Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Like most visitors to Malawi, the small landlocked country wedged into the southern end of the East African Rift Valley, I was drawn there by its eponymous lake. But beyond the shores of the dazzling “Lake of Stars”, I discovered an endearing little country with exciting, if limited wildlife viewing opportunities.

Liwonde National Park

Malawi - Liwonde Sable Antelope

An elusive Sable Antelope sighting in Liwonde.

Located in the Upper Shire Valley, the 580-square kilometer (220-square mile) Liwonde National Park is considered the premier wildlife-viewing destination in Malawi. It stretches along the left bank of the Shire River, the only outlet of Lake Malawi and the largest river in the country, on its 400-kilometer (250-mile) way to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

By far the main attraction of the park, the river allows it to support one of the densest populations of elephants and hippos in Africa (about 900 and 2000 respectively). Liwonde is also known for its abundance of birdlife and due to the absence of major predators, it is home to a good a variety of antelopes. It’s where, after five previous trips to some of the most vaunted safari destinations in Africa, I have the pleasure to finally encounter sable antelopes.

 

 

Malawi Village

Malawi village home.

It’s a solid two-and-a-half hour drive from Blantyre, southern Malawi’s major city and airport, to the Western gate of the park. The paved road becomes gradually less so as we get farther away from the city. It disappears entirely as soon as we get off the main north-south thoroughfare. It’s all rocky dirt roads from here on, lined with tiny brick homes covered with disheveled thatch, each sitting on its small patch of ground. My driver drops me off at the park’s gate where my arrival is duly recorded and announced by phone to the Mvuu Lodge.

Mvuu Lodge

Malawi - Liwonde Mvuu Lodge

It’s a short boat across the lagoon to Mvuu Lodge.

Ideally located at the edge of a secluded lagoon across the Shire River from the park entrance and the only property inside the park, the Mvuu Lodge can be reached only by boat. It is so well integrated into the dense grove of yellow acacias that I don’t notice any sign of human habitation at first; until a small wooden craft detaches itself from a spindly dock and chugs its way across to collect me.

 

Malawi - Shire River Hippo Pods

Shire River hippo pods.

The lodge immediately lives up to its name (Mvuu means hippopotamus in the local Tonga language). We zig-zag our way across the lagoon, giving a wide berth to pods of hippos submerged save for dozens of periscope eyes that follow our progress with a baleful gaze.

 

 

 

 

Malawi - Mvuu Lodge Lounge

Mvuu Lodge common area.

Mvuu is an upscale, environmentally-friendly wilderness lodge with a casual atmosphere and an attentive, friendly staff. Raised high into the trees, the open-sided thatched main lodge provides an perfect hide-like retreat to observe the constant activity of the lagoon.

 

 

 

Malawi - Mvuu Crocodiles

The Shire River is home to a large colony of crocodiles.

In addition to its many hippos, it is home to a large resident family of warthogs and a colony of seriously oversized crocodiles. A late model telescope on a tripod invite guests to take a closer look at the birds that fill the trees all around.

 

 

Morning on the Shire River

Malawi - Shire River Kudu

A male kudu in the brush by the river.

The riverside location allows for a mix of cruises and drives that provide a close and varied view of the game as it goes about its daily life. Game-viewing is generally interesting at Mvuu but never more so than on the river. An especially memorable morning begins as a typical pleasant boat ride punctuated by a steady stream of photo opportunities of the waterfowl and raptor population, various antelopes coming to the water and a small breeding herd of elephants wading across in the distance.

 

Malawi - Shire Sleeping Elephant

A “big tusker” snoozes by the water.

We then come upon a few venerable “big tusker” bull elephants lined along shore, dousing themselves by the trunkfull with river water. I spot one of them snoozing at the edge of a wall of savannah grass. Yes, elephants do sleep lying down. I can hear his stentorian snore drift toward me. Suddenly several more begin to emerge from the grass and congregate on the shore. The snorer stretches awake.

