|Diving Africa's Lake Malawi
by Bill Hartley
Consider a lunar landscape: barren, but for the boulders and rock outcroppings covered with a fine layer of silt and dust. Place this landscape on earth and in a distant and mysterious continent; sink it into a valley 700 meters deep that covers an area about the size of one of the Great Lakes. Then fill this lowland with water until it becomes a vast lake. Add more than 600 species of small iridescent fish and a variety of fresh water critters, birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. and you have Lake Malawi in South Central Africa; the most species diverse lake in the world.
For most of us, Africa conjures images of a remote and isolated continent; a dark foreboding land unsafe for travelers. Once that was true, but today parts of Africa welcome tourists with open arms. After a fourteen and a half hour flight from New York, my wife and I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg is a reasonably safe city, not unlike other cities around the globe assuming you travel wisely.
After a night's lay over in the five-star Marko Polo Hotel, and a city tour, we began our adventure with an air hop north to Malawi, and a trip down an isolated "highway". Highway is an optimistic description for a road that soon turned from blacktop to dirt and then dirt to dust interspersed with sparse patches of pavement.
As we followed the shoreline of Lake Malawi northward we traveled through countless small fishing villages filled with pleasant hard working people reaping the lakes deep-water bounty for a base existence. At day's end we left the dirt "highway" and proceeded down a nicely paved "secondary" road and into the heart of a bahab forest. We had arrived at Club Makakola, a lakeside resort on the shore of Lake Malawi, home base for Scuba Blue, our host for the next few days.
This unique facility was nothing like our expectations but rather a lush oasis in the midst of a harsh and parched landscape. It is not simply a hotel or a lodge but a luxury resort of exceedingly clean, modern facilities, individual beachfront villas and clustered rooms. The resort even has an 18 hole golf course populated by bahab trees who's short branches reach out to snag passing balls. The resort has a dive shop, pool, two restaurants and a wonderful beach. All these amenities are tucked among and within a magnificent old growth bahab tree forest and nestled in along the shore of the lake.
Because of the resort's isolation, all of the food, fruits, vegetables and meats, are either grown or raised on the resort or in neighboring villages and are picked or harvested daily. Johann, the resort's chef was a true culinary wizard and he is as dynamic as the dishes he prepares. Utilizing seasonal foods, blending spices, herbs and exotic ingredients, Johann creates amazing dining experiences beyond your imagination. The attention to detail even extends to the herbs and flowers adorning the dining tables. More than just pleasing to the eye they also warded off pesky insects as we dined under Africa's star-lit-skies.
We had come to Africa to dive, and our diving experience began with Kayak Africa in Cape Mclear. We would later find out that some of the best and more unique diving in Lake Malawi was just right outside the resort, around one of the small islands, a bird sanctuary set aside by the Malawi government, known as Bird Island. Cape Mclear is an even smaller and more isolated village than many others we had passed; it was miles from anywhere, still farther north along the shore of Lake Malawi. In order to reach our lodgings and first dive site on Dombwe Island in the lake, we had the option of being ferried across in a small boat or by individual kayak. We chose the latter and opted for a two person kayak. Not the wisest choice I've ever made, but certainly the more adventurous. (Now, listen to the voice of experience and take the lesson they offer before embarking on your 1-hour journey to the island. Kayaking is not as easy as it might look and a lesson would prove to be less embarrassing in the over all scheme of things.)
The lodging on this remote island consisted of wonderful safari tents, which had all the amenities of home, no kidding, except for electricity, and who needs that! For our checkout dive we took a short walk down from the camp to the lake's edge, where all of our dive gear awaited us in a beachfront pavilion. Due to the altitude and fresh water, our buoyancy was a little different, but after re-weighting ourselves we had no problems. Our first dive revealed an impressive array of geological formations, habitats and homes for a great variety of small fish species. Hundreds of fish, no larger than a half-inch in length hung in clutches around the tops of many flat rock formations. Larger, bright blue cichlids, some with two yellow spots, others with three or four, swam between the boulders. Silt covered everything and there was little to no significant sign of plant life. A liquid lunar landscape would best describe the lake's bottom. The sun's rays however, gave our aquatic environment a heavenly look as the ray's created ribbons of color and danced off the rocks in the shallower waters of the lake.
