Stars and cichlids on Lake Malawi
‘Hello!’ My voice slid out across the still waters of Lake Malawi.
‘Hey mzungu! How are you?’
I couldn’t see their faces in the twilight but I could picture their broad smiles and laughing eyes, so characteristic of Malawians.
The words rolled effortlessly off my tongue, cushioned by the gentle lapping of water against the rock on which I was perched. The six fishermen were silhouetted against the bright pink coattails of a sun already set. Their lanterns were not yet lit. All I could see was the outline of their bodies, two oars and a boat – a black cut out bopping gently above the horizon. From my rock on Domwe Island, five kilometres from the mainland, I had watched the sky turn from orange to pink to midnight blue. As darkness fell, lanterns flickered on across the lake. And there it was – The Lake of Stars.
We had kayaked across from Kayak Africa HQ (at Cape Maclear) to Domwe that morning. Although there is the option of taking a boat (at no additional cost), I’d suggest you paddle. It’s a forty-minute mission that makes arrival on the island that much sweeter. Apart from the three Kayak Africa employees, we were the only guests on our one night stay. A whole island for R500 a night! I felt like queen of the castle, wondering around without inhibition or care. After a celebratory drink from the honesty bar ($2 for a cold beer), we went snorkelling.
Lake Malawi is famous for its hundreds of varieties of cichlids – a family of fish I’d only ever seen in aquariums. They range in size and colour from pinkie through to palm length, brown to electric blue. The bigger, more colourful varieties tend to travel solo or in pairs. While I appreciated their exotic allure, the pint-sized brown guys – decorated with a simple cream spot – captured my heart. They travel in large numbers, seemingly disorganised but quick to unite the moment you come close – dashing off in perfect unison. We stayed in the warm, silky water for much of the afternoon, seduced by sunbeams that cut beautifully through the blue, bouncing off boulders and illuminating the fish.
Everything you need
After snorkelling and watching the sunset, we cooked up a storm in Domwe’s fully-equipped outdoor kitchen (our food and belongings were carried across by boat). A wild bush pig and two civet cats snooped hungrily around as we cooked, as fearless as they were fat. Shortly after dinner, elevated tents with soft double beds enticed us to retire. We fell asleep to the lapping of the lake, a subtropical breeze licking our cheeks through the open door.
It’s hard to avoid the paradise cliché when talking of Mumbo Island. It’s similar to Domwe but more. More bays, more extravagant views, more fish, more colour, more hammocks, more luxury, and yes – more money. A night on Mumbo will cost almost three times as much as Domwe – the price you pay for, there’s no escaping it, paradise.
Approaching Mambo by boat, the sleeping quarters were the first thing to catch my attention – elevated tents situated high above the lake, each with a balcony hammock swaying lightly in the breeze. The tents are erected in a semi circle around a portion of the island that sits apart from the dining area and main beach. A rope walkway, lit by fairy lights at night, joins the two parts, stretching over fifty or so meters of lake. The beach opens up into a pristine (wind protected) cove, ideal for snorkelling or an evening swim. Wild fig trees grow curiously and confidently out of giant boulders all around the island, their fat roots creeping round and down to the lake below. All this is wrapped up in a shimmering ribbon of crystal clear, turquoise water,
The beauty of Mumbo is the mix of activity and relaxation. We were only there for two nights and we had enough time to walk every trail, kayak around the island, snorkel, lounge, read, drink and snooze without ever feeling rushed. You can sit for hours on a rock, captivated by cormorants drying their wings or king fishers displaying their royalty. You can just as easily kayak out to meet fishermen in their makoros or jump repetitively off a fifteen-meter high boulder. Whatever your preference, you won’t want to be anywhere else.
Lady Luck continued to smile on us, as we were once again the only visitors to the island. As such, we were awarded the ‘Honeymoon Suite’ – the room with the best view of the rising sun. Each morning I woke up early, relocated to our hammock and watched with sleepy delight as the sky set slowly alight. To see the sun’s cycle through, we kayaked round the island in the late afternoon to watch it set. Those orange mornings and purple evenings are high on my list of southern Africa highlights. And, dare I say it, my list in general.