A journalist called Elspeth Huxley once wrote: “Africa is a cruel country (sic); it takes your heart and grinds it into powdered stone - and no one minds.”

I forgive her lack of fetish for geography (despite being educated in Kenya) because her description is so apt.

And here I am again, my powdered heart and I – this time in Malawi. Malawi Air brought us here on a day in July and as the midday Blantyre heat slowly dislodges our South African cryogenic state, the dusty, bustling road we’re on eventually reveals the magnificent winding mountain pass down into the Shire Valley. The green valley lies languidly back into the arms of the surrounding mountains like a long lost lover. I have rediscovered pure glee as we drive to our first location – Mkulumadzi Lodge in the Majete Reserve.

Located in the south of Malawi, Majete is an area of 70 000 hectares, part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. We drive for a couple of hours through villages and the sounds of children’s voices through the open window are carried on the smoky breeze as we move closer towards the vermilion setting sun.

We arrive after dark and walk across a suspension bridge. I can hardly see a thing but my senses are filled with the smell of the bush and the roar of the mighty Shire River. Our hosts Mark, Jenna, and Simon welcome us with a gorgeous dinner. The sight of my suite makes me swoon. Each of the eight luxury chalets consists of a large bedroom and lounge that opens out to a wooden deck, plus an en suite bathroom with a sunken bath that overlooks the river. There is also an outdoor rain shower which is open to the surrounding bush. The whole lodge is solar powered with a back-up generator.

There is also a two-bedroomed family unit, fiendishly designed so parents live on one side of the communal lounge and the kids on the other.

The haunting cry of a fish eagle breaks the dawn the next morning and the view breaks my heart. I open the flap door onto my deck and for the first time in the pink-grey changing colours of dawn, the magnificent river reveals itself to me. I am able to breakfast and while chomping on the most delicious muesli and fruit concoction, I stare at the river in stupefied wonder. Jenna joins me and says there are lots here to keep families busy – playing in the pool, game drives, walks and river cruises.  En-route to the river for the cruise later that day we encounter eland, warthog and a white bushbuck – which is one of the rarest sights ever I’m told by Simon. The river cruise itself suspends time in totality.We watch as a heard of about 20 elephants cross the river, silhouetted in the setting sun.

That night I stare up at an infinite blanket of stars. Some fall, most stay… After a poignant farewell the next morning we are off to Mvuu Lodge.

The people of Malawi are known for their placid, loving nature. They are the most genuine and generous of spirit and this is evident in the way they are dealing with a possible crisis approaching the country. There is hardly any fuel or electricity – and they have staged protests to this end – but everywhere people are on their way somewhere, working, getting on with life. As we drive, the country also reveals its incredible natural and dramatic beauty – rocky outcrops, high mountains and breath-taking plateaus.

After an interesting four-hour drive, we finally get to Liwonde National Park. Mvuu Lodge is a revelation. It is a hidden safari camp gem of yore, with the main lounge building set high above the still water for wonderful views. This lush and fertile area sports an excellent diversity of animals including elephant and sable antelope, impala and waterbuck. Mvuu is a true eco-lodge sans the self-congratulatory fanfare that usually accompanies such a distinction. Built in 1994, it runs only on solar power and a limited generator. Room service may be obtained by banging on a drum inside your tent and the amazing staff literally come running…

Accommodation at Mvuu Lodge comprises eight spacious tents for a maximum of 16 guests, each with en-suite bathroom facilities and a private viewing platform looking out on the lagoon.

Dinner is served on the “beach”, overlooking the dark river. The food is excellent, served by lantern and firelight with the sounds of crickets, frogs, and hippos filling the expanse of the enormous night around us. Later we sit outside on the balcony in the pitch black night. I look up. The stars have followed me. Only tonight the Milky Way has the texture of soft, white velvet and the stars seem to have multiplied tenfold. I watch in suspended reverie. Some fall. Most stay.

