Julia's Photo Album of Lake Malawi - March 2006
For weeks before this trip, I had been reading up about the breathtaking beauty and natural charm of Malawi, the warm heart of Africa. So I knew that I was going to experience a magical place, but had no idea how strongly Malawi would capture my heart.
Eventually the long awaited departure date arrived. We flew Air Malawi from Johannesburg to Blantyre. After the 2 hour flight we arrived at the tiny Blantyre airport, where we quickly went through customs and then were able to change money. Rands and dollars are easily exchangeable for Malawi kwacha, but all three currencies are accepted as payment at most hotels and for curio shopping! However, kwacha are required at the Blantyre airport to pay the MWK200 departure tax when checking in for the flight to Club Makokola. All passengers may be searched and baggage must be opened on request. The usual connecting flight to Club Makokola takes about 45 minutes, but is weather permitting. Due to the rain that was falling as we arrived in Blantyre, we had to travel to Club Makokola by car instead. We were given a good supply of drinks and snacks for the road and sat back to take in the sights and sounds of Malawi during the 4 hour drive. Our friendly driver turned up the radio and we were on our way…
On arrival at Club Makokola we were shown to our rooms, where dinner was waiting. Worn out after the long day, we ate and hopped into bed in preparation for our early morning start the following day.
The delicious breakfast buffet at Club Mak is served overlooking the beach and of course, the utterly exquisite Lake Malawi. My first sight of the lake took my breath away - I had not expected it to be so big! Or such a brilliant shade of blue! Around 09h30 we departed Club Mak for the one hour road transfer to Cape Maclear - and Kayak Africa base camp. The drive passed quickly as we hurtled along sandy roads cutting through Malawi's vast green landscape. Locals on bicycles smiled and waved as we passed, and we stopped briefly at "Toys R Us" to negotiate prices of the intricately carved and impressively detailed wooden cars, trucks and construction vehicles on offer. We could barely contain our excitement as we arrived at Kayak Africa base camp
Kayak Africa Base Camp
Situated amidst various small beach lodges, Kayak Africa's base camp is warm and welcoming. The reeded buildings are tastefully decorated in typical Malawian style and we were offered cooldrinks as our "island briefing" began…
All cash and valuables not needed on the island are left locked in a safe at the base camp. The islands operate an honesty system whereby guests mark off drinks consumed from the bar - then settle accounts at base camp on departure. Orange squash, filtered water, tea and coffee are available at no charge, while soft drinks, beers, wine and legendary Malawi gin are charged for (at prices similar to SA - except for the wine which is rather pricey). It is a wonderful feeling to literally leave all your worries behind while you are on the islands.
We then selected a set of diving / snorkeling gear from the large assortment of excellent quality gear available. This would be ours to use for the duration of our stay. We were given a kayak briefing and opted to do the 4 km kayak to Domwe Island. Single and double kayaks are available and again you select a kayak which is yours to use during your stay. Luggage is transported on a boat, along with guests who prefer not to kayak. I was unsure whether I had the skills and ability to make it all the way by kayak, but decided to attempt it - and highly recommend this option! It was lots of fun and far less difficult than I had expected. Our guide, Patrick, was always nearby to encourage us and offer suggestions on how to improve our oar technique! The scenery is unbelievably beautiful and I think that it was during this 1 ½ hour journey across the water that I fell so in love with the majestic Lake Malawi.
As we pulled our kayaks onto the white sandy beach of Domwe Island, we marveled at the lush tropical vegetation all around us. The 5 timber and thatch tents on the island were well camouflaged and we felt as if we had landed on a deserted paradise island unspoiled by man. We hurried along the gravel paths through the trees and each chose our own unique tent - all with incredible views of the glassy lake.
