Eco-travel in Malawi
See wildlife, kayak Lake Malawi and hang out at the festival without the carbon footprint as you. Jennifer Carr checked Malawi out for TNT…
I’m being watched. From the second I curl my limbs into a blisteringly hot kayak, biceps ready to battle water, I can feel the eyes searing into my back.
Kaye, the sinewy Malawian who’s accompanying me across the mighty Lake Malawi isn’t guilty; his eyes are locked on to one of the nine impossibly perfect islands that protrude from the most southerly lake in Africa’s Rift Valley. The voyeur remains unseen and allows me to forget myself in the midst of a meditative, rhythmic paddle.
Without warning, a whoosh of white plumage and two metres of startling wingspan flanks our starboard and almost knocks the oar from my hands. The regal African fish eagle responsible has clearly mimicked the RAF’s execution of a perfect fly-by.
Natural splendour isn’t in short supply around Malawi’s majestic lake, but you don’t have to go the gas-guzzling route to find it.
Our first motor-free silent slink affords the kind of close-ups you’d never get from a boisterous boat ride. With each dip of my paddle, a wall of shimmering vertical scales shift, disperse then rejoin; a mere fraction of the lake’s 600 indigenous species that ensure this region is one of the most bio-diverse on the planet. It’s like a Blu-Ray-enhanced David Attenborough documentary with me and my kayak on centre stage.
Mumbo Island, Lake Malawi
Two hours later we run aground on the sand that fringes Lake Malawi’s Mumbo Island and sink toes into what’s best described as a sub-Saharan Eden. Shaded only by ancient fig and baobab trees, Mumbo remains uninhabited save for a community-run eco-camp of seven chic tents complete with solar-power bucket showers, wind-up torches and compost drop loos.
Each carefully produced private tent area features a locally carved bed (forget ground sheets), floor mats, reed-walled showers and hand-stitched hammocks, all of which have been lovingly created by local hands using sustainable materials. Even more charmingly, the tents are built into a second, smaller bouldered outcrop that’s joined to the main island via a twinkling walkway of solar powered fairy lights – the principal form of energy on the island.
Mumbo, I discover, is about unplugging yourself from the everyday. I spend the first morning chasing iridescent blue crabs and fuchsia-coloured chiclid around the rocky shallows of Mumbo’s main beach.
My submerged squeals are lost on the other guests, all thankfully too preoccupied in their own gleeful aquatic discoveries. It’s not just fish who vie for your attention either; dainty pied kingfisher perch on low hanging branches accessorised by acid green vine snakes, Cape Claw otters flop in and out of the heat while giant, 1.2-metre- long monitor lizards shuffle surreptitiously into the camp’s chill-out lounge, their eyes scoping out a game of Malawian Bowe I’m halfway through losing.
Eco travel in Malawi
One afternoon we take a forested walk up to a notorious sunset lookout and breathe in the fragrance of fig trees, thickening the air with top notes of fructose. As dusk beckons I make haste back to the camp to outrun the mosquitoes and buy a freezing local beer from the camp’s make-shift bar.
Swigging it from the soporific comfort of my hammock, I gaze upon the hundreds of lantern-lit fishermen’s boats that wink at me through night’s blanket and I understand all too well why David Livingstone christened this place the Lake Of Stars when first visiting in the 1800s.
Experiencing the eco-merits of Malawi doesn’t end on Mumbo. After (begrudgingly) bidding adieu to the million star hammock, I kayak back to Cape Maclear and pick the brains of a local tour guide, Mike Varndell, on other guilt-free delights to be enjoyed in Malawi.
A specialist in small, sustainable experiences for grown-up backpackers, Mike has noticed an upsurge in visitors whom he believes “want to explore Malawi as authentically as possible” and as such, recommends we head south through the rugged Rift Valley into Liwonde National Park, where Mvuu Lodge, a sustainable nature camp, teeters on a bend of the crocodile-infested Shire River.
Mvuu Camp is an impressive example of how to successfully bridge the divide between Malawian communities and existing wildlife. Hundreds of locals benefit from employment at the camp and I’m heartened at the obvious signs of reforestation taking place as we approach the main heart of the lodge. After a quick run-through on camp protocol – “the bongo in your room is to bang if you need escorting through the camp after dark” – we set off on a sunset cruise in one of the camp’s eco-friendly four-stroke engine boats to explore the Shire River.
We encounter umpteen hippo, waterbuck, birdlife, elephants and of course, river crocodiles during the two hour cruise. It’s hard to be anything but awed. As my eyes adjust to the growing twilight, the sun’s alchemy flecking the river with a burnt, blushing rose gold, I’m reminded yet again that some of the very best experiences in travel require no human intervention.
Malawi’s Lake of Stars Festival
Hailed by Q Magazine as the ‘best festival in the world’, the four-day Lake Of Stars festival (from Oct 15-17) attracts an international crowd who relish partying with the upbeat locals.
In 2010, the festival generated more than £620,000 for Malawi’s economy and attracted more than 3300 international music lovers who flew into the capital, Lilongwe, to enjoy more than 95 international and Malawian dub, reggae, ska, hip hop, funk and soul acts.
Besides some talented local performers and DJs, international names including The Noisettes, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly and MistaJam all put in an appearance.
Scuba diving in lake Malawi
Lake Malawi is a must for those wanting to get up close and friendly with 80 per cent of the world’s aquarium fish. Whether you want to get qualified, do an advanced or rescue diver course, or simply head out into waters of 30-metre visibility to discover catfish, ribbon tail rays and more than 600 species of endemic tropical chiclid fish, the lake’s 20 spectacular dive sites will ensure even the most discerning diver will have plenty to marvel at.
Danforth Lodge on the north shore offers fantastic four-day Open Water courses from £370, which includes all tuition, equipment, practical and theory learning in the hands of Danforth’s expert and super friendly instructors.
On your bike
Swap paddles for pedals on the high elevation grasslands that comprise the famed Nkiya Plateau. With parts of the park crossing into northern Zambia, the plateau forms part of Malawi’s oldest national park and plays host to the largest concentration of leopards in central Africa.
The region makes for a rewarding thigh-burn some 2000 metres above sea level on possibly the smoothest trails in Malawi. Besides breathtaking views of the thickly forested valley below, Nyika’s less-frequented lower region offers an additional reward: antelope, elephant, rhino and plentiful zebra are all regularly spotted grazing on the expansive grasslands.
When to go: May-mid Nov is the dry season, which is considered to be the best time for game viewing.
Getting there: South African Airways flies daily from London Heathrow via Johannesburg to Lilongwe.
More info: saa.com for more information and flight prices.
» Jennifer Carr travelled with Malawian Style and Mvuu Camp. Kayaking from £250. See malawianstyle.com