As the sporty Mini Countryman buzzed by, wind lifted the cap off the head of a snoozing street-side vendor – his feet propped up on the bag of charcoal he was trying to sell. He stirred, collected the mutinous cap and grinned at the little blue bee, its racing stripes a blur in the distance. Autumn leaves, still stubbornly clinging to their branches long after the season, finally flickered to the ground in celebration as the car approached. At a petrol station a paparazzi of young men advanced, cellphone cameras at arm’s length, clicking furiously.
Web editor, Sarah Duff, and I had gone in search of the warm heart of Africa, reported in the tourism brochures to belong to Malawi. But so far – as we snaked up north from Johannesburg through Zimbabwe and Mozambique – we were discovering that if Malawi was the heart, its reverberations packed a powerful beat beyond its borders. It might have been that we were in fine holiday fettle or just that we happened to be driving the coolest car this side of the stiletto curtain, but everywhere we went we were treated like celebrities.
Even the border police – a species impervious to enthusiasm – battled to maintain their indifference. A hefty specimen at the Beitbridge crossing ambled over to the Mini, leaned heavily against the window rim and craned his neck, turtle like, to inspect the interior.
‘Is it turbo?’ he asked, his tone still official.
‘Turbo,’ we affirmed.
‘Hmm, pow-wa-full,’ he admitted.
‘Crank up the sound,’ he demanded.
‘EX-CA-LLAA-ANT,’ he boomed in time to the beat as he flapped his hand towards the exit, indicating we could leave.
If we thought we’d had a good time on the drive up, however, Malawi was to prove to be all that, but in capital letters with explanation marks. From the minute you step into the country, the vibe changes from the officious pomp and mayhem common at most borders to a gentle lollop. It’s as if a magical personality transfusion occurs within the mere metres it takes to transverse countries. Even the landscape changes from hot and dry to undulating, green and significantly cooler. Touts approach without aggression and hang around, even after being fobbed off, not to cash in but to chat about this and that.
It’s true what they say, Malawians are among the world’s friendliest people, which is probably how it earned the cliché: Africa for Beginners. Jittery foreigners keen to explore the continent, but souped up on bad press and news clips, would do well to start here. For visitors, this is a gentle land where smiles are broad and offers of assistance hide no agenda.
At 120 000 square kilometres it might be only a tiny slip of a country, but it bursts with a good sampling of what Africa has to offer, sans the aggression and threat of crime of some other nations. Landscapes are peppered with traditional villages and are generally green and lush, ranging from misty mountain heights to rolling grassland, forests, escarpments and dramatic river valleys. The variety of scenery provides myriad opportunities for activities, from wildlife safaris to climbing, hiking and mountain biking. Birding is particularly good with about 650 species recorded in the country, of which roughly 10 per cent aren’t seen anywhere else in Southern Africa.
As for Sarah and I, ours was a backpacking safari, which took us to Africa’s third-largest lake cushioned within the trenches of the Great Rift Valley. Lake Malawi is the pride of the country and is a prime diving and snorkelling destination, largely because of an estimated 700 species of fish – the most abundant being the tiny, multicoloured cichlids, which are easily spotted weaving and dancing in the shallows.
Our route took a spidery trail from Senga Bay in the south to Nkhata Bay in the central district, back down the lake to Cape Maclear before buzzing further south to Mangochi. It was only a taster of the lake’s mellifluous (that’s sweet or musical – ed.) charms. Each stop took on a fresh aspect, deepening our love affair with this enchanted body of water.
From the comfort of loungers at Cool Runnings in Senga Bay we watched village life unfold against a wild lake, waves crashing in perfect imitation of the sea. In the afternoons we were mobbed by smiling faces as children bust out their kungfu moves for the muzungus (white people) clicking cameras. Later in the day the kids were keen to entertain, but in the early mornings rumbling tummies and the serious business of breakfast took precedence over play. With the red dawn rising, a stream of children trundled towards the village, their silver plates glinting, to where the fishermen unbundled their hauls from the night before.
The town at Nkhata Bay, meanwhile, boasted one of the main ports on Lake Malawi and bustled with industry. It’s an energy completely out of sync with the dreamy lethargy of Mayoka Village, the backpackers we called home for a couple of days. Perched magically against a steep, shaded slope the quaint eco-buildings were connected via a maze of pathways and stairs that offered generous views of the calm, aquamarine bay below. It was so reminiscent of a rustic Rivendell I was surprised not to happen upon a stray elf or hobbit.