As we gathered for lunch in the dining area, we realized that we had indeed found paradise! While the surroundings appeared so natural and untouched, the food that was served to us during our stay on Domwe was always fresh and incredibly delicious, with plenty for everyone. Meals consisted of freshly baked breads, a variety of fish, chicken and beef dishes, an assortment of vegetables and irresistible homemade deserts - such as chocolate cake, custard, and warm apple pie….Yummy! We were ravenous after our kayak and ate heartily, enjoying the tranquility and still awed by the scenery all around us.
Our days on Domwe were spent blissfully enjoying the beach, hiking the trails, swimming in the warm, clear water and snorkeling right off the beach. Divers can enjoy morning or afternoon dives. It is a great island to explore and also the ideal place to relax. Sundowners on the beach quickly became a favourite evening activity - the sunsets over the water are truly spectacular. Lazing in your hammock on the balcony of your tent is also a very tempting option after an energetic morning snorkel.
We were invited up to the kitchen on two occasions to spot the civet cats that inhabit Domwe Island. It was wonderful to see these rare, shy creatures so near to us.
There is no electricity on the islands, so as night falls hurricane lamps are lit along the paths and we were each given our own lamp to light our way. It was a magical feeling to sit on the beach and be dazzled by the millions of stars visible all around us. Here I really felt awed by nature in all its splendour and the term "barefoot luxury" could not have been more appropriate.
Domwe is the perfect place for a honeymoon, as couples can really unwind in the privacy and romance of the setting. However, it is also great for families, couples and groups of friends, as one can be as active or relaxed as one chooses to be - socializing in the dining area or on the beach or exploring the island at leisure. After 3 nights of bliss, we said goodbye to Domwe and set out for Mumbo Island.
The kayak from Domwe Island to Mumbo is 8 km, so most of us decided to travel by boat, but those who kayaked thoroughly enjoyed the crossing too.
I had not expected that anything could surpass Domwe Island, but Mumbo's unique character and different set up was just as appealing and I truly cannot say which island is my favourite, as they are both so incredible!
The Mumbo Island Camp is built on 2 "mini islands" joined by a wooden walkway across the water. The 5 timber and thatch tents with their hammocks and endless views of the lake, 2 toilets, an outdoor shower and a drinks area are situated on one island, while the main dining area, a further 2 toilets, the dive kit up area and the beach are on the other island. After a few hours of exploring the paths, one starts to feel right at home and totally relaxed.
As on Domwe Island, the toilets are eco friendly compost toilets. They look just like normal toilets back home, but there is no water in the flushing system, just wood shavings and an air compression system. However, they are completely clean and comfortable to use. The outdoor shower became a firm favourite amongst all. You ask one of the island men to prepare a shower and within minutes a bucket of warm water is hoisted into the tree in the reeded-off shower area. You turn the tap attached to the suspended bucket and Voila! A hot shower overlooking the endless expanse of Lake Malawi's turquoise waters - this is the stuff dreams are made of.
Also as on Domwe, the meals were absolutely delicious, fresh and varied. After hearty breakfasts of porridge, freshly baked rolls, homemade peanut butter (which we so good we all bought some to take home!), cheese, eggs, bacon and sausages, we chatted over a game of Bawo (a local board game) before starting the day's activities. Again, one can be as leisurely or as active as one chooses to be. A snorkel right around the island is excellent and we also did a lovely dive on the same route. Colourful cichlids and large boulders make for an interesting dive or snorkel in the warm waters. If you are lucky, you might be joined by an inquisitive otter - I was so surprised when an otter playfully pirouetted right before my eyes! We also discovered a tiny beach under the island, accessed by snorkeling through a tunnel!
