At peace on the lake of stars

Serene beauty and wild crea­tures in Malawi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - ANNE FUS­SELL

For sev­eral mo­ments, the only sound is na­ture’s ver­sion of si­lence, the muted splash of wave­lets against the old wooden planks of the dhow’s hull, the soft flap­ping as the limp creamy sail strug­gles to trap the most whim­si­cal of breezes, the shrill far-off call of sea ea­gles.

We are loung­ing on large, plump cush­ions, the twi­light air warm on the skin, the white wine de­li­ciously chilled, won­der­ing whether the amaz­ing, ar­chi­tec­turally struc­tured clouds are go­ing to al­low the full glory of the sun­set to be un­veiled. But not re­ally car­ing. It is, by any mea­sure, heav­enly.

When we turn for home, the throaty chuckle of the out­board mo­tor re­places the flap of the life­less sail; in the dis­tance small cook­ing fires burn out­side the vil­lage houses. Kids are scam­per­ing about on the sand, play­ing some uniden­ti­fi­able game. The lit­tle flotilla of fish­er­men we passed ear­lier has re­turned home, hand-hewn ca­noes lined up like beached logs, ready to head out again once night has fallen.

Malawi may be a small, land­locked coun­try but it is blessed with Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest, stretch­ing more than 570km down the coun­try and com­pris­ing its bor­ders with Tan­za­nia and Mozam­bique. The lake, said to have 700 dif­fer­ent kinds of fish, not only pro­vides food and a liv­ing for the hun­dreds of thou­sands along its shores but, in­creas­ingly, at­tracts tourists, par­tic­u­larly to the waters off Lake Malawi Na­tional Park, a World Her­itage site at the south­ern end.

Each evening (weather per­mit­ting), the dhow sets off on its sun­set cruise from the pris­tine beach of Pu­mu­lani Lodge on the Nankumba Penin­sula. Even dur­ing the day, apart from the fish­er­men, guests fre­quently have the glassy waters to them­selves. No traf­fic jam of tourist boats. No jar­ring blare of mu­sic. Vis­i­tors come for the quiet beauty. For the snorkelling and div­ing. Kayak­ing along the craggy coast­line un­der the sea ea­gle’s watch­ful eye. Or hik­ing the hill­sides, try­ing to catch sight of some of the coun­try’s 400 types of bird.

Pu­mu­lani Lodge, part of the Robin Pope group that runs sa­faris in Malawi, Zam­bia and Zim­babwe, clings to the steep, wooded hill­side, look­ing out on to the lake. Its 10 grass-roofed vil­las nes­tle so snugly into the veg­e­ta­tion they are all but in­vis­i­ble to out­siders and to each other. And once inside, it’s like stay­ing in your own, lux­u­ri­ous, tree house.

Meals are taken at the main build­ing with its sweep­ing views across the water to the mes­meris­ing blue-grey moun­tain ranges just vis­i­ble in the dis­tance.

At night, en­joy­ing pre-din­ner drinks around an open fire, the sky a vast twin­kling canopy above us, the so­called Lake of Stars lives up to the name be­stowed by famed Vic­to­rian ex­plorer David Liv­ing­stone.

Lake Malawi is about four hours’ drive south from Malawi’s cap­i­tal, Li­longwe, along a road that show­cases the mag­nif­i­cent scenery of the Great Rift Val­ley, which runs north to south down the coun­try. Un­du­lat­ing hills ex­tend to the blue-grey range in the dis­tance. Along the way we ex­pe­ri­ence the car­ni­val of ev­ery­day life pass­ing through sev­eral towns and nu­mer­ous small vil­lages, some still con­sist­ing of tra­di­tional thatched round houses. Small boys mar­shalling large flocks of goats or cat­tle wave en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. To­bacco hangs dry­ing in large, open-sided wooden sheds.

Women in brightly coloured dresses carry large bas­kets of toma­toes on their heads. Men pedal solemnly bal­anc­ing tow­er­ing stacks of wood on their bi­cy­cles.

While not as well known for game view­ing as some of its neigh­bours, Malawi has nine parks and four wildlife re­serves and there has been in­creas­ing in­vest­ment in im­prov­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion and large-scale con­ser­va­tion.

Li­wonde, the coun­try’s long­est es­tab­lished park, lies about five hours’ drive south of Lake Malawi on the beau­ti­ful Shire River. It boasts rare black rhino, hip­pos and ele­phants, eland, wa­ter­buck and buf­falo. If you re­ally must have lions, Nkho­takota and Ma­jete wildlife re­serves in the cen­tral area now boast the Big Five.

Malawi is one of the least de­vel­oped African coun­tries and has one of the high­est poverty rates. Once heav­ily re­liant on to­bacco, in­creas­ingly it sees its fu­ture in tourism.

Fa­cil­i­ties and in­fra­struc­ture in many ar­eas is still limited. But it has two en­vi­able as­sets: its ma­jes­tic scenery and its out­go­ing and wel­com­ing peo­ple. Not for noth­ing is it known as the warm heart of Africa.

• robin­pope­sa­ • vis­it­

A dhow on Lake Malawi, main; bee eater, top; pied king­fisher, above; beach at Pu­mu­lani Lodge, left; infinity pool over­look­ing the lake, be­low left

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