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Malawi safari

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Stunning scenery and Africafs friendliest people greet Nick Redmayne on a solo drive around a mountainous corner of landlocked Malawi


Having avoided erratic white minibuses, weaving cyclists, kamikaze goats and errant pigs, I relax, realising for the first time that my Land Rover has six gears. The surprisingly silky tarmac of Malawi's M1 unfurls from Lilongwe, the capital, through villages and plains. Startling rocky monoliths and abrupt mountain ridges erupt across a landscape with little need of interpretative brown signs to label it as Africa.

 

Then, inconvenient reality returns. Pulling over into the verge's long grass, I slide the Land Rover into neutral and yank the handbrake. "Sir, we have a problem." The diminutive police officer lowers his raised palm and steps towards my window. "You have committed an offence." The speed limit through Malawian villages is 50kph but where villages start, or end, is less clear. "Where's the sign?" I plead. The officer closes his eyes and rocks back on his heels. "Yes. You see in Malawi we have a problem..." Nothing like a problem shared, I ponder. "We put a sign. And then someone they take it." Sensing the need to bridge a hole in his case, he carries on quickly: "Anyway, the fine is 5,000 Kwacha. Pay my colleague. This money is for the government. He'll give you a receipt." A smiling constable hands over a slip of paper marked 'This is Not a Valid Receipt'. At around £8, I can afford to smile, too.

 

In 1964, colonial retreat saw Nyasaland reborn under the leadership of Hastings Banda as the hopeful, independent state of Malawi. That history records Banda as 'the Smiling Dictator' speaks volumes. Intolerant of political dissent, press criticism, long-haired men, women in trousers and Simon and Garfunkel's Cecilia, the intemperate, self-appointed President-for-Life Banda defined Malawi for almost 30 years. Yet in the same way that Mussolini encouraged Italy's trains to run on time, Malawi has Banda to thank for its surprisingly good main roads.

 

colonial style

 

Including stops for speeding fines, a long-lasting 500 Kwacha roadside haircut and the misdirection of an increasingly ill-informed sat nav, it was an eight-hour drive south from Lilongwe to the Thyolo Highlands. At the entrance to the 2,200 acre Satemwa Estate, an enthusiastic young girl takes my details and sends me the final few kilometres of dirt track to Huntingdon House, where I am to stay in one of the five colonial-style rooms.

 

"You have to be very passionate about what you do or what's the point? There are no subsidies, not like Europe. You're on your own." Huntingdon's owner Robert 'Chip' Cathkart Kay settles in front of a spitting wood fire, the sofa almost absorbing his still-vital, elderly frame. Chip's father, Maclean Kay, planted the estate's first tea in 1923. "Unlike the following war, jobs weren't kept open for returning servicemen," explains Chip. "Father said, 'Africa… Give it a bash.'" Overflowing with memories and possessing a still voracious appetite for knowledge, Chip is hard to keep on track. "You won't believe it. They've re-started the Tanganyika Talks." I must look puzzled. "Google it," he barks. "It's all there. Oil. Lake Malawi. The first leak will herald the demise of three million people."

 

I ask him how Malawi has changed. "At independence, we had 2.8 million people. Now there are 17 million. The amount of wood energy required is frightening. There's so much deforestation, soon people will be digging sand. The topsoil has blown away. Some say it's Malawi's greatest export." He allows an ironic guffaw and calls to a waiter in Chichewa. A pot of the estate's Oolong arrives. I ask him about tea growing in Malawi. "It's like this," he says. "65 cents per kilo sale price, 140 cents per kilo production cost. It's very worrying. Where do you think the grandchildren will be, still here?"

 

The restaurant has emptied and it's not a question I'm expected to answer. I tell Chip I'm keen to take a back road from the estate tomorrow. He thinks for a moment. "You've got the right car. Tell them Matzuma Pass. There are no tin roofs. It's not Malawi, it's Nyasaland."

 

Vinic, one of the estate staff, offers to direct me as far as the tarmac. Among tall blue gums, we share the track with couples in their Sunday best. Walking in procession, men in shiny jackets and wide, colourful ties partner women in satin frocks, all heading for a nearby service. As we pass the church, singing briefly fills the air. The road becomes increasingly steep, rocky track turning to slippery smooth red earth. I'm glad it's a dry day. High up, beyond the woods, Chip is right. The ubiquitous corrugated tin roofs are absent. Among scattering chickens, villages of thatched adobe huts are populated by running children and squatting women.

 

At the tarmac, two white minibuses are waiting for fares. I buy Vinic a seat and we walk to an optimistically named one-room 'shopping centre' for two cold Fantas. Straight from their glass bottles, they're a taste of being elsewhere.

 

It's a short drive to an overnight at Game Haven, a Happy Valley oasis of country club, golf course and wildlife reserve, where civet cats chase players around an immaculate nine holes.

