MALAWI: THE WARMEST HEART OF AFRICA

It’s late at night in southwestern Malawi. I’m on my way to my room at Mkulumadzi Lodge, which is within the Majete Wildlife Reserve, a pristine home to the Big Five and a host of other wildlife. These animals roam freely, even coming right up to guests’ chalets facing the mighty Shire River, on the eastern side of the reserve. As a visitor, you are truly immersed in nature. Lodge management assures our party that only harmless animals, such as sable antelopes, waterbucks and elands, are more likely to be spotted than any dangerous animals in this part of the reserve.

But, as a city rat, I’m a little rattled on this walk to my room, no more than 250 meters from the dining area. Porters, who are trained to handle any situation, can accompany visitors on request. On this night Tammy Rowland, wife of Reserve Manager Dave Westbrook, is my guide. Although hailing from the USA, she’s at home at Majete. Then, with only a short distance to go on this winding path, the leaves under the bush suddenly rattle ominously. A wild animal! We stand still and listen. My heart skips a beat. In the deathly silence, Rowland calmly shines a torch where the sound came from. It’s a waterbuck. Relief! Management was right after all about the harmless creatures.

In addition to a restaurant, a lounge, a terrace, a bar, a gift shop, Mkulumadzi Lodge, which is owned and managed by Robin Pope Safaris, has eight luxury chalets of different sizes; mine is spacious with a host of five-star bells and whistles, including a net around the bed to repel mosquitos. The shower extends from the room to the outside, but still gives guests privacy. You may also wish to soak in the well-proportioned bathtub near a glass wall that allows nature and light to pour into the room. From an elevated porch, visitors can relax and listen to the gushing river or to the chorus of happy hippos at night. Guests may keep tent doors that open to their porches open for the night, but I keep mine tightly zipped up. The following morning, without any guide, I walk the intimidating path back to the dining area for breakfast, attentive to the faintest of sounds and movements in the bush. And in the late afternoon, shortly after lunch, we go for game drives and a boat cruises, offerings that all guests can enjoy through prior arrangement at the lodgeMalawi, a sliver of a country bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, prides itself on offering such thrilling bush experiences. For tourism operators, fencing off wildlife is out of the question out of a fair realisation that it is, in fact, humans who are in the habitat of animals and not the other way around, so visitors need to take precautions at all times.

Malawi takes nature conservation seriously. Majete, for example, is a success story of conservation and regeneration. A few years ago, the reserve was devoid of wildlife due to poaching. Trees were also being cut down. Tourists stopped coming to the reserve, a loss of valuable income. In 2003, African Parks entered into a 25-year agreement with the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife to rehabilitate Majete. Wildlife was re-introduced. Today, the reserve teems with elephants, black rhinos, lions and other animals. A thriving Majete has created jobs for locals. A number or rangers have been recruited and not a single rhino or elephant has been poached since 2003. In fact, the elephant population has grown so large that 520 elephants were earlier this year relocated to Nkhotakota Wild Reserve, near Lake Malawi, as part of a historic translocation initiative to boost wildlife at Nkhotakota.

Malawi is divided into three regions – south, central and north – each boasting its unique attractions. The county’s topography is striking. Then there’s Lake Malawi, a popular Malawian destination for water-based activities such as kayaking, scuba diving, boat cruises, birdwatching or just lazing about in the sun. The lake, the third largest in Africa, is shared with Mozambique and Tanzania, although most of it is in Malawi.

Most of the year Malawi is blessed with sunshine and the best time to visit is between April and November, outside the rainy season. By far Malawi’s best tourist attraction is the uncommon warmth of its people, which is why the country is justifiably referred to as “the warmest heart of Africa”. Tourists feel at home the instant they land either in Lilongwe, the capital in the centre of the country, or Blantyre, the commercial capital to the south. That’s when you first hear the melodious greeting muli bwanji, meaning “how are you?” in Chichewa. No wonder tourism in Malawi is booming. “According to the 2015 national tourism report, Malawi received about 804 000 visitors through which it generated MWK 23 billion visitor exports. This represents 1,6% of total exports. This is forecast to grow by 4,9% in 2017, and by 2,8% per year from 2017 to 2027,” says Isaac Katopola, a Director at Malawi Department of Tourism.

