Amazingly it does still exist and I’ve found it! That all elusive piece of wonderful that travelers continuously seek. That little place devoid of too many footprints and untainted by tourist dollars. It’s here in one of southeast Africa’s smallest countries, Malawi. And, please keep this gem a secret, it’s located on the big Malawian Lake at Cape Maclear.
Dug-out hand made canoes come and go and the odd sailboat or kayak drifts past. There’s very little noise other than the occasional joyous, soulful singing, and laughter from kids continually active on the lakes shore. Missing are the modern day activities normally associated with water that can destroy one’s peace. At night you hear the waters gentle slap and can see the fishing boats in the distance throwing flickers on the horizon. This is life on the lake, Cape Maclear style.
Life Goes On
There seems to be a very easy-going assimilation underway here between a small waterside community and the travelers and odd tourists who turn up in dribs and drabs. It feels like life which involves around the lake, is going on regardless for these gentle people. It’s as if they’re saying, welcome foreigners we’re just going to get on with things, you’re welcome to join us, watch us, take photos of us but don’t expect us to change the way we’ve always done things.
And why would they, change? The lake allows them to eat, wash their clothes, their dishes, and their bodies. For some, it provides a direct income from its bountiful natural supplies. And for others, the lake brings income via the travelers and tourists in the form of boat and kayak trips or the selling of trinkets, drinks, and food. It’s peaceful, the pace of life is gentle, there is relatively no crime. And the sun continues to rise and then set again in the most dramatic and showy of ways, behind the islands that sit in the bay.
It’s for similar reasons that the visitors arrive and for some like me, not want to leave. A slow paced, safe environment inside the visual beauty of a waterside oasis. It’s inexpensive but that fades into insignificance because of everything else that this place and its people provide. I feel like this is one of those little rare, gems in the world where tourists and travelers like me have not yet influenced it enough to lose its wonderful charm. The charm that draws people there in the first place.
I certainly didn’t feel any resentment at my being there from the locals. They aren’t shy to take the first step at a greeting either smiling or saying “hi, how are you?” and replying with enthusiasm and what seems like interest at your reply. They are happy to chat and invite you home to meet the family. A real stand out for me is also the politeness; to your “thanks”, there’s almost always a “you’re welcome”
Kids Being Kids
Kids are kids all over the world, wanting to hold your hand, ask your name, practice some English and unfortunately sometimes ask for money. The nice thing about that here, though, is that the fact you’ve said “no” seems to have no real bearing on the situation. They just smile, keep holding your hand and walk along the beach with you.
There isn’t a huge lot of organised activities here and that’s a nice part of its charm. If you must do “something”, there are kayak trips with a guide and scuba diving through KayakAfrica , and boat trips out to Mumbo Island and yachting other than that you can just swim, walk the length of the beach, or go for walks back out on the main tarmac road.
Fifteen Different Places To Eat
Try one of the 15 different places to eat each new day and go to the few different bars at night like Uncle Charlies, Thomas’s or Funky Cichlid. Or for guys, you can even get a haircut. There are local guys know what they’re doing with those clippers and it only costs 1500k ($2 usd). Women can get a braid or whole head plait for 5000k ($6.95 usd) which I’ve since found out from a local is quite expensive, but for the time it takes and the effort involved I actually think its a good price.
Or you can just read, write or lay in a hammock, get some beach sun or just people watch as the Cape Maclearians go about their daily routines. There’s always a lot of activity to watch.
The northern most part of the bay is the fisherman and their families village. If you head down that way kids will continually chat to you, ask your name, where you’re from and the braver ones may even ask you to take an “image” of them. You can see just about every age and gender washing in the lake, some of them partly clothed or some completely naked, using some kind of very sudsy soap and most of the time a piece of a fishing net as a body scrub.
I asked a man turning over the shiny fish that sparkled in the sun if I could take a photo of the fish. I was careful not to have him in the photo in case it offended but on showing him the photo he told me I needed to take another one with him in it. Malawians seem to love having their photo taken just for the action of it.
- For information on getting to Monkey Bay
- We got on the back of motorbikes with our luggage to get from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear at a cost of 2000k ($2.75 usd)
- There are two ATM’s in Monkey Bay but neither of them were working at the time and this is a quite common occurrence apparently
- Most of the accommodation/restaurants at Cape Maclear take credit cards
- Bilharzia is caused by tiny skin burrowing worms that have infested the lake in the last 10 years. It can be an issue to certain parts of your eg. liver, down the track if not treated. But medicine is readily available at all pharmacies and is supposed to be taken around 6 weeks post swimming.
- during my visit (August 2016) there was a popular scam being run/written by a 9-year old who was recruiting kids all over the village. It involved the kids approaching you with a hand written note telling of a big football game they wanted funding to have in the future, obviously there is no such game
- all over Cape Maclear the power goes off quite a lot, every day in fact which I was there in August 2016 but there are generators so you can always get food, cold beers etc
- beers cost around 700 – 1200k (95c – $1.60 usd) depending on where you buy it, it’s mostly green Malawian Carlsberg. I preferred the tastier, less bubbly Special Carlsberg
- meals are anywhere from 1500k ($2.05) for a sandwich and chips up to 5500k ($7.60 usd) for a pizza. Once again it depends on where you go. There really is some great food, in big sized servings here for decent prices. For example two of my favs were Thomas’s for a mashed potato covered in a lovely tomato and onion sauce with fried chicken dish for 2300k ($3.19 usd) or Mgoza Lodges’ Chicken and feta pancake served with mash, rice or chips, and veggies for 3000k ($4.16 usd). You need to have a fairly empty stomach to do the size of either of these tasty meals justice.
- $10 a night for a dorm room
- the dorm has bunk beds but nice and high so you can still sit on the bottom bunk
- they have a good sized menu and the meals are good although a little more expensive than other places around town
- the staff, reception bar, and restaurant are all very warm and helpful
- the ablution block is a walk through sand but they are kept very clean and the water is nice and hot. Plentiful loo paper, hand soap and hand towels
- they have chairs on the beach and the bar is right on the beach with comfy seats and a tv, handy for watching the Olympics while I was there
- $7 a night for a dorm room, which is actually an A-Frame chalet right on the beach with the water a few metres away, great for laying in your bed and watching life go on, on the lake
- the beds are comfy with clean bedding and a warming blanket if required
- the showers are solar powered small A-frames with hot water, the toilets the same
- the wash basin is outside in the sun with a mirror and places on the cane to hang towels etc, it has a lovely natural fresh feel
- the staff are very welcoming, warm and helpful and like most Malawians, good at remembering your name
- they have a swimming pool which is a nice way of avoiding the bugs in the lake
- they even have the luxury of decent green grass, sun loungers, and hammocks to help you while away your time
- they have a small sized library with some quality reads and a screen above the bar where they show movies
- this was my favorite of the two places I stayed because of the grounds, pool, accommodation, meals and the lovely staff
- like any good manager, Alan (originally from South Africa but mostly from the UK) keeps a good eye on his customers, making sure everything is going well for them and also offering any help with suggestions on how to get places and what to do
- as there’s solar power at Mgoza it’s not a big deal when the power goes off. You just need to get organised and charge things up when the power is on via the plugs in the dorm