Bordering Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, there is a large lake. But this is no ordinary body of water. One of East Africa’s Rift Valley lakes, its vast basin was created by immense geological forces that are gradually tearing the continent apart. It has many names. Some call it Lake Malawi after the country on its eastern shores, some call it Lake Nyasa or the Lake of Stars , and some people even call it “The Calendar Lake” (being 365 miles long and 52 miles wide). Regardless, this inland sea plummets to a depth of 800m and is home to the largest number of fish species of any lake on earth.
Scott finds out what Lake Malawi and its namesake have to offer the adventurer. Story and Images by SCOTT BENNETT
Although small compared to its larger neighbours, Malawi’s attractions are big, both over and under the water. Known as the warm heart of Africa for its friendly people, I quickly realized it could also be called the land of surprises.
My departure point was Johannesburg, where I caught a 2-hour flight to Blantyre, Malawi’s chief city and business centre. En route, I spent two nights at Mvuu Lodge in Lilondwe National Park. After all, one can’t visit Africa without doing a safari! With such wildlife icons as Zambia and Tanzania sharing its borders, Malawi is often overlooked as a wildlife destination. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, we encountered numerous species including kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck and a herd of over 20 elephants. The lodge was situated alongside the Shire (pronounced Shiree) River, which empties from Lake Malawi’s southern end. Boat trips on the river revealed numerous waterbirds as well as hippos, crocodiles and elephant. The park’s central sanctuary is also home to such rare species as black rhino and sable antelope. I was definitely impressed!
Leaving Mvuu, a drive of several hours brought me to Cape Maclear in the Lake Malawi National Park. A World Heritage Site, the world’s first freshwater national park encompasses the Cape Maclear peninsula, lake itself and islands up to 100 metres offshore. Upwards of 23 dive sites are located within the park’s boundaries. Cape Maclear’s resort area is home to a well-established diving scene, with a number of operators offering excursions and courses.
I would be diving with Kayak Africa, in operation since 1996 and running both kayak and dive trips to their resorts on Mumbo and Domwe Islands. I stopped by to meet up with shop manager Joseph, who gave me a rundown on the ensuing days’ itinerary. I would do a pair of dives en route to Domwe Island, where I would spend the first night. Patrick would then pick me up the following morning and take me to Mumbo Island for more dives before checking into the resort. I could hardly wait!
My first night would be spent in Cape Maclear at Mgoza Lodge. Situated right on the beach my accommodation at was basic but comfortable. Abounding with overseas backpackers and souvenir vendors, I felt like I was in Southeast Asia rather than Central Africa. With no electricity for the ensuing two nights accommodation, I embarked on a battery-charging marathon to ensure I wouldn’t be caught short!
Despite the lake’s voluminous extent, large underwater fauna is conspicuously absent. The most distinguishing characteristic is its cichlids. From a few initial colonizers, upwards of a thousand endemic species have evolved. In comparison, Lake Tanganyika, some 350 kilometres to the north, possesses but a fraction of Malawi’s species count despite being substantially larger. The most colourful, locally known as “mbuna”, display remarkable degrees of evolution seen nowhere else. Isolation from other major bodies of water has had a significant impact, as well as the cichlids unique breeding behaviour. Highly territorial, many reside in one compact area for their entire lives. As a result, inbred communities have formed that have diverged into brand new species.
After breakfast, I ventured back to Kayak Africa where the boat was waiting. I met Patrick, who would be my divemaster for the next two days. With luggage and dive gear aboard, we set out for Tumbe Island a 30-min boat ride away. Gearing up proved unique to say the least! In the ocean, I normally require 7-8kg of weight with my 3mm suit. Here, a steel tank combined with less buoyant fresh water, necessitated only 3kg. Definitely a first! With a water temperature of 23 degrees, I was hoping my 3mm would be warm enough. (Patrick had on 5mm). Plunging in, I noticed an initial chill, but that subsided quickly. Not bad for the middle of winter in Africa!
The morning’s first dive site was The Wreck, a15m steel-hulled vessel sunk specifically for diving.
Heading down the slope to the wreck, visibility was limited to less than 10m, so I ensured Patrick always remained in close proximity. Cichlids were everywhere in a staggering array of shapes and colours. It was hard to comprehend they had descended from a solitary species.
