Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Down by Lake Malawi: Senga Bay from dawn to dusk

Winter is not usually the best time of year to visit the beach in any country. Malawi is no exception. I was taken aback by how cold Malawi could be in June, particularly at night and on high ground. However, Lake Malawi is at the bottom of the Rift Valley, with the result that the general temperature is noticeably higher than elsewhere. Nevertheless, there were fewer tourists there than during the rest of the year, and the beaches I saw were empty of sunbathers and swimmers.

Senga Bay is the nearest  lake resort to the capital Lilongwe, hence its attraction for weekenders and, inevitably, for the dreaded 'workshops'. No project worth its name in Malawi will get anywhere unless local staff are invited to a series of workshops. If those workshops can be arranged in a pleasant location which people wouldn't necessarily be able to afford to visit, then all the better. Hence the popularity of Senga Bay. This mode of working has become so notorious and the impact of the Cashgate crisis on finance-starved departments so significant, that instructions have now gone out from central government - and the donors who often pay for all this - that workshops should no longer be arranged down by the beach.

Fortunately for me, however, I was not attending workshops but visiting schools in the local area, so I did manage a few days down at the Lake. Indeed, I have to admit that my hotel, the Mpatsa Beach Lodge (since you ask), was right on the beach. And, yes, the accommodation was absolutely fine.

First I had to get there, though. You gradually descend from Lilongwe and after about an hour and a half, you arrive on the dusty flat floor of the valley. The road points straight across the plain. 

Your first stop is Salima, an unremarkable centre of local government. You meet the usual sort of traffic. Bicycles may be the main means of transport, but if you can cadge a lift on a pickup, so much the better.

And livings are earned in the usual ways. Tourists need milk.

And they also need basketware - apparently. A lot of basketware. The cabins selling it stretch into the distance. 

I declined numerous broad-brimmed hats, a lot of shopping baskets and row after row of table mats.

I succumbed, however, to two raffia landcruisers with 'go faster' wheels, of no possible use whatsoever. Why two? They were a bargain, of course! Stuart naturally disagrees. However, they are serving a useful purpose as transport for my granddaughter's Playmobil people, though she remains slightly perturbed by the lack of a steering wheel, a pretty basic design flaw

From Salima, it is just a few miles to the shoreline. When you get to your destination and step out onto the verandah of your hotel, the view takes your breath away. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Senga Bay has the most picturesque coastline along Lake Malawi. Cape Maclear to the south is more dramatic. However, in the peaceful winter season, Senga Bay is pretty special. What I am going to show you now is a series of photographs taken during the course of a couple of winter days down by the beach.

We start with the first signs of dawn as seen from my verandah.

Gradually the rosy pink filled the expanse of the sky.

The dugouts waited for the morning's business.

And the pink turned to gold.

The locals started drifting down to the beach for the beginning of what may quite probably be a very slow day. I had arrived two or three days after violent storms had cost the lives of ten fishermen a few miles to the north. Few would be going out fishing that day, but there might be an inland boat trip for the rare and precious tourist.

Boats were being prepared just in case, though. No one could afford to turn down down even the slightest chance of a day's work.

The southern curve of the bay appeared against the horizon to the south.

And more distant shadowy silhouettes also arose from the lake, mountains on the eastern shore.

Unfortunately, it was time to go off to our own work.

However, once work was finished, there was still just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the northern curve of Senga Bay.

The Sunbird Livingstonia Beach Hotel, dating back to the 1930s and the oldest hotel in Senga Bay, was well beyond our budget but no one minds if you wander around.

Thatched cottages, or bandas, clustered around the well-kept lawns. The dugouts which were essential to the day-to-day existence of so many people elsewhere on the lake had here become mere decoration.

In the distance, lay Lizard Island, visible from anywhere along the bay.

By the time we got back to the hotel, the light was beginning to fade, but the fishermen were still busy mending their nets.

There was still time for a walk along the beach for me and a bath for some.

Happily, the boats had all returned safely to the watersedge.

The boats were back where they had been in the morning.

The fishermen must have been out that day after all. Nets were stretched out to dry on the sand.

As I walked, I could see lodges peppering the shore, some going concerns as hotels and guesthouses, some in private ownership as weekend cottages, others semi-derelict.

The hotels lit their lamps and the last stragglers returned to their homes.

Soon it was almost too dark to see, let alone photograph.

Time to turn in myself. Goodnight.

You may also be interested in these two earlier posts about Cape Maclear, at the southern end of the lake.

Fish, fishermen and fish eagles, all at Lake Malawi

Following the Scots to Cape Maclear


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