Travel Update: Vicky feels the heat in South Luangwa and Lake Malawi

Phew the heat of the Luangwa Valley was something else. As I lay outside my hut hoping for a slight breeze to stifle the oppressive heat I imagined myself in a Wilbur Smith novel, though there was no Sean Courtney to run to my aid and our lodge surroundings were a little more hospitable than the wild territories of the adventure books.

By late November the rains should have come to the valley and as we flew in we could see acres of fields tilled and yearning to be planted at the first sign of proper rain. There had been the odd shower in the days before we arrived and in the bush flowers and new shoots were springing up everywhere, the mopane woodlands a vibrant green with new life, but it was still hot hot hot, and the rains didn’t unleash until long after we had returned to a snowy Scotland.

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The birth place of the walking safari, ‘the Valley’, as Luangwa is affectionately called by those who live and work there, was once a completely seasonal area/an area shackled by the seasons, open only during the dry season from May until November. These days though, South Luangwa is a year-round destination for the lodges situated in the main central area of the park and camps who take advantage of the river and the stunning boat safaris it offers in Luangwa’s lush green season. The snaking Luangwa River is the beating heart of the valley and towards the end of the dry season, when we were there, its mere trickle draws game from all over the park to drink and hippos vie for space in its last remaining pools. Then as the rains come in earnest, the river swells into a huge torrent of water and new life returns to the valley, offering a different and very special experience in the emerald idyll of the Luangwa’s green season.

It’s a few years since I have been to South Luangwa, and I had almost forgotten just how remarkable the spectrum of game viewing is here. We could only visit the central area of the park at this time of year, which had its definite advantages. It was quiet with tourists, but teeming with game and a plethora of birds, both migratory and resident: beautiful Rothschild giraffe, plenty of elephants, some majestic kudu, puku and impala everywhere with their beautiful babies and the scrub was riddled with baby warthogs all trotting along after mum and dad with tails in the air. We did also see the not-so-sweet side of nature in motion, with an unusual and grisly sight of adult and young warthogs eating a baby impala. Testament that pigs do eat anything, I suppose.

The pièce de résistance deserves its own paragraph: seven, yes seven, different leopard sightings in two game drives - that is almost more than I have seen in total in over 25 years of going to Africa - and two were mating not once, not twice but three times. It all seemed rather quick and unceremonious, and I innocently commented that the female could not be fully in season yet. Our excellent Robin Pope Safaris guide thought this was very funny and told us that that was all it takes. Next time I will be quicker with the camera! As well as the cavorting couple, we saw a beautiful young male (their son) only 20 yards away watching and another young female (their daughter) wandered by too. It was all too much to be true and it was surprising that the older male allowed the younger male so close, even if he was his son. The next evening on our night drive home we came across a young male leopard feeding on an impala in a tree and his mum and sister with huge full tums sound asleep in the grass. So I can vouch that the tales of great leopard viewing in South Luangwa are absolutely true.

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Most of the lodges in the main area of South Luangwa are situated across the river, and just outside the park. An advantage of low season is that while the river is still low, the vehicles just drive across into the park or there is a pontoon in higher water rather than going in by the main gate. Most of the lodges are set on the riverbank so you don’t have to move too far to game view, and, in the wild mango season in November, the game actually comes to you in the lodges to eat the wild mangos hanging off the trees in the garden. Bumping into elephants in camp at this time of year is a daily occurrence, though they tend to pay very little attention to scuttling tourists with their eyes set on their delicious mangoes. Many a light and decoration falls under elephant feet, but you might also find an elephant drinking from the pool when you are having a swim. Kafunta Lodge put some very large steps into their pool after an elephant decided to actually get into the pool and then had great trouble getting out!

I was sad to leave South Luangwa but excited to return to one of my favourite African countries, Malawi. After the heat of the bush, the sight of the amazing inland sea that is Lake Malawi was, as ever, spectacular, and very welcome. The Luangwa and Malawi are well connected by a short, albeit possibly bumpy, flight in a light aircraft which makes this an easy and very appealing combination. The lake is the main draw for most but there is so much more to Malawi than just the lake and it’s very possible for the more adventurous to hire a car and drive around on a self-drive exploring the parks, mountains and tea plantations in the south or the unique Nika Plateau in the north. As tourism has increased there are now scheduled flights around the country too.

