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African heat

Jake Cook takes a look at the misty plains, tall mountains, tea plantations and friendly smiles of Malawi

My small propeller plane was on final descent. Water below as far as the eye could see, but we were nearly 400 miles from the Indian Ocean. How could I describe the colour beneath me? An almost translucent turquoise aquamarine, summed it up best.
And then, suddenly, rushing up to meet our wheels, land. A village here, sandy beaches there, that absolutely wouldn’t be out of place in the Caribbean, and stocky baobab trees, standing guard.
We came to a halt on the tarmac. The door opened and a wave of heat poured in. A broad smile at the bottom of the fold-out stairs. Welcome to Likoma.

Malawi is something of an enigma, certainly when it comes to travel. It’s a secret, though, that’s getting out: television network CNN named three locations there among its ‘26 must-visit places in Africa’ list recently. No other country had more.
It’s a landlocked nation sandwiched in a long slither between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. As I found out, its namesake lake has beaches that could rival islands in Asia or the Pacific.
Snorkelling in its clear waters, you’ll be blown away by the array of brightly-coloured fish. In fact, did you know that originally, many of the fish in tanks in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms came directly from Lake Malawi?

If you like walking, you’ll love Mt Mulanje and the mist-shrouded Zomba Plateau. Driving up via emerald-green tea plantations, you’ll reach the almost 10,000ft high mountain that locals call the Island in the Sky, with Mulanje Cedar trees that stretch over 100ft tall. Further north, the Nyika Plateau wouldn’t look out of place in the Scottish Highlands, although, admittedly, you’re a lot less likely to find zebras roaming outside Inverness.
At night, guides will try to lead you to the best areas to see leopard. Currently there are thought to be more than 100 of the cats here, one of the region’s densest counts. And, it’s a top spot for ornithologists: between April and October in particular many migrating birds are passing through.

If you want to see wildlife elsewhere, then the lion reintroduction programme at Majete is a success story that is definitely worth experiencing. Not much more than 10 years ago most of the wildlife had been poached out, but now it is the country’s only Big Five reserve and its recovery has been truly remarkable; more than 2,500 animals have been reintroduced, and lions are breeding with success, as are black rhino.
Another reserve, Nkhotakota, has been part of the #500 Elephants relocation programme, which is backed by Prince Harry and is the largest elephant translocation in history. Elsewhere Liwonde National Park has received the country’s first cheetah, and plans are advanced to reintroduce a pride of lions. Such is its success and momentum, that one of Africa’s top safari operators is opening a new luxury lodge there later this year.

After all the activity of hiking or a safari, the shores of Lake Malawi are a totally serene experience: imagine your alarm clock being the voices of local women singing on the beach in the morning. Picture a sea of twinkling lights in the darkness of the night as fishermen bob around with lanterns on the lake after sunset. It’s an incredibly romantic spot, a place to reconnect and relax, to snooze and catch up on that novel that’s been gathering dust since Christmas.
A dip in the lake is a must and you’ll be blown away by the clarity of the water and the array of fish. In fact, there are more than 800 types of cichlids here, enough to make a Sir David Attenborough out of any visitor.

There’s such variety of places to stay too.
Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island is an absolute slice of paradise, with bedrooms situated down by the lake, some with their own private plunge pool near the beach, offering the ultimate in seclusion. Pumulani, on the lake’s southern shore, is great for the active, and for those who want to indulge in a Robinson Crusoe fantasy, rustic eco-camp Mumbo won’t disappoint.
Malawi Southern Explorer, 11 nights from £3,950 per person including flights & transfers.

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