Travel Journal: Malawi and it’s Lake of Stars

Jimny in the Pine Plantation of Nyika National Park

Having survived the border crossing at Chitipa, we were eager and ready for our overland Malawi adventure, but first a stop in at Shoprite in Lilongwe. Trusty Shoprite has been located in every major town that we have passed through on our trip thus far and we’ve been well impressed by the cleanliness of the stores and the fresh produce available which certainly makes restocking supplies along the way much easier for overland travellers. 

Diving and Fishing in Cape Maclear

The drive through to Cape Maclear is long but softened by the spectacular views you are afforded as you drop down the rift valley. We arrived after dark and awoke the next morning at Fat Monkeys Camp in Cape Maclear curious about our surroundings. Stepping out of our tent we gazed out over the vast waters of Lake Malawi cast in a soft pink glow from the rising sun and studded with islands forming part of the Lake Malawi National Park.

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Quite taken aback by the view and eager to get a closer look, we edged forward towards the beach at which point the tranquil beauty that we had awoken to was quite abruptly ended as a dozen touts and vendors, sensing fresh Mzungu meat, came running up to us shouting and waving around their wares. This would be our introduction to the unwritten rule governing relations between the hustlers and the Mzungus in Cape Maclear –  if you remain hidden deep inside your camp you are unlikely to be disturbed, however as soon as you are within a few meters of the beach you are fair game and can reasonably expect to be hassled. When imagining Lake Malawi we had both conjured up images of pristine, clear water. We would therefore suffer another shock when we glanced up and down the beach to find every Tom, Dick and Malawian taking a morning bath and washing their laundry and cooking pots. Of course there needs to be a reasonable measure of understanding in that the lake has been used for this purpose since the time that people first moved into the area, however the difference being that Malawi is now ranked the fourth most densely populated country in Africa.

If you are keen on diving this area we suggest HEEED Divers located at the Eco lodge. They are part of an NGO endorsed by WWF which among other initiatives funds research of the well-known Catfish and Cichlids of Malawi. Looking at a map of all the dives sites in the area it was clear that this operation dives numerous sites not covered by their competitors and we were faced with a tough decision when choosing which site to dive. At US$35 a dive (cough, cough, splutter!) we had to limit ourselves to one dive but surfaced with the feeling that the money was well spent as the giant boulder formations are so different to anything that we have dived before.

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Another activity that we thoroughly enjoyed was renting a kayak and paddling around the islands listening to the distinct call of numerous resident fish eagles. Although it would be more correct to say that I paddled and Gary spent a leisurely morning casting his fly line. After some time without so much as a nibble on the fly we headed back to shallower waters and glanced down to find the reason behind this problem as well as the stark lack of aquatic life on our dive. Fishing nets were everywhere. There is a restriction on fishing within 100m of the reserve which includes the islands, however there is also a lack of parks employees to enforce this regulation and as such locals are taking advantage and the aquatic life is diminishing rapidly. Seeing the vibrant, colourful fish caught up in the nets was heart breaking but the fishermen were watching us closely and we had been warned that they are very hostile towards anyone who interferes or tries to cut out their nets. Cape Maclear is undeniably a place of much natural beauty, but it is hard to escape the harsh impact of the residents on the surrounding environment.

Overland Malawi – Heading North Up the Lake

Arriving at Senga Bay we spent the night at Cool Runnings, home of the hippies and then moved on to Kande Beach Camp. Looking out over the lake at Kande Beach you have to remind yourself that you are not looking at the ocean as the water stretches as far as the eye can see and waves crash up onto the beach. At night the lights attached to the local fishing boats twinkle on the dark waters giving rise to the name “Lake of Stars”. This is a great spot to spend a few days relaxing in a hammock and the activities offered include diving and horse-riding along the beach. Having both experienced childhood traumas involving a horse, a carrot and badly misplaced fingers we were happy to give that one a skip. One spot that we would highly recommend is Makuzi Lodge about 10km up the road from Kande Beach. Often in Malawi you’ll come across the catch phrase “welcome to paradise” and on arriving at Makuzi we felt that this phrase rang true. Set in a lush, tropical Bali-style garden the chalets and campsite overlook a crisp white beach bordered by rock outcrops providing a 100% guarantee on a hustler free stay. Camping here is a bit more expensive at $10 per person but while snoozing under the shade of one of the beach cabanas you’ll be glad of every cent spent.

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A short stop in at Nkhata Bay provided the opportunity to lunch at a local restaurant called “One Love” where the owner Kelvin, the Malawian version of Bob Marley, was eager to inform us that “happy food” featured alongside the local dishes on the menu. Whenever we have needed a night off from cooking we’ve opted to eat at local restaurants in nearby villages. Aside from the fact that the price of a hamburger at a lodge usually equates to a nights accommodation camping, eating local gives you a chance to immerse yourself in the surrounding culture and be among people who are just going about their daily lives away from the tourist hotspots. In our experience the food has always been well prepared, delicious and very reasonably priced.

