Carsten K Larsen, 2013
Cichlid Room Companion

My first Malawi Safari

By , 2013. image

Classification: Distribution and exploration.

" Experiences during my first visit to Lake Malawi in 2001 to Malawi and Mozambique; the travel, the people, the wonderful lake and the fantastic Lake Malawi cichlids "

It was my first safari to Lake Malawi and as such very special for me. On this safari we were eight persons: Søren Jensen, Niels Charlie Sørensen, Martin Hansen, Frederik Dannemare, Carsten Gissel, Lars Krongaard Petersen, Kim Larsen and me. Saturday November 10, 2001. We departed Denmark from Aalborg Airport and went to Gatwick Airport, England. We had to wait for 14 hours before our plane left for Malawi, after a short stop in Nairobi before arriving at Lilongwe in Malawi. Once at Lilongwe, one of Stuart M. Grant's bookkeepers was waiting for us to take us out to the fish station, where Stuart and his wife Esther greeted us. We could finally get our first shower after a very long flight, and take the first peek at the station. I went down to the beach just in front of the house where I saw a 70 cm. Nile monitor, it was obviously as scared as I was because as I approached it took off into the lake with such a speed that all I got were pictures of its escape… A few of us couldn’t wait to go into the lake, so we put our masks and flippers on for the first dip.

Stuart Grant at his office at Salima Stuart Grant at his office at Salima, back in 2001. Photo by Carsten Larsen.

On the beach there were 3 hippos. During daytime they were in the weedy areas where there wasn’t any people, but at night they came up close to the house for feeding off the grass. Every night we stayed at the station, Kim and I were up to around four in the morning to see if it was possible to take pictures of them. We didn’t succeed even though the employees told us the hippos had been there the night before we arrived.

Early Monday morning we were off to Salima to get our passports checked. At the police station the man we were to meet wasn’t in, so we walked around to take a look at the wildlife around. We saw lot of strange beetles, spiders and so on. Many of local people must have thought that those eight white people were surely mad, walking around in the dirt field. Finally our man arrived at the station so we got our passports checked. We were ready for our first trip to Mozambique. It started from the fish station at Salima with stops at Chiofu Bay, Charlie’s Bay, Minos Reef, Runo, Chinuni, and some more places in Mozambique (some four km north of Chiloelo). Our first scuba dive in Lake Malawi was at Chiofu Bay. Stuart was then building a station at the place so it was more tourist friendly. Amongst others there is place on some rocks which is proper to sit on and enjoy the view. Chiufu Bay was one of the best diving places we had; crystal-clear water, and all the different biotopes. When walking in the shallow water near the beach, it was fun to watch the fish as they kept following us around to see if what they surely perceived as a strange object threw them anything edible. Some of the Fossorochromis rostratus that were around were interested in tasting our feet.

From Chiofu Bay we went on to Meponda in Mozambique to check our passports and visas. After that it was Charlie’s Bay where we had our first dive in Mozambique. The second dive was at the same place but late in the afternoon, it was getting dark and taking pictures was out of the question. Kim and I found the scull from a hippo. Next morning we had an early start and onwards to Minos Reef. Before we arrived a few of us started to get seasick, but once under water the effects were soon gone. At Minos Reef we saw large groups of Metriaclima estherae, though a bit too late (when I was at 12 meters depth), I realized that I had pushed the auto focus button off when was putting a new film. So I didn’t get the best fish pictures, but yet I got good pictures of the biotope….

After Minos Reef it was Kambiri point. Our first stop was at Runo, where we were the first white people ever to be there, according to locals. At Runo we camped, while 50 people were looking at us. Runo’s shore is composed by three small beaches, placed so close together that only a few large boulders separate them. Next morning we had the best dive of all. Despite the lack of great depth (13 meters) there were many different cichlid species. Our dive started at some large rocks that peek out of the water. There the locals had placed a net a few meters off the rocks, so we were able to swim between the net and rocks and see what they had caught. There were Metriaclima zebra and Tropheops tropheops. After Runo we sailed to Chinuni, about 2.5 hours away. After we dove at Chinuni we wondered why we didn’t get to see any Kampango (Bagrus meridionalis) or crabs, but Metriaclima zebra and Cynotilapia afra we saw both in BB (Black & Blue) morph. Water depth was around 10 m maximum. Three hours later we got near the coast for a dive close to some steep cliffs. As Dennis and Adrian almost had the boat lined up, there were some strange sounds coming from the stern of the boat! It turned out that the rudder and the propeller were touching each other because the cable was detached from the rudder. Therefore we couldn’t control the boat and with the wind and wave action we quickly started to drift towards the cliff. The problem was quickly sorted out and we could make our dive at that place.

