We came back onto the mainland after an idyllic stay on Domwe and Mumbo Islands, charged up our electronic goodies at Gecko Lounge, picked up Michele, and hit the road to Mangochi for the Lake of Stars festival. Car soundtrack was paramount at this point of the trip, so Michele took over the DJing while I negotiated goats and corrugations on the sandy road out of Cape Maclear. We made an obligatory pre-festival stop at the only roadside village we saw for money, Cokes and sachets of horrible Malawian liquor. (Another Malawi travel tip: to save money on booze, buy sachets of Malawi gin, brandy, rum or mampoer for K20 – about R1 – each.)
We procured our media passes and key to our already-erected tent ($35 a night) in the Nkopola Resort campsite, which turned out to have proper beds and nice linen – a festival first for me. As the afternoon’s sweaty humidty threatened to peak, we reckoned that beers were in order before we scoped out the festival layout. Sitting on the beach under an umbrella sipping a sweaty brewski while watching the sun begin to set over Lake Malawi was a pretty awesome way to start off a three-day music festival.
The Lake of Stars, Malawi’s biggest tourist event, draws 3500 people, brings in $1 million into the local economy and has been called ‘the world’s most spectacular music festival’. The festival, now in its eighth year, was started by an English guy who came to Malawi on his gap year. Will Jameson thought up the Lake of Stars as a way of promoting Malawian musicians, attracting tourists to the country and developing the economy. The festival does all three while still managing to be rather a lot of fun.
Some of the proceeds from the festival go towards their projects (another reason to love this feel-good festival). In between drinking, dancing, watching bands, swimming the lake or resort pools at the festival you can contribute to the Lake of Stars’ community projects. Scheduled for the weekend were soccer matches, visits to a local library, and outings to other projects which you could sign up for.
I loved that the festival was in a lakeside resort – it made it so much classier than the whole festival-in-a-random-field vibe, which is what I’m used to. I never saw a porta-potty all weekend – there were actual toilets for festival goers! Clean ones! With loo paper! And sinks to wash your hands in! Nkopola Lodge is spread out on manicured lawns and a massive beach and is the kind of resort I’d never go to if there wasn’t a festival on. Our tent was in the lodge’s campsite, a short (but bewildering, in my drunken 4 am state) walk away from the festival area. In between the festival and the campsite, an entire village sprung up for the duration of the festival, where you could anything you needed, from coconuts, fried chips, goat stew, pap ‘n beans, ‘cheap cheap’ cider, to slip slops, curios and marijuana.
And the music you ask? Well, there were 70 acts over three days. That’s a lot more than any of the big Cape Town music festivals. The music literally never stopped. There were three stages (a main one on the beach, the village stage in the food stall area, the beach stage where DJs played, and the ‘star bar’ which only got going in the early hours of the morning). Acts ranged from hippies singing (rather beautiful) songs about saving forests, famous local rappers and kwaito musicians, to UK indie band Foals, the poptastic Freshly Ground, a DJ from Vampire Weekend, dubstep acts, and UK DJ Goldierocks. To say it was eclectic would be an understatement. There was something for everyone.
Not all of the acts were to my taste, but I did enjoy listening to music I wouldn’t otherwise have heard. My favourite of the festival had to be Foals though. I was quite a big fan before the festival (Lisa and I listened to their CD about 200 times on the road trip) but their live performance really exceeded my expectations. I also loved the fact that they chilled at the festival like normal people – we sat opposite them in the restaurant once, and swam next to them in the pool (I had to restrain urges to swim up to them and do something slobberishly fan-like).
October is the hottest month in Malawi, and even though the festival was on the first weekend, it was still pretty steamy. Hangovers and 35-degree heat don’t marry well, so Lisa and I spent our days chilling out in/next to the swimming pools, siesta-ing under palm trees on the beach, drinking beer shandies in the beach bar, and eating banana-flavoured ice cream (purported to be vanilla) in any shady spot we could find.
Over the three days, we made new friends, of whom Nacho, the funniest Spaniard in the world, was one, drank a lot of Malawi vodka and sachet-infused Sprites, interviewed bands (our very own Hunter S. Thompson moment – but that’s for another blog), photographed festival-goers, and generally had an awesome time. My personal highlights from the weekend included drunkenly meeting the dude from Vampire Weekend and some other international musicians in their chalet (and inadvertently stealing one of their beers), dancing on the beach at 3 in the morning to a remixed version of (can’t remember now, but I know I loved it at the time), meeting Cape Town bands Bateleur, La Vie and Holiday Murray in the pool and hearing their deliciously familiar stoner accents, watching Foals and then swimming in the pool next to them the following day, and discovering that the lodge’s restaurant had rooibos when I was really hungover.
I started to get seriously depressed on the last night. It wasn’t just that the falafel stand had run out of falafels (the only vegetarian option at the festival) and so I had nothing to eat, nor was it that my body was dealing with a three-day hangover. The festival was over and we were leaving Malawi the next day to go home. Usually by the end of an assignment, I’m exhausted and can’t wait to get home – this time I was working out a way of stealing the Mini (joking!) and staying in travel mode in Malawi forever.
We woke up at 4.30 on Monday morning to start the long haul to Zim (we’d decided to skip the flea pit of Tete out on the way back, and make it home in two days), and the music was still pumping from the festival stages. Somehow, some people were still partying at 4.30 in the morning after three days of solid jolling. Kudos to them.
Lisa and I said sad goodbyes to Michele, the Italian-Aussie backpacker who’d appropriated the floor of our tent (his shared tent in the campsite was overrun with red ants, attracted by some spilled horrible concoction of Oros and Malawi brandy), and sped off in our trusty Mini, blaring the Rolling Stones (a throwback to our festival days).
Cape Maclear to Mangochi
Distance: 74 km
Time: 1 hr
Accommodation: Tent in the Nkopola Lodge campsite ($35 a night)
Sustenance: Big eggy breakfast on Mumbo Island, rice crackers in the car and then a falafel at the festival at about 2 am
Soundtrack: Foals, Foals, and more Foals! Also, Foster the People, the Strokes, White Stripes
Accommodation: The tent
Sustenance: Toasted cheese sarmies and a falafel (the only veggie option at the festival, apart from exorbitantly priced toasted cheese sarmies at the Nkopola restaurant)
Soundtrack: Music at the festival – our favourites on Saturday were Freshly Ground and of course, the Foals!
Accommodation: The tent
Sustenance: A tin of smoked mussels (seriously – this was my breakfast), toasted cheese sarmies, rice and veggies
Soundtrack: Festival music
All the info on Lake of Stars
The dates or venue for the 2012 festival haven’t been announced yet. Keep checking the Lake of Stars website for updates.
Ticket: Tickets for this year’s festival were $90. Check out the tickets page for updates on the 2012 price.
Accommodation: There were a number of accommodation options at the 2011 festival. You could camp in the Nkopola Lodge campsite, a short walk away from the festival area, stay in an erected tent in the campsite (which we did, and I can recommend it), stay in a chalet in the lodge (pricey, but worth it if you love festivals but hate camping) or stay at one of the many lodges around Nkopola (bit a mission with the transport). Next year’s festival venue hasn’t been announced yet – it could be somewhere else on the lake. We booked our accommodation through Jambo Africa (one of Lake of Stars’ travel partners).
Malawi in a Mini
Follow our trip around Malawi in a Mini Countryman
For part one of our Malawi in a Mini trip (Joburg to Lake Malawi) click here
For part two of our Malawi in a Mini trip (Road tripping around Lake Malawi) click here
For part three of Malawi in a Mini (Island hopping on Domwe and Mumbo) click here