Lake Malawi's sparkling beauty is matched only by its people, as Megan Holbeck discovers.
The fields streamed with people, singing, waving flags, greeting us with handshakes and beaming smiles, transforming the dirt track into a buzzing highway. Caught in the current, we washed up at a makeshift bar, playing cards with the locals on the beach as children danced under the full moon. This is Malawi: a nation flavoured by the gentle, joyful warmth of strangers.
It's a small country, in reputation as well as size, but what the "warm heart of Africa" lacks in the tourism standards of safaris and sand dunes is compensated by its biggest drawcard: its people.
The glittering Malawian smiles are as much a reason to travel as another of the country's highlights: "the lake of stars" bordering the country's east with blue water and beaches.
Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi's north-west coast is a laid-back place where travellers come for two days and stay for a week, unwinding on the beach and enjoying the hippie vibe after their more intrepid African adventures. (Along with Madonna's son, David, Malawi Gold marijuana is one of the country's best-known exports.)
Our plans for a three-day, 60-kilometre paddle up the lake weren't initially met with much enthusiasm. "It's pretty low-key, only five hours paddling a day," I explained. "We'll stop for swims, snorkelling and rock jumps, camp on beaches - it'll be a cruisy way of seeing the lake."
I'm not sure if it was my sales pitch but the next morning four paddling novices - my husband, Guy, friends Kath, Jason and I - were packed into two fibreglass sea kayaks, the overflow loaded into a canoe. Our guides, Isaac and Gift, made light work of their vessel, striking north accompanied by a tail wind and choppy water. Unsteady on the water and unused to the load, we struggled to find rhythm, baking in the sun and welcoming the occasional cool splash, each rock of the boat accompanied by a moment's panic.
The landscape around Nkhata Bay has the vibrancy of the Caribbean, with lush, steep hills running down to meet the water. Dugout canoes line the shore like giant seed pods, each one hollowed from a single log. Fishermen float by, a leg on either side of the boat, nets and fish stored in the hollow interior. Dinner tonight would be some of their catch, butterfish barbecued on coals, eaten as the water lapped the sand in front of our tents. For three days this was our world: three boats, the lake, its shore and its people. And there were plenty of people.
The area is accessible only by foot or boat, making visitors a rare entertainment greeted with the enthusiasm usually only seen at a Wiggles concert. Hordes of children materialised from empty hillsides, singing "muzungu, muzungu" (white person) as they swam out to the boat, watching us with the rapt attention reserved in the West for television. Everything we did was fascinating - reading a book or eating lunch seemed akin to magic. Although at first disconcerting, we grew used to our Pied Piper status, almost forgetting our audience until we turned to see a dozen stares.
The lake forms the horizon, the opposite shore out of sight in Mozambique, and it's almost impossible to believe you're not on the ocean. Luckily, it was never long between breaks when we could dive from white beaches to be reminded of the nature of our watery playground.
This is Africa's second-deepest lake, following the steep gradient of the land. The tiny cichlid fish for which the lake is famed darted around rocky points in flashes of primary colours. Masks magnified our aquarium, making it easy to understand this water was home to more fish species than any other lake in the world.
And so our days progressed: a couple of hours of paddling before the cool interruption of a swim or a rock jump, the heights growing as we followed Gift into 13-metre plunges. Resting in the shade of corpulent baobab trees, we had a lunch that was a lazy affair involving the world's best and biggest avocados, tomatoes, purple onions and bread, with fresh pineapple and tiny, sweet bananas. A few more hours of leisurely paddling along the steep coast, of jungles interrupted by terraced fields of cassava where the gradient allowed or waterfalls where it didn't, brought us to small beaches where we pulled up the boats and prepared for the night.
With our two-man tents metres from the gentle waves (no tides!) and the day washed off with a dip in the lake (no salt!), we settled into the lazy evening, lounging on the beach, talking to the local chief and skimming rocks with our ragged followers. Isaac was the picture of professionalism, while Gift was, well, a dude. Isaac made the fire and prepared dinner; Gift rolled cigarettes from banana leaves and took the boys to buy bottles of "local beer" - an enamel-stripping spirit brewed in buckets.
After a delicious meal of fish and rice, we helped Isaac clean up while Gift taught us cards and invited friends to join in. A few hours later we fell into our tents, exhausted after the day's activities, guided by the full moon and lulled by the waves.
We spent another day and night on the lake's shore, the only "muzungus" for kilometres. The paddling got easier as our muscles adjusted, Kath even trading in her sail (a large cafe umbrella) for the rigours of rhythm. Delicious food appeared in quantities that not only appeased our hunger but added to our popularity as we shared our leftovers. It was a hot, sweaty, sunny, wet paradise, with an easy tempo and a chorus of "muzungu, muzungu", "what is my name?"
The third day's paddle was the shortest, ending at the small village of Usisya. Boasting a lodge with three rooms (full), showers (not working) and a bar (without a functioning fridge), it wasn't the imagined triumphant ending. But that night's entertainment was: a soccer final attracted everyone for miles, with spectators forming the boundary lines. It was an aerial spectacular, the ground too bumpy for targeted play. Singing and cheering carried into the night and we were guided to our tents by moonlight and a squadron of chanting children.
The Victorian steamboat MV Ilala is the lake's lifeline, linking the waterway's 560-kilometre length on its weekly trip.
Sitting at the bar the next day, savouring the cold beer, we picked out familiar campsites and coves as we cruised the coastline. We covered our three-day journey in three hours but what we couldn't see were the people, their lifestyle and generosity; the kids, the chiefs, the fishermen.
Our three days of paddling allowed us to experience life on the lake: to eat, drink, move and meet at the local pace. Slowing down led us to a world away from the travelling trail.
Qantas flies direct from Sydney and Perth to Johannesburg. Return flights from $1984 plus tax. The Malawian capital, Lilongwe, is a 21/2-hour flight from Johannesburg, with Air Ethiopia, Airkenya, Air Malawi, Air Zimbabwe and South African Airways all servicing the route.
Hiring a car and driver is the quickest way to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe, with the trip taking about five hours. Local buses ply the road if you're not in a rush, or you can step back in time and travel aboard the steamer MV Ilala as it makes its weekly trip north from Monkey Bay. Double cabins are available and, although not luxurious, it is a trip to remember.
Chimango Tours (based at Mayoka Village) and Monkey Business both organise paddling trips from Nkhata Bay. Equipment isn't fancy but all essential gear is provided. Kayak Africa (kayakafrica.net) operates from Cape Maclear on the south of the lake, organising luxurious trips, including transfers and exclusive accommodation on private islands.
Mayoka Village (mayokavillage.com) and Njaya Lodge (njayalodge.com) provide basic accommodation in Nkhata Bay, from private chalets to campsites. They can also help to arrange paddling trips.