Janie Hampton revels in life around an inland “sea” in the small, peaceful country of Malawi
Blue skies, clear water, delicious food, excellent service, friendly people, safe roads, fabulous scenery, amazing tropical fish and the Big Game Five.
Want to go somewhere really special? With no crowds? Then go to Malawi, a tiny, peaceful country in central Africa, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain. Don’t hang around in the capital Lilongwe but head for Lake Malawi, a couple of hours drive away. They drive on the left and there is little traffic on the smooth, undulating roads. Though you may have to swerve for a goat, and watch out for bicycles laden with logs, chickens or passengers.
Lake Malawi is more like a sea, but without salt. The warm, clear water is home to hundreds of varieties of colourful cichlid fish and the southern end is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lake is almost a kilometre deep, so there’s scope for scuba divers too.
Activities are based around the environment – bird-watching, game-viewing, sailing, swimming and hiking; or just float on your face with a snorkel as if in a giant aquarium.
There are many lodges along the three hundred mile lake shore, and although each one is different in style, they all blend into the landscape and are eco-friendly, with hydro electricity and solar-heated showers.
The delicious food includes superb beef, “chambo” fish straight from the lake and locally grown salads, tea and coffee. You will be treated like royalty but without any pomp: just relaxed good service.
At Pumulani Lodge, which means resting place, there is silence – apart from the shriek of fish eagles, the crash of monkeys swinging through the trees, the hoot of a frog or the splash of an otter.
My huge room with its magnificent view had a living-grass roof and the bathroom was so big that it needed a string quartet.
An Arab sailing dhow is the perfect place to eat freshly-cooked samosas and drink a sundowner of Malawi gin.
As the waves slap gently against the bow, fishermen in dug-out canoes paddle past for their night fishing. The sun slides into the sea, the sliver of new moon rises and on the horizon the paraffin lights on the canoes sparkle like strings of pearls.
No wonder David Livingstone described this in 1859 as The Lake of Stars. With no light pollution it’s easy to spot the Southern Cross and see enough shooting stars for a lifetime of wishing.
Malawian people are incredibly friendly, and appreciate visits to the local village school or community project. Nearby in Monkey Bay shipyard is the Victorian steamship Chauncy Maples, named after a curate in Oxford and currently under renovation as a clinic-ship.
Hop on a small plane and whizz over the lake to Likoma Island, or go there on Ilala, the ferry which was built in Glasgow 60 years ago. You will swoon when you see the secluded beach and gorgeous rooms built into the rocks of Kaya Mawa lodge, each with a stunning view from the giant netted beds. Kaya Mawa means maybe tomorrow and there is no hurry to do anything.
After breakfast served under my very own baobab tree, I rode a bike slowly down the track to the tiny market, chatted to smiling children, sat in the clinic and watched fishermen bringing in their catches. Later, after a superb massage, I agreed to a cocktail on the beach and listened to the local choir, before being served an exquisite candlelit dinner. It was tough, but I coped.
* You don’t need a visa or special vaccines. Take care against malaria with insect repellent, mosquito nets and medication. Internet is intermittent and slow but mobile phone coverage is good.
* Fly to Malawi with Kenya Airways. One stop at Nairobi, no time change. kenya-airways.com
* Malawi Tourist Information, 0115 972 7250; enquiries@ malawitourism.com; malawitourism.com
* Blue Zebra, Mukana Island. bluezebra.mw
* Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island kayamawa.com – fly with Uleni flights or by ferry with Malawi Shipping Company, Mary.firstname.lastname@example.org
* Makolola Retreat: clubmak.com
* Pumulani on Lake Malawi and Mkulumadzi lodge in Majete Wildlife Reserve robinpopesafaris.net
* Sunbird Hotels sunbirdmalawi.com