Thursday, July 12, 2018

Adventures in Malawi: The Hidden Gem That is Lake Malwai

If you read the first part of the account of my recent trip to the African country of Malawi, you know that I was struck by how friendly and accommodating the country is. I've been to Africa numerous times, and while the people in the other countries I've been to have always been extremely welcoming, Malawi took that friendliness to a whole new level. In the early days of the trip, as I was still getting introduced to the country, it was one of the best takeaways.

When I left off in my story, we had left the capital city of Lilongwe behind and were making our way through the countryside, which was surprisingly green, diverse, and lovely. Our destination for the day was a place called the Blue Zebra Island Lodge, located on Marelli Island archipelago. Our guide from the Malawi Department of Tourism explained all of this to us when we had set out from our hotel that morning, but none of us really knew what to expect. As it turns out, we were in for another big surprise.

Stretching more than 350 miles (560 km) in length, Lake Malawi resembles one of the great lengths in the U.S. in terms of size and scope. It is the ninth largest lake in the world and the third largest in Africa, making it a resource that few other countries on the continent can match. Because of this, travelers come from all over to enjoy the setting, which includes crystal clear water, stunning sunsets, and refreshing water temperatures, even during the austral winter.

After a couple of hours drive out of Lilongwe, we arrived on the shores of the lake where a boat waited to pick us up and whisk us off to the Blue Zebra. After wading out into the water, hopping on board, and getting settled, we were off. It took about 15 minutes to reach Marelli Island, with some surprisingly choppy waves making for a fun trip across the lake. Before long however, we were exiting the boat onto a wooden dock and walkway taking us to the lodge where once again we were greeted warmly.

Up until now, there was no mistaking the fact that we were in Africa. The settings, people, and landscapes were certainly familiar to anyone who has visited the continent in the past. But once we reached the Blue Zebra it was almost as if we had left Africa behind at the shore of the lake and arrived in the Caribbean instead. There is a classic island vibe at the lodge, which features comfortable lakeside cabins, an outdoor dining area and bar, sundecks to lounge on, and a refreshing pool for those who prefer not to swim in the lake itself. It is an enchanting place to say the least, and a fanatic escape for travelers looking for a distinctly different African experience.

As is typical in an island setting, rest and relaxation can take center stage at the Blue Zebra. Guests can enjoy as much peace and quiet as they would like, seeking seclusion in their comfortable, modern, and elegant bungalows or in the shared public spaces. But, if you're looking to be active on your holiday, the lodge can accommodate you as well. There is a hiking trail that wanders completely around the island –– with extensions that go up and over the top too –– allowing visitors to stretch their legs and find some nice surprises along the trail, including a few classic African baobab trees of absolute massive size. The lodge also has a few kayaks for those who want to go out for a paddle, and swimming in the local lagoon is encouraged as well. You won't want to wander too far however, because this being Africa, it is not unusual to find crocodiles in the water from time to time.

On one of the afternoons while staying at the lodge, we had one of the Blue Zebra guides take us out for a boat ride. He gave us a tour of a couple of the nearby islands, where fish eagles –– and other colorful birds –– are known to nest. We also stopped just offshore from one of the islands, donned some snorkeling gear, and plunged into the lake. Below the surface the waters were teeming with life, with all kinds of colorful fish –– including the lodge's namesake blue zebras –– swimming about. It was some of the best freshwater snorkeling I've ever encountered and was once again a nice surprise. Returning to the boat, we had to remind ourselves that yes indeed, we were in still Africa.

After spending a couple of active, yet restful, days at the Blue Zebra it was time to move on, even if we were reluctant to depart. The lodge is simply beautiful and I'd recommend it to anyone as a way to rest upon arriving to Malawi or Africa in general, before departing on bigger adventures. Or, better yet, after you've climbed Kilimanjaro, gone on safari, or undertaken other expeditions, head over to the Blue Zebra for a much needed rest before returning home.

Leaving the island setting behind, we caught a boat back to shore and loaded up for our next destination. We may have left the Blue Zebra, but we weren't quite done with Lake Malawi just yet. Our next stop was another lakeside lodge, this time staying at the Makokola Retreat, which is another lovely and quiet location to soak up the island atmosphere. Our stay there was a brief one, but we once again hopped aboard a boat to take a later afternoon tour of nearby Bird Island. There, we saw more than a dozen fish eagles hunting their pray and swam in the lake where even more colorful fish were to be found. On our return to "Club Mak," as the retreat is known locally, we watched the sun lazily set on the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with more shades of crimson than I ever thought possible.

Before we left Makokola, we had a chance to tour the facility. Most of the cabins have an older, rustic feel to them, but the place is adding some truly modern, upscale rooms that are going to be on par, or easily outpace, most other resorts in the region. The legacy rooms have a wonderful charm to them, but if you're looking for something a bit more luxurious, these new rooms will certainly fit the bill.

Our next stop was Liwonde National Park, where we would go on safari at long last. This was the highlight of the trip for most of us and we couldn't wait to get there. I'll go into lots of detail about that experience in tomorrow's third, and final article on my visit to Malawi, a place I'd love to return to in the future.

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