MULI BWANJI: FROM NOWHERE TO NOW, HERE

Nsima” is a word I’ll come to know very well during our time traversing the crusted earth in the city onwards to the lush countryside of northern Malawi. It’s repeated frequently by Malawians at mealtimes.

“What is nsima?” my colleague Minki and I ask Will, our driver, as he navigates the narrow, potholed road from the capital Lilongwe.

Nsima is a stiff porridge made from maize flour or cassava flour. You eat it with chicken, fish and vegetables. It’s very nice,” he tells us.

“Oh, you mean like pap?” asks Minki, recalling our own word for the dish. He nods while steering around the many customised bicycles in our path carrying women, men and goods on elongated seats. A man I encountered in the city yesterday had one of these bikes. I’d admired the black and white little shapes and emblems painted all over it and the trinkets hanging over the handlebars. “Nice bicycle,” I’d said, giving him a thumbs-up. Before I knew it, he was riding alongside me. “No lift?” he’d asked shyly.

I’d demurred politely, somewhat upset that I wasn’t carrying cash.

I don’t know where I fell in love with Malawi and its people. Maybe it was during an afternoon walk on our first day, as I’d attempted to orientate myself with Lilongwe. I’d come across Peter Soko, a friendly, but persistent vendor who sold his wares in the courtyard of a shopping centre opposite the Peermont Hotel. Or perhaps it was while watching the scenery change from scratchy, high grasslands to thick, richly green foliage as we drove to Makuzi Beach Lodge, where we spent our second night. I’m sure it was the little gestures of the people and places that touched me, rather than a single, big experience.

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Makuzi Beach Lodge

Today, kilometre after kilometre, one village drifts into another: first Ngwangwama, then the better-known Nkhotakota, where thatch-roofed homes, some mud-dried, are spread across parts of the land that haven’t been cultivated for cassava. On the road’s edge businesses vie for attention: taverns with names like “Together Forever” painted bright red, blue or green blast local hits; a few metres away, a young girl sits selling dried fish. Against a tree are propped bags of maize meal for sale and a distance away, jerry cans of petrol. In between the trees for shades, goats and chickens roam. Women hurry back and forth in their colourful chitenje while the little ones try to catch up or play in small groups. They wave at us excitedly as we drive past.

“Sugarcane!” exclaims Minki, as we see two teenagers selling the sweet crop at the roadside. The thought of stripping away the bark and chewing the thick, juicy flesh seems too good to pass up, so Will gladly obliges when we ask him to pull over.

By the time we arrive at Makuzi Beach Lodge after our five-hour journey, the sight of the beach and Lake Malawi leaves us speechless. With only 10 chalets across a wide green “island”, we have a fair bit of privacy and the easygoing spirit of owners Lara and Brett certainly adds to the welcoming aura of the place.

After a light lunch on the balcony, we race barefoot, like children, to dance on the fine beach sand and climb boulders jutting from beneath the lake.

“I never tell anyone there are no crocodiles,” says Lara before we wade out into the water, “but, then, I’ve never seen one. My children swim in the lake every day and nothing’s ever happened to them.”

The water’s too chilly and choppy to swim, so we tour the village with Mark, the resident chef of the lodge. On the way, we meet Patrick, slightly-built man with beautiful dark porcelain skin whose artwork hangs in a makeshift shelter. Among the paintings and postcards are key rings and wooden chairs, which he also creates for the lodge.

On the way back to the lodge, our feet dusty, we hear lilting voices welcoming us in local dialects. “She’s asking how you’re enjoying Malawi,” Mark explains, as we encounter an elderly, barefooted mother carrying firewood.

“How do we say we’re loving it?” I ask, unable to take my eyes off her beautiful face, moulded by laughter and light. I responded unable to take my eyes off her face that’s been molded by natural beauty, life and laughter.

To our “Tanja kuwa Malawi,” she responds: “Feel free.”

And we do.

NKHOTAKOTA WILDLIFE RESERVE

The next day we have to say goodbye to Will, who hands us over to our next driver at the gate to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve leading to Tongole Wilderness Lodge, a little more than two hours from Makuzi. We’re introduced to a rifle-toting scout, a strong man of medium height with skin so smooth, it astounds me to learn he’s in his 60s. He helps load our luggage into the car, beaming at us. Our guide Emmanuel, is tall and slim with thick, dark curls and a softly-spoken manner. We’re driven through woodland, large tracts of forest and grassland, with Emmanuel pointing out stripped away trees showing that elephants were here recently. recently stripped where elephants have passed through.

“The reserve’s going through some changes,” Emmanuel explains. “We’re busy relocating animals from Liwonde National Park to the here. Last night we received 100 elephants.”

