Adrift in the heart of Africa

Sunday Times
Published: 17th March 2013

It is mango time when I visit Malawi. Even the goats that wander the red-dust roads have the bright flesh of mangoes dangling from their mouths. The barefoot children are also scrumping for fruit, between the huts of the scrawny villages. Their mouths are smeared orange as they scamper out to shout hello to our car.

I have come here in the spirit of adventure, following the trail blazed by David Livingstone, explorer, anti- slavery campaigner and all-round 19th-century folk hero, who was born 200 years ago this month. It strikes me almost immediately that Livingstone would still know this place, but the breathtaking emptiness is the result of a run of tragic bad luck for this little- visited nation. Endemic corruption, a string of natural disasters and the HIV and Aids epidemic brought Malawi to its knees, but under President Joyce Banda things are looking up. Infant mortality and dependence on food aid is falling and, crucially, tourism is beginning to thrive. I begin my own expedition at Mkulumadzi Lodge on the Shire River, very close to the snarling Kapichira Falls — an ear-splitting flight of rapids that stopped Livingstone in his tracks in 1859. He was rying to navigate his paddle-steamer all the way upriver, as part of an attempt to survey the natural riches of southeast Africa and open up the Zambezi from the east.

Livingstone’s intrepid wife, Mary, wasn’t travelling with him on this occasion. Perhaps she had heard about the scorpions. On my first night at Mkulumadzi, a monstrous specimen 11in long scuttles out across the deck of the lodge, which juts balcony-style above the river. Chris, the manager, who has lived in Malawi for most of his life, bends down gingerly and lifts this king of scorpions by its tail, right where the sting is, and deposits it over the side.

“Unless you are quick, he can flip back and nip you with his pincers,” Chris says, “but at least this way he can’t sting.” He smiles, as though it were nothing. “By the way, tap your shoes three times every morning — just to make sure there’s nothing inside them.”

I stare at him in horror. This isn’t a neurosis I wish to acquire. “Oh,” he says soothingly, “that scorpion’s venom wouldn’t be strong, because he had such large pincers to defend himself with.” Hmm. Just then we spy a smaller scorpion with tiny pincers — ultra-deadly, presumably. That night I stuff all my shoes with socks and put them sole-upwards on the highest shelf.

Mkulumadzi is a pioneering venture (built barely a year ago by Robin Pope Safaris) that has opened up 17,000 acres of the Majete Wildlife Reserve. Guests arrive by tiptoeing across a rope bridge above the churning river, and the eight chalets are treehouse-style, their roofs luxuriant with vegetation, so that the whole place seems to dissolve into the riverine forest.

It’s easy to tune into how David Livingstone and his party must have felt, seeking territories to conquer and souls to save, and finding so much staggering beauty. We take a boat trip past baby crocodiles basking in the sun, and glide between family groups of pink-eared hippos. There are elephants, too, spraying themselves with mud and strolling nose-to-tail across the river like something from a Kipling story. All the while we crouch, alert, under the shade of the boat’s canopy, as a cool breeze spills across the water from the north — from Lake Malawi, where Livingstone rowed out to chart the shoreline in his four-oared gig, and found the third largest lake in Africa.

Even today, 150 years later, you are never far from adventure in Malawi. That same evening, I bathe with a baby baboon — or, at least, I watch him as I sink into the bubbles carousing joyfully around my wooden deck. Then afterwards, stepping out of my room for dinner, I spot an enormous cow elephant, who is loitering with her child among the leadwood trees. When she begins to flap her ears, I retreat rapidly back indoors.

I sit silently for a while on my veranda above the roar of the river, and watch the hippos grunting rudely far below, and the swoop of an eagle as the sky grows pink in the distance. Closer to me, a pale salamander races over the planks. When I nervously step outside again, mother and child elephant have gone. 

Such is the wildness of Majete that the game comes to you. I fall in love with its innumerable little warthogs, and I’ve never seen so many hippos. Shy black rhinos are also around and lions have lately been introduced. But more than anything, you come to Malawi for its intangible pioneer spirit. The landscape and the villages are how I imagined this continent would look before I embarked on my first safari, when I was wafted from one cosseting lodge to another without seeing anything in between. Here is an Africa Livingstone would have recognised, in all its picturesqueness, poverty and promise.

From Mkulumadzi I travel to Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre, named after the Lanarkshire cotton town where Livingstone was born, the son of a mill-hand. Blantyre is an old ivory-trading post, and pre-dates better-known cities in the region such as Nairobi and Johannesburg. Its stand-out building is a red-brick church built in 1891 by a team of locals with no prior knowledge of the relevant building techniques — which presumably accounts for the happy hotchpotch of architectural styles.

St Michael and All Angels is still vigorously attended by Blantyre’s citizens, and the Sunday service I attend, given in the national language, Chichewa, makes a profound impression on me. It feels like a window on the strangeness of that 150-year-old clash of cultures. Only by visiting can you begin to understand how exotic it was, that interplay between the Scottish incomers and the people they encountered and inspired here.

I drive north, out of town, towards Lake Malawi, dubbed “the lake of stars” by Livingstone. For 21st- century travellers, it is a celestial onus at the end of a safari holiday, with its beaches and islands, its safe diving and snorkelling, its galaxy of tropical fish.

I stay at the gorgeous Pumulani Lodge, on the lake’s southern banks, where baboons and their babies bounce on my grassy eco-roof, and African fish eagles build their nests nearby. There is no hippo lullaby here, so I make do with a frog chorus as I swim in the lodge’s infinity pool and sip sundowners in the stillness of the evening. And as the setting African sun scalds the lake water crimson, I raise a glass to David Livingstone, and to the unburnished magnificence of Malawi.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Audley.

Travel details: Audley (01993 838540, has eight days in Malawi from £2,830pp, with three nights at Mkulumadzi (, a B&B night in Blantyre, and three nights at Pumulani ( The price includes flights from Heathrow to Blantyre and back from Lilongwe, with South African Airways (via Johannesburg), park fees, transfers and most meals. Or try Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160, or Expert Africa (020 8232 9777,