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Turquoise waters stretched out on either side, the beach had the softest golden sand, and I had just finished snorkeling among shoals of kaleidoscopic fish. A wooden fishing boat, its sails patched with countless mismatched fabrics, passed close to the shore and its skipper raised his hand with a lazy wave. I returned to my cottage, which was carved out of a granite headland, its furniture hand-carved from local wood, simple yet quirky and elegant, elegantly comfortable in the tropical heat. I could have been on one of the most exclusive islands in the Indian Ocean, but I wasn’t. The water clarity far exceeded anything you’d find in the ocean, there was no salt to wash off my body and the atmosphere was somehow even cooler, a touch more exclusive. I was on Likoma Island in Lake Malawi.
This island was first settled by Europeans in the late nineteenth century by Scottish missionaries, who made it their base to convert Nyasaland. In 1903 they built a huge cathedral, the largest in Africa and on the same scale as Westminster Cathedral. But Nyasaland no longer exists, and this tiny island never became the heart of a larger Christian empire. It has been dormant for the last hundred years, living off the fish of the lake, cut off from the changes affecting mainland Malawi and isolated from problems across the border in Mozambique. The mighty cathedral is still in use, but even at Christmas the island’s population would struggle to fill its aisles, their hymns echoing faintly from its massive tin roof. You don’t need to wait for a service to mingle with the locals, as there are plenty of smiling faces at the island’s only bar, next to the market in the central settlement, selling chilled bottles of ‘Greens’, the local beer.
With its friendly fishing villages, cultural heritage and great beaches and diving, I thought Likoma Island would be the highlight of my visit. But they had better come. A 20-minute speedboat ride took me to the village of Combue in Mozambique, surely one of the sleepiest border crossings in the world, with chickens roaming in and out of customs and a church with hundreds of bullet holes dating back to the urban era war. The language was Portuguese, the name of Lake Malawi was changed to “Lake Nyasa” and the atmosphere slowed from relaxed to almost comatose. An official waved a stamp in my passport and I was free to travel by speedboat another 25 minutes to Nkwichi Lodge, on a long beach of white sand so fine it creaked, with a beautiful view of the lake as the sun set over the layered hills of Malawi . Gently owned and run by Patrick and Wendy, it beautifully combines the beach focus of a Seychelles island with something much more African: friendly staff who seem genuinely happy in their work and the opportunity to practice their English, guides who explain the history of the area and recent memories of the Mozambican civil war, and a huge baobab tree 29 meters in circumference.
In addition to diving and snorkeling, canoeing is a great way to explore the coastline. Canadian canoes can be borrowed, with or without an Nkwichi paddler providing power from the back, and you zip past the bush with occasional sightings of villages and wooden fishing boats. With no crocodiles, hippos or river currents to worry about it would be suitable for any age of traveler and I have put it on my list of things to do with my family.
Back in mainland Malawi I drove to Liwonde National Park, four hours traveling through classic African countryside through reed-built, mud-filled villages and passing bicycles that wobbled carrying wardrobes or half a field’s produce on the back. Liwonde National Park is located around the Shire River where there are elephants and hippos, crocodiles everywhere and thousands of birds. The park has no big cats, buffalo or giraffe and with Zambia so close it’s not likely to attract keen wildlife watchers, but the birding is great and Mvuu Lodge, perched on the edge of a lagoon, is a lovely place to spend a few days, traveling up and down the river by boat and enjoying the atmosphere.
I then flew up to the Nyika Plateau, 2,500 meters above sea level. The drop in temperature was quite a shock, but the rooms warmed by lovely log fires were a pleasant surprise. The landscape turned into a swamp of pine forests, ferns and flowers. and for a moment I felt as if I had been transported to the Highlands of Scotland, but for the eland, roan, bassbuck, and redbuck dotting the countryside. Walking, trout fishing and mountain biking are the main activities here. There are also day and night game drives where wildlife sightings are generally limited to antelope, but there are many special plants and a myriad of birds to see. I also visited Vwaza National Park, a neglected oasis for elephants clinging to the edge of a tiny tourism industry. Game tracking was in a lovely Land rover missing the windscreen and most of the body panels, but it was a welcome step away from the increasing sophistication of the safari experience elsewhere.
Most visitors to Malawi only stay a few days, adding some beach time to a Zambian safari. The lake is easy to reach from Zambia – travel time is about half a day – and there are excellent opportunities to relax, swim or canoe in the area. The rest of Malawi, however, has much more to offer. It doesn’t offer the wildlife of some other African destinations, so it’s not suitable for a first-time safari and can’t offer high concentration game viewing, but it does offer a fascinating glimpse of rural Africa at its most untouched and attractive, a friendly and unspoilt country where tourism is a novelty and the sight of a vehicle – let alone a safari vehicle – is often awe-inspiring.
It also offers some of the best beaches and beach resorts I have ever stayed at. Forget the Indian Ocean. The next time I take my family for a beach break will be in Malawi.
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