The translocation of the wildlife to Nkhotakota is a two-year plan to relieve the pressure on the environment by over-population, as well as well as curb human and wildlife conflict. The first phase, completed at the end of August, involved more than 1 100 elephants, sable, kudu, waterbuck, impala, buffalo and warthogs.

“Imagine how wonderful it will be when we’re driving around and the place is filled with wildlife!” says Emmanuel. Inviting us out the vehicle for a closer look at the trees around us, he becomes equally enthusiastic telling us how giraffes curl their tongues around mimosa leaves and explaining that when these red seeds fall to the ground, they can be made into beautiful jewellery.

A red dragonfly settles on a rock before us.

“That’s a red busker. Have you learnt that compound eyes can’t detect anything that’s slow-moving?”

He attempts to catch it, but it flies away. He tries twice more, moving stealthily each time. When he finally clasps it gently in his hand, he offers me a look, then lets it fly free.

“Oh, look! A blue-tailed lizard!” he exclaims a few minutes later. Then: “Baboons on the treetop over there.”

I could sit on Katope rock all day, going back to my luxurious open suite overlooking Bua River only for a restful sleep, insisting I have my meals while canoeing or back at this rock.

CHELINDA LODGE

Serenity has many faces, I come to learn, and in the highlands where the Nyika National Park’s situated, the cold grips my bones, sending me back to the fireplace repeatedly. Chelinda Lodge – with its rustic, pinewood chalets, traditional donkey boilers, limited wifi and endless plains – is the perfect place for introspection or relaxation. I’ve eaten a wholesome fish pie, hearty tuna sandwiches, delicious quiche and a delectable bean salad. And though I’m usually not one for dessert, I can’t resist the fruit tarts.

Chelinda Lodge

Chelinda Lodge

One afternoon, husband-and-wife team Paul and Janet Kilham lay the table. Nsima, groundnut-flavoured vegetables and chambo (tilapia). Food of the earth and the people. And you can’t eat only one dish. Everything must be eaten together to truly enjoy the meal. Traditionally, food’s set out in front of those partaking in it and everyone digs in using their hands. You roll the nsima in your palm, dip it in the relish and then take a bite of the meat. I’ve waited days for this.

KAYA MAWA

Jakkie, our pilot, flies us from Chelinda to Kaya Mawa, a warmer part of Malawi. The ride from the airport to this secluded beachfront lodge traverses typically African villages. Children wait by the dozen at the airport, interrupting their game of soccer with a plastic ball to cheer and wave and resume playing after you’ve driven past. The dirt road’s hard and the drive is bumpy, but the sun’s shining and the sky’s blue and beautiful.

Lake Malawi is a national heritage site and belongs to the people of Malawi. It’s also a source of income in terms of fishing. Villagers come here to bathe, swim and collect water. Businesses built around the lake aren’t permitted to restrict communities’ access to the water.

“This is the closest place to heaven we have in Africa,” says Minki as we sit on our verandah, enjoying wine and gazing at the lake. Chalets and suites surround the shore, decorated in shades of pink, blue and white. A few lights shine in the distance.

I think back on my time in this country, with its vibrant colours, its warm-hearted people, whose vibrant spirit, ubiquitous smiles and courage transcend their poverty, and this wide expanse of deep, placid water, which sustains so many. I’m reminded of the photoraph I saw in the reception area of a beautiful, dark-skinned woman with short hair in a blue kaftan getting out of the lake. To me, she says it all. Welcome to the warm heart of Africa.

ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

 Makuzi Beach Lodge

Activities include snorkelling, fishing and kayaking.

Rates: From $115 pps (dinner, bed and breakfast).

Tongole Wilderness Lodge

This award-winning lodge has four luxury suites overlooking the Bua River and a family cottage allowing privacy. Activities include bird and walking safaris, canoeing, fly-fishing and game drives.

Rates: From $365 pps.

Chelinda Lodge

Activities include game drives or simply relaxing on the balcony and enjoying the scenery.

Kaya Mawa

Perfect for indulgence, this award-winning resort with its delectable cuisine needs more than a few days to take in Lake Malawi, the people and the weather. Activities include scuba-diving, swimming, kayaking, mountain-biking, water-skiing and cultural tours.

Ulendo Airlink arranged our domestic flights (and Jakkie was kind enough to make me his co-pilot!).

President Walmont by Peermont

The only five-star hotel in Malawi, the elegant President Walmont by Peermont is situated in Umodzi Park in the vicinity of the Bingu Wa Mutharika International Centre. With 130 well-appointed rooms, including 10 tastefully decorated Presidential suites, travellers instantly feel welcome. Enjoy an afternoon drink at the Afroma Terrace Bar before dining at the Wild Orchid Restaurant.

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