Travel: Malawi

Have your say

As Scotland prepares to celebrate David Livingstone’s bicentenary, the great, great niece of the man who launched his career as an explorer follows in the famous adventurer’s footsteps through Malawi.

ASK a Malawian about the Scots missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone and many will rattle off, “Born Blantyre, Scotland, 1813. He stopped the slave trade and brought Christianity to Malawi.” The presence of this Victorian freedom fighter still looms large in the country.

A Lanarkshire lad from the cotton mills, Livingstone had a vision: to become a medical missionary. Self-taught in Latin and Greek, he qualified to study medicine at Anderson’s College (now Strathclyde University) becoming a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1840. The same year he was ordained by the London Missionary Society (LMS) and set sail for South Africa. A meeting with the highly regarded missionary, Robert Moffat, had fired his imagination to pioneer a Christian trail into Africa’s heartland.

From South Africa, he ventured north into Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Gaining a reputation as a man of peace and sought out for his medical skills, he was well received by the tribal peoples he encountered. He took time to learn about their languages and culture and founded a mission at Mabotsa. Mauled by a lion, he returned to recuperate at Moffat’s mission in Kuruman. Nursed by Moffat’s daughter, Mary, marriage and children soon followed. Moving to start missions Chonuane and Kolobeng, they were not destined to lead a settled family life. Livingstone was drawn to the interior. God and his Christian duty came first.

A friendship with William Cotton Oswell, an English game hunter and adventurer, who was also my great, great uncle, launched Livingstone the explorer. The connection also sparked my interest in his travels. Together with Mungo Murray, porters and ox wagons, they all crossed the Kalahari, reaching Lake Ngami in 1849. Livingstone’s young family travelled with him subsequently, north through the Linyanti to the Chobe and Zambesi rivers. Livingstone’s travels were comprehensive: he was the first European to cross Africa from Luanda on Angola’s Atlantic coast, to Quilimane on the Indian Ocean, in Mozambique; the first to find the headwaters of the Zambesi river and the first to set sight on Mosi oa Tunya – smoke that thunders – which he named Victoria Falls. An avid mapmaker and keeper of journals, overcome by the occasion he waxed lyrical, “But scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Returning to Britain, the Royal Geographical Society presented him with a medal for his African explorations and his book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa was published to high acclaim.

Although still a devout Christian, Livingstone had seen vestiges of the slave trade across the region. Ever a pragmatist, he believed the three Cs – commerce, civilisation and Christianity – were the only way to stop economic dependence on the slave trade and bring about a conducive environment for Christian missions. This made it impossible for Livingstone to continue with the LMS, which wanted him to focus on missionary work, and he resigned.

Livingstone’s new role was as Her Majesty’s Consul for Quilimane and leader of a government expedition to explore east and central Africa. His remit was to find suitable land for settlement and commerce on the Zambesi. But the Zambesi expedition became his nemesis. He was not a natural leader and bickering broke out in the ranks. Progress up the Zambesi was painfully slow. The water was low, they spent hot days stuck on sandbanks and the Kebrabasa rapids sent his plans into disarray. Impossible to progress any further, with typical stoicism, he turned his attention to the Shire river, searching for

another avenue for ‘God’s highway’ into central Africa. He had arrived in Nyasaland (now Malawi) by


I join the Shire on the park boundary of Majete Wildlife Reserve, where it roars over the Mpatamanga rapids at the exclusive

Mkulumadzi Lodge. Livingstone’s progress in an old steamer, the Ma-Robert, was blocked by the Kapichira Falls. Chris Kilner, a manager and safari guide, tells me, “Kapichira. It means to load in Chichewa, the

local language.” It’s aptly named as here the expedition would pack up for exploratory excursions heading north.

In the morning we depart for a game drive to Kapichira. A large herd of sable antelope is scattered in the open miombo woodland and we stop to investigate a baboon spider’s web. Leaving the vehicle, we walk through a stand of euphorbia trees and scramble over rocks to Kapichira Falls. They are now part of a hydro electric scheme, but still impressive.

