Malawi: Chill zone


With the ongoing regeneration of its national parks and investment in tourism infrastructure, Malawi is quickly becoming a viable safari destination in its own right. What it offers that many other countries can’t, is its lake. So does this mean the country can now offer a viable bush and beach combination? On a recent twelve day tour of Malawi, John Hale spent a day at Mumbo Island to get a sense of what makes Lake Malawi so appealing.

Mumba Island: the perfect place to hang out following a safari in one of Malawi's many national parks

Mumbo Island: the perfect place to hang out following a safari (Photo by Aaron Gekoski)

(Published in Issue 67, Summer 2014)

Just take a handful of wood shavings and throw them down the hole.” I peered over a six-foot drop, charmingly framed by a ceramic toilet seat. Juliet, the island manager, demonstrated how to use my chalet’s core facilities as I became accustomed to my surroundings on Malawi’s Mumbo Island. I was surprised; there was no smell, no stench of you know what. And, as I looked on in amazement at perhaps the least glorious element of this opulent mound of rocks, I began to realise what a remarkable place I was in.

Mumbo Island lies within the Lake Malawi National Park, in the southern reaches of the lake. It promises (and delivers) that island solitude accompanied by golden beaches that you see in films. That said, it has no electricity, no Internet, no Wi-Fi, no gas supply and no mains water. And it is reached by a one-hour boat ride from the mainland, giving an immediate sense of the magnitude of the lake.

As I stepped onto the wooden jetty that tightly meandered around the curves of the shore, I snatched the first view of my chalet. Constructed entirely from wood lashed together with rope, the whole site is built so that it could be dismantled with ease, leaving no evidence of its existence within a year.

“The sun will be going down in the next hour… do you want to get out in a kayak and watch from the lake?” Juliet, a Malawi-born forty-something-year-old (didn’t look a day past 30!) who’d left a career in South Africa for island life, was keen to get me active and experiencing the most of what was on offer.

Frankly, hauling my weight across the water in a kayak was the last thing I wanted to do. I was shattered, but I was on a stunning island and I couldn’t miss it. We paddled 50 metres out and drifted, watching as the sun slowly sunk to the horizon, eventually dissolving into the water. I was in Africa, on a luxury island, and the sight of a sunset rich in an array of oranges, reds and yellows, was simply priceless.

As dusk fell we made our way back to shore, eager to be fed. I had given a half-hour notice that I’d like a wash, so that water could be heated on the stove. Unforgivingly fussy about the ‘oomph’ of a good water jet, I was concerned what to expect from a shower that was little more than a metal can with a proper shower head mounted to the base. Thankfully, it was made to the perfect temperature, and as the water raced out, relying solely on gravity, I wondered why so many modern showers paled in comparison.

Once refreshed, it was time for dinner. It was ‘Malawi night’ and a chance to sample local cuisine. Being in a country centred around such a vast expanse of water, I wasn’t surprised to be served fish – fresh fillets peeled from the batter in chunks like you see in TV ads. I relished every bite. With no electricity, the chefs were working only under solar-powered light, small lanterns little more complex than plastic bottles with an LED inside.

After two further – and equally impressive – courses, I opted for a little light round of Bao, a traditional Malawian game that uses seeds as counters, moved along shallow indentations in a wooden board. The winner is the player who manages to clear the opponent’s side. Quite how you do that, however, I couldn’t say. After 30 minutes of being shown the ropes by Nefta, I still had no real sense of what to do! However, beginner’s luck saw me rein champion over the island’s top scorer, so I left for bed while I was ahead.

Thankful for a freshly-charged lantern, I set off along the wooden bridge that stretched across the water to my island chalet. With each step it creaked with a disconcerting charm, my overwhelming sense of excitement (I was on an island in the warm heart of Africa!) mixed with the anxious concentration needed to keep steady on the wooden slats. My room had been prepped while I had been enjoying dinner, the freshly-turned bed framed by a mosquito net (hung for show – the island is too far from the mainland for the anopheles mosquito that carries malaria to survive). I settled in with the peace of mind that no phone call or email notification would wake me the following morning.

Roused by the smell of coffee, delivered discreetly by the staff, I decided to skip the full cooked breakfast. There was some exploring to be done!

There are not many truly wild places in Africa where it is safe to venture into the woods on your own, but on an island free of anything that can give you more than a slight scare, I was free to roam.

“Just help yourself, and try not to go too far out of sight… just in case!” Nefta said, as I stood before him dressed in floral shorts and a spotted T-shirt.

