The last leg of our trip - time to relax after intense safari travel. And what a way to chill! Lake Malawi is the place of dreams. Little to no tourists, it felt like being lost in the Caribbean Islands. To read about Part 1 (here) and Part 2 (here) simply follow the links :)
Day 7 - Wednesday 24th April 2019 : Island Life
We woke up at 5am, used to Safari time. What a luxury to slip back into Morpheus’ arms (God of Sleep…). I now sit opposite the lake just after sunrise, in the cool breeze we would have loved to have outside, admiring this tropical paradise. It is truly beautiful. Lush green trees outline the island opposite the lake where were are - I see colourful birds fly all over the place. A very serene atmosphere.
Breakfast was amazing - food here has been really good overall. Loaded up on pancakes, banana and papaya, we checked out and set off towards the famous Cape McClear - “Cape Mac” for the locals.
Road was pothole paradise, and silently I prayed for our suspensions, relieved as we arrived before 10am. Our boat shuttle for Mumbo Island was due at 10:30, and with the other one at 3pm, didn’t want to miss it.
Our very first plan had been to spend 2 nights in Monkey Bay, then drive north to Nkhata Bay for two nights. Knowing it was a long drive (about 8 hours) and based on our previous two long drives, we prioritised spending time out of the car rather than being stuck somewhere. So we treated ourselves and booked 2 nights on Mumbo Island.
I finally had the opportunity to have some skirts made - the women here wear beautiful long skirts of colourful fabric and i’ve been dying to get some. We found a place with fabric, the guy and his uncle took my measurements and assured me the skirts would be ready upon my return to the mainland.
The Lake is quite something. The only similar expanse of water I’d seen was Lake Kivu, bordering Rwanda and the DRC, but it was no where near as clear as this. It looked like the Mediterranean, same colours, loads of fish and rocky shores.
Arriving at Mumbo, a paradise 10km from the mainland shore with no electricity and the basic minimum, we striped into swimwear and were on te beach in record time. Kayaking, snorkelling, sailing, hiking…this place has it all. It is almost 100% fossil free, a serene eco “lodge” where life is outside, and bungalows are open on the lake. And…no contamination.
Conservation challenges also exist in this slice of paradise - the lake is partly contaminated with Bilharzia, a worm that infects human hosts through water, kept alive as it inhabits an intermediate host - a snail living in the shallow parts of the lake until eggs are released in water. The Lake was Bilharzia free until a few years ago: human development and increases in population had an impact on both the hygiene conditions around the lake (eggs are passed in urine and fecal material) and overfishing species of fish that prey on these snails and thus reduce the risk of the parasite surviving in Lake Malawi. Being a national park, fishing activities are restricted to limit overfishing, and islands dedicated to conservation and tourism such as Mumbo have a 100m no go zone - often the source of conflict as locals consider this their territory, denouncing inequality and unfairness.
Amenities are in line with maintaining a very minimal carbon footprint - bucket showers, filtered water from the Lake, drop toilet with wood scraps as a flush….it’s beautiful, raw and basic. We love it. Not to mention the food….
We dedicated the afternoon to snorkelling and kayaking around Mumbo, though the light disappears fast and early here. So many different species and shades of colourful fish swam around us in the water, and I was on the lookout for crocs. Paranoid maybe but since last September when a croc was found on the island, snorkelling is not permitted without a guide.
The island staff also organise sunset cruises ( a fishermen’s boat - basic and efficient) and as the sun was setting I suddenly understood where Lake Malawi got its nickname from. The ‘Lake of Stars’ lay before us in full glory, true to its name chosen by Livingstone as he saw the fishermen’s lanterns at night, attracting fish to the surface. Today, lanterns have long been replaced by LEDs that glitter all night long under the Milky Way. Which made for some perfect astrophotography after a delicious dinner. Life is relaxed here, a big change from our last week. Maybe too relaxed even…
Day 8 - Thursday 25th April: Cichlids in Heaven
Orange rays of sunlight filtered through the canvas of out tented bungalow, what a sweet way to wake up. As this was a last minute (literally booked it the same morning we arrived) decision, we slept the first night in the ‘family unit’, that isn’t on the Lake like the other bungalows, and is a tent, as opposed to an open bungalow. It was nonetheless very cosy, though we were excited to move out later that day.
