This Christmas break we spent two weeks on Likoma Island–enough time for it to work its strange magic on us. There is something peaceful yet claustrophobic about the isolation and remoteness of the island. It didn’t take us long to adapt to the relaxed atmosphere of Mango Drift backpackers lodge: we swam, kayaked, snorkelled, read lots of books, ate dinner on the beach and learned how to dive. Likoma is a beautiful, wild tropical island paradise. In our tent at night, we fell asleep to the sound of lapping water, the eerie calls of night birds and the scuttling of strange insects.
Likoma has its own micro climate that it shares with Mozambique, as it is actually closer to Mozambique than to Malawi mainland. We would often hear thunder and see lightning, but it very rarely rained. There’s also a strange phenomenon that takes place on Lake Malawi during the rainy season, and we got to see it up close for the first time in Likoma. This phenomenon looks like plumes of smoke hovering over the surface of the lake, but those plumes are actually columns of tiny lake flies swirling in vast black clouds many miles from the shore. It’s not known why the flies do this, but it is an important function for the lake’s ecosystem. The flies eventually die and their bodies fall to the water, where they are eaten by fish.
We were observing one such cloud from the beach one day, when the wind picked up and the cloud started moving closer and closer. Suddenly it was upon us and we just barely managed to zip the tent closed before we were surrounded by millions of frantic midges. But just as quickly as they had moved from the lake to the shore, they disappeared over the mountain behind us.
We’d been dreaming of taking the Ilala ferry from Monkey Bay to Likoma Island since we got to Malawi in 2012, but the Ilala was broken and undergoing repairs and we didn’t know when it would be finished. Then, finally, in summer 2013 we heard that it was up and running again. We started planning our trip for the Christmas holiday. THEN, two weeks before we were due to leave, the damn thing broke down again. One of its brand new engines stopped running as it was leaving Nkhata Bay and it had to be towed back to the port. HUGE disappointment. The trip on the Ilala is supposed to be amazing. Luckily there were other boats going to Likoma from Nkhata Bay. We had originally planned to go on the Malungu but the captain had told us the boat will leave around 8:00 so we should get there for 6:30. We decided to be safe so we got there at 6:00 and the boat was already full and leaving. That’s when we found out about the Mwande, a much more comfortable boat- a bizarre, metal double-decker with two engines. The whole trip took about 10 hours but that includes 3 hours of sitting on the boat waiting for it to actually leave.
For the benefit of other travelers wanting to visit Likoma, I want to provide some information about getting there. With the Ilala broken down again, it’s difficult to find information about the other boats. Here’s what you need to know:
The best way to reach Likoma from the mainland is from Nkhata Bay. Go to the port (bay opposite Aqua Africa dive shop) and ask for boats. At the time of writing there were three boats leaving at least once a week. The boats:
Malungu- If you’re on a budget and want an authentic Malawian experience, take this boat. It’s supposed to leave Nkhata Mondays and Fridays (leaves Likoma for Nkhata Wednesdays and Satrdays) but it’s best to double check with the boat operator (Phone: 0999700295). The Malungu is an old wooden double-decker boat and if you get there early you might get a seat. If not, you will find yourself crammed on the floor or on a stack of drink crates. Fare is 2500 Kwacha.
Mwande- A nicer and slightly more expensive alternative to the Malungu. This boat also has two decks but is newer and made of crudely welded metal. You will recognize it by its boxy shape. It has green canvas flaps that go down on all sides to shield passengers from the rain, which is a good thing, but they do play really loud and annoying music throughout the ENTIRE journey so bring earplugs or an iPod. On our trip they played Lucky Dube’s ‘Remember Me’ 11 times (I counted). It’s a good song but hear it 11 times and it becomes torture. The Mwande is more comfortable than the Malungu but is lacking in soul and character. It is also very unreliable. We took it to Likoma and planned to take it on the way back too. The day before we were set to leave, the lodge manager called the boat captain, who assured him that the boat would leave Likoma at 9:00. When we got to the bay the next morning, the Mwande was nowhere to be seen, so we hopped on the Malungu (which was actually a much more interesting and culturally enriching experience). When we arrived in Nkhata Bay that evening, guess who was hanging out all casual in the port? Yup, the Mwande.
