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Into the warm heart of Africa – part 3

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Chintheche Inn Rest Camp

We knew that in order to reach our next destination (Chintheche Inn) we first had to make our way back to Mzuzu the way we came in. So, after a tranquil two days at Usisya Eco Lodge (see Destination 7) we packed up camp early, said goodbye to Dani, and started the climb back up to the lower escarpment via the same mountain pass that we came in on. We knew that the road would get better after the first 20km, but that particular morning we woke up to overcast dark skies and a freak rainstorm would surely make the day much more interesting than we had planned. We managed to make it back to Mzuzu just in time before the rain came bucketing down.

Lake Malawi overlooking Usisya Bay – close to Mzuzu

Since the hamburgers that we had at uMunthu Lodge (S11.46550° E34.01603°) were so good, we decided to go for it again, and again it did not disappoint. After gobbling down the second hamburger in three days, we set out towards the direction of Nhkata Bay east via the M5. The stretch from Mzuzu to the Nkhata Bay junction via the M5 takes you through the forested Viphya Plateau with beautiful scenery, stunning trees and abundant birdlife. The M5 branches south to the right, (S11.61036° E34.26857°) and just before you reach Nhkata Bay you almost immediately enter the famous Rubberwood Plantations and pass the Vizara Rubber Factory. Here you should look out for the handmade rubber soccer balls made by the local children by using the off-cut rubber from the factory that they sell on the side of the road. We were tempted and decided to stop to purchase one of these balls and almost immediately we were swamped by local kids trying to sell their merchandise. We ended up buying three for around MKW4,000 each (approx. R80). It is amazing how they make the soccer balls and how high these balls can bounce. Unfortunately the balls are also accompanied by a seriously bad odor and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop and tie them outside on the roof-rack. Nevertheless, we were glad to have supported the local kids.

Campsite at Usisya Eco Lodge – close to Mzuzu

By the time we reached Chintheche it was raining heavily and we started to wonder if we would be able to set up camp in the adverse weather. According to the manager at Chintheche, the weather was extremely uncommon for August and it was unsure if this was just a freak rainstorm or whether it was there to stay for a while. Another factor at that stage, that was not uncommon, was the presence of lake flies, in their millions. We saw them over the lake at Usisya Eco Lodge the previous day, but now they were all over the lake’s shore. Taking all these factors into consideration we decided not to camp, but rather to check in to the hotel and enjoy the hospitality on offer without having to fight the lake flies and getting soaking wet in the process. Not very overlandy of us, but hey, if life gives you lemons.

Local fisherman – Chintheche

By now we had become really good friends with the amazing people from Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), who up to that point managed Chintheche Inn and their competency is echoed in the industry from the excellent reviews on all the places that they were involved with. However, we were sad to learn that they had decided not to renew their concession at Chintheche Inn, same as with Chelinda Camp (Nyika NP), mainly due to the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the tourism industry in Malawi. They will focus all their resources at Mvuu Camp (Liwonde NP). We were informed that Chintheche Inn will go back to government from 01 September 2020 until they can find a suitable replacement. This place was properly kept by CAWS and has all the amenities, including a very nice campsite, which will make it easy for anyone to simply tke over and continue running. We really hope that government can find someone very soon and that Chintheche Inn will remain the premier destination in the area. We also wish our friends at CAWS all the best going forward and we will see you soon again at Mvuu.

Freshly baked banana bread at Cintetche

Norman Carr Cottages

We spent only one night at Chintheche Inn since we were running out of time and only had another five days left to explore before we needed to head back to Lilongwe and Blantyre respectively. The region from here south towards Cape Maclear was relatively well known to us as we had stayed and visited many great attractions in this region including Makuzi Beach Lodge, Kachere Castle, Ngala Beach Lodge, Rafiki Safari Camp, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Nkhotakota Pottery Lodge, Kuti Wildlife Reserve, Sunbird Livingstonia, Blue Zebra Island Lodge, Chembe Eagles Nest, Thumbi View Lodge and others, and all are amazing places to visit along the southern shore of Lake Malawi.

