MALAWI – THE WARM HEART OF AFRICA

With Tanzania’s and Zambia’s famous national parks and Mozambique’s glorious beaches, Malawi has so far been left unexplored by tourists.

What we only hear about this small strip of land is its huge Lake Malawi (Nyasa) slicing through the whole country, its grim poverty and some serious corruption.

But we’ve decided to give it a go and tried to cross a border at Tanzanian Mbeya. First surprise was the inability to get a visa at the border ($70). We could only watch the British tourists swiftly going ahead (no visas required for the UK citizens). After lengthy discussions with the border control we were issued with some temporary papers and told to get our visas in the capital Lilongwe or we’ll land in prison. Glancing around a few officers with serious automatic weapons I solemnly promised myself to do it but not straight away. First we had the whole lake to discover. Lilongwe must wait.

There is only one main road from the north to the south and our first stop will be Karonga. Throngs of people line the road carrying serious loads on their heads. From time to time we pass other minibuses. Children smile, wave and greet us in English.

In Karonga cattle wanders along the road, people browse through second-hand clothes displayed near shops. Our aim is to get to a lively village of Chitimba on the lake Malawi shores. We’re not disappointed with stunning views.

The lake is like a shimmering blue sea and our road is winding up the rolling hills.

Our Hakuna Matata Camp has a lovely setting with a wide, sandy beach and lush hills on one side. We spend the whole evening frolicking in  crystal clear waters and then admiring the full moon rising above the lake. The site is very secluded, has a nice bar and good facilities ($10 per night).

Outside our camp there is a local market full of exquisite wooden carvings made mainly from ebony or teak and you can haggle with locals to your heart content. We spent the whole day choosing and placing orders and ended up with several masks, knives, elephants, rhinos, frames and even some colourful paintings.

The highlight of our stay there is a 25km hike to the missionary village of Livingstonia and the Machenwe waterfall. The hike takes our small group through a lovely countryside dotted with small fields of kassava, bananas and even some coffee plantations.

We follow a wide but pretty steep path to the top of a mighty hill.

The sun is fierce and we stop frequently to admire the lake views and quench our thirst.

Livingstonia, called after Dr David Livingstone is an interesting colonial settlement set up by the first Scottish missionaries in Central Africa.

There are only two or three pine-lined streets there with a few shops, schools, a hospital, Dr Livingstone’s museum and quite an imposing red brick church with lovely stained windows depicting Dr Livingstone and offering spectacular, panoramic mountain views from its tower.

On our way back we stop at a local restaurant. It is just a small hut with two tables inside where we are offered a local staple dish of ugali made from kassava and with bits of chicken and some kassava leaves. It hasn’t got a lot of taste but we’re now ravenous and exhausted.

On our way back there’s a small detour to the impressive Machenwe Fall which thunders 125 metres into the valley below. The cliffs and hills are covered by deep green tropical forest and groups of local children play loudly and wash their clothes in the stream and in rocky pools directly above the waterfall.

We climb down a small path behind the falls and reach a cave, where, as the story goes, local people hid from slave traders in the 19th century. The path down is very steep and slippery and it takes us another few hours to drag ourselves back to the campsite. Instead of lazying in hammocks we have to prepare and cook our dinner in a stone fireplace.  When finished it’s pitch dark and we can lie on the beach under millions of stars. It’s a perfect end to the exciting day.

From Chitimba we move on to the next stop – Nkhata Bay. It’s a lively place with houses crawling up the lush hillside and a  bunch  of markets, craft stalls and , suddenly, plenty of backpackers. It seems that all overland tours congregate in Nkhata Bay.

We move only a few miles south to the quieter Kande Bay and Mbamba village. Our campsite is big with bungalows, rows of showers, tent sites, a restaurant, a bar, kayak excursions and even horse riding.

Life revolves around the buzzing waterfront bar and on the beach. There is a small, rocky island just in front of us and fishermen’s huts are dotted along the shore nearby.

This place has a relaxed vibe and we wander around towards a village. We struck up a conversation with Gray who is happy to show us his place. We visit wooden huts hugging the shore and with hundreds of small silvery fish drying out in the sun.

Local Tonga tribe people are mainly fishermen and the shore is lined with their narrow dugout canoes. People show us their fish catches and how to mend their boats.

Gray takes us to his house and we end up sharing a lunch of kassava and fish with his family and friends.

We pass small kassava fields  or banana plots and , from time to time, monitor lizards dart across our path. We also noticed a chameleon, a few scorpions and some small monkeys screeching and observing us intently.

It’s a good place to relax for a few days and the highlight of our stay is roasting a whole pig and then feasting throughout the night.

We’ve even been taken to an island in one of the local canoes. The thing was really narrow and wobbled a lot. We totally relied on our captain Pink Floyd who stood in the middle and paddled furiously. We glided and wobbled through waves until reached the island rocks. I did not dare move even one bit in fear of overturning our unstable vessel.

I was amazed to hear that these guys venture up to 6 miles from the shore at night and use torchlight to keep in touch with each other. Seriously scary stuff!

We could admire a lovely view of our camp and green hills behind it. And the sun setting low over horizon and giving red hues to the lake was an unforgettable finish to our Lake Malawi adventure.

Now it’s only one stop in Lilongwe before we say good-bye to the friendliest people in Africa.

Lilongwe is a scattered low-rise city, not exactly the liveliest of places but has a handful of supermarkets and banks. On the whole there is not much to see apart from the old town and a wildlife sanctuary.

We never got to the consulate as were late for our flight back to Kenya. So we jumped in a taxi and hoped for the best. The officers were most bemused by our lack of visas and ordered us to pay the fee of $140 for two people. Our bad luck – we run out of dollars and only had some British pounds left. To our consternation they refused to take or exchange pounds. We had to go outside the airport and exchange the money in the street.

Desperate we ran back to the airport just in time to board the only plane in the whole airfield  taking us first to Lusaka in Zambia and then to Nairobi. A memorable finish to our African adventure.

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