Tucked away deep in the heart of southeast Africa on the cerulean Lake Malawi, exists a utopian island that few people have heard of, and even fewer visit.
Rugged, mountainous Likoma Island satisfies every tropical island fantasy. It is dotted with colossal Baobab trees, adorned with quaint villages and ringed by numerous sandy beaches that slip into Caribbean-clear water.
Despite the incredible beauty, the real star of the island is the people, who are no doubt among the nicest, most amiable in the world. On my numerous walks around the island locals would greet me by saying, “Where are you going?” This would almost always lead to a conversation. No one on Likoma is ever in a hurry.
When we’d encounter school children they’d want to hold our hands as we walked. A few times I drank a Sprite or Coke outside a general store and I’d always have a few curious, friendly locals stop by to talk a bit.
Like the rest of Malawi, the island is poor. Residents live in simple homes, with diesel-generated electricity running only a few hours per day. Most of the 8000 residents live off fishing and trade with nearby Mozambique. But, the people are rich in pride, smiles and family.
In spite of the poverty, there are no hassles and no crime on the island. In fact, our rooms at the guesthouse didn’t even have a lock on the door. No one is going to take anything.
The best way to get to Likoma Island is aboard the infamous Ilala Ferry – an antique cargo ferry that plies the waters of the lake delivering goods to distant villages and isolated islands. The Ilala is a truly unforgettable experience. You are packed on the boat with livestock, sacks of produce, crates of beer, and presumably too many people to fit in the lifeboats.
We took the Ilala from Nhkata Bay to Chizimulu Island, which is adjacent to Likoma, and from there we traveled to Likoma with a group of 40 locals on a boat that was designed to hold about 15. As we glided across the turquoise water – with the tawny cliffs of Likoma and the purple mountains of Mozambique looming in the background, the deep blue sky dotted with gleaming, bilious clouds – the brightly clad Malawians began singing.
It began with one woman belting out about 30 seconds of a song, then the entire boat repeated the verse in a booming reprise that sent chills down my spine. The locals continued the call-and-response singing for the entire hour of the journey, with different women taking turns with the lead.
It was so beautiful that my eyes grew watery and I started to cry a little. I am not an emotional person so this was a big deal. And I don’t feel pretentious by writing this, because Kristi too admitted to crying a bit. It was truly a spiritual experience.
At this time I am going to tell you a story about the little boy in the photo below.
I was walking by the elementary school in Chipyela town right as classes let out for the day. In a way it was bad timing; in a way it was great luck.
Twenty kids, all with huge, beaming smiles, suddenly surrounded me and escorted me down the road. I had three kids holding on to each hand/wrist as they vied to be the one touching me. I must have looked like a movie star – like a Messiah figure – as I walked through the poor village, which belies how I felt. Because I felt like a big, goofy mazungu.
My entourage began to dwindle as kids peeled off to join parents or head home. When I reached the edge of town, which was a 45-minute hike to the other side of the island to my guesthouse, I still had one kid – the kid in the photo above.
I unlocked my hand from his, and tried to explain to him that I was going somewhere else. He had no idea what I was saying. I didn’t want to lead the kid out of town and him be lost. I tried to walk away but he ran up to me and held my hand again. I again pried his hand free and tried to explain, but to no avail.
I left the boy in the road and hurried back to a gaggle of women who were taking refuge from the tropical sun under a tree. I shyly explained my predicament. “It is no problem, he lives up the road,” said a local woman.
The boy was still in the road with a melancholic look on his face, shoulders slumped, protruding bottom lip. I hustled up to him, grabbed his hand in mine and we took off walking together. The enormous smile reemerged on his face.
We hiked for about 20 minutes and then he broke his hand free, pointed to his house and waved goodbye. I took his photo before he went away.
Travel Tip: There are only two places to stay on the island – the swanky and expensive Kaya Mawa and the backpacker friendly Mango Drift, which has everything from campsites to beach huts to very nice $70/nt en-suite chalets. Needless to say, we stayed at Mango Drift in the cheap huts, but we were there so long we eventually got an upgrade to the chalets. The food was excellent, the beer (when there wasn’t a shortage from the mainland) was cold and the staff was exceedingly friendly.
Travel Tip#2: If you don’t want to endure, risk, or “experience” the Ilala Ferry, there are a few small companies that offer flights from Lilongwe.