Lake Malawi – Domwe Island

For our last stop before parting ways we decided to head back north to Lake Malawi. You can’t visit Malawi without visiting the lake which makes up 1/3 of its overall border and it was the perfect time on the way back towards the airport from where we just were in the south.

We decided to do this properly and booked for Domwe Island, run by Kayak Africa out of Cape McClear. We were nervous that we were arriving later than the 3pm “ferry” because the road from Setemwa took a bit longer than expected. Well, it turned out the “ferry” was just a dinghy that is used to shuttle guests to the island and we were the only ones around that night so it didn’t much matter what time we got there.

IMG_8784 (2)

One the “ferry”

The island and the camp were quite neat. We opted for self-catering so brought all of our own food with us. We booked one camping platform with our own things and one tented platform with one of their tents (we couldn’t bring our rooftop tent with us – too difficult to detach from Fiona so we left them both in the secure parking lot on the mainland.) There are only 6 platforms on the island and since we had 2 of them it was an intimate affair. The first night we were the only ones there and we were joined by one other couple the second night.

We quickly settled into reading, playing Scrabble and a game or two of cards while sipping a few beers and glasses of wine. A perfect, relaxing way to spend the evening.

The camp staff were very attentive, going out of their way to help carry our things and show us around the kitchen while we were making our food. They introduced us to the local civet and bush pigs too.

Around a campfire on the beach the first night and this civet showed up to see what was going on. 

The next day we lazed in bed before a bacon and egg breakfast and chatted through the morning. We decided to stop being lazy and embarked on an early afternoon kayak around the southern point of the island. Now, my mom isn’t known for her kayaking skills but Dad gracefully accepted the added excitement of having her as a partner. We had them set-off first as I grabbed my camera, ready to photograph should any unexpected swimming occur but, much to my disappointment, they paddled away as if they had been doing this their whole lives!

Cheryl and I followed (we too got away with no problems) and we paddled around the island. As we were going along we realized how much bigger the island was than we had expected and after getting ~1/3 of the way around we decided to take a break on a beautiful beach and have a swim and some snacks. We read, relaxed some more and all took a dip. Mom even got her hair wet! Something which was quite the remarkable event during my childhood. Now she did it so nonchalantly. Camping changes a woman.

After an hour or so on the beach the weather started to turn. We went from enjoying a warm, sunny afternoon to dark clouds and a battering wind which whipped the lake into a sea of waves large enough to easily tip a kayak. I helped my parents off through the growing white-caps before Cheryl and I pushed off ourselves. Somehow neither boat tipped and we were able to make it rather quickly back around the island and mostly out of the wind.

It turns out that was exercise!

We enjoyed some more drinks and hot showers when we got back and dinner tasted exceptionally good that night.

We spent the night continuing our card battles – they culminated in a parents vs. kids Pinnacle tournament which we split 1:1 before getting too tired to continue, given the early morning the next day. The trophy is still up for grabs.

IMG_8808 (2)

Cooking dinner.  I don’t think it had anything to do with my culinary skills but the food tasted exceptionally good that night after kayaking.

The next morning we were up at 5am for my parents to begin their journey home.

And what a journey it is. Three modes of transport (boat, Fiona, plane) and six different legs (boat off island, car to Lilongwe airport, plane to Joburg, plane to Dakar, plane to DC, car to home). All taking over 36 hours. The things they do to spend time with their children.

Although I was sorry to see them leave I definitely enjoyed the time together with my parents. It may not have been the relaxing time away they originally had in mind but I hope it was even better than they had imagined. Judging by the smiles on their faces (and subsequent Facebook posts) I don’t think they would have changed a thing.

If you are interested in my Dad’s view of the trip you can find a link to his photos on Google+ here:

Next stop: Not sure. Either West into Zambia for a few days in Lower Zambezi National Park, further North into Malawi or South into Mozambique and back along the beach front. Essentially anywhere but East. That would be back into the lake and we just did that.

Huntingdon House on Setemwa Tea Estate – Luxury to spoil my parents

When my parents were discussing what they should do to celebrate being married for 40 years this August they had visions of going away some place fancy and relaxing. Camping in Zambia and Malawi didn’t enter into those dreams. That is, not until Cheryl and I brought up the idea that they could join us. Despite their reservations about camping they decided to forego white, sandy beaches and barmen serving pina coladas with two cherries stuck to the end of a mini beach umbrella for long rides in our dust-filled pick-up and the stress of immigration lines and African driving.

