Lake Malawi and Nkhata Bay – Lakefront Leisure

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”
– William Wordsworth

The bus drops us off on the side of the highway, and we’re not exactly sure which way to go. An an ex-pat couple working for an international NGO pulls over and offers to drive us to a guesthouse. On the way, we learn that many of the westerners in Malawi work for NGOs, and the rest are backpackers traveling overland across Africa, like us.

The guesthouse in Chitimba is right on the beach, and our cabin is a stone’s throw from Lake Malawi. The place is quiet and appears deserted – for now. In the late afternoon, the overland trucks start rolling in. Mzungu Mobiles, as we call them, are large 4X4 buses that ply long distance routes between major African cities – such as Nairobi to Cape Town – for several weeks.

A chameleon makes its way across the road in Malawi

A Chameleon makes its way across the road in Malawi

During the rest of our trip through southern Africa, we are sure to ask whether or not overland trucks stop at the hotel we are considering. Surprisingly, the owner or clerk is often proud if they do and will enthusiastically confirm our fears. In these cases, we find somewhere else to stay.

Nkhata Bay

The next day, we change buses in Mzuzu, and find ourselves in a low-key and tranquil village. Nkhata Bay is in a beautiful setting and populated by incessantly friendly and outgoing people. Almost immediately, we are approached by young men trying to sell us souvenirs or take us to a hotel. We already know at which lodge we want to stay, but are always on the lookout for a unique keepsake of our travels.

Souvenir Vendors in Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Bob, Tosh and friend at their souvenir stall

Malawi is a poor country, with massive unemployment. Large numbers of young unemployed men with no prospects is never a good thing for any country. So, we always do our best to support any productive activity in which such people may be engaged. In Nkhata Bay, we meet Bob and Tosh – not the ones from The Wailers, the ones from Nkhata Bay. Bob and Tosh run a small souvenir stand along the town’s main strip, and sell handmade batiks and wooden carvings. We have an idea for a T-shirt we would like, and promise to return to their stand after we get settled.

Local fishermen at Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Fishing at Dusk

Our lakefront bungalow at Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Our Lakefront Bungalow

The rainy season has been particularly wet this year, and the level of the lake is higher than normal. As a result, for the next week, we are lulled to sleep every night by the waves lapping against the rocks under the bed and floorboards of our lakefront cabin. No overland trucks make it to our lodge, and the guests are more interested in playing endless games of Bao than they are in getting drunk. We like it here.

Lake Malawi and its Cichlids

We take a day to decompress after three days of buses from Dar es Salaam, and visit the one dive shop in town to plan some time beneath the waves. The following morning, our divemaster, Andy, motors us to the middle of Nkhata Bay and we backroll into our very first fresh water dives. From what we can see, the lake is full of gigantic algae-covered boulders and aquarium-quality fish.

One of Lake Malawi’s most curious inhabitants is the mouth-brooding cichlid. The female keeps the eggs in her mouth (which are fertilized by a sort of ichthy-fellatio) until they hatch. Even then, she protects her young by providing a safe haven for them – in her mouth. We are lucky enough to witness the unique behavior of these cichlids. It is quite the sight to see a female spit out her young, chase off any predators and, when things get too hectic, open her mouth for the fry to swim back in.

Scuba Diving at Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Malawi Divers

Sailing at Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Sailing in Nkhata Bay

In addition to scuba diving, Nkhata Bay offers a variety of other aquatic and land-based activities. We spend one day hiking along the lake’s coast and marveling at the stunning landscapes.

Alex borrows the lodge’s dugout canoe one evening and paddles it along the adjacent shore. Sailboats are also available for rent, and we take a small dinghy out for a quick spin when we tire of nothing else to do.

A Long Way from Lilongwe

Now that we are Malawi divers, we commission Bob and Tosh to make a custom T-shirt commemorating our underwater adventures. The artwork is passable, the images are not quite centered on the shirt, and we probably pay more than we could have. But, apart from the blank white “made in China” shirt used as a canvas, the souvenir is handmade and authentic. It is perfect and exactly what we wanted.

Paddling a Dugout Canoe at Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi

Diggin’ the Dugout Canoe

After a week at the oasis of Nkhata Bay, we head to Lilongwe. It is easier to organize safaris to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park from here than going all the way to its capital, Lusaka. Lilongwe is the capital city of Malawi, but it is unlike any other capital we have seen. It is more like a capital village. Very few buildings exceed two stories, and the city is spread out haphazardly over a large area.

Our hotel is a dump, and rats peer at us through the broken ceiling tiles in our room. We have hardly been here a day, and already we long to get a long way from Lilongwe. So, tomorrow we go to Zambia.


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