Initially wanting to hike before breakfast, out laziness got the better of us, and after a deliciously filling meal, we set off. Monitor lizards and Rainbow Lizards everywhere! The odd snake here and there - supposedly harmless. My ankle is still a bit fragile (sprained it two weeks ago in Kenya) but it was fine and supported me through boulder, thickets and Fig Tree roots.
We checked in our new room, literally on the Lake, the hammock just on the deck overlooking the water. Robinson’ s deluxe hut. Loads of little critters inhabit the bungalow - ants, geckos, lizards, bats…our neighbours for the night.
Snorkelling around the authorised area (can’t go too far without a guide….apparently, a croc was spotted last year on Mumbo. It was removed but security has since then been doubled.) Amir and I played around with my underwater housing case. I had a little mirrorless Canon camera that always travels with me as backup, and that I use for underwater photography. It’s not easy, and most of the attempts are proper fails. Exposing underwater is a bit of a challenge, I find - I have no exterior flash, and then floating around impacts stability. But, for every 20 bad shots, 1 really nice one stands out.
I think we had to be rolled away from the table after lunch. The spaghetti Bolognese gave us serious food babies. We suspect that the tomatoes here are the main reason for the food’s tastiness- they’re used in everything, and are SO juicy. Ruby red, full of taste, they’re an important part of the Malawian diet, and with reason.
Around 3pm, we went for a snorkel, with a guide - Toko, one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met - who took us to two spots. The water was choppy all day and there were very little cichlids (species of fish in the Lake that come in all shapes, sizes and colours) the first time. At the second spot, more protected from the wind, and where a couple of Fish Eagles had set up a nest, it felt like we were in an aquarium Hundreds of colourful and dazzling little fish surrounded us, dashing in and out of the rocks they fed on. Lake Malawi is one of the richest Lakes in the world, the Cichlids speciation is comparable to the Fincha speciation and diversity in the Galapagos Islands. It’s estimated another 300 species of fish await to be discovered here, with already over a 1000 identified.
For sunset, we decided to hike to the island’s highest point - Pod Rock, a good 20mins from camp. We had it to ourselves (unsurprisingly) and what. A. View. Equally the only part on the island with mobile service. Stupidly, we sat on this beautiful rock with a jaw dropping view, catching up on work. What a sad thing to do.
Whilst we didn’t miss the sunset (only just), it was more what happened after that gripped us. All the fishing boats turned their lights on. In front of us was the true Lake of Stars as Livingstone had observed. The Lake was glistening with little white lights as the sky slowly turned from blood orange and pink to inky blue.
We were both blown away, expectations and minds , with Lake Malawi, and the country as a whole - a paradise no one knows about, filled with exciting projects and ideas. I’m curious to see how this little country will change in the years to come. The people’s warmth was especially comforting - a home away from home. Their gentleness and kindness are widespread and genuine, and deep down, we know we need to come back.
The hike back was in pitch darkness and had an eery feel to it. Quick bucket shower (water heated from the sun) and we rushed to dinner, eager for another deliciously cooked meal.
Day 9 - Friday 26th April: Banana pizza and Malawian skirts
Spending our last night almost on Lake Malawi, woken by the rays of the rising sun, was an absolute dream. The bamboo hut was completely open and only the mosquito net separated our beds from the jungle.
The sun was mostly hidden being clouds, but golden rays escaped, piercing through light greyish blue. We got ready for our hike - the Island has lots of different trails, and we set off to explore its unknown parts. My ankle was coping surprisingly well, and as we reached one of the coves, we were silenced by the beauty of the scene in front of us. A Fish Eagle was perched on the highest rock, basking in golden light. The water was a dark emerald shade, and nature was slowly waking up around us.
We made sure to be in time for breakfast though, as the few guests on the Island (us included) would throw themselves on the buffet as soon as it was ready, resembling a bunch of hungry hyenas. Two boats depart from Mumbo, one at 9:30am the other at 2pm. With our flight at 2:40am, we chose the latter, accepting to drive most of the road to Lilongwe at night.
