Travel: Malawi, Africa

Kapichira waterfalls in Majete Wildlife Reserve
Kapichira waterfalls in Majete Wildlife Reserve
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It’s the cocktail hour at Latitude 13. “Rock ‘n’ roll meets Africa chic,” judges my daughter. We’re sitting on salt rock stools beneath a black and white photograph of Mick Jagger, our drinks resting on an upturned oil drum, lacquered white.

Africa re-cycles, even in its coolest hot spots: a new boutique hotel in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe, where a colonial villa has been design-driven into a shrine to monochromes, black, white and silver.

Outside, all is warmth and colour in the sumptuous gardens, and I hear tropical boubous pipe their distinctive duet. For a moment I think I’m back in the bush, standing on the edge of the Shire River at “Livingstone’s dock” – a reedy scoop of mud below the village of Manganga. What would our missionary-explorer have made of the bold innovations of Latitude 13, not to mention Lilongwe itself, which didn’t exist when he first sailed and tramped into the country which became Malawi? Could he have seen himself as the pioneer of a tourist industry?

Lilongwe is the terminus of a memorable journey: the David Livingstone Bicentenary Safari. Our ten-day itinerary – not so much a solemn pilgrimage as a thrilling trail from remote wilderness to spectacular shores – is Robin Pope Safaris’ celebration of the birth, 200 years ago, of the man who put Malawi on the map. Literally. Most of our route was charted by the crusading Scot as he traced the Shire River northwards from its confluence with the Zambezi to its outflow from the inland sea the locals called Nyasa, “broad waters.”

In 1859 he found its basin brimming with misery. It was a desperate place, a staging post on the main slave route from the headwaters of the Congo to the Indian Ocean. But he was moved by its beauty, the bristling night skies reflected in its surface, and called it a “lake of stars”; a soubriquet which is now a marketing slogan. The mountains of its southern hinterland he named the Shire Highlands, because they reminded him of home: fertile ground, he believed, for a Christian colony which would drive out the slave trade.

He didn’t live to see this ambition fulfilled. But in 1875, two years after his death, a ship steamed into “Lake Nyasa” carrying men inspired by his vision. They founded missions called Livingstonia and Blantyre and forged links with Scotland which persist today. So do the Livingstone landmarks: Cape Maclear, which he named for Thomas Maclear, his geographer friend, Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, and the Shire Highlands. Here our safari begins.

The road from Blantyre into the lower Shire valley is unforgettable. It drops some 2,000ft in corkscrew curves from the edge of the Thyolo Escarpment.

Last year excited bulletins from wildlife interests exclaimed: “The Big Five are back in Malawi.” Lions from South Africa were the latest immigrants to join a project to re-stock the Majete Wildlife Reserve, where the last of the glamour mammals were poached out in the 1990s. Ten years ago African Parks, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in the recovery and management of ailing game parks, moved in to support the cash-strapped Malawian wildlife authority and Majete has since been re-born. “When it’s very dry and there’s more activity at the river,” says Emma Kilner, our host at Mkulumadzi, “you can see lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard in a single day”.

I’m not here for the Big Five. I’m here for Majete’s access to the Kapichira Falls, which Livingstone called the Murchison Cataracts after Sir Roderick Murchison of the Royal Geographic Society. The bonus is our secluded, turf-roofed, solar-powered woodland chalet overlooking the Shire River. And the approach to the lodge is part of its drama – a wobbly walk across a foot bridge suspended high above the river.

Three nights here bring us walks, drives and a boat trip, along with plenty of game to animate the hills and forests of Majete. The Kapichira Falls are now harnessed by a hydro-electric scheme, a bit of an intrusion, but its upside is the lake created by the dam: perfect boating with kingfishers, skimmers and storks, and maybe even the elusive Pel’s fishing owl with your sundowner.

A sad relic of the fortunes of Livingstone and his companions is the grave of Richard Thornton, the Zambezi Expedition’s youthful geologist, whom Livingstone buried at the village of Manganga, just outside the reserve.

The lonely cross is on a rising slope above “Livingstone’s dock”. Its canopy is a baobab tree, a recurring feature of Livingstone’s travels. Later, in Liwonde National Park, we climb inside the massive, hollow baobab where he is reported to have camped.

Here the Shire River is broad and sluggish, and you cross by boat through rafts of hippo and crocodile from banks lined with fever trees and borassus palms. Mvuu Lodge’s timber and canvas chalets – traditional luxury to Mkulumadzi’s minimalist opulence – are tucked into the forest between the river and a lagoon. The usual safari activities are on offer, including visits to the park’s black rhino conservancy, but if you never moved out of camp you would still be visited by the wildlife.

But Livingstone pressed on. He had heard much of the great lake to the north, and even seen a rough map drawn by a Portuguese adventurer. This did not discourage him from claiming another “discovery” to rival the Victoria Falls. We follow him to the high, steep headland which is now Cape Maclear National Park and three days of sunbeds and water sports at Pumulani, its spectacular hillside lodge. Livingstone’s lake has become a tourist playground.

But more than that its waters and littoral remain a workplace for fishermen and farmers who have lost their fear of strangers. Today’s Malawians have a reputation for hospitality and friendliness. At least some of that must be down to the missionaries who followed Livingstone up the Shire River to the lake of stars.

The Ultimate Travel Company (020 7386 4681, www.theultimate-travelcompany.co.uk) and Robin Pope Safaris (www.robinpopesafaris.net) offer the David Livingstone Bicentenary Safari until 8 January, 2014, for £4,375 per person. It includes return flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Malawi with Kenya Airways, three nights at Mkulumadzi, three at Mvuu Lodge and four at Pumulani, plus safari activities. Latitude 13 (www.thelatitudehotels.com) about £88 for double room and breakfast. Julie Davidson’s book Looking for Mrs Livingstone is published by Saint Andrew Press at £24.99. She appears at the Book Festival on 18 August.