 

Malawi - Shire Wading Elephants

Come on in, the water is fine.

After a half hour of what looks like a palaver to weigh in the advisability of going in for a bath and considerable testing of the waters by various parties, they all wade in over time. What follows is a “horsing around” session of epic proportions, with these grizzled behemoths splashing and dunking each other under the waterline before rearing back up like teenagers at the beach.

 

 

Malawi - Liwone Elephant at Play

Liwonde elephants at play in the Shire River.

It is this spectacular encounter with that I take with me at as the iconic memory of my visit to the Mvuu Lodge.

 

 

 

 

Good To Know

  •  Mvuu Lodge opened in 1998. It is owned and managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), a Malawi company wholly owned by founders Chris and Pam Badger. Central African Wilderness Safaries, cawsmw.com/index.php/lodges/mvuu-lodge/, e-mail: info@cawsmw.com, or call: + 265 1771 393/153.
  • Accommodations consist of eight spacious tents under thatch that can welcome a total of 16 guests. The tents are raised well above the ground on vast wooden platforms that include a wrap-around deck overlooking the bush. They are scattered along neat sandy paths at the rear of the lodge for complete privacy. Each tent has full bathroom facilities, including a shower with hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. There is solar power in the tents.
  • Wifi was not available at the lodgeat the time of my visit
  • Although lion tracks have been occasionally spotted and a male lion sighting reported recently, I didn’t see any “big cats” during my stay. But in addition to the large and active population of elephants, I found the abundance of antelopes, the excellent bird-watching opportunities and the warm Mvuu hospitality well worth my visit.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Liwonde National Park

Malawi – The Lake of Stars

Malawi – The Lake of Stars

My friends had a lot of questions when I mentioned I was on my way to Malawi. The most frequent was: Where? No surprise, since I too had to look it up when I first heard of the small landlocked country wedged into the East African Rift Valley system. It’s easily missed on the map of Africa, overshadowed by its much larger and better-known neighbors Tanzania to the North, Mozambique to the east and south, and Zambia to west. It is also one of the poorest countries on the planet and one the least developed in Africa, with only the most rudimentary national infrastructure and thus mainly overlooked by tourists. The only one who expressed enthusiasm was an avid diver: “You are going to The Lake!” he exclaimed with a hint of envy.

Lake Malawi - Beach on Cape Maclear

Beach at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi

The third largest of the great East African lakes, some 580 kilometer (360 mile) long and 75 kilometer (46 mile) wide, Lake Malawi is the main topographic icon of the country. But rather than its size, its pristine shores and deserted islands of towering boulders rising from crystal clear waters alive with small brightly colored fish are what earned its international renown among water sports enthusiasts and naturalists. It was these hundreds of endemic species of cichlids as well as the beauty of the scenery that drove the Malawi government to set aside the southern end the lake as Lake Malawi National Park in 1980 making it the first fresh water marine reserve in the world. It subsequently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Feersum Endjinn and the Magical Island

Cape Maclear jetty and Feersum Engjinn

Cape Maclear jetty and Feersum Engjinn

My driver drops me off by a sundrenched beach, deserted except of the representative of Kayak Africa here to welcome me, and a cluster of half-naked kids frolicking in the gentle surf. I am in Cape Maclear on the southern shore of Lake Malawi. A brave little wooden boat bobs at the end of a precarious jetty, the name Feersum Endjinn carved in its weathered bow. Thus reassured, I take the extended hand of the pilot and come aboard.

Feersum Endjinn at Mumbo Island

Feersum Endjinn docks at Mumbo Island

 

It’s an hour’s ride to Mumbo Island, one square kilometer (250 acres) of granitic rock topped by lush miombo woodland located ten kilometers (six miles) off shore in the heart of the 9,400 hectare (36 square mile) Lake Malawi National park. At first glance it looks just like another of the rocky dots rising out of the shimmering water that we’ve whizzed by along the way. But as we draw closer, tiny reed and thatch chalets barely distinguishable from the tangle of trees begin to materialize; then a small crescent beach of golden sand.

