Lake Malawi, a photographer's paradise that won't break the bank

"If you want an affordable break in Africa, I don’t believe you can do better than this."

The roads are pretty bad, festooned with goats, children, bicycles and wild drivers, not to mention potholes, but you find you don’t care. The people are tolerant and friendly, and crime is minimal for Africa. 

Lake Malawi, one of the biggest lakes in the world, has the world’s highest population of African fish eagles, plus an unrivalled thousand species of fish. Then there are the comfortable lodges on the water’s edge, which charge peanuts for full board including sunset cruises on the lake with copious free gin and tonics.

We stayed at Norman Carr Cottage Chikulu for four nights and had four more at the original Norman Carr Cottage, a lodge on the water near Monkey Bay, about three hours north-east of the capital, Lilongwe, where a flight from Johannesburg lands every day about lunchtime.

Our flight coincided with two other international arrivals, and the arrivals hall was not the best place to be after an all-night flight from Perth and five hours in the airport before the two-hour connecting flight to Malawi.

I learnt the hard way to get my visa online next time after two hours in a queue. After three hours to Monkey Bay by car, we arrived in time for drinks and dinner, and an early night.

I woke at first light to the call of the eagles and monkeys playing silly buggers in the wild fig tree next to my room. The lake was calm and clear in the windless dawn, with one or two local fishermen heading out in their dugouts while others were coming in after a night on the water.

Eagles were already circling in the sky, calling in that evocative, unforgettable cry that some say is the voice of Africa. Peace and beauty everywhere I looked.

After breakfast, I took one of the kayaks out on to the lake and paddled towards the cliffs where the eagles roost during the day. The lodge guide and eagle expert, Philemon Stevens, told us there are seven pairs that live on the cliffs along the Monkey Bay stretch of water, and he knows them all. 

He takes guests out every day on the catamaran to watch and photograph the eagles as they swoop down out of the trees at his call to pick up fish he throws for them. They are fast and magnificent, and trying to get the perfect shot is endlessly challenging. Philemon knows where they nest, which have juveniles and which don’t, which ones don’t respond to his call and which ones always do. 

Like all the staff, he is friendly, helpful and full of smiles, and would do anything to help us get the shots we wanted.

Across the lake at Chikulu, a resident pair of fish eagles occupy one of the massive old boabs next to the main building, and the grassland surrounding the lodge is rich with birds of all kinds. 

Host Lynn Rowlett Stevenson, a birder from way back, is endlessly enthusiastic and up for guided walks.

I left Malawi after eight days, regretting that I had to go. I’m now planning next year’s trip — by then, the road to Chikulu will have been tarred, slashing the travel time. If you love birds and want an affordable break in Africa, I don’t believe you can do better than this.


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