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krisek Cape Maclear - A travel report by Krys
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Cape Maclear,  Malawi - flag Malawi
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krisek's travel reports

Lake Malawi - African Fish Eagle & A Perfect Beach

  14 votes
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Malawi - the warm heart of Africa, was a writing on a fishing boat at the Lake Malawi. The country for many years was amongst the friendliest African states to visit. Often described as Africa for beginners.

Cape Maclear travelogue picture
The flight from Lusaka (Zambia) on a Nyasa Express flight to Blantyre was quick and operated with a very small aircraft. So small that the flight attendant asked passengers to pass along the trays with complimentary snacks, one by one to each other. I would've gone to the shores of the Lake Malawi immediately, but I had to collect my visa from the Immigration Office in town. The airport officer was out.

Next day, it took so long with the bureaucracy et al, that I missed by bus connection to Monkey Bay. I needed to look for alternative options to get there and back in time for my flight from Lilongwe to Entebbe (Uganda). I took a taxi. It cost me $120.

When I got to Monkey Bay, I couldn't believe it was so uninspiring and empty. I quickly made a decision to move to Cape Maclear instead and stay there on the beach, at one of the campsites.

There were a few accommodation options in Cape Maclear. Although I thought of the Emmanuel's first, I saw the Fat Monkey was better advertised so I hoped to meet other travellers there. I changed my mind and went there. It was a good move as the restaurant was decent and there were in fact a few travellers around. Some of them stayed there and some kept coming just for the bar and restaurant.

As soon as I checked in, I had my brunch (fish with rice) in the beach restaurant and went to check the famous lake. I thought there would be some palm trees by the shore but they were all gone, apparently turned into charcoal.

The beach was fairly clean despite all the usual 'fishing village activities' - fishing, netting, dish washing and fish cleaning, and soap and foam for bathing. It was impressive the beach was not smelly or dirty. One could safely relax on the sand, take a swim in the lake (ask fishermen for a spot bilharzia-free) or fry under the sun.

The local community must have understood that although this was their beach, and they could do whatever they wanted on it, the tourists, who come there, liked the beach clean.

Favourite spots:
Comment and his uncle's boat
Comment and his uncle's boat
In the morning, I took a trip to an island in the Lake Malawi National Park for fish eagle spotting and lazing on the beach, as planned. I was hoping to take a few good pictures of the eagles but was not sure if I was going to see any. It was very hot. On hot days birds usually hide in shade. Frankly, I did not know what to expect.

The four guys who took me, Gift, Soft, Comment and Laniweck insisted that I was going to see not just one, but a few eagles and that I was going to take excellent pictures. The lads, all in senior grammar school, had a trick with the fish eagles. They bought small fish and after whistling at the birds they tossed the bate into the lake. The eagles then took off from the tree branches and went for the fish. The birds came quite close but it was still tricky to photograph them because they were very fast! Fortunately, about six eagles came, so I had plenty of opportunities. I could not get enough of it. We stopped a fishing boat mid-lake and got more bate.

What's really great:
Cape Maclear children playing on the beach, being excited about a photo camera
Cape Maclear children playing on the beach, being excited about a photo camera
This is how I met the chaps - within 25 minutes of walking on the beach on my first day, I met an 18 year-old artist-turned-guide or guide-turned-artist. This was Gift. I found his name unusual but I could most definitely understand the reasons why his parents gave him that name. He was the first-born son. He offered the boat trip to the nearby islands and to see the famous eagle. Gift introduced me to Soft, who became very excited about my thoughts about the ride and promised me a fantastic trip with splendid photographic opportunities if I chose to go with them. Obviously I had to ask a few screening questions and agree to a price before shaking on it. Finally, I did and told the boys to pick me up at Fat Monkeys at 9 a.m. next day. They asked me for an advance payment but I had to decline that request. It is a good principle, in general. I met Comment and Laninweck in the morning. Their job was to cook lunch. I ordered fish the day before, and asked it was grilled.

Songa village - main street
Songa village - main street
One of the three Cape Maclear fishing villages, Songa, where Fat Monkeys were actually located, were quite picturesque in the late afternoon. There were a few interesting houses and a short alley of giant baobabs or rather a large square, where a shop and a disco bar were located. I have to say that this could have easily been the most pleasant spot of my trip so far.

The houses were built of mud brick and painted in light brown or white. Many had small fences made of reed. Women were snoozing under the giant trees or manufacturing something for their households. Kids were playing quietly in the shade of the baobabs and a few guys chatted at the steps of the little shop, sipping local beer from large brown bottles.

The late afternoon sun made the trees cast long shadows and no-one had to hide in their houses anymore. They took their everyday life to this little square. I was surprised to find it like that at the lake. I thought there was only going to be the beach and a few huts.