Familiar language on entrance to Norman Carr Cottage – close to Monkey Bay

Since we had already covered the southern part of the lake on previous excursions, we decided to explore the relatively unknown south-eastern shore of Lake Malawi, at least the section that is still part of Malawi, to see a proper sunset over the lake. There is not a lot of information available about this part of the lake and our maps only showed a single road (the S129) that stops as soon as it meets the Mozambique border. We managed to find a lodge on the iOverlander app, called Norman Carr Chikulu Lodge that was highly rated for self-sufficient camping by a single review from November 2019. This lodge is a sister lodge to Norman Carr Cottages which are situated on the western shore near Monkey Bay and we were advised to first check-in there to make sure that the lodge on the other side of the lake was accessible and operational. So, our next destination was set, Norman Carr Cottages (S14.16972° E34.96558°), which is roughly 400km from Chintheche Inn.

View from the lake towards Norman Carr Cottage and neighbouring lakeshore Cottages – close to Monkey Bay

We had a bit of a dilemma at that stage since we had run out of cheese and crackers to accompany our highly anticipated sunset viewed from the eastern shore of the lake. So we called in a favour from a friend who stays in Dwangwa to buy us some fresh cheese in town. With Dwangwa as our next stop, we left Chintheche Inn heading further south on the M5, but we did not get far since we decided to do a quick stop at Kachere Kastle Lodge (S12.00956° E34.05888°) for lunch, which they are famous for in the area. Russ and Kate own and manage this remarkably beautiful lodge, replicating a typical English castle, which they built themselves with the help of the Kachere Villagers. It is a truly unique place and a must-see or must-stay when you are in the area. Their 4-course food menu will leave you longing for more. The place even has its own squash court. After arriving in Dwangwa, we were subtly instructed to stay the night at our friend’s place and join him for a braai, an offer that we couldn’t resist. We managed to do 98km for the day, but hey, the plan was not to have a plan.

The next morning we left Dwangwa early to tackle the remaining 302km to the Norman Carr Cottages. The M5 between Dwangwa and Nkhotakota is extremely narrow and is in bad shape due to the local sugarcane-trucks operating in the area. It is advisable to be very careful there as the trucks have zero regard for any other road-users. Simply, it’s best to get off the road and let them pass. 60km south of Salima, just off the M5, is the town of Mua that is home to the KuNgoni Centre of Culture & Art (S14.28075° E34.50962°), established in 1976 by a Canadian missionary Fr. Claude Boucher (‘Chisale’) who dedicated his life to research and preserve the Malawian cultures. The Chamare Museum provides excellent insight into the rich culture and history of Malawi and is also the home of some of the best and most unique wood carvings in the country. From there we turned right from the M5 onto an unmarked gravel road (S14.30239° E34.53022°) towards the M10 that continues east until it comes to a T-junction with the S128 (S14.17008° E34.94367°) that goes north towards Monkey Bay and south towards Mangochi. The entrance to Norman Carr Cottages (S14.18321° E34.96048°) is approximately 2.5km south from the T-junction towards Mangochi.

Freshly caught fish daily at local village – Chikulu Lodge

Norman Carr Cottages is owned and managed by Taffy and Leoni and what a little gem this place is. They have a stunning lounge area with charming cottages, all en-suite with outdoor showers, set on the lakeshore. They allowed us to camp on their beautifully lush green grass just behind the main lodge which has now become their well-established campground, with electricity points, under massive trees offering welcome shade. The ablution block is still under construction but Leoni provided us with keys to two of the rooms which we used for our ablutions. Taffy is a legend and a real treat as he has been in Malawi for many years and it was such a pleasure to listen to his stories (some naughty ones also), in our native Afrikaans language, with a glass of wine while enjoying our newly acquired cheese and crackers at the Norman Carr cottages.

