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Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tourism starts to take off in Malawi

PARADISE ISLAND: Kaya Mawa Lodge, on Likoma...

MALAWI has been dubbed "the warm heart of Africa" - and it's easy to see why.

Despite their endemic poverty of circumstance, its people are rich in goodwill and seem to have endlessly cheerful dispositions.

It's no wonder that pop star Madonna lost her heart to the little boy she adopted from a Malawi orphanage last year.

There are rumours she is planning to return to adopt a black brother or sister for David.

But you don't need to go that far to help this former British colony of Nyasaland. Tourists can boost the country's economy simply by coming here and spending their money. Admittedly a visit to Malawi is more of an adventure than a holiday.

Apart from the dangerous animals, there are rampant HIV/ AIDS, malaria and snail fever to consider. But with sensible precautions you can stay safe while you take a walk on the wild side.

After flying into the Malawian capital of Lilongwe, I drove for 90 minutes to the Sunbird Hotel at Livingstonia Beach in Senga Bay, Salima (www.sunbirdmalawi.com).

This luxury hotel is on the shore of Lake Malawi, which is the majestic centrepiece of the Great East African Rift Valley. Nearly 10,000 square miles in area, it is the third largest lake on the continent. At the Sunbird you can enjoy a variety of water sports or just relax by the pool while you plan the rest of your tour.

Because of pressure of time, I had already opted to skip the chance of viewing elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, giraffe, antelope and buffalo in game reserves in the south of the country.

Instead, I chose to study the marine and bird life on the lake in the north-east.

And before anyone accuses me of wimping out, let me state that while swimming, snorkelling and bathing in Lake Malawi, I was sharing it with at least one seven-foot crocodile.

It takes a special man to give clients the confidence to follow his example and take to the waters. That man is Howard Massey-Hicks, whose family history would provide material for a Wilbur Smith novel.

Howard's ancestors, Lady Hicks and a carpenter called Massey, caused a scandal when they fell in love and emigrated from Ireland to South Africa at the start of the 19th century.

Howard emigrated to Malawi in 1992. Six years ago he persuaded wife Michelle to help him live his dream when he designed his catamaran yacht Mafusa and launched Danforth Yachting at Cape Maclear (www.danforthyachting.com).

From the comfort of his ten-berth yacht I explored the lake, while crewman Victor dealt with my laundry and chef Nwadie prepared mouth-watering dishes from his galley. But first, I took a trip to the Nyika crocodile farm at Salima where 14,000 of these sinister creatures are converted annually into handbags, wallets and shoes.

Farmer Obert Mtalimanja (did a croc chew his "R", I wondered) showed us his stock of young crocs.

Then he introduced us to his adult breeding animals, including a 40-year-old male which was 13-feet long.

Back on board Mufasa, we had a chance to visit the various lodges which have been built to cater for the area's embryonic tourist industry.

First port of call was the Nkwichi Lodge, just over the border in Mozambique. To reach it we had to have our papers stamped by a barefoot Malawi immigration official wearing shorts and a Maradona soccer shirt.

On the Mozambique side of the lake, passport controllers had thoughtfully placed a tray for tips marked "Thank You" in three different languages.

Here a Down's Syndrome boy called Ben "adopted" me by gently holding my hand and proudly showing me off to his pals.

Nkwichi Lodge (www.mandawilderness.org) is reached through its naturally-hidden private bay and has access to three miles of rocky shoreline, dense bush and sandy beach.

Seven spacious wooden chalets made from local materials blend into the forest. My room boasted a four-poster bed, had an outside toilet, open-air bath and shower, and its own private beach.

It also has its own tribe of vervet monkeys which live on-site and a group of baboons that jabber away from the depths of the forest.

Profits are ploughed back into the Manda Wilderness Project, a local conservation scheme which has provided schools, water sanitation and a maternity hospital for nearby villagers.

Although Likoma Island is only six miles off the coast of Mozambique, it belongs to Malawi and its star attraction, Kaya Mawa Lodge, has been voted one of the world's ten most romantic destinations by Condé Nast magazine (www.kayamawa.com).

Four honeymoon couples were staying in the nine thatch, wood and stone cottages when I visited.

One of the chalets is called Honeymoon Island and is reached by a wooden suspension bridge. It is shaded by a giant mahogany tree which is home to a resident pair of yellow-billed kites from October to January.

Likoma Island also has a cathedral, St Peter's, built in 1903, to serve its 7000 population. Its first dean was a Glaswegian called William Pascal Johnson, and inside the building is a plaque to Charles Frederick Mackenzie, first missionarybishop to the tribes, who was born in Scotland in 1825 and died of fever near Chiromo in 1862.

It was while we were on our way from Nkwichi to Kaya Mawa, admiring a pair of fish eagles which were putting on an impressive aeronautical display, that we saw a seven-foot long croc basking on a rock some 50 yards from the Mozambique shore. It was a graphic reminder that this magnificent landscape with its spectacular sights and stunning sunsets, is anything but tame.

Like the other lakeside lodges mentioned here, Makuzi Beach Lodge is a popular chill-out zone for tourists coming back from hectic safari schedules elsewhere (www.makuzibeach.com).

After a candlelit dinner, yoga teacher Lara Pollard helps guests clear away the cobwebs and any hangovers on the beach next morning.

Nearby is Bandawe Mission, established in 1881 by Scottish Presbyterians, many of whom died from tropical diseases and are buried in the local cemetery.

One of the plots, where Alfred W Roby Fletcher (1868-1898) lies, has a memorial "erected by Edinburgh schoolboys."

Other graves, containing the bodies of Lizzie Ann McMinn, George Swinny, Sophia Aitken, the Rev Alexander Bain, James Sutherland and James Fraser, give the clearest indication of the influence of Scottish missionaries in the area.

It was also apparent in the Christian names of current village chief Alex Banda, and the mission's pastor, Rev Elliot Ngwira, that the legacy continues.

Aussie couple John and Bronnie have only been running the Chintheche Inn nearby since spring this year, but John has already started using his kitchen garden to supplement his cordon bleu cooking.

And in October they will host their own version of Woodstock or Glastonbury with the Lake of Stars Music Festival, featuring British DJs and top Malawian bands (www.wilderness-safaris.com).

My last day in Malawi was spent at the Luwawa Forest Lodge created 5200 feet above sea level by Yorkshireman George Wardlow (www.luwawaforestlodge.com).

At the southern end of a 121,000 square mile forest of pines, and overlooking a dam, the lodge has been turned into an outdoor adventure centre, offering a vast range of sporting activities.

But the highlight of my stay was a visit to the Donija Village, where blind headman Vincent Madings Nkoma organised a tour of the farms and thatched huts.

He also explained the dowry system where go-betweens arrange a bride's price once she has consented to a match.

The day ended with a vigorous display of traditonal singing and dancing, hugs all round and a vote of thanks to "Bwana Georgie."

Travel facts

Alan Hart went with Southern Africa Travel, who provide tailor-made trips to Malawi. For further info click on www.southernafricatravel.co.uk, email enquiries@satravel.co.uk or ring 01483-428162.

Kenya Airways fly six times a week from London Heathrow to Lilongwe via Nairobi. Fares start from £446 return.

For further info click on www.kenya-airways.com or ring 01784-888222.

For further info on Malawi click on www.malawitourism.com or ring 0115-982-1903

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