Pseudotropheus johannii at Chiloelo Pseudotropheus johannii at Chiloelo. Photo by Carsten Larsen.

We were about 4.88 km north of Chiloelo. The cliffs go almost straight down there, so it was very special to dive and not be able to see the bottom. At that place we saw a lot of Stigmatochromis modestus, Otopharynx spelaeotes, Abactochromis labrosus and Metriaclima zebra with the same colors as those from Manda. The water seemed murkier that before and the visibility was only about five m. A few meters down you could see in some areas a colder water-layer. Our dive ended at four in the afternoon. It was time to return to Kambiri Point and most of us slept all the way across the lake. Carsten Gissel told us that he had heard some click noise on the water surface and it turned out to be Rhamphochromis chasing usipa (Lake sardines). We arrived at the fish station late Friday afternoon.

The second tour was to Likoma, but it started out with some bad luck, because a few members of the group had looked a bit deep into some bottles and we couldn’t wake them up. After a few tries we decided to go on without them. We had to drive 50 km down to Chipoka to go onboard the Ilala (Ferry). We left Kambiri point and arrived at Chipoka 30 minutes before the ferry departure schedule. Stuart checked where the ferry was so we would not arrive late, but as we came to the harbor we were told that the ferry had already gone 15 minutes earlier!!!!! We then came back to drive to Nkhota Kota, 140 km away from Kambiri Point. Back at Kambiri Point we now had plenty of time to look at the fishes, get some breakfast, reload the car, and once again try to wake up the two missing persons, again without luck. On the road again on the back of a truck with our entire luggage.

Fifteen minutes before arriving at Chia lagoon we were hit by a rainstorm on the back of an open truck! Lars made it under some luggage; Martin and Kim tried their best to avoid some of the water, While Carsten filmed. At this time Frederik was sleeping and just woke up to see the end of it. After this we made a stop at the bridge over Chia lagoon. Immediately after stopping we were met by a large group of children who wanted to sell dried usipa (lake sardines) and of course to see what six white people were doing at their bridge.

In the water we saw a lot of fishermen, but in the canoes under the bridge we didn’t see any fish. After this short break we were off to Nkhota Kota again and as we arrived we stopped at a gas station for some sodas. Immediately after our arrival a lot of locals began to circle around the truck, one of them a leprous. Not a nice sight so we shouldn’t complain about the Danish health care and how much money we spend on it. Now all we had to do was go down the road and wait for the ferry to arrive. We sat under an old tree and played cards for 3 hours.

The loading of the Ilala was one big confusion because everyone wanted to get in and out at the same time. Onboard we were greeted by a very interesting smell of something that can’t be described. To us it seemed that the Ilala had 4 classes: Business, First, Second and those that fitted in cargo. So off to Likoma Island where we arrived in total darkness, we were met by Barnabas Mkwamba and two of his men. Barnabas sailed us ashore and showed us our quarters at Akuzike Super Rest House where the host Alex greeted us. This was a great experience because there wasn’t any electricity or running water, so we had to use our flashlights to find our way around.