Typical fishing village, eastern shores of Lake Malawi

Norman Carr Chikulu Lodge

Apart from a couple of naughty monkeys, our one night stay at Norman Carr Cottages Campsite was amazing, and this is definitely one of the best places to come and enjoy a relaxing weekend on the lake. But our aim was set at reaching their sister lodge, Norman Carr Chikulu (S14.02056° E35.15786°) situated on the eastern shore of Lake Malawi, as we were steadfast in getting photos of that perfect sunset over the lake. Taffy and Leoni, who own and manage both the lodges, explained that the Chikulu Lodge is still under some renovations however they are open for business and its best to contact them at Norman Carr Cottages to make arrangements. They informed us that their permanently stationed manager at Chikulu, called Abrie had been informed we were coming and they provided us with directions.

Pied Kingfisher with its catch – Chikulu Lodge

There are basically two ways to get to Norman Carr Chikulu Lodge. You can go by road via Mangochi (approx. 115km) or you can get there by boat (approx. 25km – 2 hours) which they provide from Norman Carr Cottages and must be a real experience in itself. But we were geared for the road, so we made our way towards Mangochi on the M10 where we filled up at the Puma Filling Station that also has good clean toilets. Mangochi has a variety of shops to replenish stocks. We turned left from the M10, at the main roundabout (S14.48384° E35.25777°) in Mangochi, onto the M3 that heads east towards the Chiponde/Mandimba Border Post with Mozambique. The turn-off left (north) towards Chikulu onto the S129 (S14.45083° E35.31166°) is about 7km from the main roundabout just as you cross the Shire River. From the turn-off it is another 60km towards Chikulu on the S129 of which the first 30km is broken tarred road where you spend most of the time driving on the side of the road. The final 30km is a relatively good gravel road with numerous dodgy, but thrilling, single lane steel bridges.

Abundance of wildlife – Liwonde National Park

The turn-off towards Chikulu from the S129 is a bit tricky, although signposted, as it is situated just around a sharp bend (S14.00348° E35.16066°). We missed that turn-off and took the next two-spoor road left in the hope that all roads lead to Rome. The lodge used to be part of a small rural fishing village so the entrance to the lodge is directly within the village and you are greeted by the local chief on arrival, whose house is situated at the gate. The moment you enter this precinct you are immediately overwhelmed by the remoteness and splendor of this location and it was almost like Abrie prepared the Fish Eagle’s call especially for our arrival. The eagles are residents here together with many other amazing birds including various Kingfisher, Shrike and Cuckoo species as well as the beautiful African Hoopoe. Abrie lives alone on the property and had not seen guest in a while, so he was very glad to see us and to speak some native Afrikaans. He is an extremely gentle soul, an artist, and a father who loves children and nature while being at peace with his current surroundings. By the time we arrived the boiler was heating up and the campsite was prepped and we had plenty of space in the shade directly on the beach to set up camp, right next to our own private ablution with an outdoor shower, a signature of the Norman Carr brand. It was immediately apparent that we would spend two nights here.

Close encounters – Liwonde National Park

The main lodge has a couple of spacious and well-designed en-suite cottages with a separate kitchen and stunning lounge area overlooking a swimming pool that is situated on an island in the lake. Yes you read correctly, an island. This is an amazing feature of this place and we spend most of our time lounging next to the pool and listening to the call of the Fish Eagles. The sunset, although a bit gloomy due to the weather, did not disappoint and we could safely say… mission accomplished. Here you are not advised to have a swim in the lake as the sighting of crocodiles and hippos are frequent. It’s best to swim in the pool. Abrie and his assistant accompanied us to the neighboring fishing village to shop for some fresh local fish from the lake for lunch. We managed to buy 8 beautiful Chambo, that were caught during the morning for MKW12,000 (approx. R240) and, which they even filleted for us on the spot. We quickly whipped-up a beer-batter with self-rising flour, egg and lemon juice mixed with a nice local ‘Carlsberg Green’ beer and managed to produce the most amazing “beer-battered Chambo” in the most incredible setting. Refer to the iOverlander app for the latest available pricing, reviews and amenities offered by the Norman Carr Cottages and Norman Carr Chikulu Lodge.

