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Flat turquoise waters stretched out on every side, the beach was the softest golden sand, and I had just finished snorkeling among shoals of kaleidoscopic fish. A wooden fishing boat, its sails patched with countless ill-fitting fabrics, creaked its way near the shore, and its captain raised his hand in a lazy wave. I returned to my villa, which was carved out of a granite hill, with its hand-carved furniture from native wood, simple but also whimsical and elegant, elegantly comfortable in the tropical heat. I could have been on one of the most exclusive Indian Ocean island retreats, but I wasn’t. The water clarity far exceeded what you would find in the ocean, there was no salt to wash my body and the atmosphere was somehow even cooler, a more exclusive touch. 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 return to Nyasaland. In 1903 they built a great cathedral, the largest in Africa and on the same scale as Westminster Cathedral. But there is no longer a Nyasaland, and this small island never became the heart of a larger Christian empire. He has been dormant for the past hundred years, living off the fish of the lake, cut off from the changes that have affected mainland Malawi and isolated from the 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 faintly echoing from its great tin roof. There’s no need to wait for a service to mingle with the locals, as there are plenty of smiling faces at the island’s only pub, next to the market in the main town, selling ice-cold bottles of ‘Greens’, the local beer.
With its friendly fishing villages, cultural heritage and excellent beaches and diving, I really thought Likoma Island would be the highlight of my visit. But it was even better to come. A 20-minute speedboat ride took me to the village of Combue in Mozambique, probably one of the sleepiest border crossings in the world, with chickens wandering in and out of the customs post and a church riddled with hundreds of bullet holes dating from the period civil. war. The language was Portuguese, the name of Lake Malawi was changed to ‘Lake Niassa’ and the atmosphere slowed from calm to almost comatose. An official waved a stamp on my passport and I was free to speedboat another 25 minutes to Nkwichi Lodge, set on a wide beach of crackling white sand with beautiful views over the lake as the sun set over the layered hills of Malawi. Low-key owned and gently 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 explaining the history of the region and recent reminders of Mozambique’s 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 are available to borrow, with or without a Nkwichi paddler providing power from the back, and you zip past the bush with occasional glimpses of villages and wooden fishing boats. With no crocs, 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 on mainland Malawi, I drove to Liwonde National Park, four hours traveling through classic African countryside through villages built of reeds and packed mud and over wobbly bicycles carrying lockers or half a field’s worth of produce on their backs. . Liwonde National Park is located around the Shire River, where there are elephant and hippopotamus, crocs everywhere and thousands of birds. The park has no big cats, buffalo or giraffe and with Zambia so close, it is unlikely to ever attract keen wildlife watchers, but the birds are magnificent and Mvuu Lodge, tented on the edge of a lagoon, is a great to spend some time. day, 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 shocking enough, but the rooms heated by the wonderful log fires were a pleasant surprise. The landscape was transformed into a place of pine forests, ferns and flowers; and for a moment I felt as if I had been transported to the Scottish Highlands, but for the eland, bushbuck, and reedbuck dotted through the countryside. Hiking, 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 distinctive plants and a host of birds to see. I also visited Vwaza National Park, an overlooked oasis for elephants that thrive on the fringes of a small tourism industry. The game viewing was in a wonderfully clapped out Land rover, missing the windshield 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. It’s easy to get to the Lake from Zambia – the journey time is about half a day – and there are excellent opportunities for relaxing, diving or canoeing in the area. However, the rest of Malawi has a lot to offer. It doesn’t offer the wildlife of some of Africa’s other destinations, so it’s not suitable for first-time safaris and can’t provide high-concentration game viewing, but it does offer a fascinating view of rural Africa in the way more intact. and inviting, a friendly and unspoiled place where tourism is a novelty and the sight of a vehicle – let alone a safari vehicle – often inspires awe.
It also offers some of the best beaches and beach lodges I’ve ever stayed at. Forget the Indian Ocean. The next time I take my family on a beach vacation, it will be in Malawi.
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