Written by Chris
While we were in Malawi, we had a few weekends free while we weren’t volunteering for the good of mankind and we took off from our main base for a few excursions. Getting around Malawi is actually incredibly easy and it usually goes something like this. You head out to the road (there is usually only one unless your town is lucky enough to be at a crossroads) and you stand on the correct side where traffic is going in the direction you want to go. Within about 5 minutes, a minibus will come by and usually stop for you, whether you flag them down or not, since they are always desperate for business. You tell them how far you want to go, pay, and they always make sure to tell you when to get off (so they have room to fit in another fare). Eventually, you end up in the town you want to be in for a rather reasonable price.
Our first weekend just so happened to be our first wedding anniversary (congrats, honey!) so we decided to have a nice getaway to the resort area of Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi. Malawi is a long country and Lake Malawi lies along most of its eastern border with Mozambique. Cape Maclear is towards the southern end and was “discovered” and named by none other than Dr. David Livingstone himself. The area is rich in wildlife and was protected, first, as a national park of Malawi, and later it became a UNESCO world heritage site. Its also a nice place for a swim.
We checked into a nice beachside resort in our own grass-roofed bungalow and settled in. There was not much to do nearby besides lounging around on the beach, and we were more than content to do just that. We discovered a nice beach drink, the Pineapple Fanta and Malawi Rum (drink name pending) and spent the evenings trying to watch the sunset over the lake. The astute reader will now notice that the lake is on the east side of the country yet we watched the sunset over it towards the west. After watching it set twice, this troubling fact occurred to us as well. A glance at a map upon our return revealed that we were out on the west side of the cape looking out over an arm of the lake. Whew, the rotation of the earth had not reversed.
On our anniversary proper, we chartered a boat to take us out to one of the islands in the lake for the afternoon. An interesting character named Solomon accompanied us as our guide. Though the area is a protected national park and heritage site, there are still many indigenous people who lived there before the park was created and still call it home. They live on the shore and use the lake for all their water needs including cooking, cleaning (clothes, pots, their bodies), fishing, and likely other unmentionable activities. This leaves the water on the shore quite cloudy and unappealing, to say the least. However, out on the island, the lake was brilliantly crystal clear.
We spent our day swimming around and snorkeling with the brightly colorful tropical fishies. Solomon prepared us a fantastic lunch over a campfire of grilled local fish, kapango, rice, and tomato sauce. We spent some time lounging in the sun and chatting with Solomon, whose number of children seemed to keep growing the more he learned that we weren’t going to donate more money to him than we already did for the (slightly overpriced) day tour. We soon packed up and headed back to the mainland with a bit of sunburn and some full bellies.
One nice thing about Malawi are the frequent power outages. On this occasion, it allowed us to have a nice, candlelit anniversary dinner overlooking the beach. It was a wonderful way to spend our anniversary, a cool and relaxing break from our time in Balaka, and just a little bit too short before we had to head back.
The Shire River
For our next act, a week later we headed east to the Shire river where there are several more resorts including the famed Hippo View Lodge. I was at first very excited that we were going to The Shire and thought I might find a hobbit, but I later learned it was pronounced “SHE-ray” and got sad, but THEN I learned that Mr. JRR Tolkien had visited Malawi and likely used the name of the river for his books! It was the actual Shire. But still I saw no hobbits just hippos.
We first checked out the Hippo View. It was a grand place with sprawling grounds along the river, a fantastic outdoor dining deck, an array of life-sized plaster African animals, and seemingly hundreds of rooms. It had a feel of 1960’s elegance, like parts of Fremont street in Las Vegas, that it was THE place to be 50 years ago, but that things have not changed much there since. However, the prices have come up to date and then some. When we found we could stay at the place next door for 1/10th the price, we decided to live without the plaster gorilla and save a few (hundred) bucks. The place we did stay is actually in the running for our cheapest nightly stay and it was a private bungalow with a bathroom AND hot water. The luxury!
Despite not staying there, we still managed to make full use of their amenities. We spent our days hanging out there and had most of our meals there. When we first arrived, we headed straight to the water and, true to its name, we immediately viewed a hippo surface and then disappear into the river. Again, there was not much to do in the area, so we spent our time eating while looking out over the river, sitting with drink-in-hand looking out over the river, or walking through the gardens along the river while looking out over it.
One night, for a change, we decided to head over to the resort across the river from the Hippo View. It looked much nicer, newer, and bigger so we walked over the bridge to give it a try. When we entered the gate, we were stopped by two guys who told us it was reserved for a private function. This whole huge resort was rented out by an NGO to celebrate something or other. So this is where all the aid money is going into Malawi.
We found ourselves back at the Hippo View and we had another nice candlelit dinner thanks to Malawi’s unpredictable infrastructure and listened to the hippos snorting out in the river. A nice way to wrap up the weekend.
And, believe it or not, that’s all the excursion time we had in Malawi the whole month. The other weekends were spent in transit. We had a great time in the spots we hit up and it was great to get away from superhot and dusty Balaka, but we certainly would have liked to see more; the other nearby cities and the mountains to the south in particular. We’ll swing by next time we’re in the neighborhood.