The terrain’s prevailing feature was granite boulders, some the size of houses. A large blue crab peered out from under a rock, scuttling to the safety of a deep recess as I approached. Despite the lake’s immense size, the crabs are the premier scavengers. Vegetation was surprisingly absent, but every surface was shrouded with algae, the primary food for many cichlid species. A few however, eat, other cichlids.
Arriving at the wreck, Patrick ventured into the wheelhouse to pose for a photo. Resting upright at a depth of 30m, it lacked the growth of an oceanic wreck but proved to be a magnet for cichlids. Descending to the stern, we encountered a pair of kampango catfish. Dwarfing the cichlids, they are amongst the biggest fish in the lake, with some attaining lengths of 2 m. Unfazed by our presence, they allowed a close approach for wide-angle photography.
Although there are no large creatures like hippos or crocodiles to pose any threat, there is a very tiny one. Being freshwater, the lake is prone to bilharzia, caused by the infestation by a type of flatworm, or fluke. The larvae are released by freshwater snails, which can penetrate human skin and mature into adults. Symptoms can take 6 weeks to materialize, depending on the fluke species. “Swimmer’s itch” develops where the parasite enters the skin, and is often the only symptom. Although potentially serious if left untreated, an inexpensive pill from the local pharmacist will nip the problem in the bud. Fortunately, I made it home unscathed.
Completing our surface interval, we motored around to the other side of the island to our next site called The Aquarium. I quickly realized the name couldn’t be more apt, being instantly enveloped by cichlids of even greater numbers and varieties. This time I took down both macro and wide angle camera setups and both were kept busy! A flat sandy area featured a number of curious crater-shaped formations. Remarkably, they were not natural but fish-made, courting arenas created by male cichlids to attract females. Fastidiously maintained
Rising to 400m above lake level with a circumference of 11km, Domwe is Lake Malawi’s largest island. “Welcome to paradise” exclaimed a departing guest as I waded ashore. He wasn’t wrong; granite boulders flanked the beach like giant scattered marbles while dense vegetation cloaked the rugged slopes above. Meandering around boulders and the lush vegetation, a sandy path led me to my tent. Sitting astride a wooden platform, the view from the front flap looked out over the lake’s broad expanse. Paradise indeed!
The next morning, Patrick arrived right at 9:00 and we set out for Mumbo Island. While much smaller and flatter than Domwe, it proved no less dramatic. Massive boulders flanked the island’s perimeter as baobab and candelabra trees crowded each other for growing space. Underwater, the scenery was equally impressive. Our first dive was at Tooth Rock, which featured a series of pinnacles descending down to 50m. Descending to 18m, visibility was only 6m at the dive’s start. While photography was limited by the visibility, there were plenty of overhangs and swim throughs to explore. Ascending for our safety stop, the water became crystal clear, with sheer rock faces dwarfing the never-ending parade of cichlids.
The follow up dive at Mpipi Bay featured rocky slopes descending gradually to a depth 100m. In the shallows at the start of the dive was an abundance of water plants, the first vegetation I had seen aside from the algae shrouding the rock faces. Venturing deeper, we encountered a variety of new fish species. Silvery chambo are a favoured food species for the local people as are the non-cichlid usipa, the latter swarming in great numbers near the surface. I even had a brief glimpse of a small eel.
With diving finished by mid afternoon, we headed back to the resort on Mumbo. Once again, I found myself grasping for superlatives. If anything, my tent’s location of was even more spectacular than at Domwe. Looking out over a small bay of aquamarine water, I ensconced myself in the hammock out front, as African fish eagles wheeled overhead. Sheer bliss!
Upon arrival, I was asked if I wanted to go on a sunset cruise. Arriving at the jetty at 5:00, my “cruise vessel” was actually a rowboat, with only a guide, a beer-packed cooler and myself. Heading out, conditions were rough on the resort side of the island, but calmed right down on the sunset side. The trip proved magnificent, with rugged scenery and plenty of birdlife including several African fish eagles.
Biding farewell to Cape Maclear, it was time to embark on my journey’s final leg to Likoma Island. Ahead was a four-hour road trip to Lilongwe airport where I would catch my Ulendo Airlink flight to Likoma Island. Between the road trip and an airport layover of several hours, it was a long travel day. Fortunately, the flight was only an hour and arriving at Likoma by late afternoon. Dutifully waiting in a venerable old safari vehicle was resort manager Josh. With everyone’s gear aboard, we set out on the short drive to Kaya Mawa Resort.
