Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
additional photo courtesy of Kaya Mawa
We’re in a small plane, looking out at a thin necklace of beach, green beyond and clouds above. All seems endless and open. That’s Africa. We’d flown over on South Africa Airways to partake in a camera safari. We’d just been with the big game – leopards, elephants and more. Now, it was time for R & R and little game. But I’ll get to that.
Past soft verdant hills, our small plane heads toward our next stop: a romantic island. We are on our way to an emerging destination in Africa: the Republic of Malawi. On a trip, already filled with natural wonders, we found more at Kaya Mawa Lodge on the aqua shores of Lake Malawi. This vast inland lake is the third largest in Africa. Filled with colorful fish, the lake contains 850 different species. So attractive, they furnish 80% of the world’s tropical fish. If you have a fish tank, you may well have a bit of Lake Malawi at home.
We’re headed for Likoma Island just across the water from Mozambique. This island of 8,500 people has 13 tribal villages and, of all things, a cathedral. Built in the early 1900’s, elaborate St. Peter’s Cathedral, has a cruciform shape and is made from local granite. It is significant, since missionaries were some of the first explorers in this part of the world. Religion remains an important component in Malawi life.
Malawians are known for their friendliness, and I can attest to that. Kaya Mawa itself is a warm, informal place. Its name translates as “maybe tomorrow.” So, what to do here is take it easy or, as some say, “chill out.” (The temperature can get into the high 90’s here) Once we arrived, there were lots of ways to do that. Kaya Mawa offers scuba and snorkel expeditions and lessons in both. Care to kayak or sail? It’s there for the taking and in the all-inclusive room rate. And you can always go jump in the lake. This place looks like many people’s definition of a palm-tree paradise, give or take a few monkeys and brightly-colored birds.
Most of the 11 rooms are hidden gems, built into the natural environment. Large slabs of stone lead to individual rooms. One might have a plunge pool; another has rock slabs inside the cottage and is reached by a wooden bridge over the lake. It’s not “roughing it” to be ensconced in such a natural environment, but it can be a little tough to get to it. On the other hand what better place for a honeymoon?
Other individual cottages, or chalets, as they’re called, are right on the beach, just footsteps from the lake. (Wear shoes during daytime; it’s hot out there.) I was in the family cottage, sharing a spacious bathroom. As this bathroom was partially open to the sky, plants were growing inside, and a few creepy crawlies were living there, as well. But hey, that is what you expect. A few small creatures? No problem. We’d just been with some mighty big ones.
The chalet interiors are authentic and innovative. Rope hooks are hand-made; wooden toggles keep doors closed; lamps are covered with cascading strips of shells. Those decorative elements might even have come from the stretch of beach just beyond. Beads, in decorative patterns, adorn pillows and bedspreads. Flower petals cover the bed. Environmentally-minded, our hosts waste nothing.
A short motorboat ride away is Ndomo House which sleeps eight. Unique in design, built on several levels with balconies, it is bright and fresh. It feels comfortable and airy. Having a kitchen and dining room, it’s very much a home suitable for groups or families.
With four bedrooms and a large swimming pool, Ndomo House is spacious. Its living room has its own terrace. It looks out onto the water. Filled with white sofas covered with sailcloth, the dark wood beam ceiling is interspersed with the blue and white stripe of mattress ticking. Rooms are full of Nigerian fabrics and kilim rugs. One bedroom is built around a boulder. More environmental aesthetics: bed headboards are made from old dugout canoes. Rugs of baobab string and maize husks fill the floors. Imposing entrance doors from Rajasthan and a bright Moroccan rug complete the picture. Ndomo is in a secluded spot, affording spectacular views of the crystal-clear lake. This totally private place comes with its own boat, chef, nanny, and housekeeper.
Nearby, Susie Lightfoot, whose husband owns Kaya Mawa, has started Katundu. This workshop trains and employs local people. Men at treadle sewing machines are making napkins and placemats. Women sit barefoot, sewing on beads, bones, and shells. Many of these women are single mothers, who have taken on the additional responsibility of raising orphans, a considerable population in Malawi. They are sweet and smiling and speak Chichewa, the national language.
The women seem shy, but laugh as they sit on raffia mats. Other folks are learning tailoring and carpentry. Kaya Mawa’s gift shop has become a test market to see what customers like. “It’s a great place for me to work; they’re very loyal. We have a great team. We started five years ago and have grown over the years,” says Susie.
All the dwellings and pavilions were built by local people, employed by Kaya Mawa. Everything is out of doors… don’t pray for rain! Eating well was part of the equation. Another part was an attentive, informal staff full of good humor. All speak English, and many are from English-speaking nations like Ireland or nearby South Africa.
At the end of our stay, the chorus of a local church came to perform. Church choruses are a part of this culture, and I was totally won over by their energy and spirit… and glad that now Malawi is on the tourist map!
IF YOU GO:
Award-winning Expert Africa can handle accommodations, transfers, plane flights, and activities
South Africa Airways www.flysaa.com
Kaya Mawa Lodge www.kayamawa.com
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