Malawi hasn’t taken the top of any tourism lists in recent years, or perhaps ever. That’s not to say though that it isn’t well deserving of the tourism that it doesn’t actually receive. Many people might not even know where Malawi is, which warrants a bit of an explanation.
Malawi is a country in southern Africa and it shares a border with Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, among a few others. It’s not that easy to find on a map either as it’s a long sliver of land—not unlike Chile but smaller and landlocked. Like much of Africa, Malawi was once part of the British Colonial Empire (and as a result most people there still speak English making it a convenient choice for anyone able to read and understand this blog). During the colonial area, the wealthy, colonial elite often spend their holidays on the shores on the region’s gem: Lake Malawi, from which the country obvious gets its name (though in the past it was called Nyalaland).
The lake is one of the largest in southern Africa and to this day offers one of the best experiences of freshwater lakes in the world. The lake is so vast and fruitful that for tens of thousands of years it has been inhabited by humans—in fact, it’s one of the oldest regions that has been inhabited by humans, dating back scores of thousands of years before the invention of writing and the rise of the Indus Valley or Mesopotamian civilisations. The lakes are so huge that you will certainly need to prepare with some weight lifting for kayaking before attempting to cross one at any sort of pace.
Its waters have provided, and still continue to provide, fisherman with enough food to feed themselves and their communities, while still being able to sell their excesses catches on the market. Traditional methods of fishing are also still practised and like most methods of farming, hunting and fishing developed before the Industrial Revolution they are sustainable.
As it’s not always the easiest place to get to, I can recommend flying to South Africa and then from there catching any number of daily flights to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. It’s quite the journey, but the experience will be one that lasts a lifetime and the boating there can hardly be matched anywhere else in the world.
Pelicans are not generally the type of bird that one associates with Europe. In fact, these large birds spend a lot of their time in Africa. Like many birds however they are migratory, spending several months outside of Africa. Bird migration something that was not understood for most of human history. Some ancient thinkers believed that birds turned to water or simply disappeared in winter, only to reappear in spring. One of the more interesting discoveries made about bird migration was in the 19th century when a keen bird watcher found a giant, migratory stork in Germany that had been unsuccessfully hunted in East Africa. The bird had managed to migrant all that way with a Masai spear stuck in its body.
While it was a mystery for thousands of years where birds go in winter (from a European perspective of course), we now know some of the answers to that question and one of them in the delta of the Danube River.
The Danube River flows through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania—and also touches Ukraine—before emptying into the Black Sea. Like all rivers, once it nears its end it spreads out into countless and ever-changing streams forming a delta.
Birds that many Europeans might consider exotic, such as pelicans, come to Romania’s Danube Delta every year to spend the summer months. With temperatures capable of reaching 40 degrees centigrade the climate isn’t too different from where a lot of the birds spend the rest of the year.
Although there are numerous tours one can take on larger motorised boats—and they are worth it to get a feel for the place—the best way to explore the delta in my opinion is my kayak or canoe. If you’re familiar with river boating you might be picturing something that isn’t quite right. While the Danube is a river like any other, the delta—again like any other—is more swamp than river or stream. Its channels and streams spread out across scores of kilometres, making it a place where one can easily spend a couple of weeks. For boaters and birdwatchers it’s the ideal place to visit.
The easiest way to reach the delta is by flying into Romania’s capital Bucharest and travelling by car, bus or train to the delta. Once there, there are plenty of outfitters able to provide hire equippment.
In past posts I’ve talked about some of the most exciting boating trips for the adventure traveller. We looked at canoeing high altitude lakes in the Andes, criss-crossing Europe boating down the Danube and visiting the frigid waters of the Arctic to see killer whales, seas, and other Nordic animal life. If those weren’t enough to make your traveller’s eyes water, here are a couple more dream holidays worth considering:
Murray River. Not quite as well known as the Nile or Amazon, the Murray is the longest river in all of Australia at 2500+ kilometers. Mostly in Victoria, the river is a true wilderness and travels through largely uninhabited lands. The largest town on the river only has a population of some 80000 people. For kayakers or canoeists it’s an ideal spot to be in nature but beware of snakes and other dangerous wildlife.
