Finding Malawi

A tiny pocket of Southern Africa, with its very own Lake of Stars, Malawi is warm, welcoming, yet hard to pin down. With a ragged beauty, lantern-lit boats trawling its waters and wildlife-packed parks, this is Africa at its most endearing

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 9 Dec 2015, 08:00 GMT, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 12:50 BST

The plane dips to the right — and there, suddenly, beneath the wing, is Malawi. At least, I'm semi-sure it's Malawi. It's difficult to be precise. Down on the ground, the planet has turned to spartan orange — a plain of dust, featureless but for the occasional agricultural smallholding scratched loosely into the soil, mopping its brow under an unforgiving sky.

It's landscape as a vague concept, terrain as suggestion. Somehow, this feels appropriate.

Here, after all, is one of the places that most diligent of explorers, David Livingstone, spent the best part of the 1850s seeking, his footsteps hindered by illness and exhaustion.

A century and a half on, Malawi is barely better known to modern travellers than it was to the Victorians who appraised the blank canvas of southern Africa with missionary zeal. Of course, it's there on the map if you search for it — caught between Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. But it does not readily declare its presence — ranking as only the 37th 'biggest' country on the continent, smaller than each of Tunisia, Guinea and Senegal; only just larger than Eritrea and Benin. Effectively, it's only existed since 1964, emerging from the British protectorate of Nyasaland — a youngster so fresh-faced that its contours are still taking shape. The line of its western border with Tanzania, ill-drafted by the 1890 Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty between Britain and Germany, is still a matter of controversy.

There are few immediate clues as I escape the airport into a flower-perfumed blast of an African evening. Where, I wonder, is the Malawian capital? Throughout the 12-mile drive towards it, Lilongwe hides from view, buildings dissembling behind baobabs, rooftops rarely threatening to break the treeline; a shy child in no mood to show itself to the world.

But, then, Lilongwe is an adolescent, an unassuming town promoted to the position of key conurbation in 1975 — the plaything of Hastings Banda, Malawi's authoritarian 'president for life', who stripped colonial-era settlement Zomba of its capital city status.

Banda played the dictator role for three decades, until finally pushed from power in 1994. By this time, his grip had kept Malawi from the sort of civil war that engulfed Angola and Mozambique when days of empire ended. But if his rule created a cowed stability, it did not give birth to a metropolis. Lilongwe looks like a collection of ephemera left by the side of the road — metal-welding workshops and woodwork stalls; shacks selling sofas; a low-slung hospital; the tatty malls of 'Old Town'. Only the Japanese Embassy, a gleaming glass box, recognises the century. I'm none the wiser as to Malawi's identity as I stop for the night at Latitude 13, a chic hotel with grey walls and cool art in the northern suburbs, where the talk in the bar is African business, but the walled complex feels like a colonial throwback.

It's not until I'm an hour into my journey east the next day that I realise I'm searching for Malawi's soul in the wrong place. This sliver of just 45,560sq miles is no urban animal. It's impossible to say where Lilongwe ends and the bush starts — the scrub that wells up alongside the M14 makes no distinction between town and country. Here's a nation under a heavy sun, its poverty all too visible in parts — goats dozing on the tarmac, pupils making herculean treks to the classroom, the thin furrows of subsistence farming.

But there's a hard-shelled wonder to the picture — a ragged beauty that tugs your hand and demands you explore. At the crossroads town of Salima, a queue snakes through the door of Donna's Eggs, the shop's name emblazoned in white paint on the squat red structure. Beyond, the M5 dashes south over the Lilongwe River; women rinsing clothes in the sluggish flow. Golomoti, further on, is pierced by a single railway track, the Chipata-Mchinji line, that passes from eastern Zambia to Mozambique and the Indian Ocean port of Nacala. There are no trains today, however — and the parallel curves of metal are baking in midday's ire, their emptiness a silent reminder of this continent's epic distances.

Lake of Stars

I've come this way because I'm chasing Malawi's emblem. There's an initial glimpse at the hamlet of Chantulo, a burst of blue to the left of the M10. Then a second at Malembo — and, with one bend of the road, the breadth of the water becomes apparent.

David Livingstone's words on espying Lake Malawi (or 'Lake Nyasa', as he called it) for the first time were oddly wan. The man who'd been moved to speak of 'angels in their flight' on encountering Victoria Falls four years earlier wrote in his diary that 'we discovered Lake Nyasa a little before noon on the 16th September 1859… There are hills on both sides… but the haze from burning grass prevented us at the time from seeing far'.

