Hidden depths

Lake Malawi now offers ample opportunity for rest and relaxation in luxury lodges. And the beaches are pretty good too, says Juliet Clough

As the outboard motor sputtered into silence for the second time, leaving our little boat at the mercy of the next vertiginous crest, I wished that I did not know about the demise of Bishop Chauncy Maples. Roughly the size of Scotland, Lake Malawi displays the temperament of a fully fledged sea. In 1895, the newly consecrated Bishop of Likoma met with a sudden storm and an untimely end when he was dragged under the waves by the weight of his billowing cassock. But these reflections proved unnecessarily gloomy for, in fact, the sky was blue, our two boatmen were plainly unperturbed by the swell and the spare outboard motor was by now chugging in a regular if leisurely manner.

As the outboard motor sputtered into silence for the second time, leaving our little boat at the mercy of the next vertiginous crest, I wished that I did not know about the demise of Bishop Chauncy Maples. Roughly the size of Scotland, Lake Malawi displays the temperament of a fully fledged sea. In 1895, the newly consecrated Bishop of Likoma met with a sudden storm and an untimely end when he was dragged under the waves by the weight of his billowing cassock. But these reflections proved unnecessarily gloomy for, in fact, the sky was blue, our two boatmen were plainly unperturbed by the swell and the spare outboard motor was by now chugging in a regular if leisurely manner.

Behind us lay Likoma Island, 10km ahead was Mozambique and on either bank sat an up-market tourist lodge. Each offers, in its idiosyncratic way, a compelling reason to build chill-out time at the northern end of Lake Malawi into an African holiday. We had flown into Likoma from the cool heights of the Nyika Plateau after a couple of days spent elephant-spotting in the Vwaza Marsh game reserve, but could as easily have come, as had other guests, from safaris in Malawi's Liwonde National Park or Zambia's Luangwa Valley.

On a southern promontory of Likoma, Kaya Mawa Lodge has evolved from a backpackers' dream into a luxury holiday destination. Prices have risen since Central African Wilderness Safaris took charge of marketing and reservations, but let's hope the firm doesn't iron out too much of the lodge's dippy charm.

According to Kaya Mawa's manager, Alison Blakey, overseas brides have "occasionally been known to freak" when first confronted by their honeymoon hideaway - a thatched cottage, accessible only by canoe, that sits on a tumbled heap of rocks frequented by fishing birds. The decor throughout Kaya Mawa's 10 chalets, most of which are surrounded by water on three sides, tends towards faux Stone Age. Huge boulders bulge through the floors in an "I was here first" sort of way, with furniture and bathroom fixtures finding toeholds as they may. Our bed perched on one such outcrop, while the bath was scooped out of another. From the latter I could survey the top of my beloved's head as he shaved at a basin roughly hewn from a section of tree trunk.

Meals at Kaya Mawa - classy salads, stuffed pancakes and lake fish - speak volumes for what an imaginative chef can do on limited resources. Guests staying more than one night are treated to dinner for two on the beach. Our table, surrounded by mosquito-baffling flambeaus, bore the legend "Peace & Love" picked out in pebbles.

Martin Mjale, one of the hotel staff, agreed to show us the eight-by-four-kilometre island. Ten minutes' walk beyond the grove of ancient baobabs that sheltered the lodge was enough to dispel any notion that this is, as the leaflet in the bar claims, an Africa somehow overlooked by the passage of time. True, overcrowded Malawi does not get much more laid back than on Likoma. There are only five cars on the island, no one hassles tourists, no one tried to sell us a souvenir, and a field with a lone mango tree for departure lounge is my kind of airport. Likoma, however, is much more interesting than unchanged.

Smartly painted cottages stood out among their mud-and-thatch neighbours, built with the money Martin's father made from the mines of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Everyone knows Martin. On our walk we met the local chief taking the air with an elderly friend, a former soldier from the Zambian Army. Migration looms large in any recent history of northern Malawi.

A local carpenter, Dennis Pancras Chikhotti, put down his tools to describe his work restoring the cathedral. Passing youths stopped us to ask Martin about the next football training session. He coaches Blackpool, one of 10 teams on this island of 6,000 inhabitants, including Red Devils and the dishearteningly named Try Again Boys. Football is about to give way to the equally competitive autumn dancing season, Martin told us, where the men's Malipenga displays evoke the military camps of the First World War.

The smell of drying fish and frying doughnuts followed us as we walked past Jesus is the Answer Grocery and the God Bless Rest House. This is hallowed ground, but nothing prepares newcomers for the sheer audacity and scale of St Peter's Cathedral. Rearing above the trees, complete with red-brick baptistry, chapter house, library and cloisters, it's the size of Winchester Cathedral. It is also a breathtaking monument to the high Anglican zeal of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa which, in the 1880s, established a kind of tropical Iona here on Lake Malawi.