Next morning we sailed out to Taiwan Reef for our first dive, but before that we stopped at Chizumulu Island to get something to eat. We had Barnabas in our boat and as we sailed out towards Taiwan Reef he looked at Chizumulu Island and the shore in Mozambique and suddenly shouted “STOP – drop the anchor!” the anchor went down and we looked at each other because we couldn’t see anything. Carsten went in and snorkeled to the bottom of the anchor chain and surfaced with a smile, so it was the right place! It’s impressive how they can look at the Island and shoreline and decide where the reef is. At Taiwan Reef I had my first dive with ”Hook and Line”, that is no bottles but a compressor in the boat that pumped air down a very long hose. The only problem with this system was that my partner lost his air-supply two or three times because the hose got tangled up, not the best experience. After this we returned to Chizumulu again for something to eat and afterwards we swam by the bay. The next morning we were told that a woman had lost one of her arms to a crocodile as she was getting some water, just 200 meters from where we were. This gave us something to think about as we sailed out to our first dive that day. The first dive was at Membe Island, or as it is better known, Mainland. Afterwards we agreed to go to Coble in Mozambique, the only problem was that our passports were in Kambiri Point. Luckily Barnabas knew some important people in Cobwé so we only had to pay 150 kwacha, instead of the 100 kwacha that was the normal fee. After a nice dive at Cobwé we were through diving for that day and returned to Likoma. The next day we had enough time for two dives, but by three o’clock in the morning Alex waked us to tell us that the Ilala had arrived “little” earlier. This was the second time it happened and it was not the best experience. We arrived late in the evening at Kambiri Point. We decided to go to Namalenje Island the following day and went onshore in between the dives to have some sandwiches. After the first dive we sat on the cliffs and looked out over the lake, what a magnificent view. Now it was time to try and catch some fish, but the first thing that we saw were two old cars, one and of which was cut in half and the other turned upside down. How do people transport two vehicles to an Island that is approximately one km from shore? At that place I caught five Mylochromis ericotaenia and three Nimbochromis livingstonii.

Aulonocara jacobfreibergi at Chiloelo Aulonocara jacobfreibergi at Chiloelo. Photo by Carsten Larsen.

The next day were off to Cape Maclear in the Lake Malawi National Park, as we turned south past Kambiri point we saw the Maleri Islands, which also belong to the park and as such there’s no fishing allowed! As we arrived at Chembe beach Søren and Niller met us at the beach where they had stayed at Fat Monkeys Rest House. We watched some local fishermen doing their job, and after speaking with some of them they told us that the National Park rules were for the white men as they were who made them. So the only control was for the white men. The first dive was at Thumbi West Island and from there we went on to Otter Point which had poor visibility. Nevertheless as we entered the water we were greeted by a very large steel-blue Buccochromis heterotaenia male in full color. The underwater rocks in this area form a circle which causes reduced water current. We could get very close to some Copadichromis mloto males which were showing off to each other. It was time to go back to Fat Monkeys Rest House for our rooms and some dinner. We had our first African pizza and the Danish pizzerias could really learn something. The following morning we sailed out to Zimbawe Rock for a cave dive, but as we finally found a “cave” it turned out to be a large boulder leaning against another…. Of this group it was only Kim and I that saw Otopharynx lithobates males in full color and Aulonocara jacobfreibergi in their small caves. Apart from this we had a real good dive. Before entering we saw a group of fishermen and some of them were in speedboats. Once in the water we could hear the speedboats coming closer and closer and we decided it was time to go up, because we didn’t want to get run down. Almost an hour later we were at Mumbo Island, which is a strange place to dive. Above water, it looks like paradise but below it was rather murky and there wasn’t a lot of different species. But we got to see two Dimidiochromis kiwingi females guarding their offspring.

It was sadly time for our last dive, it was planned to be at Maleri Island. The tour from Mumbo to Maleri took about an hour and finally we laid anchor at the northern part of the island, the first thing we saw was a lot of C. afra and M. zebra minding their own business as we swam past them. There I also saw Labidochromis pallidus for the first time. Of this species we didn’t see many individuals, they swim singly and if encounter one of its own they display in front of each other and swim on. In deeper water there were many Mchenga eucinostomus males guarding their nests. These nests were guarded heavily against other males, while the females were lured down in their typical fashion. We also hoped to see Aulonocara sp. ‘maleri’ with their intense yellow coloration, but we could only find two small females and no males.

Saturday morning was our last day in Malawi and we went to Liwonde National Park to see the wildlife above water. Liwonde National Park is located on the east coast of Lake Malombe on the Shire River. The tour stopped at Mvuu camp, Mvuu means hippo and the large number of hippos in the area is the reason for that name. We also saw elephants, crocodiles, monkeys, antelopes, water buffalo, Nile monitors and many different types of birds. Safely back at Kambiri point Stuart and Esther had arranged for a barbeque with entertainment by local dancers, which performed for us.


Larsen, Carsten K. (Nov 21, 2013). "My first Malawi Safari". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 10, 2023, from: