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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.