Saturday, 1 July 2017

Summer in Malawi - Lake Malawi and Zomba Mountain

The view from the deck at Domwe Island. Blissful spot for a Malawi Gin and tonic sundowner

Living in Joburg you have much of Africa on your doorstep. So far we've visited Chobe in Botswana, Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and Maputo in Mozambique. Our biggest dream for a while though has been to visit Malawi, which we finally did in December 2016 – pretty much the hottest time of year to be there. Planning a trip to Malawi is pretty easy – it's less than three hours flight from Joburg – but there are also a few complications you should think about in advance.


I was determined that if we were to spend the majority of our time at Lake Malawi then the high cost of renting a car made no sense – we simply wouldn't be using it. Why not just take a bus? In the end we didn't take a bus anywhere for the whole 10 days because they were so complicated. I'd heard about luxe coaches travelling the main routes to the lake, but I never found these mythical coaches. 

That plan scrapped I looked at minibus taxis. From Blantyre to the village of Chembe on the south coast of the lake, I was informed that I'd need at least 3 minibuses, that the journey could take at least eight hours and that we'd also likely need to find a regular taxi for the last 30minutes to the village (drive direct and its four hours total trip). Bearing in mind we were only in Malawi for ten days, I scrapped this plan altogether.

From our hostel in Blantyre we managed to arrange a taxi to Chembe for about 75,000 kwacha (a very unexpectedly expensive outlay). It was a straightforward journey albeit with a 40 minute detour through Blantyre in search of Malawi's cheapest petrol. When we arrived at Chembe our driver and his five year old son took a dip in the lake, sipped a Fanta and drove four hours back again, It's worth bearing in mind that the high taxi cost is mainly due to the fact that your driver will be doing a round trip. 

Malawi's Kwacha is vastly inflated. Our 75,000K ride was the equivalent of about R1300 – paid all in R2,000 notes as there is no bigger note in Malawi. Getting hold of this amount of cash involved several trips to ATMs as you can only withdraw one 30,000K brick at a time (any larger amount simply would not fit through the hole in the machine), also often times machines don't have any cash in them. The lesson – bring dollars! 

One complication we could have done without was taking malaria pills. We were pretty much constantly smothered in Tabard (best least-toxic smelling mosquito repellent in my opinion), and were not bitten once when at the lake (and this was in the height of summer). Furthermore malaria is not prevalent in Zomba Mountain or Blantyre where we spend four days of our trip. We took Mozitech (a generic of Malarone) for almost three weeks and while I didn't have side effects my husband suffered occasional irrational bouts of mild depression which he really could have done without. The only insects that did bother us were tiny, harmless-but-annoying midge flies at sunset when we were on Domwe Island. 

If you need to buy any essentials (suncream, toiletries, any cooking basics) best buy in the Shoprite or Game in Blantyre or Lilongwe, there is not much to buy outside of the cities. Along the road we occasionally picked up a bag of hot chips or a cold coca-cola. In Chembe I found one or two tomatoes and some very skinny aubergines. However, generally speaking there was scarcely anything to buy other than beer, maize and mangoes. Our driver who took us to Zomba from Chembe spent the whole time with his eyes peeled for street stalls selling cabbages to take home for his family, we didn't see a cabbage the entire journey. 

The People
Malawians are famously friendly – Malawi's slogan is 'The Warm Heart of Africa' – and we found this to be true everywhere we went. We found the people to be kind, easy-going, gentle, jovial, open-hearted and un-intrusive. We were never once hassled by souvenir or guide touts, crime never crossed our mind and everywhere we went people greeted us with a warm and genuine smile.

Local transport in Chembe village

Trying to cool off while waiting for chicken and chips at a local Chembe cafe in the middle of the day. Something about mad dogs, British people and midday sun....



Our first stop on the lake was the village of Chembe in Cape Maclear on the south coast – an unspoiled little bay that had a curiously low number of tourists. The long long sandy beach has about a dozen little low rise guesthouses strung along it and the two streets behind are home to the villagers, many of whom are fishermen. It's a sleepy little place with somewhat sporadic electricity. Fiercely hot during the day the whole village comes down to the shore in the late afternoon to relax, wash, do laundry and greet the fishermen. 

We did take a brief stroll through the village in the day time to get some mangoes and find chicken and chips for lunch but melted after 3 blocks. The evening is the best time. We didn't get the 'lake of stars' as it was a full moon, but we did have the magic of walking along the beach and back through the village with our way lit just by moonlight and the dim lights of little houses. This is a great place to switch off for a while.

Local kids playing on Chembe beach at sunset. It is at about this time that the Chembe Beach Boys, a 'band' of little kids with homemade instruments like to drop by to perform their favourite song; 'who let the mzungus out?' ('hello, hello, hello, hello!')

The beach on our doorstep at Thumbi View Lodge
Chembe beach in Cape Maclear. Generally it is not recommended to swim here as there is a high risk of contracting billharzia. It is better to take a boat out to swim off Thumbi Island which is unpopulated - billharzia only spreads if there are many people. Also better snorkeling opportunities there.