 

In the morning, I strike out towards Lake Malawi. At a petrol station, I exchange a brick of thousand Kwacha notes for full, long-range diesel tanks. Leaving, I give way to a crocodile of women, each one carrying a long bundle of firewood balanced upon her head. Motorised traffic is sparse here, though lycra-free cyclists transport all manner of goods, from 10-foot metal poles, gas canisters and recumbent goats to demure young ladies sitting side saddle on padded cushions.

 

Following a wooden sign to Pumulani Lodge, I cross a scrubby patch of uneven ground, emerging through trees to the twinkling expanse of Lake Malawi suddenly to my left. A uniformed gatekeeper trips from his mud brick sentry post to open the barrier, his smile visible for miles.

 

diverse ecosystem

 

Rob, the lodge manager, leads me to my room, past a fish-filled pool and a watchful flight of pied kingfishers. The boardwalk ends at a stilted structure, vast and airy, built of polished wood and glass, akin to a Californian beach house. Inside, the wet room has two rainforest showerheads. I am sorry to be travelling alone.

 

Feeling like a pallid gooseberry, I accompany a giggling Malawian couple for a sundowner boat trip. "You can join us with the Scotch," they say. "If you need water, there's plenty in the lake." They're right. Lake Malawi is Africa's third- largest body of fresh water, bordering Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi itself. Within its 2,300-km shores are some 500 fish species found nowhere else on Earth. Pumulani lies within the UNESCO site established to protect this diverse ecosystem. Back on shore, Rob breaks out a fancy telescope and we look at Mars, the rings of Saturn and the Sea of Tranquillity.

 

At 5.50am I'm awakened by the noisy departure of what I assume to be other guests. From the racket, there must be about 20 of them. The tramp along the boardwalk becomes a stampede. The 'guests' turn out to be a troop of baboons.

 

After breakfast, I drive to Chembe village. I'm staying on Domwe Island and need a kayak for the 5km paddle. On the beach, a muscular young man throws me a lifejacket. "I'm Fastone, I'll be your guide and will make sure you don't drift to Mozambique." We cross without incident and with leaden arms, I pull my kayak onto the sand of Domwe's sheltered bay. I see Francis, the cook, further up the beach and remarkably, he recognises me. "Hey, I cooked fish for you." We'd met three years ago and he was right. Francis, grey-haired sage of the bush kitchen, has presided over Domwe's rustic cookhouse for almost 17 years. "How's life on the lake?" I ask, watching the waves gently lapping the shore. "There are more fishermen and fewer fish," replies Francis. "They say 'Don't take the small fish.' But it's a hard thing to ask."

 

driving solo

 

"The country was a mess last time I came," I remind him. "No petrol or diesel, no electricity, the University was on strike and President Bingu had deported the British High Commissioner."

 

"It was bad," he agrees.

 

"Then Bingu Mutharika died, you got Joyce Banda [no relation to Hastings Banda] and things improved?"

 

"It was better," Francis nods.

 

"But now you've elected Bingu's brother?" Francis sets to, loudly chopping onions. "People don't talk, they vote," he says pointedly. "If they talk, life can become complicated. These people, their manifestos, we read them. If they do what they say, most Malawians will be happy."

 

I leave Francis to it and climb to the island's highest point. It's a punishing ascent over steep, loose ground. I reach the rocky summit just in time to see the sun disappear below the lake's now glassy surface, the sky fading from ochre to the purest of blue.

 

I'm sad to leave the lake but I'm due in Lilongwe and I'm sure Fastone wants his kayak back, so I hit the road.

 

Driving solo anywhere in Africa is not ideal. However, aside from the risk of road accident, personal security is better than much of Europe and unless you head off the tarmac, it's difficult to become genuinely lost. Compact, with ready supplies of fuel and provisions, Malawi invites exploration by adventurous self-drivers.

 

Fifty years of independence have seen mixed fortunes for Malawians. Some 60% of the population exists on little more than a dollar a day, while the government depends on aid for 40% of its budget. But the country has peace, an increasingly valuable commodity, and possibly the most welcoming people in Africa.

WAY TO GO

Nick Redmayne travelled with Safari Drive (Tel: 01488 71440 / safaridrive.com). The company offers 16-day self-drive tours of southern Malawi from '2,414.

 

Game Haven Lodge offers wildlife-spotting opportunities (Tel: +265 (0)999 971 286 / gamehavenmw.com) while Central African Wilderness Safaris features package tours to Lilongwe, northern Malawi and Lake Malawi (Tel: +265 (0)177 1393 / cawsmw.com).

 

Robin Pope Safaris has safari packages and walking tours throughout Malawi from April to January (+265 (0)179 4491 / robinpopesafaris.net), while Sunbird operates hotels and resorts in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and the shores of Lake Malawi (Tel: +265 (0)177 3388 / sunbirdmalawi.com).

 

Fly direct via Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines (Tel: 0800 0163 449 / ethiopianairlines.com).

 

Malawi Tourist Information Office (Tel: 0115 972 7250 / malawitourism.com).

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