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Author series: Julie Davidson

Julie Davidson on her impending journey to Malawi’s great lake and why she fell for this watery wonder, ‘discovered’ by David Livingstone in 1859

By Julie Davidson
Published 20 May 2019, 12:01 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 13:58 BST
Julie Davidson
Julie Davidson

If all goes to plan I’ll be back on — and back in — Lake Malawi this spring; sailing, snorkelling, beachcombing, bird-watching and reflecting, as ever, on its long evolution from dark past to sunny present. It will be my sixth visit to the Rift Valley lake and, as ever, it will no doubt present me with a reason for a seventh. Surely it can only be a matter of time before the exuberant Lake of Stars Festival, taking a break from its annual programme of Afropop, reggae, folk and hip-hop, reinstates its reputation as one of Africa’s most beguiling music festivals? And it can’t be long before the MV Ilala, currently undergoing a re-fit at its home port of Monkey Bay, resumes its role as the lake ‘bus’ and finally takes me to Karonga, where the northern waters are squeezed between the Livingstone Mountains of Tanzania and the Nyika Plateau of Malawi, their towering cliffs threaded with waterfalls.

They say this leg of the Ilala’s weekly itinerary unveils one of the finest spectacles in Africa, but on my only voyage on the quirky, veteran ferry — Clyde-built in 1949, dispatched in pieces by ship, road and rail and reassembled on the lake shore — the Ilala got no farther than Nkhata Bay. This didn’t bother the young white backpackers sleeping on deck (the bay is the nightlife capital of northern Malawi) but troubled the Malawians heading for Karonga and disappointed me. Still, the steering problem gave me something in common with David Livingstone, who also failed to reach the lake’s northern extremity for very different reasons: war parties of Ngoni slavers.

The crusading explorer added the ‘discovery’ of the mighty inland sea to his other geographical trophies in 1859, when he sailed and tramped up the valley of the Shire River from its confluence with the Zambezi to reach the limpid waters the locals called Nyasa, which means ‘broad waters’. He found their basin brimming with misery. The third largest of Africa’s lakes was a desperate place, a staging post on the main slave route from the headwaters of the Congo to the Indian Ocean. But he was moved by its beauty, and the bristling night skies reflected in its surface, and called it a ‘lake of stars’. Little did he know he was blazing a trail for a future tourist industry.

It was my interest in Livingstone, and his forgotten wife Mary, which first brought me to Malawi. I spent my early childhood on the banks of the River Clyde, within a few miles of his birthplace, and was intrigued by the long threads of history which link Scotland with Malawi. The latter’s commercial capital of Blantyre, in the Shire Highlands, was named after the Lanarkshire mill town where Livingstone was born, and since the late-19th century the Livingstonia Mission, on the rim of the Nyika Plateau, has turned out generations of bright young Malawians — some of them luminaries of today’s professional and political class. Even the Ilala is named after the district in neighbouring Zambia where the explorer died.

When the British colony of Nyasaland became independent Malawi in 1964, the new republic continued to honour the man credited with bringing Christianity to south-central Africa and purging it of much of its slave trade. It still does. This year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, I’m going to trace his journey up the Shire River from Majete Wildlife Reserve, near Blantyre, to Lake Malawi National Park, at the southern end of the lake. I’ll be joining the David Livingstone’s Bicentenary Birthday Safari, run by Robin Pope Safaris — not so much a solemn pilgrimage as a seductive journey to some highlights of the country’s re-stocked game parks and growing tourist industry.

Its centrepiece is the body of water which, 352 miles long and 52 miles wide at its broadest point, is also called ‘the calendar lake’. And although the number of tourist properties grows annually the sands are anything but congested. There are less than 20 mid-to-high end waterside properties, plus a range of budget lodges in the popular ports of Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay and the villages of Cape Maclear. Two of my favourites are island lodges: modest Mumbo on tiny, uninhabited Mumbo Island, and gorgeous Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island, the lake’s largest.

But much more than a playground, the lake and its shores remain a workplace for farmers and fishermen who have lost their fear of strangers — the raiding parties of aggressive tribes, the Arab merchants who loaded their captives into dhows, ferried them across the water and whipped them on to the slave markets of the Swahili coast. Today’s Malawians have a reputation for hospitality and friendliness; and for all that David Livingstone’s travels in Africa opened up routes for more predatory European adventurers, at least some of that reputation is down to his expedition to the lake of stars.

Julie Davidson is an award-winning journalist and travel writer whose book Looking for Mrs Livingstone is in the shops now, and was recently adapted as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. For details of Malawi’s 10-day David Livingstone Bicentenary safaris, which run until the end of the year, visit

Published in April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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