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Lake Malawi

Dangers from Creatures in the Water

Lake Malawi is very safe for swimming. Swimming in the Shire River is suicide. (don’t swim in one of the other lakes – Chilwa Malombe etc.).

You know the song about 'messing about on the river'? That song is not applicable to the Shire River.

When in Malawi if someone tells you that something is ‘very dangerous’ it could mean that that some thing is close to suicide. It does not mean that the person telling you this is some jobs-worth from the local council trying to justify his job with unrealistic claims and wild exaggerations.

Strangely, and amazingly enough, when someone tells you that something is ‘safe’ then it probably means that it is…wait for it….safe. Wow! What a surprise! Hotel and lodge owners by Lake Malawi will tell a visitor who asks that it is safe to swim. (Normally people don’t ask – most people know it is safe). Don’t be suspicious of their vested interests. Just be aware of a few small ‘rules’ which are 1/ don’t swim between sunset and sunrise, 2/ don’t swim in the mouth of a river, 3/ don’t swim among reeds, 4/ do swim in an area recognised as being for human swimmers, tourists, villagers etc. and 5/ if swimming in a new area you find don’t do so without asking the locals first about whether there are crocodiles.

Lake Malawi is very safe – it is unlikely that you would need to know more than that. The biggest danger at Lake Malawi are mosquitoes. Take sensible precautions.

Beware of the danger of NOT swimming in the Lake. The regret associated afterwards with having missed out on The Lake may be bad for your health.

There is a pub argument over whether hippos or crocs are more dangerous. It is interesting to discuss the subject but it may come down to location and whether one means ‘killed directly’ or ‘killed indirectly’. I was reading the online comments of an angler brought up in Malawi who from his boat has witnessed people being taken by crocodiles in the Shire River – it is more common than most people think. The angler said that hippos can count as more dangerous if you mean that by capsizing a boat full of people who cannot swim the hippo has killed them (including the ones subsequently eaten by crocodiles).

Two years ago a Game Warden in Liwonde National Park said that 34 people had been killed by crocodiles so far that year in the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. Others I’ve spoken to locally back this up. This year I was told 10 or 15 so far this year in that particular stretch. They are local fishermen on dug out canoes fishing illegally at night. Wardens tell of meeting survivors they have saved (after all the other colleagues on the dug out canoes were killed) a couple of weeks later back on the canoe. An article I read by a licensed crocodile hunter said that at the worst time of year for it about two people a day are being killed by crocodiles in the Shire. This is an estimate – no one really knows.

Someone from America was telling me that when new to Malawi he went fishing in the Shire with his family. They waded in, with waders I think, as if they were fishing in the Tweed or the Tay… To be fair to them he did say that the current was moving so fast as they were next to a waterfall that he did not think a crocodile would be there…or could swim through it.

The next thing that happened was that a Malawian on the bank said “A crocodile is coming.” and he looked up and saw a mammoth croc coming very rapidly from the other side as if there was no current in the river at all. They all got out just in time.

Rules are:
don’t swim in rivers you don’t know – mountain streams on Mulanje are ok :-),
don’t go fishing on a dug out canoe in the Shire at night where there are a lot of crocodiles and hippos,
beware of hippos at night as they come out of the water and walk for miles eating grass. They are likely to kill you if you get between them and the water or their young
don’t swim even in the Lake at night
don’t paddle in rivers, especially the Shire
don’t walk on the banks of the Shire
don’t wash your clothes in the Shire River
don’t brush your teeth in the Shire River
don’t build sandcastles on the banks of the Shire River
when on a boat in the Shire do not drag your hand through the water to keep it cool

do you get a sense of where I am coming from with regard to the Shire River?

What about bilharzia in Lake Malawi? There is a tablet you can take if you are worried or concerned. Do not worry. I know one guy who works with wildlife in Malawi who tells me that when he goes to The Lake he spends all day in the water. He said he gets his food order from the hotel or guest house brought to him in the water. Bilharzia is dangerous if you live by the Lake and have no access to modern medicine. I really do not worry about bilharzia…at all. As I say, if you are concerned then get a check up a few months after swimming or take a tablet (pill). I did once hear about someone who had a complication connected with bilharzia. It was something unusual and connected with something else. Still, I think the biggest bilharzia risk for a western visitor is that it puts you off going into the Lake. Actually, there is another bilharzia risk if you are returning to the west. I made the mistake of mentioning, when in hospital, that I should get a bilharzia check. The medics were fascinated. They wanted to detain me. I realised that it was out of curiosity and because they wanted me as a specimen for their medical students. I got fed up with the time wasting to my day and discharged myself. I really could not be bothered. Maybe one day I’ll bother to get a check or take a tablet.