Equally chilled, but with a hint of Euro-African cool was Gecko Lounge in Cape Maclear. There’s an easy alliance between the parallel universes of tourist and villager, each going about their business, be it washing clothes and collecting water or lazing at the beach bar.
To top it all off, we cruised down to Mangochi for what has to be Africa’s coolest festival, Lake of Stars for three days of music, friendship and fun. By the time we turned our Countryman’s nose towards home, we were sporting grins as wide as any Malawian. The Foals and Freshlyground might have been the headline act at the festival, but it was Sarah and I who felt like the true rock stars of Africa’s warm heart.
From Johannesburg, head north on the N1 to the Musina/ Beitbridge border. Once in Zimbabwe, head to Harare on the A4, then get on to the A2 to the Nyama-Panda/Cochemane into Mozambique and take the 103 through Tete. From there you have the option of entering Malawi through the Zóbue border post or (as we did) taking the 223 to the Dedza border post into Malawi.
At the time of going to press, Malawi was experiencing electricity cuts and shortages of fuel, soft drinks and beer. Many tourist venues have generators and pack a case or two of your favourite beverage if you’re worried you might get thirsty. Check with your intended accommodation vendor to find out what the fuel situation is like before you leave. Fill up at every available opportunity and hide some filled jerry cans in the boot for emergencies.
Also note that the fluctuating exchange rate and high fuel prices mean that while accommodation vendors are trying to keep their rates down, they reserve the right to increase prices from those that are printed here.
The Malawian unit of currency is the kwacha, which divides into tambalas. It’s a good idea to keep some cash on you as banks and ATMs can be few and far between. Most tourist-based businesses will accept US dollars and rands, although you’re unlikely to get an optimal exchange rate.
Malawi is a high-risk malaria area, so take prophylactics. Bilharzia is common. Wear insect repellent and avoid swimming in areas with reeds or stagnant water. Dry yourself thoroughly and vigorously after swimming.
Cool Runnings is an oasis with lush lawns overlooking the lake. Accommodation includes camping, dorms and en suite rooms. Grab a beer at the bar, watch a spot of DStv in the lounge or try activities such as kneeboarding, water skiing and kayaking. Forty-five per cent of the backpackers’ profits are ploughed into community projects. Rates start at $5 (about R43) a person for camping to $35 (about R300) a person a night for an en suite room (sleeps two). Tel +26-512-63-398, email email@example.com.
Gecko Lounge at Cape Maclear may appear überchilled, but don’t be fooled. Come party time DJs are on the decks. Accommodation ranges from self-catering chalets (sleep four), a dormtype room (sleeps eight) and en suite rooms (sleep four). Activities include hiking, cultural tours and scuba diving. Rates are from $15 (about R130) a person a night to $130 (about R1 120) for a four-sleeper chalet. Tel +265-999-787-322 or +265-999-833-856, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.geckolounge.net.
Kande Beach is a stopover bristling with overlanders, fronted by a wide strip of white sand and pristine blue lake. Accommodation caters for a range of travellers, from dorms and camping to en suite rooms, beach chalets and self-catering units. Activities include horse riding, kayaking and catamaran hire. Rates start at MK750 (about R40) a person a night for camping and range to MK12 000 (about R640) a night for Stoned Cottage (sleep six). Tel +265-888-263-500, email email@example.com, www. kandebeach.com.
Mayoka Village has earned a must-visit status among backpackers. Activities include free boat trips every Tuesday and use of snorkelling equipment and dugout canoes. Stay in the campsite, dorm rooms, chalets (sleep four) or luxury stone cottages (sleep five). Prices start at $5 and $6 (about R43 and R51) for camping and dormitory beds a night and range to $20 (about R170) a person a night for the stone cottages. Tel +265-999-268- 595, email mayokavillage@ yahoo.co.uk, www.mayokavillagebeachlodge.com.
The Mini Cooper S All4 Countryman poo-poohed any notions that a sedan might not be the best choice for a road trip in Africa. The all-wheel drive came in handy on dirt roads, but with 135 kW at 5 500 rpm, it was happiest when let loose on the open road. It has the sexiness of a Mini with the space of a larger car, so we could comfortably load up with gear. From R393 000. www.mini.co.za.
(Photographs by Lisa Johnson and Sarah Duff)
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Tags: Cape Maclear, Cool Runnings, Freshlyground, Gecko Lounge, Kande Beach, Lake Malawi, Lake of Stars, Malawi, Mangochi, Mayoka Village, Mini Cooper S All4 Countryman, Mini Countryman, Nkhata Bay, Senga Bay, The Foals