Why Malawi is turning into a traveller's paradise
To reach Mount Kasukusuka, you have to canoe across the Bua River. It's just a five-minute paddle, but rains had turned the waters into a fast-flowing, mud-brown torrent and I had seen crocodiles lurking only the day before.
My guide Shai alleviated my fears by rowing strongly enough for both of us. Once on shore, we walked through grasses so tall that they tickled my face before coming across a boomslang, a deceptively small but vicious snake sunbathing on the slope. "Kasukusuka means 'elbow' in our Chichewa language," said Shai, trying to distract me, "because it looks like a bent arm with the elbow pointing upwards". It's an apt name for the mountain with a smooth incline and a knobbly bit at the summit. With no clear path, inelegant scrambling for the final half hour was needed to reach its 1,068-metre peak.
From the top, all I could hear were a few barking baboons and birdsongs. Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve's 1,800 square kilometres splayed out beneath me in shades of green, from the dark leaves of miombo woodland hugging the hillsides to the bright neon dambos (glades). Even from up here, elephants are often seen roaming below. We saw none, but on our descent found a few unbelievably huge bones scattered around - the remains of an elephant killed five years ago and a sad reminder of how poaching decimated this reserve.
Only 160km from the capital Lilongwe, Nkhotakota in Central Malawi has, until recently, seen few tourists. Only low-budget backpackers have long travelled here, loving the laid-back vibe of the country, with its lakeshore villages like Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay being perennial favourites. One of Africa's poorest nations, however, it could ill-afford to protect its national parks, which suffered neglect and a consequent poaching free-for-all. For years, tiny Malawi was overshadowed on the prosperous safari circuit by its bigger, bolder neighbours Tanzania and Zambia.
Yet, today, Malawi is enjoying a quiet resurgence. An infectious optimism has been spreading across the country since its new president Joyce Banda came into office in April. New luxury lodges on the lake and in the once forgotten national parks and reserves are extending their appeal to more affluent travellers while simultaneously helping local communities and wildlife conservation.
One such lodge is Tongole, which opened in May last year in Nkhotakota. Developed by two British philanthropists, David Cole and David Gridley, and a Malawian, Bentry Kalanga, as a legacy for Kalanga's son who died in a car crash in the UK, its whole raison d'être is to help his former childhood community.
The lodge's main building centres around two towering tree trunks. A spiral staircase curves around one, leading to a mezzanine lounge overlooking the river and Kasukusuka. Below, the dining area has huge mango wood tables and a bar with life-size caricatures of two customers painted on the wall, so you never have to drink alone.
The Bua Terrace by the river is ideal for secluded star-lit dinners. We chose a char-grilled aubergine and tomato salad, followed by flavoursome beef fillet in black cherry sauce with lyonnaise potatoes and, finally, vanilla pannacotta. The evening ended perfectly: watching an elephant wading tummy-deep in the water until he disappeared into darkness.
Our chalet, one of only four, sits on the riverbank where monkeys play outside. A gigantic stone bath adjoins the terrace and doubles as a plunge pool on sultry afternoons. Rooms are huge and high spec, decorated with wooden carvings and perfect attention to detail with curved, wrought-iron, glassless doors leaving the room open to the elements.
The lodge's charity, Tongole Foundation, connects guests and the local communities, arranging visits to the schools it supports. At Mwala wa Tongole school, we saw a new classroom block being built with funding from the foundation.
The foundation plans to restore wildlife here too, working with Malawi's Department for National Parks and Wildlife on anti-poaching measures and developing a sanctuary for 300 relocated animals, including kudu, sable and buffalo. For now, Nkhotakota's wildlife is still skittish from poaching, so we spent our days exploring the wilderness, canoeing or fording swollen rivers to turbulent waterfalls and hiking in the hills, always accompanied by an armed ranger should we encounter elephants. And although animals may be elusive, the birdlife is prolific - from tiny, iridescent kingfishers to majestic martial eagles.
Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi was also once a victim of excessive poaching and non-existent policing. Over the past 10 years, however, Majete has slowly come back to life, benefitting from a unique partnership between the Malawian government and African Parks, a Dutch non-profit conservation organisation.
After flying from Lilongwe to Blantyre, a two-hour drive took us to the 700-square-kilometre reserve in the Lower Shire Valley. Arriving in time for sunset, we climbed up a small granite mound to views across gentle hills and riverine woodlands studded with tall, pale sterculia, a famous feature of the reserve. Called ghost trees locally, they seem to hover over you like phantoms at dusk.