Now, I wanted to edit this post as the paragraph above does reflect something of the attitude of someone brought up here for who ‘bilharzia’ is a familiar word. There is an extent to which familiarity can breed contempt – including perhaps a feeling that the disease is nothing much to worry about if you have access to modern medicine (which is more of an issue for local villagers).

Coming into Africa for the first time an exotic sounding tropical disease could sound slightly more intimidating. It is partly the fear of the unknown. That is understandable. My advice is to take the required medication or get a check a few months after swimming and apart from that think nothing else of it.

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First Couple of Days on Mango Drift – mainly photos and links

We were stranded here for several days. Fortunately David found things to do.

I am not inspired to write very much just now. Instead I will post some photos from Mango Drift on Likoma Island. These pictures were taken on the first couple of days that we were there.

Ruth and David at Mango Drift


I did write other posts, with no photos, on our time there and I will provide the links.

There is a series leading up to our trip to Likoma Island. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnight stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.

The First Likoma Island post is about reaching the island itself on the Ilala. This contains useful information for anyone wanting to know about disembarking from the Ilala.

The next set of posts were written on the island itself and uploaded from the island. Because I was doing this on my iPhone I decided to leave out photos.

The main post that i wrote on and published from the island was about learning to scuba dive on Likoma Island. It is my propaganda piece on why Likoma Island is the best place in the world for learning to scuba dive. I did have a conversation with someone very recently who fully agreed with my view that it is better to learn to dive in freshwater. There were many other reasons, as I recall, for my view that Likoma Island provides the best value for learner divers. I hope you are convinced. If you want to do this yourself then please get in touch. I may be able to help.

Another piece was on the birds on Likoma Island.

The comings and goings of people at Mango Drift are dominated by the arrivals and the departures of the Ilala. The secondary influence on who is at Mango Drift and when are the flights to the islands. However, it is not the passengers who are seen at Mango Drift so much as the pilots. Small planes bring customers to the upmarket Kaya Mawa, the pilots come to Mango Drift. There is probably no better place in Malawi for meeting pilots than Mango Drift on Likoma Island.

The Ilala runs up and down the Lake each week. We were on the northbound journey and some of our fellow passengers were simply waiting for the return of the southbound Ilala. This gave them a couple of days at Mango Drift.

Others there were a very nice Israeli couple, Dan and Gabriela, who were traveling on to Mozambique and the coast. He is a brave man as he is Israel’s answer to Richard Dawkins. In Israel seemingly there would be a lot of opposition to his book launch despite my perception of a large secular community within Israel. It was unfortunate that time was too short for a wide debate as there was a full range of views on offer among the guests. From the tranquil of Likoma Island he would be heading to the storm of his book launch in Israel. I hope that it generates a good debate and light as well as heat…

Here is a musical composition by Dan accompanied by some pictures that Dan and Gabriela put together from a previous trip in Mozambique. Here is his music website. Dan also told us about a tribute to Japan, The Tsunami Song he co-wrote with words by Gabriela.

There was also a family from the UK mentioned in a previous blog post. Several of them, like me, were visiting Malawi after many years away.

The view from the hammock outside our tent. We put up the tent on our second day there.

This was our first sunset on Likoma Island. no sunset was the same.

Ruth and David on the hammock outside of our tent.

David found that he fitted in well with the whole travel and exploration in Africa experience. David is an explorer.

That aircraft has landed in both Lake Malawi and the Baltic Sea off Estonia.

Amelia was good at balancing

Dan and Gabriela. Our tent is in the background under some mango trees.

This is the bar and lounge area on the beach at Mango Drift

The view from the bar

A view of the Mango Drift bay - Mango Bay?

The hill behind Mango Drift


The Ilala Reaches Likoma Island

From the lifeboat we looked up to see those remaining on the Ilala for the overnight journey to Nkhata Bay and beyond. They came to the side to watch the show as we disembarked.

I have a series of posts on our trip on the Ilala to Likoma Island. A trip that includes stops at Liwonde National Park and Monkey Bay on the way.

