Sailing, kayaking, scuba diving, wake-boarding, snorkelling, swimming, water skiing...with so much on offer, Lake Malawi is a cracking destination for a water-based holiday - and its utterly relaxing, too, says Robert Jones
As we flew into the small airfield at Salima towards the southwestern end of Lake Malawi, the land looked very dry – great swathes of pale brown earth, dotted with straw-topped mud-brick huts. And here was I, intending to have a water-themed trip?
I needn’t have worried. Soon I was taking my first dip in Malawi’s turquoise waters at Senga Bay. The beautiful clean sand was dotted with small shells, and waves lapped the shore. It felt more like the Med than a lake, as land-locked as Bala, Derwentwater or Loch Ness.
I watched a fisherman in his dugout canoe mending nets before his night’s work. The fishermen here catch small whitebait-like usipa, sold at roadside stalls in most of the lakeside villages, colourful cichlids, exported to aquaria around the world, and bream-like chambo, which, I discovered that evening, is delicious.
The next day I joined Mufasa, the only luxury ocean-going catamaran on the lake, for a trip to Cape Maclear in the Lake Malawi National Park. The size of this freshwater lake is such that there was quite a swell and, midway, you couldn’t see the shore, just the horizon. It was like being at sea, the strange difference being the lack of a salty, ozone smell. This was sailing in style: the experienced crew offered snorkelling, scuba diving or fishing but after their amazing barbecue I was happy just to sunbathe on the deck drinking a cold beer.
After a good night’s sleep and an open-air breakfast, we dropped in on Danforth Yachting’s lakeside lodge, a great place to water-ski, wind-surf, wake-board, snorkel or scuba dive. My journey then continued down to Chembe, the largest fishing village in Malawi, where I was meeting a guide from Kayak Africa.
If you want an idyllic place to unwind, chill-out, relax, contemplate life or have a romantic escape, try Mumbo Island. The island, a short five-kilometre boat ride offshore, has an amazing little encampment of tented rooms, each one mounted on wooden stilts on the rocks above the tropical water and designed with such sensitivity to their surroundings that they are hard to see until you are close by.
I paddled a kayak right around the island to see African fish eagles, Malawi’s national bird, nesting on the craggy rocks. Enticed by the clear, warm water, after kayaking I relaxed by snorkelling with the large shoals of multi-coloured cichlids. Later, after a lamp-lit dinner under the stars, I let the lapping of the waves below my tent lull me gently to sleep ready for my early morning boat trip back to the mainland.
From Chembe, I headed south to Mvuu Camp in the Liwonde National Park, where hippos, crocodiles and an amazing array of birds congregate and, at night, guests are serenaded by the croaking of hundreds of frogs.
The camp is situated close to the Shire River (pronounced shirrey) that drains the lake at its most southern point. An experienced river safari guide took us to see the hippos and crocs at close quarters. Sitting on the riverbank at dusk, we listened to the conversations of animals in the bush as the big, red sun slowly fell beyond the horizon leaving a hue of pink and purple in the sky: a spectacular ending to my journey.