Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Endowed with spectacular highlands and extensive lakes, it occupies a narrow, curving strip of land along the East African Rift Valley. Lake Nyasa, known in Malawi as Lake Malawi, accounts for more than one-fifth of the country’s total area. We took a 10-day tour of Malawi that included visiting two wildlife reserves, a high-forest plateau, a beautiful island on Lake Malawi an stopping on a tea plantation. It was an amazing journey and one we will never forget.
Our next destination was Mumbo Island on Lake Malawi. This was our getaway from it all excursion. The island has a very small resort with 5 lakeside cottages and a forest, self-catering cottage. Like Zomba Forest Lodge, it is totally off-grid. To get there we had to get across to the Island we had to get to Cape Maclear and take a boat out. From Zomba to Cape Maclear it took us about 4 hours, the last 15km is on a dirt road, and the tarmac sections in places were not much better with deep potholes along the way.
Lake Malawi, a UNESCO World-Heritage site was stumbled upon by David Livingstone in 1859, and when he asked the local fisherman the name of the lake, they said ‘nyasa’ so he named it Lake Nyasa, not knowing that nyasa itself means lake. The lake is believed to be between three and twenty million years old, and at 600km long and 80km it is the ninth largest lake in the world. It is also the fourth deepest at 740m. Most of the lake, including the southern and western shores, falls in Malawi. The northeastern shore lies in Tanzania and the rest of the eastern shore in Mozambique.
We were due to catch the 3 pm ferry but arrived at 2 pm. As we were the only people going to the Island, they took us out early, so we got a bit extra time to have fun. When we arrived, we were greeted by Java, the teenage daughter of the owner of Kayak Africa, which has the exclusive rights to run a resort on Mumbo Island. The resort is an eco-resort so as well as being off-grid it also uses composting toilets and recycles everything. The cottages are called tents, but no canvas is used the structures are made of reeds. The bathrooms are basic with bucket showers, but they have the most amazing views. As none of the structures on the island use bricks or concrete, everything can be removed without a trace in a very short space of time. As well as running an eco-resort, Kayak Africa is closely tied to the community, employing 98% of its staff from the Cape Maclear areas, providing them with training, healthcare and other benefits, including helping with education.
Our ‘tent’ was number 5, and faced south on the lake, with uninterrupted views west, so from our balcony we could see the sunrise. The views were stunning, even sitting on the toilet or in the shower. There was no glass in the windows and the doors opened out to allow us to see the lake from our bed and hear the waves lapping on the rocks. This was one of the most stunning places we have ever stayed.
There is not a whole lot to do here. After getting to our room we quickly changed and went down to the little beach where there are sun loungers and kayaks and snorkelling gear to rent. We decided just to go in for a swim – the water is amazingly clear if a little chilly so we didn’t spend a lot of time swimming before heading to shore to dry out.
At 3 pm they do an afternoon tea with cakes, but today it happened at 4 pm for some reason So almost as soon as that was done, we headed out for a walk across the island to a viewpoint where you can see the sun go down. The trails are rustic and the last bit to get to the viewpoint rock was a bit of a scramble. I was not too happy with the drop off from the rocky ledge, and we were a little concerned about getting back to the camp before dark, so we didn’t stay until sunset, instead headed back to have our sundowner on our deck.
Dinner was at 7 pm. It was very disappointing, and whilst they had catered for us the food was cold and not very creative. Having just spent two days at Zomba Forest Lodge, where the food was amazing, the contrast was stark.
As there is no electricity at the camp, when you go to bed it is all about sleeping!
Having gone to bed very early we of course were awake early before the sun had risen. The staff at the camp had delivered us a tray of tea & coffee, which was a perfect accompaniment to watching the sun come up.