Because of their anniversary and the fact that we live an ocean apart, Cheryl and I wanted to spoil them at least one night while on the trip. In figuring out what to do we came across Huntingdon House on Setemwa Tea Estate. It is a beautiful colonial home in southern Malawi built by Cathcart Kay a few generations ago. The house has been revitalised and now serves as fairly luxury accommodation for intrepid travellers. It is situated on Setemwa Tea estate which affords gorgeous views across the farm as you drive in to the hotel. It sounded like the perfect place to celebrate 40 years. We were sold.

Before we got there though, we decided to take a stop at the Zomba plateau, an hour south of Liwonde. We drove up a windy escarpment road passed ladies carrying wood on their heads, running down the hill and farmers selling fresh fruit along tight hair-pin corners and narrow lanes.

We stopped for some strawberries on the way up along with a few photos at a dam before continuing to a hotel where we were given directions for a beautiful hike through the woods.

This part of Malawi was like nothing that we had experienced on our trip so far. Tall evergreen forests and cold mountain mist defined the plateau as we hiked down dirt roads (downhill and back uphill again..) We eventually got to a beautiful waterfall where we settled in to snack on trail mix and our fresh batch of strawberries before returning to the car to continue on our way to Setemwa. It was a great place for a hike and a cool way to break up the drive.

Stopping next to a waterfall for some strawberries and a few photos

As we pulled into Setemwa we were greeted by expansive views of the tea estate and followed a road which wound its way through fields of tea being picked by men and women wearing blue coveralls and using shears to chop off the top few leaves before tossing them into a giant open plastic basket worn on their backs like a back-pack. We eventually got to Huntingdon house in the middle of the estate and enjoyed some, believe it or not, tea as a welcome drink before having a walk around the estate and preparing ourselves to relax for the afternoon. My mom and I had an epic battle of croquet (not saying it was as epic as the height of our golf competitions but the win counted the same in my book!) before we all got ready for dinner. We were soon sipping on tea-inspired versions of classic cocktails (like the Mo-tea-to which used tea leaves and mint or the G and Tea which used tea-infused gin along with tonic) as we waited for everything to be prepared.

The staff were exceptionally friendly and had decorated the dining room specially for my parents anniversary. Lit by candle light and a roaring fire we dined in the family dining room and had it all to ourselves (there was only one other couple staying in the 5 rooms of the estate.) We thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the evening. It was as special as we had hoped it would be.


In the morning, before hopping back in the car to drive to Lake Malawi we opted for some tea tasting at the factory where they actually produce the tea. We learned all about how tea is produced, the differences between types of tea and the work that the estate is doing throughout Malawi. We left only after I offended the tea expert (what is the tea version of sommelier?) by asking how rooibos was made (it turns out it’s not tea.)

IMG_8775 (2)

We had told my parents to bring one nice outfit for dinner that night but realized we didn’t have anything nice ourselves.  To be ‘nice’ we kept a clean shirt each.  Talk about a treat!

In the morning, before hopping back in the car to drive to Lake Malawi we opted for some tea tasting at the factory where they actually produce the tea. We learned all about how tea is produced, the differences between types of tea and the work that the estate is doing throughout Malawi. We left only after I offended the tea expert (what is the tea version of sommelier?) by asking how rooibos was made (it turns out it’s not tea.)

Favorite fact from the morning: all tea is made from the same plant, just oxidized differently and mixed with different ingredients or using different parts of the leaf.

Next stop: Domwe Island – Lake Malawi

Liwonde National Park – Malawi

Our first planned stop in Malawi was Liwonde National Park. All we needed was a quick-ish stop in Lilongwe (the capital) for some groceries and cash (card facilities are limited in Malawi so cash is king) and we were on our way again.

The roads were much easier to drive during the day but just as crazy with people, trucks and vegetable stands dotting the sides of the sides almost everywhere. All this also made it difficult to find places to stop and stretch (read: go to the bathroom).

Liwonde is situated south of Lake Malawi, along the Shire river which is the drainage river from the lake. We had originally booked for Cheryl and I to be camping and my parents to be in an en-suite chalet at Liwonde Camp but they were enjoying camping so much that they figured they’d stay with us in the campground instead. That is until they saw the chalet. Situated on its own, with a deck which overlooks the bush, covered on one side only by screens, and a spacious, hot outdoor shower on the side along with crisp, white sheets on the bed and they were convinced. Chalet it is, At least for a night. The second night they actually surprised Cheryl and I by booking it again and having us stay in there while they camped. How great!