Now, the next part of the trip is the arrival at Likoma Island. I have done a post on that already but it had no photos – because I uploaded the post from Likoma Island itself on my phone and I was not confident about having enough bandwidth for uploading photos.

Previously on this series, which can be thought of as a guide to a trip on the Ilala I have the following posts. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnights stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.

Logically, the next post should be about disembarking the Ilala on Likoma Island. The following is what I wrote the day after we arrived….

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We arrived last night on Likoma Island. Not long before nightfall we could see Likoma Island from the deck of the Ilala.

The last few hours of the journey were very interesting as we were closer to the shoreline than at any point apart from the very beginning of the journey when we proceeded up the eastern shore of the Cape Maclear peninsula from Monkey Bay.

Now we were close to the Mozambique shore and the start of that wild and forgotten area of north eastern Mozambique. It stretches from Lake Malawi or the Malawi border all the way to the Indian Ocean. I heard that on this part of the journey you could quite easily see elephants coming down to the Lake to drink (we were not adjacent to a National Park or a Game Reserve – just wild Africa as it had been for centuries).

As we approached Likoma Island, that island of Malawian territory within Mozambique waters, we started to think about the life-boat right next to our cabin.

At each stop when there is no harbour, the life-boat is lowered into the water before people from a lower deck pile onto it. We asked if we could get into it before it is lowered as we have a lot of luggage as well as a three year old and a baby to carry.

The conventional route off the Ilala is down this ladder and onto the lifeboat.

It was a difficult conversation because we knew that if we put our luggage in and could not get on ourselves except from the lower deck, then we could get separated from our bags.

The reason we had a lot of luggage was because we are carrying a large tent, blankets, sleeping bags, food…and a pushchair. We have a four wheel drive, high sided, off road style of push-chair (Americans call them strollers I think). Amelia likes to take these on holiday as they can carry a lot more than babies. One advantage of carrying blankets is that they were loaned out to very grateful (non-cabin) 1st class fellow passengers on the top deck of the Ilala. They were also loaned out at Mufasa Lodge the previous night when some had to sleep on the beach.

The basket of fruit is ours. We were glad of it later. Much else is piled into the lifeboat.

I can make further excuses for why we are carrying a lot of luggage but that will do for now.

Our luggage was accepted on the life-boat and we went down to the lower deck and pushed our way to the front of the queue. We had after all paid to go cabin class (one step above 1st class) so surely we were entitled to some sort of favourable treatment… Amelia was better at pushing her way through the throng carrying David than I was carrying Ruth.

Soon we were first on board the life-boat and on top of all our luggage and many more poured on. We looked up to the upper decks in the dark to the first class and other cabin class customers peering over the side and watching the show.

Local boats come alongside to help everyone to disembark. Most of what comes off the Ilala however are supplies for the island. Included somewhere on some boat would be the building material for the new lodge.

Suddenly with large numbers of people, bags of rice, food and miscellaneous other forms of luggage we were off to the shore. We got to within about five yards of the very crowded shoreline and stopped. My main concern was of course the possibility of my iPhone, my macbook, my camera, my wallet and numerous other important electrical items getting wet. There was no way that I was moving until I was as sure as I could be that they were not going into the water. Amelia jumped in as I transferred my iPhone from my pocket to my small rucksack. She shouted at me to take off my shoes….which was the least of my concerns. I completely ignored that bit of advice and regarded it as simply an example of her sense of humour. One of the crew members held Ruth as I organised the important stuff between handing the large heavy suitcases to Amelia to carry to the shore.

The voyage on the lifeboat was an exciting experience. Daddy and Ruth.

Although only a small distance to the beach it was difficult to see either her or the luggage (or David) due to the darkness and the dense crowds of people. The arrival of the Ilala is the main event of the week here and a lot of people are involved one way or another.

The calm, on the lifeboat, before the storm, on the shore.

By the time I was ready to risk a jump into the dark waters below, 75% of the passengers had got off, so it was now time for others to jump on board. This meant that I had to fight with some difficulty to get over the side of the life-boat while at the same time remaining in enough control to be able to prevent my rucksack and it’s precious cargo getting at all wet. Fortunately this part worked out fine but I did notice that my trouser pockets ended up being a bit wet and so congratulated myself on my decision to move the iPhone.

I then was able to turn round and collect Ruth from the life-boat and make my way to shore. She of course was perfectly calm and I was relieved that the crew member who was holding her did not in any way seem to expect a tip. It was not a perfect environment for looking through my wallet for an appropriate sum. Actually no one seemed to be looking for a tip in order to help us.