Fares: Bottom deck- 2500 to Chizumulu, 3000 to Likoma; Top deck- 3500 to Chizumulu, 4000 to Likoma. Do NOT let them charge you any more if you are a mzungu. We met some South African girls in Likoma who had paid 17,000 EACH because the woman collecting the fare money decided she was going to charge mzungus more that day!
Chambo- I haven’t actually seen the Chambo, but we heard about it from Chris, the owner of Ulisa Bay Lodge in Likoma. He described it as even better and faster than the Mwande, with more comfortable seats and a proper toilet. If you’re after comfort and money is not an issue, ask around Nkhata Bay for more information.
For your listening pleasure, here’s Lucky Dube. This song will forever remind me of our trip on the Mwande.
First stop: Nkhata Bay
Before departing for Likoma, we spent two nights in Nkhata Bay’s Mayoka Village, where we had stayed for about a week exactly one year ago before traveling to Zulunkhuni River Lodge. It was nice to come back to Mayoka because it’s a really cool backpackers’ lodge (and the food is awesome). We decided to try the ‘Mayoka Challenge’, which we were too embarrassed to do last time we were there. In order to complete the challenge, two people must get into a traditional Malawian dugout canoe, put their legs inside the canoe and without falling off paddle to and around a raft some 30 meters from the beach, and paddle back. If you succeed, you get a night’s free accommodation. Well, we tried, and failed for about an hour, with the Malawian bar staff laughing at us. It’s an impossible feat for westerners yet the Malawians do it with such ease and grace.
When we finally arrived in Likoma at around 16:00, we were picked up by the Mango Drift manager and driven to the lodge. First impression: Stunning. There were no gates or walls or anything. We simply strolled along the beach from the vehicle, walked past a barely noticeable wooden sign, and suddenly the chalets of Mango Drift appeared. The lodge is set on a beautiful, tranquil stretch of pristine sandy beach. We pitched our tent and breathed a deep sigh of relief. As far as we were concerned, this was the most beautiful place on Earth.
Diving in Lake Malawi
I finally mustered up the courage to do the PADI Open Water Course and Likoma was the perfect place to do it. The lake is pretty calm here, there isn’t a lot of swell, no strong currents and the visibility is good. Ever since I came to Malawi I have been curious about what is down there, underneath that glittering blue water. The lake is just teeming with colorful cichlids; it’s like diving in an aquarium. There are no coral reefs obviously, but there are some very cool rock formations. Courtesy of Ben, the diving instructor at Mango Drift / Kaya Mawa, I have this little video of my first real dive. This was filmed at the Honeymoon Island dive site, which is part of the luxury Kaya Mawa resort.
Music: “Accralate” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
3:08 – Blue male cichlid
3:40 – Ancient underwater rock carving. Not much is known about this. It’s probably so old that it wasn’t actually under water when it was created. Over the years the lake expanded and covered the carving. According to my dive instructor, similar carvings have been found in Ethiopia but little is known about their meaning. I would love to find out more but couldn’t find anything on the Internet.
4:12 – Mouthbrooder cichlid mama fish collecting her babies in her mouth. Don’t worry, she’s not eating them; she’s taking them into her mouth to protect them from the weird goggle-eyed, bubble-emitting monsters that have appeared out of nowhere.
4:58- Blue crab!
The way back on the Malungu
We grumbled a bit when we found out we had to take the Malungu back to Nkhata Bay, but in retrospect I’m glad we did. It was a hilarious experience, with all the mzungu passengers complaining that the boat is over capacity and the Malawians laughing and saying everything will be ok. At one point we even had two live, squealing pigs on the bottom deck, but they were offloaded in Chizumulu.