Over the next two days we hit four different dive sites, each one a slightly different version of the first. Our favorite location was just out from Elephant Island, where the sun's rays were intensified and danced magically off the wonderful geological formations that rose up to just below the surface where cichlids rhythmically rushed between the outcrops.
On the third dive day we were picked up by Scuba Blue in their 75 foot cabin cruiser; the Sun Bird. Our first dive site from aboard the vessel was like an underwater amphitheater, created by an immense rock over 200 feet across. Nature's design intensified even the slightest sounds through this outcropping. Even the gentle slapping of the lake's waves against the rock's side was transformed from a gentle lapping above, into underwater vibrations that seemed to travel right through my body. It produced not only sound, but physical feelings, something strange, a penetrating deep feeling. Almost, nerve racking. The vibrations however, didn't seem to bother the giant catfishes that snuggled under the rock and along and between the sand bottom. Nor did it seem to affect the foraging fresh water crabs, the largest I've ever seen, about eight inches across the back.
Johann, our award-winning chef, had decided to join us on this excursion, as he is an avid snorkeler. As the resorts' chef he had also prepared the meals for the Sun Bird in her new galley. Once again he worked his magic, between dives he served up: "just a little lasagna." However, eight courses later, we had to push the afternoon dive back to allow our meal to settle. Over lunch, Ken from Scuba Blue and Johann talked about the history of diving in Lake Malawi, the resort and Africa in general. Both being natives of the continent their perspectives were quite different from ours and very enlightening.
Johann also explained that running a resort in Central Africa provides different challenges than the ones we might experience in the western world. Running a resort, such as Club Makakola in the center of Africa is quite a chore, almost impossible, in fact a tremendous amount of hard work is required to even maintain day-to-day operations and an existence. Johann told us when he first joined the staff, he did so as a personal challenge. The task soon ran much deeper. Food crops were minimal at best and transportation costly.
Because of the difference in life style, peoples of the region didn't understand the concepts or basics for personal hygiene in the kitchen and how such simple things could affect many aspects of theirs and others' lives. Most had never been in a real kitchen as they live a quite simple life in thatched huts. The educational process began with intense job training. Johann spent much of his first years at the resort teaching, and creating rotating gardens. Today, this is where most of the food for his kitchen comes from. As Johann puts it: "This resort, as do many others in Africa, depend heavily on the local villages, and the villages depend on the resorts, a symbiotic relationship, ecotourism functioning and at work."
Few bodies of water in Africa are free of hippopotamus and crocodiles. Hippos are far more aggressive than crocs and are therefore far more dangerous. Lake Malawi is one of those few bodies of water free of such predators with exception of an occasional wanderer. With the increase of human population around the lake, its extreme depth and the lack of vegetation along the lake's shore, such species tend to avoid the lake
Monkey Bay was our next stop, and another premium dive site. We had no sooner jumped into the water and headed toward the shallows, when a cloud of murk and silt drifted up from just beyond our visibility range; there loomed a silhouette of a hippopotamus foraging up ahead. We had just encountered the exception. With hearts racing, we did a quick about face, doing our best not to draw its attention. Without incident, we returned to the Sun Bird to allow our adrenalin rush to subside. The hippo was busy, and didn't notice us but his presence was enough to scare the heck out of us.
You should always save the best till last, and they did. Bird Island had several small colonies of cormorants, and four families of fish eagles on it. It's amazing to motor up and just watch the birds do their thing. The final dive sight looked little different from the others until the cormorants decided to go fishing all around us. Pop, pop, pop, bullets of birds penetrated the waters surface to stream down and grab a small fish, then to ascend and return to feed their young.
But what really startled me on that dive was the darting and weaving of two small mammals. At first I didn't know what it was that had come to visit, until one swam through my legs, then closely circled around my body and pried down over my head and into my mask! It was a lake otter. Evidently, this pair of otters occasionally likes to visit with divers. They like to get close, maybe for the warmth, and play with the bubbles. We happened to be the lucky divers that day.
We had traveled half way around the world, and were not about to leave Africa without a "traditional" safari. We'll take you to our next stop, Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia in next month's issue.