeds. The loggers are required to work responsibly, but there are still concerns for the sustainability of their operations. We come across a forest fire, lit to pare back the scrub, which laps at the edges of the trail. It’s an intimidating thing to be strolling blithely past a stretch of blazing undergrowth – one eye open for birds, the other for the prospect of being toasted like a marshmallow.
On the way back to the airport in the capital, Lilongwe, the landscape changes. The simplicity of lakeside life is gradually replaced by the bustle of traffic; the greyness of concrete; the buzz of the city. For once our taxi driver doesn’t have tapes in his car, so my photographer gets out his phone again to play Paul Simon. It’s an echo of something we’ll never forget: nighttime in the middle of Lake Malawi. A still moment beneath the turning stars.