Returning to the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’

“It’s a surprise” came the message from John over a year before my big ‘five-O’ was looming! Finally, 6 weeks before we headed off, the birthday holiday was revealed to be a return to Malawi, my old home in beloved Africa!

I hadn’t been back to Malawi for around 8 years so was really looking forward to the smiling faces of my friends and the heat of October! The day finally arrived and saw me racing around the garden with a hose pipe, filling up chicken feeders, finishing packing as the taxi turned up and generally panicking! (After decades in the travel industry I still get twitchy about leaving home, daft I know!).

24 hours later we were on the connecting flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe and I did feel a flutter of excitement as we descended through the clouds to the red earth and mud huts I could see below us … One thing I really love about getting off a plane in a small African airport is that there are no ‘sky bridges’ or coaches to drag you miles around the airport … off the plane and down the steps straight into the heat and ‘the smell’ of Africa! Musky, earthy smells mingle with cooking fires and into the evening wafts of jasmine and frangipane … heaven!

Smiling Zack (from Central African Wilderness Safaris, who I used to work for) met us air side and helped us through the frustrating queues at immigration and the chaos of the baggage hall. The excitement of being back ‘home’ was a little dampened by a 2 hour wait while we went in and out of the terminal building, had our bags checked (and sniffer dogged!) then waited in the stuffy small café with a warm drink, no mobile signal or wifi and certainly no air con… hopefully one day soon Lilongwe airport will complete it’s ‘renovations’ ....

Eventually, we were back on the boiling hot tarmac and being squeezed into tiny 4 seater Cessnas operated by Ulendo Airlink. There were actually 11 passengers so we were split between 3 planes and the pilots found it amusing to ‘race’ each other across Lake Malawi!

Landing on Likoma Island airstrip I was immediately struck at how ‘modern’ it seemed (the last time I was there was over 10 years ago and there was just a dusty airstrip with no building at all). There is now a full tarmac runway and an airport building with immigration, bar and toilets … but there is no water in the toilets, the beer is warm and the immigration office very confusing – welcome to Africa!

We were waiting for a boat from Nkwichi Lodge to collect us and as some other tourists had wandered off on their own agenda we sat outside with our beers and watched the world go by (or the world seemed to be watching us!). Lake Malawi’s only ferry service the ancient ship Ilala was docked in the bay – most of the goods needed on Likoma and indeed anywhere on the Malawi and Mozambique sides of the lake can only be traded via this weekly ferry service. On the beach were rows of fish drying racks and fishermen preparing their dugout canoes for the night shift. Eventually we set off as the sun went to bed and experienced a shall we say ‘less than comfortable’ boat journey into the night…

To get to Nkwichi Lodge from Likoma Island involves a very complicated process of being stamped out of Malawi (which we had only just been stamped in to!), crossing the water to the Mozambique shore, getting out of the boat to the immigration office at Cobue (which was closed as we arrived in the dark!), then another hour or so in a very slow boat to finally arrive mid evening into Nkwichi …. Tired, wet, still wearing our travelling clothes and grumpy (well, I was!). Don’t worry –when we book Nkwichi for our clients they wouldn’t go directly there from London in one trip!!

Valentine, Patson and the team at Nkwichi were really lovely, very friendly and happy to help. We were in the ‘honeymoon chalet’ (!) which was enormous and had it’s own private ‘beach’ area and a sundowner deck. They set up our evening meal by lamp light on the deck which was a delicious lake fish in a tomato sauce. Unfortunately, as the water is limited and fire heated, the bath they had poured for us hours before had gone cold and used all the water so couldn’t have a shower! Never mind, we were soon asleep anyway!


The next morning it was exciting to see our new surroundings in daylight … the large rooms have huge tall roofs to let the air flow but unfortunately, October is the hottest time of year so there wasn’t any breeze, which did make comfortable sleep a bit of a challenge!

Around 6 am there were screeching noises coming from our outdoor bathroom and baboons could be seen having a bit of a party …. A large male was getting angry with his reflection in the mirror over the sink and eventually decided enough was enough and smashed the mirror! They also grabbed a towel which was later found on top of a nearby boulder! When we told the staff at breakfast they seemed to think that this was a pretty normal occurrence and a few hours later they appeared with a replacement mirror and cleaned up the bathroom …

The day was spent relaxing and catching up on sleep after two days travelling and the chalet was constantly surrounded by wildlife – plenty of colourful lizards and some sunbirds, a gorgeous fish eagle (who had a look out tree right in front of our room), plus of course the offending baboons!

Later that day we had a swim and snorkel but the rocks around the chalet proved a bit of a challenge to get in and out … note to self, next time walk down the beach to a sandy, shallow part of the lake! Lake Malawi is home to thousands of colourful cichlid fishes, more commonly seen in tropical fish tanks in the UK … bright blue and yellow species flit around the rocks and further out shoals of small silver fishes can be found.


On the second day I decided I wanted to have a look at the local farm (which is sponsored by the lodge) and set off just after breakfast with Sylvia, one of the ladies from the lodge. (John very sensibly declined the walk …) Ten minutes in and I was beginning to think it was a big mistake … the heat was unbearable! Luckily Sylvia was carrying ice cold water and after about 30 minutes hiking through the hills along the lake shore we came to the little farm. It’s more of an educational centre for locals really than a working farm. They teach the villagers how to build their own ‘greenhouses’ and raised beds, make their own compost and fire fuel and recycle many items. I really loved a painting of a cockerel which was on their pin board but was told it wasn’t for sale … but I offered them a donation for the farm and persuaded them to part with him to join my flock back in Suffolk!

