07 Jun LRA’s Road to Dar – Part 3
Our overland adventure through Africa continues with this, our third instalment of our six-part Cape to Dar es Salaam Expedition feature. Up until now, our fleet of Freelander 2 vehicles (including its sexy cousin, the Range Rover Evoque) has silenced critics by motoring 4000 km across the continent without as much as a hitch. This further illustrated that Africa isn’t reserved purely for rough and tumble Defenders and adventure runs thick through the fuel lines of the entire Land Rover range. From kicking it in luxurious safari lodges to sleeping on stretchers in remote campsites, we managed to explore Africa as a tourist and overlander alike. This month’s featured country is Malawi.
Malawi, formerly known as Nyasaland, is even better known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ because of its peaceful, hospitable environment and extraordinary friendly citizens. The people of Malawi are the proverbial drum that beats to the vivacious rhythm of traditional and cultural sub-Saharan Africa. And with Tanzania to the North, Zambia to the West and Mozambique to the East, Malawi combines all the rich flavours of its neighbouring countries into one land-locked African pot.
Malawi is a sliver on the African map, dominated by the continent’s Great Rift Valley. It sports a diverse interior, with remote reserves, pristine parks, vast plains, majestic highlands and at its heart, a colossal freshwater lake. As with many other travellers in Africa, Malawi proved to be an unexpected favourite of ours.
A great aspect of Malawi is that it is largely untainted by mass (or small-scale) tourism. But what’s even better is that it’s a very safe destination for travelling overlanders, especially if you’re one of the slowest drivers in the world, looking to stay in non-touristy places or if you’re all about connecting with locals.
The road through Malawi (whether its gravel or tarmac) feels like it goes on forever and is occupied by masses of people who seem to use the roads for everything but driving vehicles. Scores of custom-made bicycles are not only used for carrying wood, maize, vegetables, and live chickens, but also doubles up as a popular means of taxi transport for locals between villages (Malawians must be sporting a very low carbon footprint!).
Malawi’s roads are slowly but surely improving. Negotiating enormous car-breaking potholes is to be expected and don’t be surprised when you’re stuck behind a herd of cattle also making use of the road. There are deep sand spots in some places too, and travelling in convoy and 4×4 is advised but not essential.
Malawi is largely rural with only 16 percent of the population living in urban areas. But Malawi is also a very poor country, not only in Africa, but it is also one of the poorest in the world. However, crime remains virtually non-existent. While petty crime does occur on the streets of its bigger cities like Lilongwe and Blantyre, violent crimes are not common.
The Lake of stars
Not only is Lake Malawi one of the most crystal clear and exotic lakes in the world, it has unbelievable energy. This massive 600 km long lake, the third largest in Africa, takes up nearly one-fifth of the country’s land surface and is the livelihood of thousands of Malawians who make a living fishing on the lake.
Enthralled by its beauty and enormity, famed explorer Dr David Livingstone named it ‘The Lake of Stars’ when he came across it in 1859. During our visit, we stopped off for a well-deserved break at one of Malawi’s best-kept secrets in Cape Maclear, Chembe Eagles Nest, a resort that resides on the lake’s shores.
Here, you can find a glorious collection of hidden coves, palm-tree laden shores, pristine sandy beaches, dozens of bare-boned reed huts and a mirror-like tranquillity where at night, you can hear how small freshwater waves lap against the hulls of a dhow or makoro –handmade wooden crafts used by the locals for fishing.
Even though it was mid-July, winter, the weather was balmy with temperatures reaching the mid-30 mark. But the water remains warm all year round.
We beached at Thumbi West Island, an uninhabited, tranquil oasis. Snorkelling here is like diving into an IMAX-version of your living room aquarium. Thousands of colourful fish species are instantly visible around you (most of these fish are only found in Lake Malawi). Approximately 90 per cent of these fish species belong to the family called Cichlid, which includes Utaka, Mbuna, Mcheni and many other kinds.
Two resident fish eagles gave us a remarkable aerobatic display, swooping down in front of us, scooping up bait thrown by the locals as a majestic African sun set slowly over the edge of the lake – a truly unforgettable moment.
The tranquillity and beauty of Lake Malawi is mesmerising. That night we were treated to a mouthwatering Cichlid meal, and after exploring the local nightlife, we retreated with our sleeping bags and pillows on the sandy beach for a peaceful night’s sleep. Instead of booking ourselves into a five-star hotel, that night, we preferred the comfort of a five-billion star canopy above us, sleeping soundly right there on the shores of Lake Malawi – even more unforgettable moments.
Up in the highlands
The lake is only part of Malawi’s charm. Travelling about 800 km north, we came to the Nyika Plateau, a beautiful, montane highland area lying on the Malawian and Zambian border. This plateau is actually an extension of the Nyika National Park, which sits 2 400 m above sea level. The views were spectacular with a lush jumble of woodland and pine forests as far as the eye can see, home to a prolific assortment of birdlife and elusive leopards.
At the foot of the Nyika Plateau, you find a starkly beautiful wilderness where antelope, elephant and wildebeest wander over open grasslands. From here, you can hike to the colonial hilltop town of Livingstonia. In 1894, the Free Church of Scotland founded a mission in the cool mountain air after heat and malaria foiled earlier attempts at Cape Maclear and Bandawe.
While the mountain is criss-crossed with a network of hiking trails, we happened upon some undiscovered 4×4 trails and gave the Freelanders their first real taste of off-roading on our Cape to Dar es Salaam expedition. We decided to take a shortcut from Chelinda Lodge in Malawi and discovered that the road entirely went missing in places, resulting in some grade four off-road fun for our drivers. Crawling and clambering over rocky terrain and wading through water crossings, we eventually made it out unscathed on the other side. Take a bow, Freelander 2!
Not too far from the capital of Lilongwe, you find Liwonde National Park (160 km from Blantyre in southern Malawi), a game-rich wildlife area that despite its size – only 548 km² – is considered one of Malawi’s most prolific spots for safaris and game-viewing. Home to over 400 species of bird, crocodile, hyena, hippo, elephant herds, zebra and antelope, game-viewing is plentiful, and canoe safaris is a popular activity on the Shire. The park is also very involved with a black rhino re-introduction programme.
The mighty Shire River, Malawi’s largest river, is nearly a kilometre wide in some areas and with massive floodplains, the Shire River is a lodestone for wild animals. Even from the luxurious Mvuu Lodge (read more about Mvuu further on), situated on the river banks, you can find warthogs, elephants, hippopotami and scores of other animals roaming the camp freely at night.
Unlike Tanzania or South Africa (perhaps it’s testament to Malawi’s peaceful nature), its nine national parks and reserves don’t feature many predator sightings, but they’re blessedly free from noisy 4×4 traffic jams. Here, your best wildlife viewing is between October and November.
Managing a group of nine intrepid explorers was never going to be easy (or so our publisher thought), but our group, some of whom have never met each other before the trip, was soon romanced by Malawi’s charms and bonded instantly. In fact, there have been some lasting friendships formed for sure.
The cars were really put through their paces and delivered stellar fuel-consumption figures. Carrying celebrity chef Reuben Riffel’s entire bush kitchen on roof racks as well as all the crew’s camping crew, an average of 9.2 litres per 100 km was achieved – despite the mix of heavy off-roading and dense traffic in places like Lilongwe.
But the most amazing (and most rewarding) aspect of Malawi is the people. They are the ones that make this place what it is. These warm, friendly spirits, with perpetual smiles on their faces, embrace all walks of life and send you back home with this warm laughter still ringing in your ears.