Don’t get me wrong- I simply adore safaris. Don’t we all? But sometimes; just sometimes, the long days and the interminable heat conspire to wear you out.
I had just spent an awesome week’s worth of wildlife viewing in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park on the banks of the Shire River, but I was tired and utterly bushed from the bush.
It’s the lack of sleep that gets you in the end – all those early morning game drives and long drawn out nights where unseen things (with teeth) snuffle at the tent flap.
So; when my Safari came to an end and it was time to leave, the thought of supping a fish bowl sized Pina Colada whilst lazing on a beach (without the risk of being death rolled by a crocodile) held obvious and immense appeal. Unfortunately though, unlike many other African holiday destinations, Malawi lacks a coastline. But it does have a lake, and a fabulous one at that.
A few days later, after boating up though The Shire and Lake Malombe, I found myself sprawled on the front of a tourist ferry and heading towards Mumbo island across the glassy blue surface of Lake Malawi.
Trailing my hand in the cool clear water, I stared up into a sapphire sky and watched a pair of fish eagles circling just above.
They wailed like seagulls, and then, much to my surprise, one of them landed on the railing next to me and made a lunge at my sandwich.
“The fishermen here will sacrifice their catch to the eagles if a tourist is willing to pay” said the old boat driver through a toothless grin “It’s a good way to get a photo, but some of the eagles have become quite demanding”
I held my food close to my chest and stared back at the bird who was piercing me with his beady little eyes.
“Its peanut butter” I said slowly to the eagle “Your supposed to eat fish”
He cocked his head, ruffled his wings, pooped on the deck and then took off to the skies once again.
The fresh open expanse of Lake Malawi (or lake Nyasa as it is still sometimes called) was certainly a welcome relief after the scrub and dusty heat of the bush. The cool breezes ruffled my hair, and I was lulled into a state of blissful relaxation despite the near mugging by an eagle.
I imagine Livingstone had felt a similar sense of calm when first he laid eyes on the place back in 1859… After all, he had just come from a rather long safari himself and was probably also in dire need of a sun lounger and cocktail.
“The finest lake of a thousand glittering stars” he is rumored to have said of the water’s shimmering qualities. “And most certainly one of my favorite places in Africa”
At 29600 km2 Lake Malawi is almost the size of Belgium (but of course far more interesting). It is nearly a kilometer deep in places and measures 365 miles in length and 52 miles at its widest point (hence its other common name- the calendar lake)
Its also the third largest body of water in Africa (after Victoria and Tanganyika) and the ninth largest in the world. But what really sets Lake Malawi aside from all other fresh water ponds is the 500 or more indigenous fish species that live there and nowhere else on earth.
Its quite ironic really that Malawi, being a landlocked country, is in fact a nation full of fishermen.
“Without fish. We wouldn’t be Malawians” said Captain toothless as we drew up to the shallows of the tiny Mumbo island. “They are a very important part of our diet and our economy”
“Now why don’t you go for a snorkel whilst I sort out the anchor”
So I leapt over the side and instantly found myself in a sub aquatic world filled with colourful fish, the likes of which I had not seen outside of a tropical aquarium.
There were blue ones and green ones and red ones and yellow; and there were white ones and striped ones whilst others had spots.
The water was balmy and clear and I spent a quite a few pleasant hours drifting around before my ever increasing desire for a cocktail finally drove me out onto the beach.
Mumbo island, my ‘chill out’ destination for the subsequent few days, is probably the nicest of the many islands dotted throughout lake Malawi, and is certainly the most romantic by far.
There are no crocodiles or hippos or bilharzia to spoil the idyllic nature of its secluded beaches and warm clear shallows, and unlike the nearby mainland tourist area of Cape Maclear, there are no crowds either.
“It’s a romantic spot isn’t it” said Ryan, the Mumbo camp manager rhetorically whilst we stood at a bamboo bar and supped on pink coloured girly drinks
The tiny sheltered beach and shallow waters were peppered with a smattering of what I assumed to be honeymooners, or at the very least, folk having affairs. They gazed at one another in that rapturous way reserved for couples who don’t really know each other that well yet.
“Go lounge on the loungers, have a snooze, or if that’s not your sort of thing” continued Ryan. “you can always go explore. I’m going for a paddle, would you like to come along?”
I politely declined in favor of a few more cocktails, a Daniel Steel novel and a very comfortable hammock.
Mumbo is a small affair; a little pile of boulders coated in forests, and for want of a few palm trees, could easily palm itself off as a Seychelles island. It can be hiked around in less than an hour and circumnavigated by paddle in about the same.
Each chalet (there’s just one hotel on the island) is ‘privately’ situated so that the romantically inclined can snog outside on the deck without getting caught. At night time, because there is no electricity, the whole place is lit up with oil lamps and candles.
All in all, it’s the perfect venue for that special ‘castaway’ experience but without the need to eat flotsam or drink your own urine to survive.
After spending the best part of two days doing pretty much bugger all, I finally decided to go out on a kayak…and jolly nice it was too but for a few uncomfortable encounters with honeymooning couples.
Being a ‘romantic’ sort of place, I inadvertently found myself needing to silently back paddle away from all manner of hidden coves and secret caves due to the presence of love birds. I did see some Otters (which was nice), but they too were mating, so I left them alone.
To avoid further embarrassment, instead of staying close to the island, I paddled further out into the lake towards a group of local fishermen who had gathered off shore in their tiny dug out canoes.
They were fishing using mosquito nets, pulling up all sorts of colourful and tiny specimens in the process.
“You see some hot action over on that island sometimes” said the leader, peering through his binoculars towards Mumbo “You want a look?”
I was just about to tell him I didn’t think it proper to spy on romantic couples, but before I could, the man proceeded to hurl a deceased fish into the air.
Instantly, a large white eagle appeared from where the man had been looking with his binoculars and sailed over to scoop up his meal.
He circled us with it in his talons; once; twice; and then he pooped on the front of my canoe before sailing off towards the mainland.
It was a magical experience. Bird cack and all.
That evening; my last in Malawi; I sat upon my balcony overlooking the lake and watched the setting sun turn the sky to ochre and the water to mauve. Adolescent monkeys played on the rocks in the dwindling light whilst down below me, a fleet of dug out canoes floated out from a little fishing village to the south. Each one was illuminated by a row of gas lanterns; fishing lures I presumed; and whilst they glided over the glassy surface through a pink and subtle mist, the men’s singing voices, rich and rhythmic, floated up to me like harmonious ghosts.
The fish eagle I had got to know so well circled above them and cried his plaintive cry.
It was a magical, and in that moment I truly understood what it was that Livingstone so loved about Lake Malawi.
I sat there until long after sunset and watched the night sky play like glitter on the lake of a thousand stars and made a promise to myself to return one day.
Only next time, I’ll be sure to bring my wife….