Typical house at the Lake Malawi
Typical house at the Lake Malawi
As I said, there were a few accommodation options in Cape Maclear. Although my plan considered staying at the Emmanuel's, I actually never saw it. The Fat Monkey, where I eventually stayed, was more promising for good atmosphere as it was heavily advertised at the main road from Blantyre. And in fact it was. Travellers from other campsites and lodges kept coming to the Fat Monkey for the restaurant and bar, some five yards from the beach! That included Aubry, who actually owned his own lodge down the beach... Aubry helped me get out of Cape Maclear, which was more challenging that I initially thought. I did not have to be though (more later in the reported).

In the morning, Aubry picked me and showed me his lodge, the Chimbe Eagle’s Nest, where I waited for the transport. The lodge was great, although it was designed for travellers with a larger budget. Aubry had great plans to further develop the place, including a large terraced restaurant and bar. It looked superb already!

Lake Malawi, sunset at Cape Maclear
Lake Malawi, sunset at Cape Maclear
Fat Monkey had the most popular bar along the beach in Cape Maclear. It mostly attracted foreign travellers and owners of other places to stay in the area, and young local entrepreneurs like Anton, who owned a speed boat. The bar was open until very late and snacks were always available. The owners provided games and cards to stimulate mingling of the clientelle. It was a great spot and perfect place to chat with other Africa lovers.

I did plan to check the local disco at Songa out, but I got into trouble with transportation to Lilongwe (or the lack thereof), and did not end up going there. I heard from the young lads that it was a great fun and the atmosphere was often hot! They told me not expect anything more fancy than just a dark hut with no air-conditioning and nothing more sophisticated stereo-wise than just a small stereo set playing tapes thorough large speakers.

Lake Malawi at sunset
Lake Malawi at sunset
Well, as for hangouts, one comes to Cape Maclear for the lake, beach, and perhaps little islands. These would be the typical spots for relaxing for the visitors. The beach was clean, and parts of it were secluded, where one could sit down, watch the lake in peace and reflect on their lives...

Small beaches, away from intruders were on the little islets on the lake, but to get there required hiring a boat, etc.

The local Malawians had their own hanging out spot. That of course was the largest tree in the village, one of the baobabs in Songa. The largest tree was always reserved for the men. Ladies had to pick up a different tree, and since there were a few of those near the little square, it looked like the entire population liked to hang out on that square. About an hour and a half before sunset was the time to meet everyone there. The men would gossip about everything and the ladies would do their hand craft and chat about their families.

Fishing boats on the Lake Malawi, in the morning coming back
Fishing boats on the Lake Malawi, in the morning coming back
I ate at the Fat Monkey, and they could cook beautifully. Everything was super fresh and they used this special spices and sauces, that made all the dishes taste yummy, even the chips. The menu was not very long, but there were enough options on fish and chicken.

A number of young guys from the beach offer their cooking skills, particularly for breakfast and for lunch. I did not try their breakfast options but I did ask them to grill me a fish for lunch, as we went for a boat ride with an isle exploration and eagle watching. The fish was large and excellent, and of course it was fresh. Fortunately, as it was so big, my boat captain, the guide, and the cooks could all have some. Sitting by the small fire and chatting about Malawi waiting for the fish to grill was priceless. I was a bit nervous about the hygiene (unfortunately I saw how they washed the cutlery and the utensils in the lake), but I had taken all the necessary jabs before I left London...

Other recommendations:
African Fish Eagle
African Fish Eagle
The boat trip from Cape Maclear to Senga Bay, near Lilongwe, can take as little as 35 minutes if the lake is calm. Normally, it takes 45 minutes, which compared with the five hour overland journey on an extremely hot and overcrowded bus is a no-brainer. Not only is it significantly faster but first of all is comfortable and the pleasant lake breeze is literally a bliss.

Obviously pleasure like this costs considerably more. The cheapest ride was USD 100 but there were others who could charge more depending on the boat. Anton, for example, asked twice as much, and the Chimbe Eagle's Nest could do it for USD 150. It might sound much for a lone traveller but for six people it becomes USD 18 a head. Now, one had to make a choice - a breezy, comfortable 45 minutes boat ride or a cramped, bumpy and superhot five hours bus journey.

Published on Saturday June 28th, 2008

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Sun, Oct 12 2008 - 04:56 PM rating by aufgehts

Another interesting report, Krys! The eagles are really special. ;)

Mon, Jun 30 2008 - 04:11 AM rating by marianne

excellent! good info and photos.

Sun, Jun 29 2008 - 08:35 AM rating by achalek

Great as always.
Krys, You should have your own TV show.

Sat, Jun 28 2008 - 10:43 AM rating by davidx

The final choice doesn't sound difficult!

Sat, Jun 28 2008 - 08:07 AM rating by rangutan

Excellent, makes my report look like a summary.

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