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Our next stop was a one-nighter at Macondo camp in Mzuzu on our way up to Nyika National Park. Mzuzu is not much to write home about but it is home to a coffee den located on the main road going through the town where you can sample a blend of Malawian Arabica coffee produced on a small scale by surrounding farmers in the area.

Nyika National Park

The drive up the mountain to Nyika National Park and Chelinda Camp is long and arduous (6hrs from Rumphi village to camp), but upon arrival we were rewarded with panoramic views of expansive, rolling hills and the first sprinkling of wild flowers impatient to wait for the summer rains. Write ups on this area describe it as unique to any other reserve in Southern or Central Africa and it is often compared to the Scottish Highlands, a description which is appropriate given not only a similar landscape but also rather chilly temperatures. Considering that my mom was born and bred in Edinburgh and Gary is of Irish descent you’d expect us to have inherited a tolerance for colder climates but from dusk until mid-morning we were layered in clothes and either wrapped up in our sleeping bags or snuggled next to the camp fire. That being said, the Dutch overlanders were up and about at six o’clock in the morning wearing shorts and t-shirts.

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The area is not teaming with game but we were treated to a number of new species which included herds of Roan, large antelopes with extraordinary black and white markings on their face resembling a mask. The Chelinda lodge is picturesque against a backdrop of pine forests planted in the area during the 1940’s as part of an experimental plantation that fortunately never took off. A fishing permit will gain you access to three dams and a number of whiskey clear streams where Gary spent many enjoyable hours in pursuit of trout.

Overland  Malawi – the Climb to Livingstonia

Back down and around the mountain to our next stop, Livingstonia. We had a choice between staying at Mushroom Farm or Lukwe Camp, both positioned to offer travellers optimal views of the valley leading back down to the lake. However, in order to reach these destinations we would have to negotiate the famous Golodi pass which zig-zags its way up the steep incline through 22 hairpin bends. Fortunately our Suzuki Jimny’s short-wheel base allowed us to negotiate the bends without having to complete three point turns. Who would have thought that fifteen kilometers could take one and a half hours! Craft shops in Livingstonia even stock bangles that read “I survived Golodi road” which we thought appropriate. The road itself was carved out of the mountain in the late 1890’s under the supervision of Dr Robert Laws who was intent on furthering the vision of Sir David Livingstone and establishing a mission station on top of the mountain and away from the Malaria prevalent areas around the lake which had claimed the lives of so many of his Scottish compatriots. Given the length of time and dedication that this endeavour took, one can’t help but admire the man’s tenacity yet also wonder what the hell he was thinking?

If a 4×4 takes an hour and a half to summit the mountain one can only hazard a guess at how long a pair of oxen would take pulling a wagon of supplies. Even more startling was an old photograph in the Stone House Museum of a colonial woman reclining in a hammock attached to a long pole being carried up by four sorry-looking Malawians who were no doubt wondering if Christianity hadn’t come at too high a price. However, the local residents of Livingstonia are reaping the rewards of their ancestors’ hard labour as the beautifully crafted stone buildings dating back to the early 1900’s still house a hospital, school, university campus and church boasting the famous stained glass window illustrating David Livingstone and his two faithful servants against a backdrop of Lake Malawi. A visit to Livingstonia isn’t complete without a hike to the waterfalls and caves that were used to hide people in the area from Arab slave traders. If you can look past the local residents washing laundry in the pools above the falls, the area is cool and lush with remarkable views out over the valley. Proving ever persistent, we couldn’t help but chuckle when three touts approached us offering a discount on a guided tour of the waterfall, despite the fact that we were sitting a few meters away from the waterfall itself.

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If we had any notions that traversing down Golodi road would be easier than the ascent we were in for a surprise, fortunately however our next stop was just a few kilometres up the main lakeside road, Chitimba Camp. Reclining on the couches listening to old school hits from the 80’s and 90’s we both remarked at how different the feeling of north Malawi is compared to the more densely populated southern region. We had stopped in a small market just outside of the camp to stock up on the essentials (Carlsberg beer, milk, eggs, more Carlsberg beer) and found the shop owners to be much more amiable and willing to assist us. Going for a dip in the lake to cool off from the midday heat was a pleasant tout-free excursion and we were even joined by a few polite kids all diving under the water, their bare bums in the air, laughing and competing for the Mzungus’ attention.

We were also impressed at how innovative people living in rural parts of Africa can be when a Malawian mechanic was able to patch a slow puncture that we had incurred along the way by using a chisel, rubber mallet, an old piece of rubber and glue. However, it would be a customs official at a road block on our way up to the Tanzanian border who would prove to be the most innovative. Stopped in front of a boom gate we glanced over at the official slouched in a chair a few meters back from the road. Our initial hope was that he would not ask to check our documents or search the vehicle which is time consuming, however after a few minutes with no movement from the official our more pressing concern became whether or not he would even walk over and lift the boom gate. Slowly, a lazy arm reached to the floor and pulled on a well-positioned rope that was attached to the boom via a rudimentary pulley system. Expending minimal effort the customs official could raise the boom without having to extract his buttocks from his position in the shade. It was only a few kilometres later that we were able to catch our breath from laughing.