The Magic of Mumbo Island

Mumbo Island
Magical Mumbo Island

After a long, hot and sleepless safari in Malawi,Dale Morris relaxes in the ultimate romantic location on the country’s calm, crystal-clear lake.

Don’t get me wrong, I simply adore safaris. Don’t we all? But sometimes, just sometimes, the long days and interminable heat conspire to wear you out.

I had just spent an awesome week of wildlife in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park on the banks of the Shire River, but at the end of it I was utterly bushed. It’s the lack of sleep that finally gets you – all those early morning game drives and long nights when unseen things (with teeth) snuffle at the tent flap.

So when it was time to leave, the thought of sipping from a fish bowl-sized goblet of piña colada while lazing on a beach (without risk of being death-rolled by a crocodile) held immense appeal. Unfortunately, unlike many other African holiday destinations, Malawi lacks a coastline. But it does have a lake, and a fabulous one at that.

A few days later, after boating up the Shire River and Lake Malombe, I found myself sprawled in the front of a tourist ferry heading across the glassy surface of Lake Malawi for Mumbo Island.

Trailing my hand in the cool clear water, I stared into a sapphire sky and watched a pair of Fish Eagles circling just above. They wailed like seagulls, and then, much to my surprise, one landed on the railing next to me and made a lunge for my sandwich.

“The fishermen here will sacrifice their catch to the eagles if a tourist is willing to pay,” said the boat driver. “It’s a good way to get a photo, but some of the eagles have become quite demanding.”

I held my food close to my chest and stared back at the bird whose beady little eyes sent daggers back at me. “It’s peanut butter,” I said slowly to the eagle. “You’re supposed to eat fish.” He cocked his head, ruffled his wings, pooped on the deck and took off into the skies once again.

The fresh expanse of Lake Malawi (or Lake Nyasa as it is still sometimes called) was certainly a welcome relief after the scrub and dusty heat of the bush. The cool breeze ruffled my hair, and I was lulled into a state of blissful relaxation despite my near mugging by an eagle.

Kayak Africa are the operators at Mumbo Island. They also do kayak tours to the island and around Lake Malawi. 021 783 1955,

At 29 600 km², Lake Malawi is almost the size of Belgium (but of course far more interesting). It is nearly a kilometre deep in places and measures roughly 365 miles (580km) in length and about 52 miles (80km) at its widest point, hence its common name – Calendar Lake.

It’s also the third largest body of water in Africa (after the lakes Victoria and Tanganyika) and the ninth largest in the world. But what really sets Lake Malawi apart from other fresh water ponds is its 500 or so indigenous fish species that live nowhere else on Earth. It’s quite ironic really that Malawi, a landlocked country, is a nation of fishermen.

“Without fish we wouldn’t be Malawians,” said the boat captain as we drew up to the shallows of the tiny Mumbo Island. “They are a very important part of our diet and our economy. Now why don’t you go for a snorkel while I sort out the anchor.”

So I leapt over the side and instantly found myself in a sub-aquatic world of colourful fish, the likes of which I had not seen outside a tropical aquarium.

Mumbo Island
Kayaking along to coast of Mumbo Island

There were blue ones and green ones and red ones and yellow ones, and there were white ones, striped ones and spotted ones. The water was balmy and clear and I spent some extremely pleasant hours drifting around before my ever-increasing desire for a cocktail finally drove me onto the beach.

Mumbo Island, my chill-out destination for the next few days, is probably the nicest of the many islands dotted across Lake Malawi, and is certainly the most romantic by far. There are no crocodiles or hippos or bilharzia to spoil the idyll of its secluded beaches and clear, warm shallows and, unlike the nearby mainland tourist area of Cape Maclear, no crowds either.

“It’s a romantic spot isn’t it?” said Ryan Sanderson-Smith, the Mumbo camp manager, rhetorically, while we stood at a bamboo bar and sipped pink, girly drinks. The tiny, sheltered beach and shallow waters were peppered with a smattering of what I assumed were largely honeymooners.

“Go lounge on the loungers, have a snooze or, if that’s not your thing, you can always go explore,” continued Ryan. “I’m going for a paddle, would you like to come along?” I politely declined in favour of a few more cocktails, and a very comfortable hammock.

Mumbo is a small affair; a little pile of boulders coated in forests, and with a few palm trees could easily pass itself off as a Seychelles island. It can be hiked around in less than an hour and circumnavigated by boat in about the same.

There’s just one hotel on the island and each chalet is privately situated. At night, because there is no electricity, it’s lit up with oil lamps and candles and, all in all, is the perfect venue for that special ‘castaway’ experience.

After spending the best part of two days doing pretty much nothing, I finally decided to go out on a kayak…and jolly nice it was too. I paddled further out into the lake towards a group of local fishermen who had gathered offshore in their canoes.

They were fishing, pulling up all sorts of colourful and tiny specimens in the process. One of the fishermen hurled a dead fish into the air and instantly a large white eagle appeared and scooped up his meal. He circled us with it in his talons; once, twice, and then he pooped on the front of my canoe before sailing off towards the mainland. A magical experience, poop and all.

On my last evening there I sat on my balcony overlooking the lake and watched the setting sun turn the sky ochre and the water mauve. Adolescent monkeys played on the rocks in the dwindling light and a fleet of dugout canoes below me floated out from a little fishing village to the south. Each one was illuminated by a row of gas lanterns, fishing lures I presume, as they glided over the glassy surface through the pink mist, and the men’s singing, rich and rhythmic, floated up to me like harmonious ghosts.

The fish eagle I had got to know so well circled above them, and offered his plaintive cry. In that moment I truly understood what was so magical about Lake Malawi.

I sat there until long after sunset and watched the night sky become glitter on the lake of a thousand stars, and made a promise to myself to return. Next time I’ll be sure to bring my wife…