Malawi in a mini: Road tripping around Lake Malawi

Posted on 21 October 2011

Getaway photojournalist Lisa Johnston and I were into day three of our ‘Malawi in a Mini Countryman’ trip, and were overjoyed to make it to Senga Bay, on Lake Malawi, after three days of driving from Joburg.

Chilling out at Cool Runnings

We followed chipper smiley face signs from the nearest town to our backpackers, Cool Runnings. After days of dry-as-bone landscapes, driving into Cool Runnings was like stumbling upon a verdant oasis. Fatigued from three days of travel, we spent the afternoon passed out on loungers on the lawn, shaded by flamboyants, and walking along the beach being accosted by cute children who wanted to pose for photos. “˜Jamboweni’ (take a photo of me) was the be the first Chichewa word we learned.

We’d got chatting to Cool Runnings’ owner Sam, a Zimbabwean nurse, who convinced us to donate blood at the local hospital. We piled into her bakkie, along with Jellicoe the Staffie and Lars the ageing Swedish backpacker and felt good about helping out (each of our pints of blood could save four babies). Sam treated us to a much-needed vanilla ice cream afterwards at the Canoe Ice Cream Den, and we drove back to Cool Runnings, only to spend another afternoon passed out on the loungers under the flamboyants (our excuse for lack of activity was blood drainage).

 Kande Beach – an overlander’s idea of paradise

The following morning, we drove up north to Kande Beach, an easy drive alongside the lake on a sunny Saturday. We passed village weddings in full swing, and busy roadside markets but struggled to find a quiet spot on the road between pedestrians, bicycle-riders and villages to have the occasional wee. (Note to would-be women travelers to Malawi: check very carefully before decidin to pull down your pants for a roadside pitstop – there could likely be an entire village staring at you if you haven’t scoped the area out properly before stopping. I speak from experience).

We had our first opportunity to test out the four-wheel drive capability of the Mini when we turned onto a sandy track to get to Kande Beach. As if magically, the Mini knew we needed some four-wheel help, and spurred into action. A kilometre or so of soft sand was a breeze.

Kande Beach initially seemed like a great spot – wide, sandy beach, hammocks dotted around, chilled out bar – but then we realised that this really was an overlander’s party. There seemed to be hundreds of them – pasty Swedes and garrulous Aussies, mostly – spread out from their tents to the beach, talking about gorillas in Rwanda and getting ripped off in Nairobi. The sight of the massive overlander trucks and swathes of their passengers engaging in drunken singalongs after dinner didn’t bother us per se, but we just felt that Kande Beach lacked a certain cosiness that other backpackers have. Nevertheless, we enjoyed lying on the beach, sipping beer shandies and parking off on some hammocks for the afternoon.

Mayoka – Malawian Shangri-La

We were over the overlanders, so we decided to leave Kande Beach pretty early for Mayoka Village, our backpackers in Nkhata Bay, 60 kms away. My colleague and erstwhile backpacker, Chris Davies, had raved about Mayoka Village and so it had high expectations to meet. Meet them it did – Mayoka is, in a word, awesome. It’s rustic in a Robinson Crusoe-esque kind of way (if Robinson Crusoe was a hippy backpacker): bungalows and dorm rooms are spread out on narrow terraces that drop down onto the see-through lake. There’s a great bar/lounge/restaurant area, with couches for afternoon siestas and a veranda that looks out to the bay.

Our room had two separate bedrooms interlinked with a bathroom, perfect for the two of us. There are also incredibly romantic rooms (that share a communal eco-friendly compost toilet) above the lapping waves of the lake, complete with balconies offering fantastic views.

We spent our days at Mayoka snorkelling, swimming, making friends with our fellow backpackers over copious amounts of Malawi gin and ‘Greens’ (Carlsbergs – horrible beer in my opinion, but better tasting after a fair amount of gin), playing with Milo the puppy, and reading books from Mayoka’s library. In a particularly active moment, we decided to take the ‘Mayoka Challenge’ and try to row a mokoro about 30 metres out to a jetty floating on the lake and back to shore without falling off (successful rowers get a night’s free accommodation). Rowing a mokoro looks easier than it is, and after a metre or so of very wobbly rowing, we fell into the lake amidst much girly squealing.

After that effort, we had to retire to the couches in the lounge and have chocolate cake and tea to recover. Mayoka has all these great freebies – tea every afternoon at four pm, Sunday night performances by Michael, a local musician, boat trips on Tuesdays… It’s the little touches like these that make the mark of a memorable stay.

Mayoka’s the kind of place that you could spend a month in, doing nothing at all and potentially deciding never to go back to an office (well, that’s how I felt after three days).

Cape Maclear

I woke up Michele, the Aussie-Italian backpacker we’d befriended and agreed to lift down to Cape Maclear, from his dorm, and after strapping his backpack on our roof rack on top of the spare wheel, we sped off into the sunrise (can you go off into the sunrise, like you can into a sunset? Not sure, but I think that’s what we did). Michele slept for most of the morning, while Lisa and I played Nouvelle Vague and chatted to friendly policemen at the road blocks along the way. At some point we ran out of conversation and resorted to shoving chilli-flavoured rice crackers up our noses, for funny pictures (yes, we are professional photojournalists).

