Lilongwe - For a dour, focused Scottish missionary – a praise the Lord and pass the bricks and mortar as we civilise the dark continent type – David Livingstone had a surprisingly poetic tone of voice when describing the wonders he saw before him in Africa.
Stunned by the columns of spray from a massive waterfall (which he named after his Queen, Victoria), Livingstone wrote of “scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”.
When, in 1859, he gazed upon another unique sight, the massive body of water which is now known as Lake Malawi, Livingstone was moved to call it the “Lake of Stars”.
There are two different versions of why he did so. One is that he saw so many lanterns bobbing from the dugout canoes of fishermen that it reminded him of stars.
The one I prefer – and the one which is self-evident gazing out from the rocks of Mumbo Island – is that the glittery reflections of the sun on the myriad wavelets on the surface of the water are almost exactly the same as you see when you look up into the African night.
The stars come out right throughout the day, although the display is best in the early morning as the sun rises. The twinkling has a bewitching quality: your eyes swim in and out of focus and you feel you are in a galaxy far, far away.
Far, far away you certainly are on Mumbo Island, a rocky wooded protuberance barely a few hectares in size.
You are 10km from the mainland, cast adrift from the complexities, the irritations and the stress of everyday life.
The waves lapping at the little bay in the centre of the island become your evening lullaby and the spine-tingling calls of the fish eagle couple who are island residents will be your dawn wake-up call.
It is, you feel, pretty much as it would have been, back in 1859 – and for millennia before that. The Lake is part of the Rift Valley system, which formed as the continents ripped apart, and which filled with water. It is the ninth-largest lake in the world, and the most bio-diverse, with more than 1 000 fish species alone, many of them unique to its waters.
Its crystal-clear waters, especially around Mumbo, range from turquoise to azure to deep blue and black out in the depths... a kaleidoscope of colour which reminds you of the Caribbean or the rocky shores of southern Italy.
Kayak Africa, which runs the island and nearby Domwe Island, has made Mumbo comfortable – but with a low environmental impact footprint. The tented or bamboo-walled accommodation units sleep two (or four in the family unit) and have an adjacent (not quite en suite in some cases) bathroom and toilet.
If you are a city slicker, then skip this part. There is no aircon (leave the tent flaps open); there is no electricity (save for solar-powered lamps and wind-up torches – and who wants to pollute the night sky with too much light, anyway?); and there is no flushing loo.
What? Would that be a deal-breaker?
There is a sophisticated “long drop” toilet (with conventional porcelain “throne”and wooden seat) where, once you have done your business, you chuck in handfuls of wood shavings, which help in removing odours as well as accelerating the decomposing process.
It works a lot better than it sounds, believe me.
Also, because, despite the presence of so much water, Kayak Africa recognises that water is the most precious resource in Africa, showers are basic affairs: camp staff will fill a bucket with hot water and add cold until it is to your liking, and then hoist the bucket up. With a shower rose underneath set to just above a trickle, you don’t hang about when it comes to getting clean.
But it works – and you realise the five to seven litres you just used are more than most rural Africans have. It’s a lesson about waste you will take back to the city with you.
If the peace, isolation and beauty of Mumbo Island are not enough to sooth the ADHD energetic beast within, then you can kayak, snorkel and swim to your heart’s content.
Year round, the water temperature seldom drops below 21ºC and way out here, there are no worries about things like bilharzia.
Meals are taken in a thatched main area and are simple but tasty. There is a small bar stocked with basic booze, but who needs artificial stimulants in a place like this?
Mumbo Island is a special place, somewhere you need to go with someone who is special, to celebrate an event or a relationship which is special.
It’s a place you have to share with a like-minded spirit.
Also, its basic nature may not be to the taste of everybody – but there are plenty of other, more “civilised” alternatives on the lake for those who want to escape the rat race but don’t want to forgo flushing toilets, restaurant-quality food and a fully stocked bar, not to mention a great beach on which to bask and an assortment of water sports.
Not far along the lakeshore is the Makokola Retreat, which has undergone a revamp and is offering a serious alternative for South Africans looking for a chilled beach-type holiday, à la Mauritius.
The beach at the resort could be on the Mediterranean, while the fecund thick gardens (with palms cheek by jowl with baobabs) could be equatorial. And the service is Sandton slick.
The lake’s stars also glitter offshore here, and you can contemplate them lounging by the pool with a pizza and a glass of decent South African wine.
For those looking for a more exclusive and upmarket retreat, Robin Pope Safaris runs the Pumulani Lodge, which is a five-star destination modelled on many game lodges around southern Africa. Only here you come to relax.
There are no game drives. If you want to indulge in water sports (motorised and non), you can, but you can also drift along in a dhow at sunset watching the stars come out.
And you have a luxury villa (with air-conditioning and double showers as well as a mini-bar) when you move away from the beach.
Lake Malawi has a host of offering for different budgets, from the award-winning ultra-luxury lodges to the family fun places. It’s unique. There’s nothing else quite like it.
And Dr Livingstone, I presume, would agree.
If You Go...
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