On shore a few yards away I wondered how Amelia could be sure that we had everything. I could see no way of us moving without others helping us to carry some stuff so I reached for my iPhone to call Josh or Kevin from Mango Drift – “Sorry, he’s five minutes late – can you make your way up the slope towards where there will be a couple of lights.”

Before I could say “No” the call was cut off and I hoped that somehow we would be found within this crowd. Amelia had no such hesitation and said that we should start moving the stuff. I was against this idea on the basis that we would have to leave some bags and come back for others and something could go missing. I am not wishing to say anything against the character of the people of Likoma Island but for all I knew, this was a possibility.

Ruth thought that this was all a great adventure and was rushing around playing with children round about – much to the amusement of everybody.

I insisted that we only move the luggage in very small steps but I could see that Amelia was ignoring this as she headed up the beach and back with one item after another. In the end, despite the complication of watching Ruth and the luggage at the same time, in the dark, and in a crowd of people, we made a great deal of progress. The two vehicles from Mango Drift soon arrived.

Finally we were on board, much to my surprise, a game viewing vehicle. Ruth and I sat at the back with a couple from England. An Israeli-English couple sat in the middle and David and Amelia sat in the front with the driver (Josh I think).

Unfortunately the other vehicle seemed to be broken down and the English-Scottish family were eventually abandoned (for now) as we headed off to the other side of the island. It seemed a much longer journey through baobab country than I had expected. At one point those of us at the back were hit by low hanging mango tree branches and at another I counted a total of seven laughing children hanging off the back of the vehicle.

Ruth entertained us all by singing “Twinkle twinkle little star”. However, she point blank refused to sing “The Wheels On The Bus” as that is a daytime song…apparently.

Eventually we arrived at a point which we were informed was as close as the road gets, and we all got out. Our excess baggage was distributed between Mango Drift employees and other guests and all I was carrying was my rucksack and David. It was a complicated journey even for our four wheel drive pushchair and we were all very glad of the bright moon over the baobabs.

Finally we reached the beach and Mango Drift. It was dark but still looked a little bit, I thought, like paradise.

Ruth checks out a basket in our beachside chalet. We were destined to stay in the chalet on our first, second and final nights at Mango Drift. For most of the time we would be in our large family tent. (On the final night of waiting for the Ilala it would be too much to pack the tent at the last moment when the Ilala is spotted).

The vehicle then returned for the others.

Eventually at the bar we all assembled and relived our different but related stories of how we somehow got ashore. Some people were appalled at the “lack of organisation” and the fact that people were jumping onto their lifeboat before they had got off. This situation was compared unfavourably with tube etiquette on the London Underground. The whole thing was described as almost the experience of a lifetime. I personally thought that the whole thing showed how honest Likoma Island people in particular and Malawians in general are. There were ample opportunities for people to take advantage of us – or worse, steal – and it certainly did not seem as though anything like that was even imagined by the locals.

It then emerged in conversation that Amelia had carried all our heavy luggage from the lifeboat to the shore and people started looking at and also…talking about my shoes (they were all wearing sandals).

I mentioned that I had other priorities and the idea of taking off my shoes seemed trivial in comparison. “I was thinking about my iPhone.”

Someone said “Your shoes look dry?!”

Realising how surprised people were that Amelia had done all the heavy lifting I decided to press home my advantage and claimed that “Amelia carried me to the shore.”

Today, the day after and our first day in paradise the events of last night seem to be a very long time in the past.

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Across Lake Malawi and on to Likoma Island

I was writing something else for the next blog post but it was too ‘serious’ – despite my little jokes – and too long (I had no idea that there was so much content in my head).

So, instead I am attempting to write a blog post about our first night and the second day on the Ilala. The earlier parts on this series are a shopping stop, a canoe safari, Mufasa and then departing Monkey Bay on the Ilala.

As mentioned in the previous entry it was sunset before we arrived at Nkhotakota. We went to bed early and could hear a lot of the noise that went on outside our cabin. The first thing that happens is that the lifeboat engine gets ‘fired up’ or whatever the correct terminology is. It makes a lot of noise and there is a motor. After half sleeping through the loading and offloading at Nkhotakota we were off and heading directly across the lake to Metangula in Mozambique.