We had a fairly short drive to Cape Maclear, so we had time to stop off and do mini-photoshoots of the Mini along the way. It proved to be a rather photogenic model, and as there aren’t many cars on the road in Malawi, we got some great shots of the car looking like it was heading into Deep Rural Africa.

Cape Maclear is a popular backpacking spot on the southern end of the lake, with lodges, curio shops and baobabs spread out on a dusty street along the shore. Our spot for the night, Gecko Lounge, with its hammocks, beach loungers, and bar right on the lake, was a welcoming sight after a morning in the car. We plopped ourselves down on couches in the bar and refreshed with beer shandies, chips and salad.

Cape Maclear is known for its awesome sunsets, and I enjoyed mine, in timeworn backpacking style, on a beach lounger, discussing the Meaning of Life with Michele. Our evening was spent warming up for the Lake of Stars festival, which we were going to be attending in three days’ time, as DJs, who would be playing at the festival did their thing in the Gecko Lounge Bar.

It’s impossible to sleep in in Malawi – the village wakes up at dawn and so will you (the noise combination of rooster, goat, children and women chatting is hard to ignore). It’s not necessarily a bad thing though – dawn is the best time to photograph the lake in its serene stillness. It also means you have time to work up a voracious appetite for extremely large slices of french toast and chopped banana.

After breakfast we drove a couple of metres up the road to Kayak Africa to set off for the next leg of our trip.

Day four

Senga Bay
Accommodation: Cool Runnings
Activities: Donating blood, eating ice creams (yes, that counts as an activity), photographing children on the beach, lying on loungers (ditto)
Sustenance: Biscuits in the hospital, toasted sarmies and chips for lunch, baked butterfish, potato and salad for dinner

Day five

Senga Bay to Kande Beach
Distance: 289 kms
Time: Around 4 hours
Accommodation: Kande Beach Resort, oat biscuits, bean burritos at Kande Beach
Sustenance: Jungle Oats cranberry breakfast bars,
Soundtrack: Eclectic mix CDs and ‘funny Afrikaans music’ courtesy of Christie Fynn

Day six

Kande Beach to Nkhata Bay
Distance: 60 km
Time: 1 hour
Accommodation: Mayoka Village, Nkhata Bay
Sustenance: Delicious sandwiches at Mayoka for lunch and pizza (in a wood-fired oven, nogal) for dinner
Soundtrack: Kings of Leon

Day seven

Nkhata Bay
Activities: Woke up with a searing headache from Malawi gin. The only cure was a massive banana pancake, lots of rooibos and swims in the lake.
Sustenance: Massive tuna mayo toasted sarmie with tomato sauce-slathered chips for lunch, and delicious chickpea patties with potato wedges and salad for dinner (at Mayoka).

Day eight

Nkhata Bay to Cape Maclear
Distance: 449 km
Time: 7 hours (lots of stops to take photos of the Mini on the road)
Accommodation: Gecko Lounge, Cape Maclear
Sustenance: Black sesame seed crackers, chips from the side of the road, chips, salad and toasted sarmies at Gecko Lounge


Accommodation on Lake Malawi

Cool Runnings
The lowdown: A quiet, small, cosy backpackers on the lakeshore at Senga Bay, Cool Runnings is an ideal spot if you want to relax for a few days. It’s also a great place to stay at if you want to get involved in community projects  while you’re in Malawi. Sam, the owner, has started several projects which you can volunteer on. You can camp in the garden, stay in a dorm or sleep in one of four ensuite rooms. There’s a small bar overlooking the lake and a restaurant that serves fantastic home-cooked meals such as butterfish with baked potatoes and salad.
Cost: $4 for camping, $8 for a bed in the dorm, $35 for a room with a bathroom.
Favourite bits: The laidback, intimate vibe, friendly owner, great food and peaceful garden.
Contact: [email protected], or check out the Cool Runnings page on Facebook.

Kande Beach
The lowdown: A bit of an overlander spot, Kande Beach is set up for truckloads of them, but it also has space in the campsite for solo travellers, as well as ensuite bungalows. It’s spread out over a large area, with a big bar (complete with satellite sports playing non-stop), restaurant and hammock patch, right on the edge of a wide beach. We stayed in a cabin near the overlanders’ campsite, which was comfortable and clean, although it had no view. The cabins right on the beach looked great.
Cost: Camping MK600 a person, dorm bed MK1000, cabins MK1500 a person, beach chalets MK3000, ensuite chalets MK6000 (at the time we travelled to Malawi the exchange rate was MK24 to R1)
Favourite bits: The lovely stretch of (relatively) quiet beach

Mayoka Village
The lowdown: This must be one of the best backpackers in Malawi (it was my favourite). It’s a bit out of town, to the far end of the bar from where you drive into Nkhata. The road up is a bit treacherous in a car as low as the Mini – if you’re in a sedan, take it slowly.
Cost: Camping $3 a person, $4 for a dorm bed, rooms with shared bathroom $16, rooms with ensuite bathroom $50
Favourite bits: The fun bar, great food, awesome views from the room, relaxed owners and friendly staff, scenic lake spot, and the amazing freebies every day of the week

Gecko Lounge
The lowdown: A super chilled backpackers on the lakeshore with a bar and restaurant overlooking the beach. There are dorms, chalets and rooms on the beach.
Cost: Dorm bed $10, double room $55, self-catering chalets $80
Favourite bits: The hammocks and the fairly fast Wifi (K1200 for 100MB)


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