The first European to see this lake was the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, in 1859. He named it Lake Nyasa. A Christian mission was established near Cape Maclear, in the south-western corner of the lake, as early as 1875, but it was abandoned a few years later, as the missionaries died of malaria. Another mission, called Livingstonia, was established in the high, malaria-free mountains northwest of the lake. The work of the missionaries was very efficient indeed, and today almost the entire population of Malawi are Christians.
Shortly after our departure, the ship comes to a stop. A passenger – presumably a VIP – has missed the ferry, and one of Ilala’s small motor boats, attached to the side of the ferry, is sent ashore. When it returns, the ship glides out between the rocks, bound for the village of Chilinda, on the eastern lake shore. The coast here is low, and we are quite close to it, before we are able to distinguish great baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) and fishermen’s huts from the surrounding landscape.
Ilala anchors some distance from the shore, whereupon its two motor boats are lowered into the water. Passengers jump into the boats, bringing all sorts of luggage, such as suitcases, boxes, huge bunches of unripe bananas, flower-pots, and cages containing chickens or ducks, tied together by the legs, two or more in a bundle. The boats depart in a dense cloud of diesel smoke, only to return a little later with new passengers. Several trips must be made, before all passengers, bound for this village, have been brought ashore. Some passengers are picked up by small canoes. Other canoes approach the ship, loaded with mangoes, and a furious haggling over the price begins. When the two parties have come to an agreement, the fruits are handed up, and coins are tossed into the canoe.
The boat is only half loaded before taking off towards the shore to await more suitable weather conditions. And soon the rain diminishes, the gusts of wind are less fierce, and the lightning ceases. The passengers on the upper deck are drenched to the skin, and they face a very uncomfortable night. I am happy that I was able to seek shelter in my tiny cabin during the worst part of the storm.
In the dark night, we head north. At dawn, the weather is pleasant, although the waves are still quite high. We approach the village of Nkhotakota, named after the numerous sand bars found in this part of the lake. Drumbeats announce that breakfast is served on First Class. The rolling ship causes a single passenger to lose his appetite, and he must leave the table before getting his fill.
The islands bear the stamp of a long period of human habitation, the present population numbering about 5,000 souls. Apart from a few fat baobab trees there are hardly any wild trees left on the islands – they have all been felled to be used as timber or firewood, e.g. for fish-smoking. Today, a number of eucalyptus trees have been planted to supply firewood, but not nearly enough to cover people’s need.
The pride of Likoma is its great cathedral, an impressive building, which was inspired by the cathedral in Salisbury, England, and almost as large. Construction began in the late 1800s and was completed in 1911. It is beautifully crafted in stone and has fine stained-glass windows, depicting e.g. the twelve apostles. The roof is new and rather ugly. A great building like this seems rather out of place on this tiny island – perhaps fulfilling the ambitions of a bishop rather than the need of the inhabitants. The cemetery is unique. Because of the rocky surface of the island, most graves are above ground, covered by numerous small rocks, sometimes with a stone or iron cross squeezed between the stones.
White-breasted cormorants (Phalacrocorax lucidus) rest on rocks around the island, and a large, red-and-white fish-eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) is soaring over the lake. Suddenly, it plunges into the water, emerging with a fish in its talons, while its mate, sitting in a nearby tree, emits a penetrating call. Supposedly, Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) occur here, but we don’t see any. Out on the lake, birds are surprisingly scarce. I only observe a few grey-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus) and white-winged terns (Chlidonias leucopterus).
While the landscape around the eastern and southern lake shores mainly consists of low, rolling hills, steep mountains rise several hundred metres along the north-western shore, between Nkhata Bay and Mlowe. These mountains are densely inhabited, most villages situated along small streams, which make their way between the hills, down to the lake. Only the most inaccessible parts of the mountains are still forest-clad. Elsewhere, the forest has been cleared for timber and firewood, fields now stretching most of the way up the slopes. A depressing sight, but only too common throughout the Tropics.
This area is almost devoid of roads. Narrow and winding, one road leads to the lake shore, running from Mzuzu through the mountains, then steeply down the slope through a number of hairpin bends, ending abruptly at the village of Usisya. Villagers along the lake shore connect with the outside world via M/V Ilala or M/V Mtendere, in small canoes, or on foot. If you don’t own a canoe, you must hike up steep trails to reach the road, from where you can continue your journey by bus.
North of Mlowe, the mountains have retreated inland, and sand bars are stretching far into the lake. In the afternoon, we reach the harbour in Chilumba. My three-day trip on Lake Malawi has come to an end.