It was a rough crossing. Not for nothing is this known as the great and mysterious inland sea so long rumoured of in the early 19th century and before. Ruth was seasick. Amelia asked me to check that we had life-jackets in the cabin….groan. Queue me rolling my eyes as I was trying to settle down to sleep. It was not only my eyes that were rolling. I wondered how it felt up on deck.

Dawn in First Class. No sign of the previous night's high 'seas' - we are now near to the Mozambique shoreline.

A lifeboat was lowered from outside our cabin

Of course there was no need for life-jackets. This boat has a 60 year track record of charting these waters. What’s more it was made in Glasgow, Scotland in the great old days of Scottish shipbuilding. It was not the Titanic, built in Belfast, Northern Ireland…. (hello to my Northern Ireland friends).

By dawn we were at Metangula on the Mozambique side. What does Mozambique look like? Does the Lake on the Mozambique side look strangely different or surprisingly similar?

We were not too long at Metangula before we starting heading up the far eastern and Mozambican shore line. Surely this was why I came on the Ilala, to see some of the other stranger and less familiar shores on the vast and long lake of stars. What was fascinating about this shore is the knowledge that it is the front-line to the vast and utterly wild north and north-eastern Mozambique.

The lifeboats ferried people and cargo over to the Metangula shore

[I have heard stories of long flights over this wild land where only a single track was seen in hundreds of miles (and it led straight up to a house and stopped). I have heard of wild animals that are tame and come close – because they don’t have experience of humans. On the human side I have heard of ‘go-nakeds’. On the far side are scarcely touched Indian Ocean beaches, archipelagoes and turquoise waters with some of the best diving in the world.]

Looking north from Metangula (Mozambique shore)

Sadly I could not see much evidence of all this except the relative sparseness of signs of human life. (Tiny villages on the shoreline of Lake Malawi here are probably the local equivalents of London, New York and Paris – am I getting carried away?).

Anyway, I did look out for the sight of elephants on other wild animals coming down to the Lake to drink. Sadly I did not see any despite being told by some that you can see this “all the time”.

We passed this isolated and remote historic (I think) church. The Ilala was quite far out so this zoomed photo suffered as a result.

Most of the first class passengers were however on the far side of the boat looking out to ‘sea’. Some were fascinated by how much like a sea this lake looks as on this side there was no chance of being able to see any land.

The main activities indulged in by first class passengers were reading, sun-bathing, listening to music, having a beer with someone you have just met, having a long conversation about the meaning of life and telling everyone about your particular NGO project. (I was a bit rude and did not listen to the people who wanted to talk about how their NGO was something you could believe in but someone’s else’s was counter-productive).

My 'photosynth' view of the Ilala. I took these pictures with my iPhone via the photosynth app which knits the photos together to give a kind of 360 degree view

There were various groups of people in first class – almost all of them foreigners. Some foreigners were in second class but not many. Not all the foreigners were the backpacker types that you are probably imagining…and there is nothing wrong with backpackers. Some people were on holiday. Like me some were re-visiting Malawi after many years away and showing the new members of their families their old country. I wrote about that family on a previous post (and hope to write about them some more as our adventures were destined to continue together). Others were going on holiday to Nkwichi Lodge (a self sustaining ‘off-grid’ five star establishment on the Mozambique shore just south of Likoma Island). They were fortunate in that they knew the owners from when they lived “back een Lundin” (London). Others were a couple with a little girl Ruth’s age who were traveling all over the world (or Africa), I can’t remember which, for two years. We thought that they were brave traveling with such a young child. He is from Belgium and she is from the Philippines. They have rented out their house in New York to spend the time on the road. Others were something like backpackers or overland travelers. One interesting person was the owner of Dedza Pottery who was on his way (with cargo) to Likoma Island to build a new ‘mid-range’ lodge. I told him that I knew the geologist who discovered in the 1970s that the Dedza area in Malawi would be very good for pottery.

At the bar in first class

There is just enough time on board to get to the bottom of the meaning of life.

There were some interesting characters on the return journey – more about them in a future exciting installment!

Eventually, as the light was fading, we were within sight of Likoma Island. Now, I have already written a post about our arrival on Likoma Island. I wrote that while on Likoma Island and uploaded it with my iPhone. For that reason I did not upload photos – but believe me, it is a post that could do with photos. It was a post that appealed to my mother’s sense of humour as I remember her laughing about it when we spoke on the phone. Perhaps I will improve on that post and add some photos.

