A journalist called Elspeth Huxley once wrote: “Africa is a cruel country (sic); it takes your heart and grinds it into powdered stone – and no one minds.”
And here I am again, my powdered heart and I – this time in Malawi, deposited here by Malawi Air. As the midday Blantyre heat slowly defrosts our South African cryogenic state, the dusty, bustling road we’re on eventually reveals the magnificent winding mountain pass down into the Shire Valley. The green valley lies indolently back into the arms of the surrounding mountains like a long lost lover. I have rediscovered pure joy as we drive to our first location – Mkulumadzi Lodge in the Majete Reserve.
Located in the south of Malawi, Majete is an area of 70 000 hectares and part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. We drive for a couple of hours through villages and the sounds of children’s voices are carried on the smoky breeze as we move closer towards the vermilion setting sun. We arrive after dark and walk across a suspension bridge. I can hardly see a thing but my senses are filled with the smell of the bush and the roar of the mighty Shire River. Our hosts, Mark, Jenna and Simon, welcome us with a gorgeous dinner. The sight of my suite makes me swoon. Each of the eight luxury chalets consists of a large bedroom and lounge that opens out to a wooden deck, plus an en suite bathroom with a sunken bath that overlooks the river. There is also an outdoor rain shower which is open to the surrounding bush. The whole lodge is solar powered with a back-up generator.
There is also a two-bed room family unit, cleverly designed so parents live on one side of the communal lounge and the kids on the other.
The haunting cry of a fish eagle breaks the dawn the next morning and the view makes my heart ache. I open the flap door onto my deck and for the first time in the pink-grey changing colours of dawn, the magnificent river reveals itself to me. I amble to breakfast and while enjoying the most delicious muesli and fruit concoction, I stare at the river in stupefied wonder. Jenna joins me and says there is a lot here to keep families busy – playing in the pool, game drives, walks and river cruises. En-route to the river for the cruise later that day we encounter eland, warthog and a white bushbuck – which is one of the rarest sights ever I’m told by Simon. The river cruise itself suspends time in totality.We watch as a herd of about 20 elephant cross the river, silhouetted against the setting sun.
That night I stare up at an infinite blanket of stars. Some fall, most stay… After a poignant farewell the next morning we are off to Mvuu Wilderness Lodge. The people of Malawi are known for their placid, loving nature. They are the most genuine and generous of spirit. Everywhere, people are on their way somewhere, working and getting on with life. As we drive, the country also reveals its incredible natural and dramatic beauty – rocky outcrops, high mountains and breath-taking plateaus.
After a four-hour drive, we finally get to Liwonde National Park. Mvuu Wilderness Lodge is a revelation. It is a hidden safari camp gem, (yore means old and this was built in 1994) with the main lounge building set high above the still water and wonderful views. This lush and fertile area sports an excellent diversity of animals, including elephant and sable antelope, impala and waterbuck. Mvuu is a true eco-lodge sans the self-congratulatory fanfare that usually accompanies such a distinction. Built in 1994, it runs only on solar power and a limited generator. Room service may be obtained by banging on a drum inside your tent and the amazing staff literally come running…
Accommodation at Mvuu Wilderness Lodge comprises of eight spacious tents for a maximum of 16 guests, each with en-suite bathroom facilities and a private viewing platform looking out on to the lagoon. Dinner is served on the ‘beach’, overlooking the dark river. The food is excellent, served by lantern and firelight with the sounds of crickets, frogs and hippos filling the expanse of the enormous night around us. Later we sit outside on the balcony in the pitch black night. I look up. The stars have followed me. Only tonight the Milky Way has the texture of soft, white velvet and the stars seem to have multiplied ten-fold. Some fall. Most stay. I watch in suspended reverie.
The entire bush and river is bathed in a hue of ghostly and otherworldly mist the next morning as we go on a safari walk with our guide, Douwe. There is no sound. No wind. The Mopani forest holds its breath and nothing moves in the eerie, white gloom. Then suddenly, there are elephants. We spot the herd very close to us through the fog as they forage, completely unaware of our existence. I skip the boat ride later to explore the adjacent camp, a very affordable haven for families with children. You can choose between charming self-catering or full-service chalets. There are two pools and a kiddie’s play area with jungle gyms and swings. Combined with a number of games and activities, never a dull moment is assured.
I decide on an early night, drifting off to sleep to the eerie and unique cry of the Pel’s fishing owl, its undulating echoes piercing the dark African night. The day brings me, finally, to the glorious and breath-taking Lake Malawi! Pumulani Beach Lodge perches high above the tranquil, endless blue water in aopulent, exotic nest against the mountain within the Lake Malawi National Park.
“The small waves lap the tiny beach with butterfly kisses and we kayak for hours on the calm crystal blue lake in this secluded slice of heaven.”
The lodge has an airy, sea-breezy feel to it with high ceilings, some nautical decor themes and of course, a spectacular view. The ten villas are spread out along a lush hillside overlooking the lake. Each has a large bedroom, a comfortable sitting area and a humungous bathroom with bathtub and double shower. And, naturally, private decks with views of the lake. The lodge also has a family villa that sleeps four (or five with smaller children).
We take one of the wooden walkways down to the beach. If you have kids, beware. They will never want to leave. Besides the pool and the beach, there is water-skiing, sailing, diving, wakeboarding, kayaking, snorkelling and fishing – and everything is safe. The staffs on the beach are ready and willing to assist with whatever activity you choose to participate in, all included in the rate apart from scuba diving. After a divine dinner, I stretch out on my balcony in the balmy night. I see six falling stars in half an hour. How many wishes can one person have? Mumbo Island awaits us for lunch the following day and I have to devote an entire book to this pristine and deserted tropical island. Mumbo Island has never been populated and is still in its natural state with a thick covering of miombo woodland and ancient fig and baobab trees.
The tiny island camp, with capacity for only fourteen guests, features tastefully furnished tents (one is a family tent) with shaded decks, hammocks, hot bucket showers and ‘eco-loos’. The small waves lap the tiny beach with butterfly kisses and we kayak for hours on the calm crystal blue lake in this secluded slice of heaven. Back at Pumulani a treat awaits after dinner. Chris, the manager, sets up the lodge’s very fancy telescope for us to get a close-up of the constellations and planets. It is a very surreal feeling to see Saturn in real life with its rings, just as it appears in drawings.
A tiny four-seater plane takes us aboard the next day for the hour’s flight to Mfuwe South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. On arrival, we are met by our ranger, Freddie, who takes us to our final haven – Nkwali. The rustic, yet luxurious, Nkwali Camp accommodates fourteen guests and the beautiful rooms are made of woven bamboo, stone floors and thatch, each with a view of the glittering river. There is one family room, a double and a twin, both en-suite and a swimming pool. The laid-back, thatched Robin’s House caters for groups and families, as does the majestic, totally exclusive and full-serviced Luangwa House further away on the property.
That afternoon on the game drive we spot a leopard up a tree, lions lazing in the shade, hyena, jackals and buffalo. The Lodge also offers walking safaris, night drives and boating. Dinner was a delightful, traditional ‘braai’ (barbeque) in the bush featuring maize, steak, sausage, chicken and salads.
On our last night we stayed at the quaint Heuglins Guest House – a charming and perfect gateway between Zambia, Malawi and South Africa with great service and great food.