While in Liwonde we took a river cruise along the Shire. River cruises are a great way to see animals (especially birds on this one) and we loved it. Cruising along our Captain pulled right up to a bunch of crocodiles, a pod of hippos and a lone elephant chomping on the riverbank grass.

River cruising on the Shire river – Liwonde National Park, Malawi

Later that afternoon we decided to do a self-drive through the park, but not before purchasing some Baobab jam and fresh honey from the Parks worker at the gate. We saw lots of game and were impressed with the amount of work that was being done to keep up the park. Africa Parks has recently taken over management and is visibly doing a lot of work on it which is great. It’s a cool little park. One of the things they’ve done is to reintroduce predators (as well as remove some of the overpopulated elephants.) Up until 2 weeks before we arrived Liwonde had no predators (though they claim to have leopard, I doubt it.) Two weeks ago they released 4 cheetah into the park, first in a pen for a week and then into the wild. We went in with no expectations of seeing the cheetah but low and behold, as we were driving out and debating whether to take a detour or not a big male cheetah was laying right next to the road in front of us.

Our hearts went out to the poor guy who was obviously lonely and missing home. He was acting strangely, whining and unsure of what to do with himself it seemed. We stayed there watching him for a good 10 minutes until a hyena call made his ears stand up straight and he slunk off into the dimming light of the setting sun. Later that night, when talking to a guide at our campsite we realized that we are the first self-drive people to have seen the cheetah in the wild in Liwonde.

IMG_4626 (2)

Looking for a new home, this cheetah was visibly sad.  Here he laid down and took a break from his crying for a moment before getting scared by the hyena call.

All in all we really enjoyed our time in Liwonde and would highly recommend Liwonde Safari Camp. The best part about the place wasn’t the hides overlooking the bush or even the great chalet but just how friendly the people were there. It was a stark contrast compared to many of the places we’ve been. In general we found the people of Malawi to be fantastically friendly and they would go out of their way to help out when needed.

IMG_8681 (2)

Mom and I playing Scrabble with my dad reviewing photos in the background.


IMG_8684 (2)

Sometimes my mom got bored when I would take too long to make a word.  She broke out her book to pass the time.

IMG_8714 (2)

Our game was interrupted as elephants got close to camp.  Dad had to cover up his white shirt to not startle them.  Somehow Mom’s pink hat was fine with them though.

Next stop: Huntingdon House on Setemwa Tea Estate – time to spoil my parents!

Into Malawi we go

One last drive through South Luangwa National Park and we were on our way to Malawi. This is the only night that we hadn’t pre-booked for while my parents were with us so we knew it was a bit of a gamble. Do we stay one more night in South Luangwa and have a very long drive the next day or do we cut off some of that drive by doing it in the afternoon instead? If so, how far do we go?

We decided to not stay in South Luangwa or even on the Zambian side of the border. Rather, we pushed through to shorten our drive the next day and not have to do a border crossing at typically the busiest time of the day (morning) and on a Monday at that.

The border was an interesting experience (especially for my parents I’m sure) but we made it through with relatively limited issues, just a small delay as we waited for all our American visas to be processed and they had to fire up the generator to print out the confirmation of our third party insurance purchase. The biggest issue was that the sun had now set by the time we got out of there and we had to drive in a new country, in the dark, with no reservation or destination for the night, and no book on Malawi to to recommend a spot or us.

We quickly found out that driving in Malawi was going to be different than any other country we’d been to on our trip so far. It turns out that Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and this translates into people being on the roads at all times of day, everywhere. People walking, riding bicycles, carrying heavy loads, two or three abreast at times and it’s not like they’re wearing reflective gear at night time either. Add to that some roads with potholes that have wiped out the side of the road, cars without their lights on and massive trucks going in both directions and you start to get the picture.

I guess this is why we’d been warned not to drive at night.

Pictures from driving during the day the next day.  At least this bike stayed off the tar, that wasn’t the case the night before.

We found a place on our route on the GPS whose name sounded lovely: “Barefoot Safari Lodge – Camping.” Done and done. Let’s hope they have space. Luckily, space wasn’t an issue (just like packing our car) but when they offered us two <slightly questionable but overall decent> chalets at half price we couldn’t pass up the opportunity not to set up our tents in the dark so we happily settled in for a quick dinner and went to bed.