Their diocese stretched along the lake shore, embracing Nyasaland, Tanganyika and Mozambique. Despite the cathedral bats and broken stained glass, Father George Chilongozi told us that he can still count on a congregation of up to 500 on Sundays and baptisms of 200 at major festivals. The verger, Mr Vincent, proudly showed us the Edwardian stained glass and the heavy silver staff decorated with ivory that was presented by a Ngoni chief whose men had murdered a missionary. Could one of these battered Victorian tin trunks once have contained Chauncy Maples' fatal cassock? Special seats bear the names of chiefs. But do they come to church? "They do not," said Vincent severely.

There are no roads to Nkwichi Lodge, which sits on the Mozambique shore of Lake Malawi. You have to put up with tedious immigration formalities in Cobue, a village scarred by Frelimo bullets, but do not be put off - I've spent family holidays on beaches all over Lake Malawi but none as drop-dead gorgeous as this.

The lodge colonises an idyllic stretch of the lake's edge. Hidden in the trees, each of its five reed and thatch chalets has its own private slice of shore - just the place to watch the sun come up like an arc lamp or douse itself at speed in a wash of fire. The rocks, granite sparkling with schist, stand up like playing cards among stretches of sugar-white sand, and hide an ingenious selection of hammocks, seats and outdoor showers. At night the sand glimmers in the moonlight.

These chalets, too, belong to The Flintstones' school of architecture: rocks invade, trees provide handy shower stands and leaves drift into an outdoor tub made for two. Nkwichi Lodge is new and still a little rough around the edges; it takes five people and much laughter to fix our shower; and the menu needs overhauling. But its blissful setting and relaxed, friendly take on tropical bucket-and-spading make it utterly irresistible.

As at Kaya Mawa, we could choose to do a lot of nothing, from paddling our own canoe or playing bawo in the bar to snorkelling among some of the rarest fish in the world. Lake Malawi has around 1,000 species of cichlids, most of them unique to the lake. Independent tests for bilharzia, a problem in other parts of the lake, have invariably proved negative, according to staff at both lodges. The bird life dazzles: fish eagles scoop up their prey, cormorants and little egrets stand sentry on the rocks, while malachite kingfishers flash like blue-and-orange jewels.

Nkwichi, however, is much more than a tourist lodge. Where Kaya Mawa benefits from a thriving community, Nkwichi seeks to create one. Mozambique has suffered 40 years of war; this side of the lake is among the most impoverished and least populated places in Africa. With a father working for the United Nations, the Simkin brothers, Patrick and Paul, grew up on third world aid. They conceived the lodge as part of a community development and conservation project that goes far beyond the responsible tourism efforts that most eco-lodges today recognise as not only right but sound business sense.

Another morning's walk gave a taste of the Manda Wilderness Project's range. Patrick Simkin told me that 14 villages have set up a 100,000 hectare community-owned reserve. Villagers vote for their priorities, be it a school roof, a clinic, a boat or a maize mill. The lodge raises funds for materials - $5 for every visitor night, coupled with donations from guests - while the locals supply the labour. There's an agriculture project aimed at improving nutrition and creating small-scale businesses, and a market in Cobue has just opened as a result.

It's not all plain sailing. The small boys who pose for our camera as we walk to Mala, the nearest village, are not in school because work on the project-financed building has been temporarily halted. Snares have been found in the surrounding forest - not part of the deal. But Patrick assured us that there is plenty of goodwill, and his unswerving optimism in the face of local committees, NGOs, provincial government departments and potential aid donors displays a vision surely as idealistic, in today's terms, as that of any missionary bishop.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Juliet Clough travelled as guest of Sunvil Africa (020-8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk/africa). A 10-day trip to Lake Malawi, including three days at Nkwichi and the rest at Kaya Mawa costs from £2,215 per person based on two sharing, including scheduled return flights with South African Airways, all transfers (some by light aircraft), all meals and some activities. An extension including a week in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park costs from £966 per person. The most direct routes to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, are via Nairobi with British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) or Kenya Airways (020-8759 7360; www.kenya-airways.com) or via Johannesburg with British Airways or South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com). Returns start from around £600.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Malawi Tourism (0115 982 1903; www.malawitourism.com).

The Manda Wilderness Project ( www.mandawilderness.org).

Books: Spectrum Guide to Malawi by John Douglas and Kelly White Camerapix Publishers, £13.99 or £12 (p&p paid) from Malawi Tourism Information Office.

Malawi: The Bradt Travel Guide, by Phillip Briggs, £9.07.

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