The very best of Malawi
Anton Crone would have liked to keep this jewel of Africa all to himself
MALAWI is the type of place you don’t often see on “Top Ten Destinations” or “Best Kept Secret Places” lists. That’s because travellers riddled with Malawi fever, like me, have been defacing the magazines and hacking the websites that publish them.
We want it for ourselves, this paradise, this portal to Nirvana — I mean this malaria-stricken sliver of land beside a lake bubbling with bilharzia.
That thing about Malawians being the friendliest people on earth? Marketing ploy. Chances are the first person you meet will be a nutter with a bazooka and 15 grenades strapped to his chest, training his crazed eyes on your watch.
Malawi had its time. The nickname, Lake of Stars, was coined by David Livingstone when he saw the lamps of fishermen on the water at night. Now it’s a bunch of rastas lighting up their doobs as they paddle erroneously between Malawi and Mozambique ferrying mountains of marijuana and armed militia. And let’s not ignore that it was here that Livingstone probably contracted malaria from which he died after a deliriant battle. Did I mention it was aggravated by the onset of bilharzia after he dipped his toe in the water?
But if you must go, take a HazMat team and try, please try, and enjoy these three hovels.
Mayoka Village, Nkhata bay
Here, you might be surprised to find yourself in an en-suite cabin that is right on the lake. You might think this a romantic feature, needing only a few steps from the porch to the little waves lapping on the rocks. It’s something you’d love to tell your friends about — why else do we go on holiday?
But what you’d really end up telling them is how you screamed like a little girl when you saw that rogue wave descending upon you and how you lost your Speedo as you tried to escape up the hill. In fact, the cabins in the picture at top right are probably underwater now and a honeymoon couple’s sodden passports are floating in the rafters.
The cost of Mayoka is the other disconcerting thing. The en-suite cabins are a mere $20 a night, and they’re rather comfortable. Lunch and dinner is cheap and rather good. A boat leaves on certain days for long trips along the coast so guests can visit villages, play on beaches and go cliff diving. The strange thing is, it’s free.
All this puts you on edge as you try to figure out the catch. Ultimately it leads you to calculate how much you spend on rent/ mortgage and day-to-day living back home. And, even if you’ve had 12 (cheap) Kuche-Kuche beers, you’ll figure out that you could live in this beautiful place for less — forever. And that is the real danger of Mayoka village. After just three days you’ll picture yourself sitting on the deck overlooking the water, writing pulp fiction under a pseudonym nicked from a rastafarian beach boy. It is a very, very dangerous place. I urge you: do not go there.
Go here — this place is far worse:
Sangilo Sanctuary Lodge, Northern Lake
They don’t even have electricity. It’s located in a small cove in the deathly quiet northern part of Malawi. To get there you must descend such a steep track on the last 100m that you wonder if you’ll ever be able to make it out again.
The problem is you won’t want to make it out again. This is indeed a sanctuary, quiet and secluded as it is in its own private cove. They’ve got six lodges and a small camping site, meaning it’s never overrun with guests and they’ve got around that electricity thing by running everything on solar power. It means that your carbon footprint is decidedly smaller than usual, and the longer you stay in this secluded spot the more you realise how small you are in the big sphere of things. So here’s the horror of it: you start feeling kinda guilty about that electricity-chomping geyser back home and the blood money you pay to those gangsters at Eskom for keeping you alive through the winter. You start wondering about that carbon-coughing 4x4 you use for trips like this, maybe once a year, and the rest of the time for commuting.
Then you go for a long swim to escape the voices in your head and you hit a great big rock and look up to see seven young boys sitting on that rock, fishing for their food, muttering in soft voices: “Bloody mzungu. Should have gone around the rock. Disturbed the bloody fish.” And you feel guilty because you’ve ruined their chances of a meal. But they give you a stick of bamboo and twine and the next thing you know there are eight of you sitting on the rock. You nickname it the “Chambo Gang” after the fish you catch and you swim out there every afternoon to join them.
And here’s the real slammer: you’ve never felt happier in your life.
That’s a pretty awful feeling when you’ve got to head back to the complicated life you lead. And, as you drive south with just one more Malawian stop ahead, you hope it’s a really bad stop; that it’ll put you off Malawi forever — and it is. It’s the worst.
Makakola Retreat — Southern Lake
The large private beach is raked every morning. It has all the water toys, the best one being an eight-berth houseboat which you can hire, crew and all, to cruise the lake — but you may not want to leave this shore because it is, quite simply, a perfect retreat. Tennis courts, squash court, golf course and spa are added treats. Then they hit you with Makakola’s extensive community ventures, helping sustain over 300 families. An art and craft centre employs locals and, as the hotel is a patron of Malawian art, its collection of wood sculptures is breathtaking. They train locals in farming techniques to supply the hotel with sustainable goods. They avoid importing building material and builders and even the furniture is made locally, from rubber trees — the only truly sustainable wood in Malawi. They go as far as filling pillows with fibre from local tree pods which are incredibly comfortable, and allergen-free.
All of this sustainability must be very hard work and you feel very, very lazy. So you hit the golf course.
And that’s when Makakola really gets to you. Walking the manicured greens surrounded by majestic baobabs, every shot you play goes awry.
It’s not your fault, it’s the designers who made such a masterpiece that you can’t keep your eye on the ball: don’t hit that baobab, you’ll disturb the fish eagle. Now if I just aim for that flag — oh, just look at the layout of that green — swish, ball gone. Let’s just wade into that beautiful water hazard to get it out and — oh, this is nice, I think I’ll just go for a swim. Bilharzia? Who cares, I’m already riddled with Malawi fever. — © Anton Crone
IF YOU GO
Mayoka Village, Nkhata Bay: Rates start at $20 per person per day for an en-suite cottage. A standard cottage is $12 and a dorm bed $6. Camping $5.
Sangilo Sanctuary Lodge: Rates are $60 for an en-suite double chalet, $50 for a double or twin, with shared bathroom. Camping is $6.
Contact: sangilo.sanctuary@ yahoo.co.uk
Makakola Retreat: Rates start at $194 per person full board, including local drinks. Makakola’s airfield can accommodate international traffic. Customs and immigration can be cleared at the hotel. Fuel by prior arrangement.