My reaction, on passing through the south gate of Lake Malawi National Park, is rather more agog. There it is, the ninth largest lake in the world, the third largest in Africa, 360 miles long, 47 miles across at its broadest point.

Even here, at (almost) its lowest edge, on the Nankumba Peninsula, you can sense its enormity. I'm so entranced that I almost stumble into Pumulani.

Some resorts intrude on their setting, jarring notes in a sweet symphony. Pumulani pays the lake a compliment— 10 villas admiring the view, a manicured beach blowing it kisses.

It would be easy to be seduced by the whole scene, to think yourself on some lazy Barbados bay — but for the regular warnings that this is raw, rugged Africa. "At night, we ask guests not to leave the walkways, as there is a possibility of hippos being attracted to the grass for grazing," advises the visitor manual in my bedroom. I need no extra instruction.

As I return to the communal area, a huge male baboon makes angry eyes at me, blocking the path, gauging me with territorial malevolence. Charl Pultrone, the lodge manager, an affable South African, laughs when I eventually make it up the slope. "Did you meet our resident python too?" he asks, gesticulating at the flimsy bridge I've just crossed. "He lives under there. Don't worry, he doesn't seem very interested in any of us."

And yet, when I board the hotel dhow, the call of the wild fades. Instead, I find myself on a pool of fire, sail billowing in the breeze — the sun's defeat to the horizon sparking the surface to inferno. Back on land, Charl has unfurled Pumulani's telescope — a window on the heavens that revels in the absence of light pollution, picking out Sagittarius and Scorpio, then pinpointing Saturn, its ring a disc of white in a realm of black.

It was Livingstone who concocted the term 'Lake of Stars'. He was referring not to the bright constellations so discernible in the firmament here, but to the fishermen who trawl the waters at night. Seen from the shore in the gloaming, the lanterns on their doughty boats — dancing yellow in the clotted darkness— resemble a little city cast to the currents.

The morning trundles in misty and unmotivated — but there are kayaks on the beach and wavelets licking the sand. As I paddle out, several fishermen are still afloat, lugging their catches back to the villages — three once-separate entities, now wedged together as the community of Nankhwali — that fringe the lake outside the national park. I follow them back to land — where Gift Kapaswiche is waiting. One of Pumulani's guides, he hands me a bicycle and takes me on a tour of the area. We pass a market 'street' where clothes are on sale in unfussy piles as Afrobeat pounds from speakers; a redbrick Catholic mission church, a relic from 1937 where Gift is getting married the following Saturday; two grand properties being built at the lakeside for rich Lilongweans; and Gift's new house, a staunch three-room affair where he'll live with his wife.

It is, at last, a close-up snapshot of Malawian life — mired in the developing world, desperate to surge forward, yet comfortable in its skin. It's also a snapshot that will return to focus as I go south. Mangochi, a scrap of a town, is a religious tapestry — Christian and Muslim blending, the only clear difference between the hotch-potch Pentecostal churches and mosques being the minarets that crown the latter. There's invention too. Along the M3, ribbons of rubber hang from brackets, dead tyres cut up and repurposed as material for house construction — perfect for binding roofs into place, and immune to termite teeth.

Force of nature

A left turn at Ulongwe, and another side of Malawi's personality reveals itself. It's tough for a country so compact to compete with Kenya's grasslands or South Africa's feline-filled reserves, but Liwonde National Park is an example of Malawi's bid to drag itself to tourists' attention. Clipped to the west side of the River Shire (pronounced 'Shir-ee'), this wildlife pocket has suffered in the past 150 years, having been devoured by professional hunters and breadline poachers. But its elephant and hippo populations have thrived since national park status was granted in 1973. A herd of the former — trunks thrust into the water — and a host of the latter — spluttering mid-stream — are there to greet me as I cross the river by boat.

I scramble ashore at Mvuu Lodge — eight en suite tents set a little back from the river — to find there's much to be done. "Liwonde needs work and protection," says Mvuu's general manager, Richard Chimwala, his jovial demeanour blurring into seriousness. The summer, he says, witnessed the appointment of African Parks — a non-profit organisation that specialise in rescuing failing game areas. Its first job, Richard explains, will be to rebuild the 87-mile perimeter fence — currently a series of illegal snares, a situation that's left Liwonde home to a wealth of kudu and waterbuck, but only one lion.