In August, Majete achieved more fame by becoming Malawi's only "big five" destination. With the relocation of three lions from South Africa, Majete is now home to all the big five: elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and the big cats. Traditionally called the big five because they were the most difficult animals to hunt, they are the ones everyone wants to see on safari.
African Parks's relocation programme has, however, brought far more than the five illustrious safari stars here - since 2003, about 2,500 animals have arrived. On a game drive, we spotted antelopes everywhere, including 12 fluffy waterbucks flashing their distinctive white target marks on their rears. We heard dainty impalas making unattractive snorting noises to attract the ladies. Devilish-looking nyala browsed furtively in the bushes and six zebra cantered past us protecting a foal in their midst, hyena tracks on the road explained their nervousness.
Of the big five, the lions were yet to arrive, but reports suggest they were settling in well at their new home. We spotted plenty of elephants on the riverbanks and woodland and grumpy buffalos known as "daggaboys" wallowing in mud (dagga meaning mud). The seven rhinoceros were tricky to find, keeping cool in dense thicket, while leopards, being nocturnal, were as ever elusive. But they are all being closely monitored by African Parks's rangers with daily patrols and GPS tracking. Four rhino calves have already been born here and male and female leopards have been tracked close together, boding well for future generations.
Majete's new luxury lodge, Mkulumadzi, opened in July last year. Its owners, Robin Pope Safaris, have funded the lion relocations. Unusually contemporary for a safari lodge, with bright green and mink-coloured fabrics and lots of light wood, its eight eco-chalets have "living" roofs covered with grasses and private terraces overlooking the river from where we heard our wake-up calls of hippos "laughing" in the mornings. You can bathe in the swimming pool watching elephants bathe in the river below, and the restaurant's imaginative cuisine would do justice to any exclusive hotel, let alone one as remote as this.
Mkulumadzi's sister lodge, Pumulani, lies on the shores of Lake Malawi National Park near Cape Maclear, a scenic six-hour drive away. Meaning "to relax" in Chichewa, the luxurious lodge offers a more sophisticated way to enjoy that laid-back lakeside vibe that made Malawi so popular with backpackers. Perched on a hill, our chic villa, with pale driftwood and lavender furnishings, overlooked the lake and the lodge's private sandy beach. Taking a sunset cruise on Pumulani's dhow, we watched the lodge blend inconspicuously into the hillsides as we glided away; so cleverly is it designed it almost disappeared.
Malawi's lake, measuring 600km long and up to 80km wide, is the tenth-largest lake in the world. Snorkelling from the speedboat, we fed bread to tiny colourful cichlids, their mouths gently nudging our fingertips. About 875 different species of these fish coexist here, more than in any other lake in the world. Plenty of food then for the impressive giant fish eagles that soar above the shores, including the one that swooped within a metre of our speedboat, scooping up a fish our driver had thrown into the water.
On the opposite side of the bay, a half-hour stroll from Pumulani, is Mbeya, a small fishing village that curves around the lake. The lodge offers walks here with Loyce, a waitress who looks after HIV/Aids orphans in her home with support from Pumulani. Around 20 children greeted us noisily as we entered the back yard to her simple, single-storey house and show us crafts Loyce has taught them, to sell at Pumulani's gift shop and help them earn their own income as they grow up.
Wandering back to the lodge, people smiled as we passed by, fishermen in dugout canoes waved from the water and children ran after us shouting "bye bye". It seems their future, and Malawi's as a whole, is at last looking brighter.
IF YOU GO
The flight Return flights with Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) from Dubai to Lilongwe via Nairobi cost from US$922 (Dh3,387) including taxes and take five hours
The stay Tongole Wilderness Lodge (www.tongole.com) costs from US$275 (Dh1,010) per person, per night sharing, including all food and most drinks, game viewing activities including drives, canoeing, walking and fishing, park fees and tourism levy. Robin Pope Safaris (www.robinpopesafaris.net) offers a seven-night/eight- day Bush and Beach package that includes staying three nights at Mkulumadzi Lodge in Majete and four nights at Pumulani in Cape Maclear, costing from US$2,609 (Dh9,583) per person sharing. This includes all transfers by road and air beginning and ending in Lilongwe, all accommodation on a full board basis, all drinks, all activities excluding motorised water sports at Pumulani. For further information, visit Malawi Tourism guide at www.malawitourism.com