Malawi: Journey through a secret Africa

With amazing scenery and culture, Malawi is a hidden gem

My front wheel hits the rut. It jams, and with spectacular inelegance I fly up, forwards and over the handlebars to land with a crump on a patch of Malawi's red earth. It's an experience I'm getting used to. I stagger to my feet, get back on the bike and continue down the steep, slippery jungle of ruts and roots that passes for a mountain bike track down the Great Rift Valley escarpment. It's been a tough morning for a Tarmac cyclist like me – and there's another 40 kilometres before sunset.

But after battling up and down the rolling plateau, through rough elephant grass and pristine miombo woodland, I finally receive my reward: my first glimpse of Lake Malawi. It stretches out, a great inland sea, towards the misty mountains of Mozambique, which are just visible in the distance. It's the third-largest lake in Africa and one of the richest bodies of freshwater in the world, with a possible 1,000 species of fish.

I knew the facts, but they didn't prepare me for the scale of it. Along with the highest mountain in Central Africa (Mount Mulanje, which just tops 3,000m), Malawi has plenty of superlatives to boast about. Yet perhaps due to its small size and impressive neighbours – Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique – it tends to suffer from "little-brother syndrome".

I'm keen to discover just how rich and varied a holiday here can be, but first I recover from the biking experience along the golden shores of the lake. Chintheche Inn is a comfortable option that prides itself on its menu which, naturally, features chambo, the lake's most popular fish; but meals are supplemented with produce from the lovingly tended vegetable garden and old, dug out canoes, in which grow a profusion of herbs. I'm amused to discover the garden's secret: mounds of horse manure, donated only too willingly by the Kande Horse stables just up the road.

Suitably refreshed, I head to the stables in order to see the beach from a different perspective and find an impressive establishment with rows of gleaming horses to suit every ability. I'm given Blackie, a sensitive, lively mare fresh from Nyika Plateau and off we set along scenic woodland tracks before circling back towards the lake.

The horses are keen and super-fit, and we soon leave the woodland and pass through a marsh, or dambo, its grasses golden in the afternoon sun; the horses wade through water up to their chests, cooling off before a final gallop that leaves me breathless.

Then, at last, to the beach. The setting sun casts a pink glow over the lake as we amble along the sand, taking in the view of a little offshore island and the first of the nocturnal fishing canoes, which attract the fish with twinkling hurricane lamps. Off with the saddles, on with the swimsuits and into the water: this is the finale to rides at Kande, the horses paddling happily into the lake for a swim.

Kande is the best option for tourists who want to ride in Malawi. There used to be stables in Nyika Plateau National Park to the north, but these have recently closed, along with the lodge. Contrary to common belief, however, the park itself is still open, with camping and government cottages as accommodation options. I'm lucky enough to visit there with members of its trust, and find an extraordinary, un-African landscape: montane grasslands stretch to the horizon, their purples, grey-greens and dull gold reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.

Against this, the African wildlife seems oddly un-camouflaged – a zebra's stripes brilliant in the sun, the rich brown of a roan antelope silhouetted against the sea of grass. It's a remote, isolated wilderness, unique to Malawi, and well worth the four hours of bumping along ungraded tracks to get there.

Back at the lake, I spend a few days making pots. That's right: sitting at a potter's wheel moulding clay, sipping leaf-tea cuppas from brightly painted teapots and indulging in homemade cheesecake. It could be Devon, were it not for my Malawian instructors, the lake lapping outside and the particular history that permeates the place: Nkhotakota was a focal point for slave trading in the 19th century. It was David Livingstone who persuaded a local trader called Jumbe to give it up, and I visit the sprawling fig tree under which the agreement took place.

Nkhotakota Potteries is a testament to free enterprise in a country where enterprise tends to struggle. With its sister company in Dedza, the business employs nearly 300 people and the distinctive designs are seen all over Malawi, and beyond. Traditional pottery is not ignored, either – while I'm busy creating my own unique range of egg cups-cum-goblets, I chat to others who are learning age-old techniques from local women, firing hand-crafted pots in a quick blaze of cassava twigs and grass.