Soon after, just a short stretch up the narrow track, I decided to explore my own ‘path’, and twenty minutes later I was lost.

The island is no more than one kilometre wide, making it virtually impossible to lose your way – or so I thought. I stopped, tried to get my bearings, and, after clambering over a few boulders, eventually found the route back; the return journey taking three times as long as it should have done.

Just down from the main sitting area, the lodge has its very own beach. Snorkelling gear, kayaks, hammocks and deck chairs tempt adventure seekers making the most of the lake, and sun worshippers who want nothing more than to chill with a good book (also on offer).

The waters here are fresh, clean and free of disease or pollution, so this was the place to go snorkelling. Being within the Lake Malawi National Park, there is a 100m no-fishing zone in place around Mumbo, protecting the habitat, and the lodge takes an active responsibility in enforcing this. Lake Malawi sustains over 1000 species of fish, the most abundant being those from the cichlid family, which spawn around the rocks, their shimmering blue and emerald-green colours making them an exciting drawcard.

I pulled down my goggles and reminded myself that flippers go on only on arrival at the water and never before (lessons previously learnt from a flipper-related walking disaster in Thailand).

Donning a plastic mask simply heightens the anticipation of plunging into a frenzy of fish to admire, with the risk being that you’re greeted only with the sight of rocks and water. I wasn’t disappointed. Those luminescent fish we see in fish tanks around the world were here for me to admire in their natural home. It wasn’t just the little cichlids either. Utaka, a silver bass-like plankton eater, were all around, in shoals of up to thirty, ranging between 10cm and 30cm. Wary of my milky-white legs flapping around, they kept their distance, but I was still close enough to see their glassy eyes that appear to point in every direction other than forward.

I ventured a little further out, and as I did I spotted a catfish (kampango), clearly strayed from its estuary origins. Lake Malawi is fed by the Shire River, and often catfish head to the lake when the water is low. I must have been snorkelling for a good hour, but, as the lake bed started to drop away from under my feet, I decided to turn back. Enjoying the views as I returned, I floundered out of the water, exhilarated by what I’d seen.

Having spent just 24 hours at Mumbo Island, and with eleven days remaining on my visit to Malawi, I could already see why the country is becoming such a popular place to visit. The facilities were fantastic, the service was delightful and efficient. Being cut off from the connected world was refreshing: just what I had come for. Quite simply, my flying visit just wasn’t long enough.

The jewel in the crown of the country’s tourist attractions, Lake Malawi is 365 miles long and 52 miles broad, earning the sobriquet ‘the calendar lake’. It is popular for its sandy beaches and extensive water-based activities.

Lake Malawi National Park:
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1980s, Lake Malawi National Park covers 95 sq km of land and water at the southern end of the lake. This includes much of the Nankumba Peninsula and nearby islands, plus their surrounding lake waters.

What to do:
Snorkelling, diving and other watersports are widely available. Sailing, kayaking and windsurfing are offered at several beach-side resorts, and some motorised sports are available. Out of the water, the coast and islands can be explored on foot or bike safely.

Where to stay:
Most lakeside hotels are found in the south. The Mangochi–Cape Maclear stretch provides a variety of options to suit all budgets, highlights being The Makokola Retreat, Norman Carr Cottage and Pumulani, Danforth Yachting for great watersports, and Mumbo and Domwe islands. Senga Bay, east of Lilongwe, gives access to Blue Zebra Island Lodge, and the Sunbird Livingstonia Beach. Further north, options become more sparse until Chintheche, where  Chintheche Inn and the family-run Makuzi Beach are favourites. Likoma Island is home to the luxurious Kaya Mawa and the mid-market Ulisa Bay Lodge. Likoma also gives access to Nkwichi Lodge on the lake’s Mozambique shores.

When to visit:
May to November is seen as most attractive, with chances of rain slim and daytime temperatures in the mid-20s (Celsius). November sees the peak, with temperatures in the 30s, though downpours become more likely.

Getting there: 
Roads from Lilongwe/Blantyre to Cape Maclear are good (transfer time around 3-4 hours), with twice daily boats to the southern islands taking an hour. The M5 lakeshore road is also good tar. Likoma Island is easiest reached by light aircraft, though there are boats going across from Nkhata Bay.

Further information:
Malawi (Bradt Travel Guides); for full travel advice and extensive information. Download The Best of Malawi brochure (free).