All this is good news for the economy. “The tourism sector generated MWK 23 billion in 2015 and continues to create many job opportunities for Malawians even in the rural areas where most of the key attractions are found,” Katopola says. All tourism stakeholders agree that Malawi’s brand essence is “rich in contrast, compact in size; big in hospitality”.

Back on the road

After Majete, our party heads to Huntingdon House, an old colonial house at Satemwa Tea Estate, which is half-an-hour’s drive from Blantyre. Established in 1923 by Maclean Kay, a Scottish immigrant, the estate produces world-class tea and coffee. The estate is a sea of lush green with its rolling tea plantations reminiscent of Sri Lankan plantations. Huntingdon House is the original house of the estate. Today it offers luxury accommodation in its five spacious rooms called Mother’s Room, Father’s Room, The Nursery, Planters’ Suite and The Chapel. I choose Father’s Room. We take our meals and drinks on a huge verandah. By appointment, visitors can tour the tea-making factory to learn about tea production as well as coffee.

However, the bush experience returns for our party when we next move to Mvuu Lodge and Camp at the Liwonde National Park. We stop for lunch at the Sunbird Ku Chawe on the rim of Zomba plateau, high above the city. Zomba is the old colonial capital and the architecture is distinctly English. Hours later, after crossing the Shire River by boat, we reach Mvuu Lodge and Camp. The banks of the river are right outside our rooms, where hippos lie submerged in the water and crocodiles lie lazily in the sun, but they are definitely not asleep for they are aware of what’s happening around them.

At night elephants roam the premises freely – it’s advisable to have a guide to your room at all times. The camp accommodates up to 36 guests while the upmarket lodge, a short distance away right in the bush, only has eight rooms, taking only 16 visitors. Richard Chimwala, General Manager of Mvuu Lodge and Camp, says the camp is “ideal for larger groups and families while the smaller lodge is more exclusive and ideal for couples seeking privacy”. In the morning, we take a boat cruise during which we spot a variety of water animals and an assortment of wildlife on the shore.

But, it seems, Malawi has saved the best for last as we discover when we next travel to Mumbo Island Lodge, part of the Lake Malawi National Park, a Unesco Heritage Site. Only 1km in diameter, the island is pristine and has never been populated. The island can accommodate 14 guests in tastefully decorated bamboo huts perched on boulders. The hammocks in front of each tent emphasise the need for relaxation as guests gaze out at the vast Lake Malawi all around. Mumbo is wonderfully bereft of modern conveniences. There’s no electricity and the charging of batteries for phones and cameras is done through solar power. For doing its utmost to protect the environment, Mumbo Island has been voted one of the top 50 sustainable lodges in Africa.

A day later, Blue Zebra Island Lodge on Nankoma Island bowls us over with its luxury and en-suite tented accommodation, friendly and efficient service and tranquility. The lodge, which has been operating for five years, is nature and luxury rolled in one. The island is ideal for indulging in various aquatic activities on Lake Malawi: scuba diving, kayaking, snorkeling and boat cruises. You can also walk around this unspoilt paradise and marvel at the dazzling array of bird life, including the fabled African fish eagle. “Blue Zebra is attractive because of the rare cichlid fish found on the islands. Also because of the flora and fauna. We try to offer a beach island retreat as well as a bush experience,” says Steve Roberts, manager of the lodge. He also points out that the island is a mere two hours from Kamazu International Airport in Lilongwe, making it accessible to guests.

At night, with nothing much to do, we raid the well-stocked bar and socialise with other guests who swear that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now but magical Malawi. Fittingly, we spend the last day in the country at Sunbird Lilongwe, just as we had started off the whole trip at their Sunbird Mount Soche in Blantyre. Having been to the two hotels in the space of a week, it’s clear why this hotel chain, which has eight establishments throughout Malawi, is a market leader in the hospitality sector – whether for leisure or business travel. The service is warm and efficient and rooms comfortable. Levie Nkunika, Group Sales & Marketing Manager, ascribes Sunbird’s preeminence to a commitment to offering value for money experience. “Our hotels and resorts offer unrivalled guests’ experience through a personalised and engaging service,” he says. “We offer excellent luxurious accommodation and unforgettable Malawian culinary experience which no other local hotel can match.”

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