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Our first stop was the Nkhotakota Game Reserve which is a large miombo forest half way up the country. Not known for its game viewing, there are a number of initiatives currently underway to re-introduce, nurture and protect wild game in Malawi, and it is now possible to enjoy a wonderful wilderness experience in its game reserves. A relatively new camp, Tongole is set on the Bua River in Nkhotakota and is a gem of a lodge with delicious food, beautifully set out rooms and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. The staff are genuine, lovely Malawians and Emmanuel who is the main game guide is so passionate you can’t help but be as enthusiastic as he is about the park and what is being achieved there. While there isn’t a lot of game, there are plenty of elephant who come and drink in the river just below the lodge. It’s a lovely place for birding, nature walks, canoe trips and relaxation in the beautiful surroundings which will be perfect when they build the new swimming pool this year. I highly recommend it for anyone who just loves being in nature.

I spent a fair amount of time in my backpacking days on Lake Malawi, and though things have changed a fair bit since then, it still has the same magic and charm. New lodges are springing up around the lake and Blue Zebra is a great little lodge with delicious food and plenty of activities to keep you busy. We had planned to take the local Ilala Ferry over to Likoma Island but, as happened the last two times I tried to take it, there was an issue and it was cancelled so we had to drive back to Lilongwe and fly over to the island, which is a spectacular way to see the vastness of the lake, and where we were met by our boat and chugged across to the Mozambique side of the lake to pass through customs at Cobue. It had been 10 years since I had last been showing my passport here and it didn’t resemble the small village with the burnt-out church I remembered. It’s still a sleepy, slightly scruffy (the plastic bag, the scourge of Africa) village but it had grown enormously with a very smart new roof on the church, a secondary school and a well woman clinic. In true remote African village style, we had to wait half-an-hour for the immigration man to be found before we were allowed through and were boated further along the lake to Nkwichi Lodge, home of the Manda Wilderness Project.

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Set on a pristine white, squeaky, sandy beach (it really does squeak) with turquoise waters, it is just the most perfect place for relaxing after a safari. The lodge is very comfortable and the service is enthusiastic and always with a smile, the food is simple but very good. The lodge and community projects have turned around the lives of so many people in this remote and biblically poor area of Mozambique, with schools and clinics built and projects such as healthcare and teaching about agriculture and providing seeds for diversification of crops, growing new vegetables to sell at the market and to the lodge. There is an agro-forestry project underway to replenish firewood supplies, and the making of clay cooking stoves to save firewood consumption. It’s not easy getting people to change the ways they have been growing, cooking, eating for generations, but with patience the projects are paying off and change and more wealth and education is improving the lives of the people in the surrounding villages. As well as relaxation there are treats at every turn such as sundowners in amazing spots, sleep outs under the stars, picnics, kayaking, snorkelling and all in the most amazing remote setting. It is just perfect.

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But it wasn’t the end of our Lake Malawi adventure and we headed back to Likoma Island for the last stop of our journey to Kaya Mawa, one of the glossy magazines’ most favourite beach retreats. It had certainly changed a lot since I had last been there several years before, mainly due to a $1million facelift, but wow did it look good! My bedroom, with its quirky rock walls and amazing views, was the old bar where we had had many a party in the old days and it certainly felt a lot more grown up these days. The rooms are beautiful, some set up within the rocks and some set back from the beach. The bar and restaurant are conveniently set on the beach, with hanging beds and hammocks dotted around. It really is upmarket luxuriousness at its best, with rooms filled with special and unlikely touches in such a remote place. The food is top class and the staff slick. But it doesn’t lose the essence of a laid back place on the beach, in a beautiful natural setting.

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Kaya Mawa is set on a lovely crescent shaped beach. While not as fine and squeaky as Nkwichi’s, it is soothing for the soul and its bay beckons, perhaps even demands, a morning swim or gentle kayak in the heat of the sun. Likoma Island has prospered enormously these past years and the highlight for me was taking one of the lodge bikes and exploring the island with cheery hellos from everyone we passed and kids racing us on foot while we cycled past. We headed for the amazing St Peter’s Cathedral, Africa’s 3rd biggest Cathedral built in 1903, and an unlikely edifice in such a place, then for a browse around the market and then we sat and watched the activity on the town beach with boats coming and going and daily life just trotting on by. It was a perfect day, even if the heat which still hadn’t abated was quite intense, but at least we felt we had earned our swim in the lake and our delicious beach dinner. To top it all in the evening the local church choir came and serenaded us over drinks and one thing you cannot beat is an African choir. It was with great difficulty we tore ourselves away from Kaya Mawa, the Lake, Malawi and had to head home. It’s still one of my favourite countries in Africa and that lake will draw me back again soon. Even a 27 hour flight delay on our way home did nothing to rock my equilibrium and I took it all in my newly relaxed stride. What better evidence that a Farside holiday in Africa is good for the body and the soul.

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