Near the park entrance is Maganga. It’s late afternoon when we go in search of Richard Thornton’s grave. The expedition’s geologist, he died of fever. Hoards of excited children follow us to a baobab tree at the end of the village. A solitary stone cross marks a lonely grave overlooking the Shire river. An old man, a great grandson of Chief Chibisa (who gave safe passage to the expedition), says Livingstone gathered people under this tree to preach.

Leaving the searing heat of the Shire valley behind, a winding road leads up the Thyolo escarpment. It follows an old slave route. We pass Kamuzu view, named after Malawi’s first president. At Mbame is a sign at a tree where Livingstone and Bishop Charles Mackenzie camped in 1861. Their visit coincided with slave trains passing south en route to Mozambique. Livingstone described “manacled women and children” and men with their necks in the fork of a stout stick, “kept in by an iron rod which was riveted at both ends across the throat”. Once freed, the slaves joined the expedition. One was the faithful James Chuma who stayed with Livingstone until he died.

I walk up a red, dusty track to see the tree – it’s small and wizened. On one side is the Presbyterian church and beautiful a capella harmonies float out as the choir practises for Sunday.

Blantyre is Malawi’s commercial hub, named after Livingstone’s birthplace. The missionary is ever present: Livingstone Street, Livingstone Towers and the magnificent St Michael and All

Angels Church, built on the original Scottish Mission site. An astounding feat of architecture, given that Reverend David Scott had no formal training, it was built from hand-made bricks. Inside, birdsong competes with organ music and plaques commemorate various clerics, including Livingstone.

Between Blantyre and Zomba we take a detour on a bumpy dirt road to

Magomero where Bishop Mackenzie set up Malawi’s first Christian mission. Reverend Henry de Wint Burrup’s grave at Chikanzi gives sad testimony: he and Mackenzie died of fever within weeks of each other, leading to the evacuation of the mission. Mackenzie’s death was a devastating blow to Livingstone, who had just buried his wife, and sealed the expedition’s fate.

Zomba town lies at the foot of the Zomba massif. Shady avenues and faded British colonial buildings

depict its former role as the administrative capital, which moved to Lilongwe after independence. Snaking up through forestry plantations, we pass men with bicycles piled high with wood, and see boys selling mountain berries. Nawimbe peak, climbed by Livingstone, overlooks Ku Chawe Inn which is set in colourful gardens with hibiscus, agapanthus and giant ferns. From the high plateau, Lake Chilwa is dimly visible through the haze. Livingstone and Dr John Kirk, the expedition’s naturalist, were the first Europeans to reach the lake in 1859, and later the same year, Lake Nyasa (now Malawi).

The dugout canoes and rowing boats pulled up on the shore bear witness to Lake Chilwa’s thriving fishing community. In the early morning it’s a hive of activity: net-mending, the night catch of catfish and chambo being landed and pick-up trucks being loaded for market. A Ramsar wetland of international importance, the lake supports 150 species of resident waterfowl.

Rejoining the Shire in Liwonde National Park, the river flows slowly. Safari boats get close to the wildlife and numerous Nile crocodiles bask on the banks. But it’s the birds I find fascinating. We see five types of kingfisher – pied, malachite, brown-hooded, giant and striped – and a magnificent African fish eagle. Further upstream, my guide points out another of Livingstone’s trees, a giant baobab where he and Kirk camped.

Returning to the lake in 1861, Livingstone, his brother Charles, Kirk and John Neil set out to explore the lake by boat. Leaving Mangochi, where the Shire meets the lake, they rounded a peninsula, which Livingstone named Cape Maclear after Thomas Maclear, the Cape Town Astronomer Royal who taught Livingstone about astronomy and map-making. The sheltered sandy bay was the first site of the Livingstonia Mission, founded after Livingstone’s death by the Free Church of Scotland. But fever claimed more missionary lives. Following a dusty path, I walk half a mile up a hill near the entrance to Lake Malawi National Park. Several unkempt graves lie at the foot of a granite boulder where there’s a plaque to Dr William Black from Fife. It’s a peaceful setting with views to the azure lake.

