Malawi with Camps International

Malawi styles itself as “the warm heart of Africa” and never has a tourist strapline been proved more accurate. I was lucky enough to spend a month exploring this welcoming and beautiful country with Camps International and Langley Park Girls School on their Summer expedition. We had a team of twenty eight students and four staff who had spent the previous two years planning, fundraising and anticipating this trip and it didn’t disappoint in any way, shape or form.
Ethiopian Airlines transported us admirably via Addis Ababa and we arrived at the capital city, Lilongwe, where we proceeded to join the scrum of approximately 150 people anxiously fighting our way towards one just two immigration desks. Our first camp, Kumbali, was on the outskirts of the capital and only just around the corner from the walls of The Presidential Palace, an imposing edifice and very much at odds with anything else we were going to see over the next month. Si, our camp manager, was a legend and made sure our expedition got off to an amazing start. It was a real introduction to Africa, at night we heard Hyenas and Screech Owls, we danced and played the drums around the campfire and we worked really hard in completing a kindergarten classroom for the amazing kids from the local village. We went on a bush walk where we collected seeds from the local trees for replanting as part of the reforestation project, the Mahogany trees were the most impressive and reforestation is a serious issue in a country where cooking fuel, heat and light come from charcoal or firewood.
We were very reluctant to leave this wonderful camp but the next one certainly didn’t disappoint. Camp two was in the heart of the Kuti Community Nature Reserve not far from the town of Salima. It had a real “bush” feel to it, Yellow Baboons and Zebra wandered unannounced through camp and on our early dawn walks we saw Snake tracks, Waterbuck and plenty of birdlife. One of the highlights for the whole group was a sighting of Genevieve, Kuti’s solitary Giraffe. At this camp we got a real insight into the problems faced by the local communities such as a lack of water, no funding for educational facilities and the difficulties associated with subsistence farming. We had a real treat on our last night when we were visited by some traditional dancers performing some terrifying dances wearing amazing costumes….a real experience. But, the highlights kept on coming as we continued to our final project camp literally on the shores of Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa. Cape Maclear appears on the surface to be one of the more developed parts of Malawi with a tourist industry and a collection of lodges and camps strewn along the lakeshore but if you venture beyond this the local community is, in the main, still dependent on fishing, low level commercial trading and farming. The students worked on a library redecoration project at the local community centre, visited a local nursery school, indulged in some serious bartering and souvenir shopping and managed a practice climb up Maclear Hill ahead of our mountain trek on Mount Mulanje. It was a wrench to leave behind such a seductive place but there was big game ahead and a mountain to climb!
Liwonde National Park is one of the best known in the country for it’s wide selection of game and birdlife and the fact that compared to the honeypot destinations of Eastern and Southern Africa it has relatively low numbers of visitors. After setting up our tents we were told we would have to move them as we had pitched them on a route occasionally used by Elephants who are known to wander close to camp…..this set the tone for the rest of our stay…we saw Elephants all over the place, beautiful, dignified, amazing creatures. But it wasn’t only Elephants, there were Hippos galore, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Impala, Warthogs, Baboons, a solitary Crocodile and a couple of Lions although they were still being held in an enclosure ahead of a wider release into the park in the future. We weren’t done with the wildlife yet though as we spent a night at the very aptly named “Game Haven” where we pitched our tents above a waterhole for more beautiful views of numerous different Antelopes and a lovely family of Giraffes. The wildlife was undoubtedly one of the highlights of this trip and the safaris were done in a low key and low impact manner which was refreshing to see.
Our final challenge was to be our trek on the Mount Mulanje massif, known locally as “the island in the sky”, to it’s highest point, Sapitwa (which translates as unreachable), at 3002 metres. After much kit sorting, negotiations with porters and meeting our guides we set off on the long, hot climb towards Chisepo Hut where we would spend the night ahead of our summit assault the next day. It was a long and challenging day for the girls but they showed real fortitude and supported and encouraged each other in the face of some genuine physical challenges. It was dark by the time we arrived at the hut but there were fires going and our cook whipped up some sustenance as we tried to find some floor space in an all ready crowded hut, still in amongst the snores and the creaks and the general hubbub we all fell asleep exhausted at the end of a gruelling day. The route from Chisepo to the summit is the most challenging day I have done on a Camps expedition and in spite of an early start it was a long and tough day. The early section of the route afforded us some mesmeric views as we ascended steep, slabby rock, it was early on at this stage that we decided to split into two groups with one team coming to the summit with me and another staying lower and doing a day walk with Dave, it was tough to split the team up but proved to be the right decision. It was a torturous route of weaselling through narrow caves, creeping through low hanging forest and balancing on narrow ledges but eventually and with no little relief we made it to the summit for stupendous 360 views and an unbelievable sense of achievement. After some restorative biscuits the descent proved equally challenging due to the sense of exposure felt on the slabs…but we eventually got into camp only to find our porters had already moved our kit onto Chambe Hut which meant a three hour hike in the dark. At this stage many other teams would have given up, bitched and grumbled but not LPGS, I couldn’t have been prouder and as we made our way under a star bright sky with the occasional fire blazing in the distance I realised what a superb team I’d been blessed with on this particular expedition. On finally reaching the hut we wolfed down our chicken and rice and fell into the deepest of sleeps. After everything we had been through, our descent on day three was knee crunching but a breeze! We returned along the Mozambiquan border to Kumbali for one final night under African skies before our flight home.
I think it is safe to say Malawi has stolen my heart. This was my fourth African expedition and seventh African country but by far my favourite. The people are wonderful (particularly our amazing guides William and Ken), the landscape varied and the wildlife accessible. It is a desperately poor country but a welcoming one and one where, in my limited experience, we felt welcomed as equals not exploited as cash cows or resented as patronising Westerners. When we were in Cape Maclear on our daily walk to the project there was a patch of land on the waterfront for sale…..I can’t say I’m not tempted….