Things are very relaxed on the Island, so we headed over the breakfast at about 8 am. Once again, the food was not great, and as we didn’t want the sausages, bacon and eggs we simply had baked beans and tomato, and they didn’t even give us bigger portions. At 9:30 am all the guests left on the boat back to Cape Maclear and we had the whole of Mumbo Island to ourselves until the next boat came at 3:00 pm. It was very surreal to think we had this amazing place to ourselves just about for the whole day. We pottered for a bit and then picked up some snorkelling equipment. I couldn’t get to grips with the fins, so I decided to swim with just my water shoes. We swam out close to the rocks where there were small shoals of fish, including some lovely blue ones that were dazzling as the sun reflected off them in the clear water of Lake Malawi. The problem with me not using fins was that I eventually got a cramp and increasingly tired, so I had to head back to shore. Karen, who did where fins could have swum for hours. The water of the lake was chilly, so we hit the beach loungers to dry off before lunch was served. Continuing our run of disappointing meals were given cheese pizzas (I doubt these were vegan) which were at least hot, but they were doughy and tasteless.
The plan for after lunch was to wait for our food to digest and then go out kayaking just before the afternoon guests arrived on the boat. As we pottered around things started to get busy. Firstly, a tourist boat just turned out to take some photos of the Island, then the guests arrived early, and finally, a boat turned up with 20-odd people who were obviously local people of importance (it turned out they we leaders of the National Park Service, the Police and a local magistrate who were having a meeting in Cape Maclear and came out for a quick visit to the Island.). So, we pulled our plans forward and started to take a two-person sea kayak out.
Unfortunately, the kayak felt very unstable with us (or probably me) on it and we ended up tipping into the water. We tried again with the same result. It was all a bit embarrassing with all the new visitors on the Island who got to see all of this. The next plan was to try the single-person kayaks, which Karen got on fine with, but I felt very unstable on them and was concerned about tipping out again, especially in the deep water, and not being able to get back on easily. I headed back to shore whilst Karen headed out to round the Island. I waited in our tent for Karen thinking she would be back soon, but nearly an hour later she still hadn’t arrived, so I went off in search.
As I suspected she had got chatting with some of the new guests. Her only concern on her kayak ride had been the wake of the boat of dignitaries that came too close to her.
In the evening we had another disappointing meal.
Planning your visit to Lake Malawi – Mumbo Island
Best time to visit Lake Malawi
The best time to visit Malawi is during the dry season between May and October. It’s a cooler time of year, with bright sunshine, lush green landscapes, fresh evenings, and temperatures anywhere between 64°F and 91°F.
Temperatures start to rise in September and remain in the eighties throughout the rainy season, which runs from November to April. The heaviest rains are often in December, January and February.
Because of Malawi’s varied landscape, regional variations in weather are significant. The lower lying lake shore areas are warmer all year round. Temperatures in the highlands are refreshingly cool in the day, with chilly evenings, particularly in winter.
Malawi – Month-by-Month
Visiting Malawi December to March
These are the wettest months, characterized by torrential downpours in the afternoon. Afternoon temperatures are around 29°C/84°F and the humidity is high.
Visiting Malawi in April
Rain is dwindling and so are the temperatures. Daytime temperatures still reach 27°C/81°F but evenings and early mornings can be chilly.
Visiting Malawi in May
This is the end of summer and the rain has stopped. Temperatures are relatively cool, typically 16°C/61°F in the morning and 26°C/79°F in the afternoon. Nighttime temperatures start to drop.
Visiting Malawi in June – August
The average morning temperature is 14°C/57°F. Bring warm clothing for the cold morning game drives in open vehicles. Afternoons will be more pleasant, with temperatures around 25°C/77°F. Nyika Plateau with its high altitude is much colder.
Visiting Malawi in September & October
he heat gradually builds, and the first rains bring relief from very dry conditions. Daytime temperatures will be around 29°C/84°F in September and 31°C/88°F in October, the latter being the hottest month. Peak temperatures can be much higher.
Visiting Malawi in November
This month is unpredictable – the rain starts in the afternoons. Temperatures are between 20°C/68°F in the morning and 31°C/88°F in the afternoon.