Howard Massey-Hicks, the owner of Danforth Yachting, has offered to sail me from Cape Maclear across the lake to Senga, following Livingstone’s route. “It will give you a sense of Livingstone’s journey,” he tells me. On a luxurious catamaran, we pass through the Ilala gap and set sail for Mumbo and the Malere Islands. Covered in trees and a prolific green creeper known as buffalo bean, huge grey boulders drop to the crystal clear water. Donning a snorkel and mask, I get a glimpse of the

vibrant, iridescent rock fish, mbuna, for which the lake is famous.

Livingstone and his party sailed as far north as Nkhata Bay. I stop at Nkhotakota, described as the largest traditional village in Africa. Seen from the air it spreads over several square miles, its corrugated iron roofs resembling scattered glitter on baked earth. Nkhotakota was a prosperous slave depot in the 19th century, run by a well-known Arab trader called Jumbe. Livingstone described “a place of bloodshed and lawlessness”.

At St Anne’s Mission Hospital is a tree where Livingstone met with Jumbe and the Chewa chiefs. They signed a treaty to end the slave trade, but it did not last. Livingstone did not live to see the demise of Jumbe’s slaving empire.

Leaving the lake at Nkhotakota, Livingstone detoured west to Kasungu. In the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, vast areas of woodland bisected by rivers stretch to the horizon. Wisps of smoke curl upwards from fires started by poachers. Deep in the forest is Tongole Wilderness Lodge, a wonderful retreat perching above the Bua river. In the heat of the day elephant families frolic in the water. I watch, unobserved, as they drink, hose themselves down and spray ochre dust over their wet bodies. The angular Kasukusuko hill nearby is mentioned in Livingstone’s journal.

After the Zambesi expedition was recalled, Livingstone returned in 1864 to Britain. His book, Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and its Tributaries was published the next year. Although the slave trade and inter-tribal warfare put paid to finding land suitable for settlement and commerce, the expedition still made significant contributions to natural sciences and medicine. Over his lifetime, Livingstone arguably contributed more than any other single person to geographical discoveries in Africa.

He returned to Africa for the last time in 1866 to seek the source of the Nile. Crossing from Zanzibar, he took a route along the Rovuma river in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) skirting through Mozambique. It is likely he followed a slave traders’ path still used to this day. Passing behind Nkwichi Lodge – an idyllic barefoot hideaway in the Manda Wilderness Conservation Area – the path leads north to Tanzania and south to Malawi. Walking along the track, the misery of shackled slaves trudging this route – only one in ten survived – is almost tangible. In such a remote and beautiful region, with views to the azure lake and the sparsely wooded mountains of the interior, it’s hard to believe such atrocities took place.

Reaching the southern lake shore, Livingstone headed west to the

Dedza mountains. The area is famous for the Chongoni rock art shelters, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Keston Chikweza, the manager at Dedza Pottery Lodge, tells me Livingstone passed through on his way to Zambia. Taking a dirt side road, we see people digging fields as we head towards the four-peak granite mountain of Mphunzi. We walk through bleached grass to a huge boulder on which local history says Livingstone slept. The spiritual significance seems incongruous: beneath the overhang are red, Stone Age images painted by Twa pygmies, and later paintings by the Malavi, in white.

Livingstone’s quest for the Nile’s source continued through Zambia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. Deserted by his porters, who had reported him dead, he had continued with few followers. By the time he was found by Henry Morton Stanley, at Ujiji on the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika, in the now famous “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” encounter, he cut a lonely and disillusioned figure. Following his death in Chitambo,

Zambia, his body was carried by Chuma and Abdullah Susi over 1,000 miles to the Tanzanian coast and shipped to the UK for burial in Westminster Abbey.

During his lifetime, Livingstone made one Christian convert. But he succeeded in laying a foundation for Christianity in central Africa. Passing through a trading centre on the way back to Lilongwe, one shop stands out: Blessings Investment. I reflect that, as we approach the bicentenary of his birth, perhaps even Livingstone would be surprised at his revered status and the abundance of Christian missions that came in his wake.


Claire Foottit travelled to Malawi with The Independent Traveller (, tel 01628 522 772,; Return flights from Edinburgh to Lilongwe on Kenya Airways (www.kenya-
, (0208 283 1818) cost from £906.87; For travel information on Malawi:; 2013 marks the Bi-centenary of Livingstone’s birth. For information on events:; See Clare Foottit’s blog