So, a day and a half after leaving Monkey Bay, one the one day delayed Ilala (that is very unusual I should add) we were arriving on Likoma Island.

Ruth in her cabin

Before I leave the Ilala story for now and until I cover the return journey let me offer some advice for future Ilala travelers in first class

1. bring the following
⁃ blankets (we loaned ours out) or a good sleeping bag
⁃ a mattress (or some sort of equivalent)
⁃ a good book
⁃ games to play with your new friends
⁃ your favourite music
⁃ supplies of kinds of food from the market or supermarket that you might fancy when considering a change from the ships restaurant Or just some feel good chocolates or ‘crisips’.
⁃ a sun hat or equivalent
2. time your trip
⁃ according to the moon if you want to stare up at the vast array of stars in the great southern sky unobscured by a bright full moon
⁃ according to the season
⁃ without a strict end deadline just in cast the Ilala is a little late
3. plan
⁃ to enjoy yourself at Mufasa (or elsewhere if Monkey Bay is not your departure point) just in case it leaves late.
4. If
⁃ you are boarding or offloading somewhere other than one of the ports then consider the possibility of a rough small boat voyage to the shore and especially if you are carrying expensive electronic equipment which you don’t want to get wet
5. Chill out man
⁃ this is not a trip for people who get hot under the collar if their transport is five minutes late. You are not going to an interview – you are supposed to be enjoying the traveling more than the arriving.


Departing Monkey Bay on the Ilala

On Saturday we finally boarded the Ilala. Although I had booked weeks earlier I had still not purchased my ticket from the ticket office. As Amelia and I had booked to go Cabin Class we were high status travelers. Others discussed what class they would travel and David (the Scottish guy who had been sceptical of my crocodile tales) confirmed that they would be “slumming it in 1st class”.

The historic Chauncy Maples was next to the Ilala

A first class ticket was approximately half the price of a Cabin Class ticket. We booked a cabin because we have two small children. First class passengers sleep on the top deck. If they time in right they can lie there with a great view of the southern sky. Second (and third?) class passengers sleep below with the cargo. At the ticket office I regret missing a great photo of about fifteen or twenty baboons jumping from a nearby tree onto the office roof. It would have been the ultimate ‘Monkey Bay’ photograph.

David waits outside his cabin

We saw the historic Chauncy Maples ‘parked’ next to the Ilala and soon we were off. Amelia and I were carrying an UNBELIEVABLE amount of luggage. Truly this was the Lampoon Taylor Family Holidays. I had figured however that people would help us carry out stuff at the critical moments. However the blankets that we brought were life savers for some of our fellow passengers – we brought them for our planned camping at Mango Drift. For a beach trip I usually would want to pack at least two boats in my suitcases plus all the camping gear I could think of.

Get settled into First Class

The two Davids - explorers both. 150 years after David Livingstone.

First we passed along the western side of the great Cape Maclear peninsula. We were only a few days short of one hundred and fifty years from the day David Livingstone first saw and named Cape Maclear.

Soon we could see the gap between the mainland and Domwe Island where the second ever group of westerners ever to set sight on Cape Maclear sailed a few years later (they were a government expedition sent to investigate the, as it turned out, false stories of David Livingstone’s death). Locals now say that a lone leopard lives on Domwe. Soon we could see ‘White Rock’ which is reputed to have underwater caves with one of the top ten fresh-water dives in the world. Next is ‘Elephant Island’ otherwise known as Mumbo Island. The first Scottish missionaries to settle at Cape Maclear (the third lot of Europeans therefore) found an elephant on this island. It seemed incredible as the island is so far from the mainland so the elephant would have had to swim.

People sailed through that gap searching for David Livingstone once. Actually, by the time they got here they had established that the rumours were false.

Elephant Island (Mumbo Island) with 'mainland' Cape Maclear in the distance

Then the Ilala heads out into open water and over to the first stop which is Chipoka. Chipoka is, I think, one of only three proper ports for the Ilala, the others being Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay. The other stops make use of life-boats and small local boats to ferry the cargo and the passengers.

Chipoka from the Ilala

Before reaching Nkhotakota it was sunset. The evening stop at Nkhotakota would be followed by the night crossing to the far side and to Mozambique.