Spine Road – Liwonde National Park

Mvuu Camp, Liwonde National Park

We packed up camp at Norman Carr Chikulu Lodge with a heavy heart because it was such an amazing place and our trip was coming to an end. We had to start heading back home soon. But our spirits were quickly revived after we decided to end our trip on the ultimate high by spending our final two nights inside Malawi’s premier wildlife sanctuary, the Liwonde National Park. There are various good accommodation options outside the park for camping, which include Bushman’s Baobab and Liwonde Safari Camp; but for the ultimate Liwonde National Park experience there is only one choice, the Mvuu Camp. This would be our final destination for this trip.

Mvuu Lodge on the Shire River – Liwonde National Park

We headed back south towards Mangochi on the S129 from the Norman Carr Chikulu Lodge until we reached the T-junction with the M3 (S14.45083° E35.31166°). Here we decided not to take the conventional road to Liwonde via Mangochi on the M3. Rather, we wanted one final adventure, so we turned left on the M3 towards the Mozambique border to try and make our way around the eastern boundary of the park. After turning left at the T-junction we almost immediately turned right (south) on an unmarked gravel road (S14.43666° E35.35136°) that, as per the GPS, appeared to be heading towards Lake Malombe and the eastern border of Liwonde NP. There is a marked gate into Liwonde NP from this side called the Ntaja Gate (S14.78165° E35.38711°), but apparently this gate is only for use by African Parks vehicles and rangers. We soon realized this after we reached the closed gate and had to find an alternative way around the park with the help of some locals and our trusty GPS. We finally managed to reach the tarred S131 that connects Chiponde in the north and Liwonde to the south where we turned right on the S131 (S14.72196° E35.54888°) towards the Liwonde NP turn-off (S15.06515° E35.25206°).

After you enter the main gate into Liwonde NP, you are immediately transported into true African wilderness and the splendor of the Shire Floodplains is simply magnificent. This is Malawi’s premier wildlife park with waterbuck, warthog, impala, Nyala, hippo and baboons in their hundreds, if not thousands. The park has a healthy number of elephant and buffalo that can be seen frequently, especially during the dry season, and we were also fortunate enough to find large number of Eland and Sable as well as a beautiful and healthy lioness prowling the floodplains. It is approximately 28km from the main gate to Mvuu Camp which takes you more than 2 hours since there is plenty to see and many river loops that you can follow. The roads in the dry-season are accessible with high clearance vehicles, but during the rainy season, as the river floods and the plains get waterlogged and muddy it’s tougher going.

Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS) manages the Mvuu Camp and Pam and her team are doing an amazing job to keep the place going, despite these difficult times. Richard the general manager and Evans our camp attended made sure that we are well looked after and their dedication and love of the bushveld is contagious. The campsite has everything you need and is situated behind the main chalets, which is directly on the banks of the Shire, and also close to the swimming pool that provides great relief form the hot African sun. The boat safari on the Shire River is a must and allows you to get closer to the wildlife than you can ever imagine. The birdlife is also incredible and you are almost guaranteed to see species like the stunning Malachite Kingfisher. This time around we did the night drive which delivered the highlight of our trip as we managed to enjoy a sighting of a Black Rhino, one of a few that were recently introduced into Liwonde NP. African Parks should also be applauded in the way that they are managing this park, it is truly the pride of Malawi. Refer to the iOverlander app for the latest available pricing data, latest reviews and amenities offered by Mvuu Camp and other accommodation in the area.

What a way to end an epic journey through the warm heart of Africa with great friends!

3 weeks, 2,625km, and 11 destinations.