Back at Nkwichi I had a bit of a rest (and cold shower!) before we set off in kayaks to the ‘big baobab’ tree which is over 2000 years old. We had lunch here watching a pretty Bee Eater (who was actually eating bees!)

We had said we would do the ‘hike to the viewpoint’ late afternoon for sundowners …. A word of warning (I should have known better!) … when an African says “it is not far” or “it won’t take long” take what they say and at least double it! After what seemed like an hour of climbing up hill in the heat on very rocky scree and dry leaves, we reached the top of the ‘hills’ above the lodge and enjoyed our MGTs (Malawi Gin and Tonics) with some homemade cheese biscuits and watched the sun setting over Lake Malawi. We just made it back down to our chalet as night fell.

On our final morning, I woke at 6am to hear something beside the bed and found two cheeky monkeys on the bedside table! I chased them off but they spent the next two hours circling around and returned with their friends to try and share our breakfast (eyeing up John’s swimming shorts which were drying on a tree!).

Nkwichi Lodge’s boat was in the sick bay so Kaya Mawa had sent a newer, faster boat to collect us which was a relief! Back through the ‘dodgy’ immigration point at Cobue we finally got back to Likoma Island where we then had to wait again while our guide woke up the immigration officer (I kid you not) and called him to the office to stamp us back in to Malawi.

Back into the boat and round to the other side of Likoma and we landed into the sheltered sandy bay which is home to gorgeous Kaya Mawa Lodge. After a very welcome large MGT we were shown to our room ‘Mbamba’ which was right at the top of what felt like 100 steps on the top of the main rocky outcrop – it’s worth every step though, what an amazing room! A huge lounge and bedroom has windows which open out onto the lake (and sunset) with a private deck to the side with a lovely deep plunge pool and bathroom. And (oh joy) at night there was a fan!

 

The thing we loved most about our room was the amazing weaver bird colony which surrounded us, with one very special little male building his house hanging over our plunge pool! At this time of year, when the skies are building up to the rains, the male weaver birds are busy building their nests, trying all kinds of design work and flapping and squawking to attract the females! We spent hours by the plunge pool watching as our favourite boy as he plucked leaves and weaved strands of grass, he stripped off the whole branch above his nest, we assumed to ‘clear the runway’ for prospective wives to view the house! Colourful sunbirds and long tailed African Paradise Flycatchers also flew through the branches of our ‘tree canopy’, it was a little oasis in the dry surroundings of the island villages.

Likoma Island has a long and very chequered past … having been a loading point for the slave trade and before that a trading point for explorers, Arabs and adventurers from the Far East, most of the population had fled by the late 1800s due to Malaria back to Malawi’s ‘mainland’… Into the 20th century and the advent of the ferry service meant Likoma was once more accessible and to this day, the people of Likoma have family from Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi who now move freely between these destinations.

Kaya Mawa is a very chic, relaxed beach lodge, decorated with a blue and white Mediterranean feel but with lamps, chairs, pictures and fabrics all locally made. Many of the furnishings here (and in other accommodation throughout Malawi) are made by Kutundu which is a local project funded by Kaya Mawa and the company who markets them ‘Green Safaris’. We visited the nearby factory and it was fascinating to see what happened to the ‘rubbish’ from the lodge including the glass bottles and pieces of broken machinery and plastics.


The food at Kaya Mawa was really tasty – I loved the lunches particularly, some form of home-made breads / dips to start followed by a light salad type dish and a palate cleansing scoop of ice cream or sorbet … plus of course, the best bit – South African Savannah cider!

Evening meals are served on beach at individual tables lit by candles and oil lamps. Surrounding the lodge are enormous boulders and ancient baobab trees and the village have access to the lake for water, most of the staff working at the lodge have been there from the start including Martin, who is in his 70s and still working, he has a ‘youth band’ who he has taught to sing and play instruments and they sung and got us up dancing on the sand on our last night!

We took a guide and quad bikes to tour the island one day which was great fun - once I had managed to work out how to turn a tight corner! Weird having 4 wheels but bike handles, I think I’d have worked it better with a steering wheel!

After a stop at Likoma Cathedral (modelled on Winchester Cathedral and built by Scottish missionaries over 100 years ago), we rode through the market and requested to stop for a beer …so where else but the ‘Likoma Leisure Centre’! Here in Suffolk I go to my local leisure centre for my spin classes or a gym session but the only exercise going on here was a very noisy game of pool! However, we sat on the ‘balcony’ and had a cold beer before getting back on the quad bikes and bumping our way back to Kaya Mawa in time for lunch…

 


Of course, like all good holidays, you have just about talked yourself into ‘relax’ mode and it’s time to return home! I had asked that we spend the last night in Lilongwe so I could visit my old haunts and catch up with one of my best friends. CAWS leant me a car and once I was on the road, driving barefoot with the wind in my face, I really did feel like I was ‘back home’! A couple of wrong turns soon brought back my memories of the roads of Lilongwe and apart from some new buildings the roads and old shops are just the same! Shoprite hasn’t changed, the restaurants are as frustrating as ever (being told ‘we have stopped serving lunch’ at 1.30 or another one having run out of just about everything and card machine not working) … but I managed to see my old house, visit the garden centre and barter (badly!) for a Malawi table in the curio market.


After an emotional evening catching up with my bestie Claudia, it was time to finally pack to head home and the next day, checked in for the SAA flight we sat on the balcony of the ‘waving platform’ at Lilongwe airport before a tearful goodbye (again) and onto the SAA flight back via Johannesburg, London bound…

If you would like to experience the beauty of Malawi (without the long travel days and in relative comfort!), please get in touch and experience for yourself the’ Warm Heart of Africa’.