Sunset is close on the Ilala

Ruth makes new friends. Do not worry. I strictly enforced a no going to the edge rule on her

Family Photo


Another point on learning to scuba dive in Lake Malawi

Further to my previous post Kevin has mentioned another point in favour of learning to dive in Lake Malawi…a lack of seasickness on the part of the students here.

I know that Lake Malawi produces big waves and great storms but I have seen none of that on Likoma Island in the last nine days. While in other places you could lose two or three diving days a month that does not seem to be true here.

In a previous posting Kevin worked at Tofu in Mozambique where there was a constant conflict between diving and alcohol. They may have the greatest diving there on the ocean coast of Mozambique but being a kind of Ibiza for South Africans, the distractions are too much for many student divers (I am sure it’s a bit more cultured than that).

Of course the views I have expressed are subjective. If you want to learn to scuba dive in the most famous ocean resorts, drink and party in the evening, and learn to cope with a hangover and seasickness when underwater…then Likoma Island may not be for you.

Still, a beer is less than a £1 here.


Learning to Dive off Likoma Island

When we came to Mango Drift I was vaguely aware that they had scuba diving but had not thought a lot about it. I did think that I might try it but had my mind more set on reading, writing and relaxing. While I have in fact done some of those, my main activity here has turned out to be of the underwater variety.

I have learned almost all I know about scuba diving here on Likoma Island, over the last few days. If everything goes to plan then I should qualify as an ‘Open Water’ diver via PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) today. This should qualify me to swim to depths of 18m.

According to a guide-book, I cannot remember which one, Lake Malawi is the most inexpensive place in the world to learn and qualify as a scuba diver. Someone else visiting the island here a week ago said that she had heard or read something similar. I put this point to one of the dive instructors and he said that this was no longer the case. He mentioned somewhere else that is cheaper. However, he said that there a lot of people are learning with each very newly qualified and inexperienced instructor.

The cost to me of these few days of training and qualification is just over $300 USD. That seems to me to be a good deal especially as it is combined with other factors to do with learning and being here which I thought that I would list.

1. I have had one on one tuition the whole time
2. There are very few others ‘tourists’ here on the island so he, Kevin from South Africa, has been able to give as much time as I have needed
3. Lake Malawi is freshwater which I now understand makes a large difference in the maintenance of equipment. All the extra time and hassle washing (in freshwater) the equipment if one has been diving in saltwater or swimming pool water sound like a real hassle.
4. Lake Malawi has more species of freshwater fish than Europe and North America combined.
5. Many of these species are particularly brightly coloured with all sorts of shapes and patterns.
6. There are many species unique to this island
7. There is very good underwater visibility.
8. It is safe to swim here
9. The accommodation is inexpensive
10. The setting is beautiful
11. The weather is warm and sunny without being too hot
12. The island is unspoilt
13. There are no ‘beach boys’ here persistently selling all sorts of crafts and paintings that you do not really want (this is a slight nuisance in many, but not all, other areas of the Lake). Apparently the local chiefs here do not want tourists here hassled in this way.
14. The food here is exceptionally good, and consistently so.
15. The diving instructors here are very professional
16. There must be one of the best instructors – students ratios in the world here.

I thought I would find ’10 reasons’ for this being, depending on your own subjective opinion, the best place in the world to scuba dive. I seem to have over-shot and found sixteeen reasons.

You might wonder why scuba diver instructors would work here given the low volume of customers (and therefore lower revenues). I wondered myself. Instructors here (there are two) can add more to their CV by being involved in a wide range of other activities to do with the management and running of the dive centre, restaurant, bar and chalets. It is a welcome break from some of the more commercial centres. There is greater satisfaction here in the proper training of new students and the staff here, the Malawians, are very nice people. Kevin last night said that he thought that Malawi is just about his favourite country in the world although he could not put his finger on exactly why.

I have got on quite well will this course. In my final exam I got 94% of the questions right. The underwater skills sounded quite difficult each time Kevin explained what I would have to do next. In the event I got through them all in a quite a straight-forward way. I am not used to sailing through courses like this so it has to be down to the good tuition and the particular circumstances of this place.

So, this is probably the best place in the world to learn to scuba dive.


Update on Likoma Island Bird Debate

There was some scepticism expressed over the figure of ‘over 400’ species of different birds seen on Likoma Island.