The entire bush and river is bathed in a hue of ghostly and otherworldly mist the next morning as we go on a safari walk with our guide Douwe. There is no sound. No wind. The mopani forest holds its breath and nothing moves in the eerie, white gloom. Then, elephants. We spot the herd very close to us through the fog as they forage, completely unaware of our existence.

I skip the boat ride later to explore the adjacent camp, a very affordable haven for families with kiddies. You can choose between charming self-catering or full-service chalets and two pools and a kiddies play area with jungle gyms and swings together with all sorts of games and activities to ensure that ne’er a dull moment will be afoot.

I decide on an early night, drifting off to sleep to the haunting cry of the pels fishing owl, its gliding echoes piercing the dark African night.

The day hence brings me, finally, to the glorious and breath-taking Lake Malawi! Pumulani Beach Lodge perches high above the tranquil, endless blue water in a lush, exotic nest against the mountain within Lake Malawi National Park.

The lodge has an airy, sea-breezy feel to it with high ceilings, some nautical decor themes and of course, a heart stopping view. The ten villas are spread out along a lush hillside overlooking the lake. Each has a large bedroom, a comfortable sitting area and a humungous bathroom with bathtub and double shower. And, naturally, private decks with views of the lake.

The lodge also has a family villa that sleeps 4 (or 5 with smaller children).

We take one of the wooden walkways down to the beach. If you have kids, beware. They will never want to leave. Besides the pool and the beach, there is water-skiing, sailing, diving, wakeboarding, kayaking, snorkelling and fishing – and everything is safe. It is a veritable mini-town practise run for big grown-up seas and oceans. The guys on the beach are ready and willing to assist in whatever activity you choose to participate, all included in the rate apart from scuba diving.

After a divine dinner, I stretch out on my balcony in the balmy night. I see six falling stars in half an hour. How many wishes can one person have?

Mumbo Island awaits us for lunch the following day and I have to devote an entire book to this pristine and deserted tropical island. Mumbo Island has never been populated and is still in its natural state with a thick covering of miombo woodland and ancient fig and baobab trees.

Aerial view of Pumulani

The tiny island camp, with capacity for only fourteen guests with one family tent, features beautifully furnished tents with shaded decks, hammocks, hot bucket showers and ‘eco-loos’. The small waves lap the tiny beach with butterfly kisses and we kayak for hours on the calm crystal blue lake in this secluded slice of heaven.

Back at Pumulani a treat awaits after dinner. The manager Chris sets up the lodge’s very fancy telescope for us to get a close-up of the constellations and planets. It is a very surreal feeling to see Saturn in real life with its rings, just like in the drawings.

A tiny 206 four-seater plane takes us abroad the next day – an hour’s flight to Mfuwe South Luangwa National Park, Zambia where our ranger Freddie meets us and takes us to our final haven – Nkwali. The rustic, yet luxurious Nkwali Camp accommodates fourteen guests and the beautiful rooms are made of woven bamboo, stone floors and thatch, each with a view of the beautiful river.

There is one family room, a double and a twin, all en-suite and with swimming pool. The laid-back, thatched Robin’s House caters for groups and families, as does the positively majestic and totally exclusive and full-serviced Luangwa House, further away on the property.

That afternoon on the game drive we spot a leopard up a tree, buffalo, lions lazing in the shade, hyena, jackals, and buffalo. The lodge also offers walking safaris, night drives and boating. Dinner makes our toes curl in familiar delight – a real, traditional  “braai” in the bush featuring maze, steak, sausage, chicken and salads.

I keep running back the next morning, as we are about to depart for home, quite sure I left something behind. I did of course but unfortunately, it is irretrievable…. hopefully the sense of wonder, uninhibited joy and the child-like glee that I left behind in Malawi and Zambia are all renewable energies…

On our last night we stayed at the quaint Heuglin’s Lodge – a charming and perfect gateway between Zambia, Malawi and South Africa with great service and great food.

Photography by Robin Pope Safaris. Story by Jo Kromberg

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