It's good to be in a place that feels so connected to the local community. Up on the plateau at Luwawa Forest Lodge – where I began my descent by mountain bike – I was enthralled by Donija Nkhoma, a local village to which the lodge has developed links.

Lengthy discussions with the wise and gentle headman – who presented, with great decorum, the squawking chicken we would be given for lunch – were followed by a fascinating tour, the chicken, which came served with the national staple, nsima (boiled maize flour), and finally a series of colourful dances in the village square. At Chintheche, I was given the opportunity to visit the local fishermen, the fields of crops and the village witchdoctor before another nsima lunch; at Nkhotakota, villagers offered a repertoire of dances.

These visits, while relatively brief, provide a surprising degree of insight into Malawian life: people talk about everything from the problems inherent in growing maize to their marriage traditions, medical issues and education.

It's with thoughts of this that I set off for Liwonde National Park, on the Shire river south of the lake. This beautiful stretch of lowland with its euphorbias, palms and mopanes couldn't be in greater contrast with the uplands and, not for the first time, I'm astonished at the sheer variety of Malawi's landscape. I wander around Mvuu Camp, where Böhm's bee-eaters flutter around the safari tents, before moving on to other activities.

There's quite a range on offer: I take a boat trip up the Shire river for views of crocodiles and hippos at close range, elephants feeding, and raucous white-breasted cormorants. Nearby, a game drive reveals impala, kudu and sable, trotting warthogs and the tantalising tracks of a lion. On foot, there's wonderful birding: Lilian's lovebirds, brown-headed parrots, crowned and trumpeter hornbills swoop through the mopanes, while a young martial eagle watches warily from its perch.

But here, as elsewhere, I'm interested in the life beyond. I pick up a bicycle taxi on the other side of the river to take me to Njobvu Cultural Village, an initiative developed by Mvuu Camp and Lodge to ensure the park benefits local people.

The demographics of this Aids-stricken nation soon hit home: three-quarters of the villagers are children, high-spirited ones at that; so, quite rightly, they dominate proceedings. The village tour over, entertainment begins and it's clear that tourists are a marvellous excuse for some fun. Formality crumbles, the structured dances dissolve, the kids start strutting their stuff – and there aren't enough adults to stop them. But who in their right mind would want to? It's all a high-octane hoot.

My time is running out, but there's one more must-see before I go: Mount Mulanje. This stunning massif offers weeks of exploration and numerous peaks to conquer. Sadly, I have only three days. I hire a porter and we plod up through pineapple plantations with emerald-green tea estates sprawling below. Higher up, lush rainforest half-hides retiring blue monkeys that swing through the lianas, until eventually we emerge on to a plateau of sweeping grassland. Here and there are pockets of endemic Mulanje cedar trees, their branches festooned with pale-green lichen so long you could knit with it.

We make our way to a simple wooden hut with a cosy fireplace; I take a bucket shower with water heated by the watchman. All food has to be carried up and cooked on the fragrant blaze of cedar logs, so I pool resources with a fellow hiker before clambering into my sleeping bag. The morning brings clear blue skies and an endless panorama of peaks as I cross the plateau to another hut. I feel I've discovered one of Africa's best-kept secrets, and I'm on top of the world.

Travel essentials: Malawi

Getting there

The writer flew to Lilongwe with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com) from Heathrow via Nairobi; returns start at £623.

Staying there

Luwawa Forest Lodge (00 265 199 1106; luwawaforestlodge. com). Doubles start at US$170 (£113), full board.

Chintheche Inn (00 27 11 257 5111; chintheche.com) and Mvuu Camp (00 27 11 257 5111; mvuucamp.com). Doubles start at R1,900 (£157), half board.

Nkhotahota Safari Lodge (00 265 1 751 743; nyasalodges.com). Doubles start at £64, full board.

Visiting there

Nkhotakota Pottery(00 265 1 223 069; dedzapottery.com)

Kande Horse (00 265 850 0416; kandehorse.com).

Njobvu Cultural Village (00 265 888 623 530; njobvuvillage.org).

More information

Malawi Tourism Information Office: 0115 982 1903; malawitourism.com

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