Lake Malawi. This lake in southern Africa probably isn’t the first holiday destination in mind for many people not from the area, but for people from the region it’s one of the most popular spots to visit. At 26000 sq km, it’s a massive lake and larger than the entire country of Macedonia, and just a bit smaller than Belgium. The region has been inhabited for thousands of years. During all the time people have fished in its rich waters and David Livingstone, the first European to visit the lake, gave it the nickname of ‘Lake of Stars’ because the lights on the anglers’ boats looked like stars. Not only ideal for water-rats, the whole country of Malawi has a lot to offer both culturally and as far a nature is concerned, making it a perfect holiday destination.
The Rhein. This river in western Germany is one of the most idyllic places in all of the country. It’s probably what most people picture when they think of rural and romantic Germany: a river meandering through hills and vineyards with castles and quaint villages dotting the landscape. With so many things to do along the river, there’s hardly a chance to get bored, even for people who don’t particularly enjoy being in a canoe or kayak. And for anyone who enjoys being on the water but isn’t a fad of paddling, there are many tour companies that offer river cruises, which is a great way to see this beautiful region without doing all the work of organising and boating.
These are just a couple of the ideas for my dream holidays. While I haven’t been to Malawi myself a friend told me that it was one of the best trips she’s ever been on and it’s at the very top of my personal list as soon as I can get the funds to fly there. As for the Rhein, I’ve done it three times and it never disappoints. Stay tuned for more trip ideas in the months to come.
The chances are quite high that if you’re on the internet reading a blog about canoeing, kayaking and river rafting then you are probably not reliant on navigating river ways in ancient methods for your living (safe perhaps a few river guides who might be reading). It’s also quite safe to assume that you’re someone who enjoys spending time on rivers on holidays or other retreats into nature.
What for us is a simple pleasure for most of human’s history was a matter of life or death, or at the very least a matter of quality of life. Rivers—and more specifically and more accurately human’s ability to navigate and exploit rivers—have been the very lifeblood of many an empire. Most famously in the west is the Nile river, which feed ancient Egypt in a very literal way for literally thousands of years. (By way of illustration, there was a greater amount of time between the building of the pyramids and the birth of Cleopatra than her death and our own day–or put another way Queen Cleopatra lived closer to spaceflight in time than to the building of the pyramids.) But the Nile and Egypt are not by any means the only river cultures.
One of the more interesting and unfortunately not well-known river cultures in the Songhai Empire of Western Africa. By area alone Songhai was one of the greatest states in the entirety of the history of Africa. For some two hundred years, from roughly 1400 to 1600 the Songhai Empire dominated the Sahel region of the southern Sahara in West Africa.
As with the raise and fall of any create power, there are many reasons that the Songhai expanded so rapidly and over such a large area. One of the defining characteristics of the empire’s growth and size however were the rivers of the region, the Niger and Senegal. While the Songhai might be better known for its oasis towns and urban centres like Jenne and Timbuktu it was the Niger and Senegal Rivers that allowed for such rapid expansion.
By successfully exploiting the rapid transport of troops and resources that the rivers offered, the small tribe was able to take on and defeat the prestigious and established Mali Empire. With its capital in Gao, on the banks of the Niger River, the imperial administration was able to keep tabs on the the whole of their kingdom, through fast moving canoes that allowed goods, ideas, and proclamations to be disseminated throughout the empire.
For anyone around today, it’s possible to take river trips on the Senegal or Niger rivers. As the region isn’t particularly known for its tourism the tourist infrastructure isn’t the best, but for more adventurous and open-minded travellers it’s ideal. And what better way to explore the history and culture of a famous river empire than by sailing the very rivers that was so responsible for developing and advancing the kingdom.