That said, there are marvels to be spotted. On a dawn walk, guide Justin Mwaiwatha displays such knowledge that the unlikelihood of a big cat sighting becomes irrelevant.  At one point, an ant lion ("one of the Little Five," he says) nestles in his palm, pincers twitching. Later, we spot a cheeky (but not parasitical) python vine tree draping itself around a mopane. Justin shares a tip on how to distinguish elephant and hippo dung (the latter has more grass in it). And when the day departs, there are drinks at the river, where an armada of crocodiles linger in the shallows, silhouetted in silver.

Perhaps it's the gin, but standing with my cocktail, I feel trapped — somewhere between the colonial era that defined this country and the 21st-century African nation it hopes to be. The sensation persists, south on the M3 and up into the Shire Highlands — the elevated region where the European settlers who followed in Livingstone's wake found climes cool enough for the putting down of roots.

Zomba, emasculated but pretty, still dreams of this fallen epoch — the Zomba Memorial to members of the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the King's African Rifles salutes the Malawian dead of the First World War, African men drawn into a conflict that began in Bosnia. Beyond, the settlements of Limbe and Blantyre are as near as Malawi comes to sprawl — although the latter also pines for its glory years, wearing the name of Livingstone's Lanarkshire birthplace. Bigger and older than Lilongwe, founded in 1876, it clings to a reputation for being Malawi's financial capital (evidenced by the banks along Hanover Avenue) and nods to the Roaring Twenties at the Protea Hotel Ryalls, a fine shard of 1921, all verdant lawns and covered arcades.

The city hovers at 3,409ft — the craggy bluff of Mount Soche towering above it — but loses its nerve almost instantly, the M1 disappearing over an escarpment almost as soon as it leaves the centre, the Shire Valley resplendent far below. The road shivers and shakes on the way down, throwing out improbable hairpins where lorries smoke and sigh, engines befuddled by the gradient. And then I'm back to the lowlands, where Malawi enters its final furlong, barrelling south into Mozambique's neighbourly embrace.

The jewel at the end of my journey is a redemption song of sorts. Taken over by African Parks in 2003, Majete Game Reserve is a case study for Liwonde to heed — a beneficiary of 12 years of careful management. The creature headcount is up, thanks to a relocation policy that's seen elephants and lions restored to an enclave that had been poached to oblivion by 1995. In the midst of it, Mkulumadzi plays a luxurious tune — the lodge's eight suites stretch out along a Shire that, downriver of Liwonde, froths and frets, hippos yawning next to boiling rapids.

Infectious of grin, Ado Chinzimba was around for the resurrection. Smartly attired in his ranger uniform, a gun slung over his shoulder, he recalls the day in 2007 when a new pride of lions moved in, and a reckless baboon — determined to assert the boundaries of his personal fiefdom with a show of aggression — was eviscerated in seconds. Two hours later, we meet a sleek lioness, concealed in undergrowth, invisible to my eyes, but not to Ado's. She grimaces in the Land Rover's headlights, growls, clambers to her feet and departs. As she slips away into the dusk, I can't help but think she and Malawi have much in common — untamed, unknown, but magical in their elusiveness.


Getting there
There are no direct air services between the UK and Malawi. The most convenient route is with South African Airways, from Heathrow to Johannesburg, then connecting with the same airline to either Lilongwe or Blantyre.
Average flight time: 11h  + 2.5h.

Getting around
Public transport in Malawi is extremely limited, and the country is best experienced via a planned itinerary organised with a specialist tour operator.

When to go
Many resorts close for some or all of the December-March rainy season. June-August is the ideal time to visit, with warm, clear days and cool, pleasant nights.

Need to know
Visas: British travellers need a US$75 (£49) visa to enter Malawi — obtainable before departure via the Malawi High Commission in London.
Currency: Malawian kwacha (MWK). £1 = MWK 852.
International dial code: 00 265.
Time: GMT +2.

More info
Malawi (Bradt Travel Guides). RRP: £16.99.

How to do it
Expert Africa can arrange an eight-day tour of Malawi, including two nights, full-board, at each of Pumulani, Mvuu Lodge and Mkulumadzi, with all activities (except motorised watersports at Pumulani) covered in the cost. From £2,747 per person (two sharing), including international flights and all internal transport. 

Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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