Domwe Island

We spent four nights on Domwe Island which was as close to paradise as you can find in Malawi. Domwe is the more basic of two private islands in Cape Maclear run by Kayak Africa. There's the option of safari tent or camping, both of which are set up under little wooden cabins with a private deck and hammock. We went with the safari tent and brought all our own food to self-cater, although you can also pay extra for full board - we saw what the other guests were eating and it seemed very good value. Toilets are 'eco' (a smart long drop with compost) and showers are from a suspended bucket shower (the water gets warm enough quickly from the sun).

On our first night we were the only guests – our own private island! I'd sourced a large fish back in Chembe to bring with us and the three staff who live on the island (there's a changeover each week) cooked it up for us on a fire with lemon and garlic while we watched the most incredible sunset. I'd say it's the best fish grill I've ever had. On the following nights we asked the staff to find some fish for us from the passing fishermen, these were much smaller (mostly catfish) than that I'd found in the village but the staff again cooked them up beautifully for us at little extra cost. Unfortunately Lake Malawi is overfished and supplies are much lower than they once were - a general reflection of one of Malawi's most pressing problems – over population, which is constantly pressuring Malawi's food security.

We didn't get up to too much while on the island, we used the time largely as a switch off and tune out opportunity. Savouring the bliss of no electricity we devoured books and slept like babies, rising naturally early as the fishermen came past in the dawn light singing songs and rowing their dugout canoes in formation. At least twice a day we'd go out for a swim. The water is incredibly clear, a perfect refreshing luke warm temperature and full of colourful tropical ciclids so make sure you pack a snorkel.

Our little safari tent cabin on Domwe hidden behind the trees

Fisherman in dugout canoe returning home at dusk

Maybe the best fish I ever ate, served with rice and tinned beans from Shoprite in Blantyre

The small beach at Domwe


After leaving the lake we had toyed with the idea of heading to Mount Mulanje but were largely unprepared for proper hiking (next time!). Instead we visited Zomba, a mountain plateau about 1.5 hours east of Blantyre. 

Most accommodation options in Zomba town at the foot of the mountain were pretty poor value for their price and we were seriously let down by our guidebook (I'd bought the new Bradt guide) which unfortunately pointed us to a place described as 'the most historic and smartest lodge' in town (Hotel Masongola) that in reality resembled a haunted house straight out of a Hitchcock film. In the end we spent a night at Annie's Lodge, the only place in Malawi where we were ripped off. We were told that only the ludicrous Presidential Suite was available, when in reality the hotel was half empty. Up in our lofty Presidential section of the hotel were the other African and European foreigners who were passing this way. Interesting coincidence. Also fun to note that the Malawian President himself has a mansion in Zomba just down the road from Annie's Lodge.

We spent the next two nights up the mountain at the Zomba Forest Lodge, the most expensive stay of our trip. The room included full board and the outstanding food cooked up by our British-Malawian hosts was by far the best we ate on our whole trip. From the lodge we followed the trails through the thick forests and also took a hike up to the plateau along the old forestry road which is now used as the main route for locals traversing the mountain on foot ('Merry Christmas!' the children yelled at us). From the top of Zomba again wonderful views awaited, a quick pitstop at the fancy Sunbird Ku Chawe Hotel for a bottle of Malawi's finest beer Kuche Kuche, and back at the lodge evening arrived, the sky heavy with rain gave us a typically spectacular sunset. Just as we had become accustomed to Malawi's rhythm it was time to go. We'll be back.

View over the plains towards Blantyre from the Zomba Mountain trail

Zomba sunset with rain on the way



Doogles – basic and very reasonably priced hostel with dorms and private rooms. Decent bar. Don't walk around outside the hostel, especially at night, the taxi rank/bus station next door is a notorious mugging hotspot. We paid R550 a night for a large double en-suite with fan.
Chez Maki – Very nice views over the green hills from the cafe-bar terrace and an easy walk to the city centre with great views along the way. Basics rooms with shared bathroom. We just turned up here and took what was available, came to about R600 for the night.

Cape Maclear

Thumbi View Lodge – Very reasonably priced, recently upgraded little en-suite room, with a fan, directly on the beach. Nice and quiet. The guesthouse was recently bought by a (very helpful) South African couple who were busy putting in a swimming pool. At the entrance there's a stall with a tailor who makes clothes with local kitenge cloths at very quick turnaround. About R700 a night (including a cooked breakfast). You can book through
Domwe Island – aka paradise island. Make sure to book well in advance. You can canoe out there if you are very fit, but we opted for the boat. South Africans (and residents) get a discount. We paid R1800 per night.


Annie's Lodge – if you can get a normal room then fine, but if you have to fork out $85 for a presidential suite it simply isn't worth it.
Zomba Forest Lodge – Half way up the mountain with quite a stretch on a forest dirt road (one for the experienced drivers). There's no electricity so pay in cash or arrange to pay beforehand (the owners have a UK bank account). The food is the best you'll find in Malawi and the owners are very invested in local conservation and forestry which more than makes up for the $200 a night price tag.

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