As Amir napped, I spent time in the hammock, reading about the Island and Malawi’s fight against illegal charcoal. Our little terrace was full of sunshine during the morning, and I rocked the hammock gently to the sound of waves and Fish Eagles, circling nearby. Their melodious cry echoed around us, a proper treat. 98% of Malawian households rely on charcoal for fuel and energy, yet almost 100% of that charcoal is illegal. Not only for health and pollution reasons, but because trees are getting cut down at an alarming rate. Only two companies legally exploit charcoal, denoted as sustainable because they replant Lemon Oil Trees and Bamboo as they burn it - trees that grow exceptionally fast and that can purify any given environment, absorbing pollutants and contaminants.
It was a more or less cloudy day, but the sun still burned strong as we went for a snorkel, climbing rocks at the water edge (although my nickname has now become ‘Monkey’, I think Amir, with his need to climb a tree or a high rock, is much more apelike). I was aiming to go and swim for a kilometre, when halfway through, as I turn to start my 500m, my eyes catch something that literally made me jump out of my skin. I notice this reptilian, log-like creature undulating through the water about 20m away from me. It turned out to be a massive Water Monitor Lizard, but my first thoughts immediately turned to croc. Sort of killed my motivation to finish the 1K aha.
Lunch came and was over way too soon. The whole debate about Pineapple pizza was just completely blown away by the pizzas the cook had prepped for us - BANANA pizza. I literally died and came back. It was amazing. The butternut squash pizza was good, but nothing even remotely comparable to Banana Pizza.
We finished packing and said our goodbyes to the lovely, lovely souls we met on this Island. Kindness in the eyes, gentleness in the smile, sincerity in the voice. Malawi is truly the Warm Heat of Africa.
Miraculously, at the first attempt, our Supertramp started. We went to pick up the skirts I’d had designed along the way…and Amir stopped the engine. The next 20mins were spent having a go at the battery connector, until one of the locals came up with a spinner. A few attempts later and we were off, with a 4h journey ahead of us. When we stopped to refuel, we had to leave the engine on just because it was out of the question to stop until we reached Lilongwe.
Africa, your skies were on fire for our last sunset. Shades of orange, red, pink journeyed alongside us for a good 45mins, and the air smelled of the bush.
But as the light faded, it was a whole other story. People are everywhere on the side of the road in Malawi, walking or cycling. No lights of course. And at night, cars drive with full lights. Again, my level of respect for Amir was unlimited, as we drove about 2 hours in pitch darkness, our eyes violated by the upcoming cars.
We arrived in Lilongwe, hungry, tense, exhausted and a bit relieved. We met up with photojournalist Marcus Westberg for drinks after dinner (Marcus and I had connected on Instgram a while back and arranged to meet when we realised we were both in Malawi at the same time), talking all things travel, conservation, photography, and people. A very inspiring, welcoming and sharp man, it felt like meeting a friend.
It was time for our last stretch. Of course, the car didn’t start, and we managed to jam a small metal bar to jam the battery connector in place. We then managed to turn the car on and off at leisure…a beautiful feeling of triumph. The drive to the airport was smooth, and we napped in the car as we waited for Phillimon to pick us up. He was such a nice guy, with a good quality gar - Toyota is great - but that was falling to pieces. Amir tried to strike a deal with him - he needed to get it properly fixed for his next customers.
As midnight rolled by, the bag checkin opened…and for some reason it was suer complicated for them to make sure my luggage ended up in London. 45mins later, my bags were sent through, and well, we’ll see what happens. African airports are full of security checks. After sending the bags through the X-Ray and walking through the portique, our bags were then rechecked (opened) and we were physically checked - we being all passengers. But then it was 1:30am, we were exhausted, and our flight was delayed by 40mins. This is all a bit of a blur, as I recall slipping in and out of consciousness, properly waking only as we reached Nairobi.
An obligatory fresh passion fruit juice was necessary, and I had a Masala Chai to get my system up and running with a boost (probably one of the best ways to avoid falling ill for sure).