Josh has backed up the claim by saying that the source is the definitive guide to ‘The Birds of Southern Africa’. Perhaps it is ‘Birds of Malawi: A Supplement to Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa’ or ‘Sasol Guide to Birds of Southern Africa’. I have seen the book or one like it on several occasions in the last few months. I assume that the reason for this is that Likoma Island is on a migratory route. Josh said that only 30 or 40 species are endemic to the island, however that does include the extremely rare Pel’s Fishing Owl.


Birds and pilots

Likoma Island is surrounded by the Lake of Stars. There are plenty of fish and fishermen here but there is a lot that flys.

One of the things you soon notice at the bar at Mango Drift are a pair of black and white wagtails that come within 6 inches of you and your Green. There are other birds that seem similarly close to humans. Danny the barman tells me however that they will come close to Azungu but not to Malawians… Perhaps we western tourists indulge them with a few too many crumbs from our tables.

The Mango Drift information sheets claim that the island has 400 species of birds. Given that Liwonde National Park is a bird hotspot and has seen 435 species, that sounds a lot to me.

One person who cast doubt on this figure is Charl, a pilot. Whether there are a lot of birds on Likoma Island or not I do not know. One thing I do know is that a lot of pilots pass through Mango Drift. In our short time here I’ve met two already and I hear that another is on his way. Kevin says that you cannot move for tripping over pilots here. The reason is that there are two top end tourist lodges here. One is Kaya Mawa in the next bay, described by an Italian magazine as the most romantic destination in the world. The other is over the water in Mozambique called Nikwichi Lodge. Likoma Island may be remote and unspoilt but is the contact with civilisation for that particular corner of Mozambique.

The lifestyle of the pilots may not be entirely glamourous as this morning one of them was setting off early to walk across the island to the airfield.


The People at Mango Drift

Mango Drift has it’s own beautiful bay with baobabs, huts, a bar, a shower and toilets block, a dormitory and of course mango trees. So who is here?

There are two managers, Josh from England and Kevin from South Africa. They are both scuba diving instructors and are offering one of the most inexpensive PADI scuba diving courses in the world. That Lake Malawi has more species of freshwater fish than Europe & North America combined is a little bonus.

There are I think about 16 other staff from local villages including Danny one of the barmen. They are cooking up great meals on a regular basis. All the customers seem very happy.

There are eleven people staying (at the time of writing) apart from the four of us (me, Amelia, Ruth and David). Of those eleven, seven are from three generations of a Scottish-English family, two are a retired Israeli-English couple whose daughter is working in Zomba and two are pilots who fly out tomorrow with customers from an exclusive lodge in the next bay.

The Scottish-English family are in Malawi on a family pilgrimage and are returning for the first time to where some of them lived over 25 years ago.

The grandmother was a teacher at Phoenix Primary School when I was a pupil there. Her daughter was, we eventually worked out, one year above me. I vaguely remember her as Nancy when I was Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist.

Mr Dan Boneh is retired and has a music label called dbomusic at dbomusic.com or you could look on YouTube. He is also launching a book in Israel on 14th September. It is an atheist book with a Hebrew name which is hard to translate. It is likely to generate great controversy in Israel as it will be the equivalent of a Dawkins book, except in Hebrew. A major publisher is behind it.

They, before then, will be exploring the wilder and more beautiful parts of north-eastern Mozambique. It is fortunate therefore that Gabriela Cohen speaks Portuguese. In Portuguese she wrote Se Va Embora which can be listened to on youtube. She also wrote the words for The Tsunami Song, Dan wrote the music, also on YouTube. If anyone in Israel needs an osteopathic get in touch with Gabriela. She is a great believer in walking and is happy to be in the ‘walking capital of the world’ – Likoma Island, which has hardly any cars.

On their return to the UK two of the boys will be going to a Christians in Sport summer camp which their father David assures me is fantastic. Another son will get his A-level results – good luck. David their father and lecturer will be thrown into the maelstrom of university admissions.

Josh, one of the managers and scuba diving instructors, is a new dad. His wife is returning from the UK soon and will be involved in a lot of the admin work for Mango Drift and the upmarket joint in the next bay called Kaya Mawa.

Almost as important as who is here is, who is not here. There are no ‘beach boys’ here. At Cape Maclear on the Lake, Westerners are subject to the kind if ‘friendship’ sales techniques that are really quite unMalawian. It is easier to relax here.

I am afraid that I do not know the pilots or most members of staff very well yet. However, it is a small and mixed group, together for too short a time. We have not even had time for a proper atheists v Christians debate as we only have found out each others positions before too many leave.