Skinny Dipping, Star-Gazing and Dancing in a Sandstorm: A Malawi Adventure
22 January, 2019
There's no way I'll swim in Lake Malawi if there are crocodiles and parasites in there, and I'm not touching Malawi Gin.
I pronounce this with confidence. My brother, Peter, had visited Malawi a couple of years ago while working at a hospital in neighbouring Zambia and was giving me the lowdown on the lake, Africa's third largest and populated with parasites and crocodiles. The gin, sold in sachets like cheap conditioner, sounded even more lethal.
A mere 24 hours later I'm skinny-dipping in the aforementioned lake with 15 strangers, tanked up on MG&Ts, as Malawians call their gin and tonics. Sure, I'll have a killer hangover, and yes, I'll have to pop a pill as a safeguard against parasites. But adventure is all about doing things that you never thought you would. Malawi - with a little bit of help from the 43-per-cent-proof gin - pushes me into an adventurous mindset at warp speed.
This was the first night of my ten-day group trip with Faraway, a brand-new and emphatically next- generation tour operator. Wife-and-husband team Helen and Al Robshaw fell in love with Malawi a few years ago and decided to build their dream itinerary around the Lake of Stars Festival, which has been taking place on the shores of Lake Malawi since 2004. Group travel can be a gamble and I pride myself on being an independent traveller. However, the thing about adventure is that it balances on a knife edge - too much and your journey slides into danger or discomfort, an ordeal rather than a thrill.
Malawi enjoys a reputation as a friendly, relaxed, and compact African nation but compared to neighbouring Mozambique, the tourism infrastructure is much less robust - the roads are
less well-trodden and public transport is still a bit of an enigma. What small independent group operators like Faraway hope to do is open up new destinations like Malawi to solo travellers by removing the elements of risk and friction, leaving nothing but distilled discovery.
On our first morning we kayak from Cape Maclear (on the southern shore of Lake Malawi and a four-hour drive from Lilongwe, the capital city) to Domwe Island, a paddle of just over an hour. Apart from a handful of chefs and guides working with Kayak Africa, which owns Domwe and the nearby Mumbo Island, we have the entire island to ourselves. This knowledge fills us with an anarchic, castaway spirit, which explains the afternoon gin drinking, the dancing around the fire to Fela Kuti and the skinny-dipping by moonlight.
Malawi Gin has been distilled from sugar cane since the 1960s, perhaps a legacy from the Scottish missionaries - the first to enter the country was David Livingstone in 1859. MG&Ts might not protect us from bilharzia parasites or stray crocodiles (to be fair, they're a rare sight in the southern waters of the lake), but they certainly protect us from the fear of both. Before I left my brother had smiled at my confident assertions that I'd not set foot in the lake and gently murmured, "It's pretty tempting, Anna." He wasn't wrong. Carved out of the landscape by the Great Rift Valley, the colossal Lake Malawi looks like the sea, fringed with beaches and rocky islands. As soon as I see it, it seems perverse not to jump in.
For many years Malawi was dominated by its self-appointed "life president" Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who notoriously banned a Simon and Garfunkel song because the lyrics - "Cecilia, you're breaking my heart" - coincided with an emotional ruck happening with his long-term mistress and "official hostess of Malawi", Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira. As you can imagine, Banda's other decisions weren't as absurdly amusing - political opponents and dissenting journalists were ruthlessly quashed until Banda's defeat in Malawi's first multi-party elections in 1994. Despite the prevailing poverty - Malawi has a primarily rural and agricultural economy and remains heavily aid-dependent - this is a friendly, upbeat and welcoming nation and tourism is a fledgling industry most Malawians are keen to foster.
As we load up our kayaks the next morning to paddle across the shimmering waters to Mumbo Island, Malawi's potential as a tourist destination seems as vast as the lake. Yet tourism contributed just 4.5 per cent to the national GDP according to the most recent figures, compared to neighbouring Tanzania's 17.5 per cent. Responsible tourism isn't just about choosing sustainable hotels or stressing about your carbon footprint - it's also about thinking about where you spend your dollar and about redistributing it more fairly across the globe, ideally in places that can benefit from an additional source of income.
Mumbo Island takes the luxury up a notch from Domwe, where we had slept in tents on the beach. Mumbo is pricier, at £150 per person including food and bucketloads of gin, but the clifftop bungalows are among the most romantic I've ever set my bare foot in - the stuff that honeymoons are made of.
From the islands we jump in the bus and travel four hours south to the mountainous Zomba Plateau. Zomba Forest Lodge is run by Petal and Tom, who worked in events and hospitality in England for years before returning to Petal's homeland and adopting a 1920s bungalow, nurturing 20 acres of rainforest in a gully and helping to put this often- overlooked area on the map.
Tom and Petal are heavily involved in the anti- deforestation movement - forest fires are a regular occurrence and as we hike in Liwonde National Park we see swathes of supposedly protected forest razed to the ground. "Malawi suffers from the fastest rate of deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa and right now, 95 per cent of the population still relies on firewood for both cooking and heating," Petal explains to me. They sponsor a local football team in Zomba, whose players also do double duty as volunteer firefighters in the case of a raging forest blaze.
Next we return to the lake, this time to Kumbali Lake Retreat in Salima, a short boat or bus ride along the beach from the site of the Lake of Stars Festival. 2018 marks 15 years since it was set up by Will Jameson, a British music lover who volunteered with the Wildlife Society in Malawi in 1998 and eventually returned in 2003 to encourage international tourism. Today it's one of the best- known African festivals on the global circuit, with African and international artists playing to a mixed crowd of locals and festival-lovers from the world over. After catching an acoustic set by Malawian superstar Lazarus and hip-hop by Lady Pace, we watch Major Lazer take to the main stage in the midst of a sandstorm. There's a fashion show, a pop-up roller disco and performance poetry by Hollie McNish and Michael Pederson. It's a triumph, although having danced through a sandstorm I'll never complain about a muddy British festival again.
After washing the grit out of our ears we make our way to Majete Wildlife Reserve. Mkulumadzi Lodge is a cluster of eight stylish chalets overlooking a river where elephants and hippos roam. Majete is a Big Five park without the hefty price tags or the roar of packed Land Rovers. It's here that I say goodbye to Malawi the best way I know how - by spending the night with it under the stars on a raised deck or "sky bed". When the last thing you see at night is the vastness of the universe, you can't carry any petty concerns or anxieties into your dreams with you. I wake up gently to a reddening sky, feeling like the luckiest - and also the only - person on the planet. Adventure does this to you. And Malawi certainly knows how to serve up an adventure.