Lake Malawi - Mumbo Island Guest Bungalows

A long footbridge leads to the guest bungalows

The camp is located on two islands. The dining room, lounge and tiny gift shop hut sit just above the beach on the main island. Meanwhile, a long footbridge leads to a promontory of giant boulders jutting into the lake, where guest bungalows are perched high in the rocks to better admire the dazzling waters of the lake.

Off-the-Grid into Eden

Lake Malawi - Mumbo Island guest bungalows

Guest bungalows offer a dazzling view of the lake

This is off-the-grid living at its magical best. Until Kayak Africa was first award the exclusive rights to operate tourism accommodations on Mumbo Island in 1996, it had never been populated. To preserve the primeval beauty of its unique lake setting, the company’s founders Clive Bester and Jurie Shoeman created a minimalist property based on uncompromising sustainable principles. Rustic bungalows of reed and thatch, comfortable beds swathed in mosquito nets, bucket showers and “eco-loos” and a dining area that serves wholesome, simple foods. In a corner of the beach, a water sports gazebo has snorkeling equipment and kayaks at the ready. There is no electricity, just solar and paraffin lamps and wind up flashlights.

Mumbo Island - Red-billed Hornbill

A red-billed hornbill welcomes the new day

In his remote haven, life naturally falls into the eternal rhythms of the sun and the moon. My days begin at dawn with a wakeup call from a red-billed hornbill enthusiastically welcoming the new day in a tree above my head. I move from my bed to the hammock on my deck to contemplate the blood-orange sunrise slowly morphing into a clear morning while small boats dart across the lake after a night of fishing.

Mumbo Island - Morning coffee with a view

Morning coffee with a view

By now a tray laden with tea and cookies has materialized at the corner of my bungalow. When I finally stir I head for the dining room where a hearty breakfast await. I pause on the footbridge to take in the bright kayaks lined up at the edge of the beach and the crystal waves lapping at the freshly swept sand. Another day in Eden has begun.

 

 

Treasured Moments

Mumbo Island Sunset

Mumbo Island Sunset

After a day of snorkeling among the cichlids, the colorful small fish than have evolved into hundreds of varieties for which the lake is famous, or blissfully whiling away hours with a book in my hammock, it’s time to enjoy the sunset. Boatswain Owen takes me around the island to the ultimate sunset viewing spot where we watch the sky turn into surreal shades of bronze to crimson to purple before fading to dark.

Mumbo Island Bungalow

Bungalow Number Four is my personal slice of Eden

After an unpretentious meal by the soft glow of the paraffin lanterns, I return to my bungalow and settle on what I will forever think of as “My Rock” still warm from the day’s sun. Millions of diamond-bright stars pierce the velvet sky. The horizon is outlined by the myriad pinpoint lights of the hurricane lights fishermen use to lure fish into their nets. I send a mental nod or understanding to nineteenth century English missionary explorer David Livingston who gave the place its moniker of Lake of Stars.

Good to Know

  • Kayak Africa is a South Africa based company that has been operating Mumbo Island since its inception in 1996. Kayak Africa, kayakafrica.co.za, email: letsgo@kayakafrica.co.za, or call + 27 (0) 21 783 1955.
  • There is no electricity on Mumbo Island. Any battery operated equipment can be sent overnight to the mainland for charging. There is a daily boat connection between the island the Kayak Africa office in Maclear.
  • Mumbo Island consists of five bungalows that can accommodate up to ten guests on the small island. Additionally,  a twin-tents family unit that can accommodate up to four guests in the woods just above the beach and common areas on the main island
  • Getting to Malawi requires flying via Nairobi, Kenya or Johannesburg, South Africa. There are connecting flights from Kenya Airways and South African Airways respectively to the two major cities, Lilongwe and Blantyre. From either, road transfers can be arranged by Kayak Africa.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Mumbo Island