Afternoons were spent reading the fascinating books about Malawi that are part of the "libraries" on the islands, enjoying a gin on the beach or chilling in our hammocks, totally at peace with the beauty of this awesome place. Walking on the trails, one can spot massive monitor lizards and several species of beautiful birds. Early morning or late afternoon kayaks around the island were very rewarding, as Mumbo has breathtaking sunrises and tranquil sunsets with the lake becoming a serene mirror that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Another huge thrill on Mumbo is the presence of many fish eagles which live on the rocks all around the island. We watched them plunging down into the water from the balcony of our tent, from our kayaks and while snorkeling. It is amazing to be so close to these fascinating birds. One afternoon we were taken around the island to a secluded beach where we snorkeled in the bay before climbing up a rocky slope for some adrenalin-charged rock jumping! An absolute thrill!
Mumbo Island is quite different to Domwe and I really suggest doing a few nights at each to experience each island's unique character. With a maximum of 10 guests on an island at any one time, this is the ideal destination for those who dislike crowds. Of course, arrangements can be made for larger groups to camp if they want to book out an entire island. This is a great place to bond, as a group of friends, a family or a couple. For honeymooners or those seeking more privacy, arrangements can be made to eat at your own romantic table - and of course within the area of your tent you are screened off by the natural foliage. Lake Malawi is the perfect place to get away from it all and truly relax like never before.
Lake Malawi offers a unique diving experience - fresh water diving and absolutely no dangerous sealife! The water is warm and clear and the fish are unlike any seen in typical Indian Ocean diving. Diving is quite relaxed, as most reefs are shallow - making for an ideal destination for beginner divers. Kayak Africa also offer a complete PADI Open Water One dive course! Truly a great opportunity to qualify in a safe and friendly environment. For qualified advanced divers, there are several deeper dives as well as a fascinating 30m wreck dive - an absolute must! Excellent quality gear is available and the dive masters are absolutely wonderful.
Information courtesy of Kayak Africa:
Mumbo Island and Domwe Island are part of the Lake Malawi National Park. The National Park is the first fresh-water marine reserve to be proclaimed on earth, and was declared a Natural World Heritage Site in 1984. Lake Malawi contains the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world, probably well over five hundred with perhaps half occurring in the National Park area. Endemism is high (thought to exceed 90%) and the ongoing adaptive radiation and speciation (the actual process of evolution) within the lake is remarkable. Lake Malawi is unique and forms a separate bio-geographical province. It is estimated to be between three and twenty million years old. The lake is 600km long, 80km wide and over 700m deep; and is the southern extremity of the African Rift Valley.
Cape Maclear Lodge
Nestled among several small lodges in Cape Maclear, Cape Maclear Lodge is a good place to stop over for a night if you want to experience the local nightlife and do some shopping in the nearby market. The food was excellent and the accommodation clean and welcoming. One can walk along the beach to enjoy drinks at a local bar overlooking the lake - only downside is that one cannot swim in the lake in this area as the water is not really clean enough. However, it was lots of fun to party the night away with the locals!
We stayed at the fabulous Club Makokola on our first night and again on out last night, due to flight schedules. This extremely comfortable hotel is actually a great place to stay for a longer time - especially if you enjoy watersports such as skiing! The hotel offers sporting facilities, a wonderful restaurant and bar, TVs in all rooms, friendly staff, excursions and the most divine beach! The view of the lake can be enjoyed from a beach lounger, or from the swimming pool deck - and the water is lovely for swimming! I thoroughly enjoyed the short time we spent at Club Mak and highly recommend it as a holiday destination for families and those who prefer hotel style accommodation as opposed to the island camps. A wonderful place to combine with Mumbo and/or Domwe Island to truly experience the best of both worlds.
With Special Thanks
Special thanks to all those who made this wonderful trip possible:
AIR MALAWI - Sponsored flights
KAYAK AFRICA - Complimentary transfers and island accommodation, as well as meals, drinks and diving (especially Clive, Rob, Patrick, Uri, Marzi and Dan - much love to all)
CLUB MAKOKOLA - Complimentary accommodation and meals
CAPE MAC LODGE - Complimentary accommodation and meals
And the participating magazines with travel features as follows:
Style - June issue
Marie Claire - July issue
Your Family - August issue
Cosmopolitan - September issue