Text: Ralph Spilsbury
Photography: Ralph and Angela Spilsbury
The first thing we noticed upon entering Malawi was how densely populated it was. After travelling through sparsely populated countries such as Zambia, Namibia and Botswana, it was a bit of a shock to see so many people and villages squashed together.
The second thing we noticed was the friendliness of the country’s citizens. They were gracious and curious, and unlike many other inhabitants of the African continent, willing to talk to us without asking for something in return.
Considering the horrible conditions that most of people live in, their friendliness was even more amazing. Malawi is a very poor country. In fact, it is listed as the eighth poorest nation in the world. It doesn’t boast a lot of natural resources, and despite the fact that nearly every speck of arable land has been cultivated (even the stretches that verge on the national roads), it doesn’t produce enough food to feed its huge population.
This means that Malawi is largely dependent on international aid for survival. In fact, the involvement of aid agencies is so pervasive that every second vehicle you see on the road is a white 4×4 sporting the logo of an agency. Ironically, every vehicle is worth more than most Malawians will earn in their lifetimes!
Another common sight that is at odds with the country’s poverty is the ornate churches that can be found in most towns. Interestingly, the origin of these buildings can be traced back to David Livingstone. When the great explorer arrived on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1859, he was horrified by the burgeoning slave trade. And by all accounts, it was truly horrific. In one memorable journal entry, Livingstone described how it was necessary to remove floating corpses from the paddles of a ship each morning before it could set off across the lake.
He was convinced, however, that a combination of commerce, colonialism and Christianity would bring an end to the trade. And the surviving churches are a reminder of his (and other Europeans’) attempts to establish their values and beliefs in the country. Of course, slavery was eventually abolished, though it took much longer than Livingstone had imagined.
The sight that now greets you when you reach Lake Malawi is very different from the one that he described. In fact, the shores look and feel more like a tropical beach than anything else. Two-metre high waves crash regularly onto the sand.
Inspect the scene a bit closer, though, and you realise that things such as salty water, seaweed and seagulls are all missing.
Lake Malawi might be beautiful, but it’s not tranquil. A lot of Malawians depend on the lake’s fish for sustenance, and because of this, countless fishing boats set out each morning in search of the sardine-like kapenta.
Each boat carries a lamp in the pre-dawn hours to attract fish, and because of this the fleet creates a mesmerising display of lights across the water.
Watching the boats return, their decks heavily laden with kapenta, is just as magnificent. Thousands of Malawians rush to the shore in an attempt to get their share of the bounty. It is a wonderful scene filled with colour, noise and palpable excitement.
The smell, however, is overwhelming. The meat is dried on racks, and if you’re unfortunate enough to camp downwind from it, the stench is awful. We stayed at Cool Runnings near Senga Bay. It was a great site, but the smell ruined the experience.
After the hustle and bustle of the lake, we were craving a bit of solitude, so we headed for Nyika National Park. The road was terrible. It took seven bone-jarring hours to reach the park, but it was worth it. It consists of a stunning combination of rolling moorland, granite outcrops and wooded valleys, and boasts plenty of wildlife. It has the highest concentration of leopard in central Africa. Incredibly, Angela managed to spot one of these elusive creatures in thick bracken (a fern that was imported by homesick British colonists to make the environment more reminiscent of Scotland) in the harsh afternoon sunlight.
Nyika also has a great climate. Situated on a plateau at 2488m above sea level, it doesn’t share the rest of the country’s extreme heat. We even lit a large log fire each night to keep us warm.
One particular evening, we had a memorable encounter with Malawi’s wildlife while sitting around the fire. A herd of zebra was grazing close to us. Since zebras are notoriously shy, this was very surprising and we were eager to see how close they would venture. We stayed as quiet as we could. The zebras came closer and closer, until eventually, they were only a couple of metres from us. It was a rare privilege to be so close to them!
Running low on fuel, we left Nyika and descended to hot and humid Vwaza Game Reserve. Here we once again came across hippos (we had seen a lot of them at the Mukambi River Lodge in Zambia). We were also forced to contend with tsetse flies, a horrible scourge that we had first encountered in Zambia’s Luangwa National Park. Thankfully, the flies were less vicious here and didn’t attack us with the same intense focus as those in Luangwa.
After Vwaza, we headed back to Lake Malawi. This time we stayed at Makuzi Lodge, which unlike Cool Runnings, was situated on a relatively peaceful and unpopulated section of the shore. From there, we briefly visited Lake Malawi National Park’s stunning Chembe Eagles Nest Resort. The waters surrounding nearby Thumbi Island are home to a myriad of cichlid fish species (over 600, apparently) that are startling in colour and variety – especially when inspected with the help of a diving mask and snorkel.
Our final destination in Malawi was Liwonde National Park, some 180km south of the lake. The only river to drain out of the lake, the Shire, forms the western boundary of this park, and despite being pretty small by African standards, the park has a stunning riverine setting. It reminded me of Chobe, but without all the tourists!
At the main entrance gate we also received the friendliest greeting that we have ever experienced while travelling in Africa. The official, Benson (“without the Hedges,” as he was quick to point out) was an absolute treasure. He was friendly, helpful, courteous and funny.
Birders, or anyone with a passing interest in birds, should definitely visit this park. A sunset river cruise from Mvuu Lodge was one of the highlights of our month in Malawi. We ticked off six “firsts” for us, including palm nut vultures, lapwings and the stunningly beautiful Lillian’s lovebirds. From our boat, manned by the knowledgeable Angel, we also watched as a dikkop protected its territory from a 2,5m crocodile intent on returning to the river!
Reluctantly, we left Liwonde and headed for the Zambian border. Our time in Malawi was officially over. Or so we thought.
Stopping in the capital, Lilongwe, for some much-needed fuel, we discovered that there was a massive shortage. Apparently a lack of foreign currency reserves results in periodic fuel shortages throughout the country.
We were forced to hang around the city and wait for the shortage to end. And thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long. Two days later, we were back on the road.
Despite this hiccup, we truly enjoyed our time in Malawi. It is a great country.
What we found most dispiriting about our journey, though, was the poverty of the people. Malawi is often referred to as the “Warm Heart of Africa”, and that title is undoubtedly justified. The people are very warm and charming. But they are also suffering, and that is painful to see.
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