Situated on the northern portion of the lake off the Mozambique coast, Likoma is something of an anomaly. The island, along with neighbouring Chizumulu, is actually part of Malawi courtesy of the British. In 1880, missionaries from the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa established their headquarters on the island. In the early 20th century, a large Anglican cathedral was erected to further buoy their presence. As a result, the island was ceded to Malawi rather than Mozambique when national borders were established after World War II.
I knew the resort was going to be nice but I wasn’t quite prepared by HOW nice. Nestled along a golden sweep of beach framed by palm and baobab trees, Kaya Mawa was truly stunning! Meaning ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ in the local dialect, my room was located right at the end of the beach.
Calling my accommodation a “room’ was something of an understatement. Featuring stone walls and a massive bed draped with mosquito netting, it was jaw dropping. A private deck with lounge chairs completed the picture. As I was unpacking, I noticed that staff were taking tables down to the beach. I soon discovered that dinner was served right on the beach by lamplight. Dining on gourmet cuisine with a multitude of stars twinkling overhead made for a spectacular end to the day. The resort has even been voted one of the world’s ten most romantic honeymoon resorts by Conde Naste magazine. Being on my own, that was a fact I could have lived without hearing!
After breakfast, I wandered over to the dive centre where I met Kevin, the resort’s water sports manager. Also along for the day’s dives was Aaron Gekoski, a dive photographer from the UK. At least having another photographer as my buddy would ensure I wasn’t the only one slowing down the group snapping images. I even managed to get my weight belt down to 2kg and likely could have dropped it to one!
The first day, we did a pair of dives in the morning with a third in the afternoon after lunch. Situated off the northwest side of Likoma, Masimbwe Island quickly became a favourite! Featuring shallows on the east side and deep drop-offs on the west, the fish life was profuse and the scenery magnificent. Like colossal steps, immense boulders tumbled to the depths below. Descending to nearly 30m, fissures concealed some hefty and very tolerant catfish that allowed a close approach. Kevin indicated a curious linear pattern etched in the rock which some believe to be carving. I must concur; the pattern looked far to deliberate to have been formed naturally. What it was doing so far underwater was another matter entirely! Nearby, I observed a freshwater sponge; something I didn’t even know existed in Africa! Visibility in our safety stop was outstanding and I was able to get numerous cichlid portraits. However, one subject remained infuriatingly elusive.
Many Malawi cichlids are mouth brooders, with the juvenile fish residing within their mother’s mouth for protection. Keeping a mindful eye on her free-swimming offspring, she will gulp them back in at the first sign of danger. I couldn’t help but wonder if any had ever been accidentally swallowed! Having missed them at Cape Maclear, I really wanted to see this phenomenon in action. (The mouth brooding, not the swallowing!)
Happily, our second dive at Christian’s Point proved much more successful on the mouth brooder front.
The key was to search for a school of juveniles, an indication that the mother must be somewhere near. Soon enough, we spotted them quite frequently and before long, witnessed the mouth brooding behaviour in action. Getting a photo proved challenging as the action was lightening fast. We even witnessed some juveniles forming a miniature bait ball, a behaviour that Kevin hadn’t even seen before. Back on land, fish identification proved to be equally challenging. Many species not only looked similar but also had no common names. The fish identification book at the dive shop was nearly the size of a dictionary!
After getting a lot of macro shots the first day, I switched to wide angle for a return visit to Masimbwe Island. Visibility was at least 15m, the best I had seen on the trip. I managed to get another kampango image, while Aaron made a good model, posing with hoards of obliging cichlids. Switching back to macro for my final dive, I finally managed to photograph juvenile cichlids inside their mother’s mouth. Unfortunately, some cichlid mothers won’t be winning any parenting awards. On several occasions we witnessed cichlid genocide, as hungry predatory cichlids decimated the juveniles with the mother nowhere in sight!
Despite lacking megafauna and the colourful reefs of a tropical ocean, Malawi’s subtropical waters were truly unique, offering dramatic scenery and remarkable biodiversity unlike anywhere else on earth. However, one of the week’s biggest surprises was the ease of the diving. With no currents, calm conditions and decent visibility, Lake Malawi is an ideal destination for divers of all skill levels. I’m sure that when I return, the warm heart of Africa will continue to dazzle with more surprises.