The name Likoma purportedly derives from the Nyanja phrase, likoma joko, meaning ‘oh, what a pleasant land’. And pleasant it is indeed. Encircled by powdery beaches, wild coves and sparkling waters, this remote isle — situated in the Mozambican waters of Lake Malawi but officially part of Malawi — is the kind of place you might wish to stay forever. On Likoma, life moves at a slow pace, largely unencumbered by global influences and tourism. Arriving here is like stepping back in time. There are almost no vehicles and just a few bicycles, a couple of villages, one town, one unpaved road running the length of the 17sq-km island, a couple of backpacker outfits and one small luxury lodge on the south-western shore.
Kaya Mawa, aptly meaning ‘maybe tomorrow’, is an idyllic retreat. Sleeping just 26 people, it is intimate and romantic — fresh frangipani flowers on the bed and deep bathtubs with a view over the lake. Its understated, airy rooms have a natural feel and jovial staff dish up delicious, wholesome food each meal. It’s true to say you could spend your days here doing nothing except lazing on the beach or your private deck, reading or spotting some of the 500- plus bird species. But, as we were to discover, Likoma is more than just a place to kick back and relax.
For those prepared to tear themselves away from the camp’s dreamy cocoon for a few hours, there are myriad activities on and offshore. The clear waters are perfect for swimming, paddle- boarding, kayaking, snorkelling, water-skiing, wakeboarding, sailing and scuba-diving. Lake Malawi harbours a greater variety of freshwater fish than any other lake on Earth, so there is plenty to see as you explore the rocky outcrops of this unique underwater landscape. Most of these are colourful cichlids (locally called mbuna), of which the lake contains an impressive 400 types.
One evening, we set sail on a sunset cruise on the inky, calm waters, the sun lowering in the sky as we chugged north along the island’s west coast. After a while, our guide John cut the engine and we drifted peacefully, admiring this arid land of miombo woodland, rugged bays and gigantic baobabs. It was evident why Likoma’s epithet is the ‘Isle of the Baobab’. Spellbound, we watched the sun set behind Chizumulu Island, now a deep-purple silhouette against the crimson sky.
But the best way to get a real feel for the island is to explore it on foot. The local community epitomises the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’, so it is perfectly safe. They say you are never lost on Likoma, as there’s always someone to show you the way home or escort you themselves.
Alternatively, embark on a quad biking tour of Likoma’s interior, as we did one morning. With engines whirring and dust flying, we followed our guide MacDonald away from Kaya along the island’s only road, a pothole-peppered, sandy track.
We decelerated as we passed through Nkhwazi Primary School, where crowds of effervescent children waved frantically at us, shouting, “Helloooo! Byeeee!” Driving through the villages of Nkhwazi, Chiponde and Makungulu gave us an interesting sense of traditional culture. Likoma’s 9000 or so inhabitants survive on rice and cassava farming and fishing; life is obviously tough. Women carried hefty vessels on their heads from the borehole to their simple huts. Goats were tethered to trees and scrawny hens pecked at the dust among dry patches of farmland.
Soon we arrived at Mbamba, the only town, where the market stalls were heaped with everything from sparkly shoes to piles of potatoes. There were no other tourists and the children seemed overjoyed to see us, and we amused them by hiding inside the Old Baobab, a strange, hollow tree in the New Market Place. We strolled to bustling Mbamba Beach, where boats were coming and going, and sinewy men lugged heavy cargo and firewood ashore. “Many things are traded between Mozambique and Likoma,” MacDonald explained, pointing to the Mozambican coast, just 7km away. Rows of silvery fish were drying on bamboo structures, shimmering in the scorching October sun. Parched, we stopped at a poky bar called Hunger Clinic for a cold soda, before heading onwards to the famous St Peter’s Cathedral.
Likoma is steeped in history. According to author WT Manjano Chirwa, its past is “woven into the matrix of climatic change, Bantu migrations in Africa, influence of Shaka the Zulu, slave trade, colonisation, Christianity, world wars as well as the political struggles of Malawi and Mozambique.” Its colonial days are manifest in the presence of the largest cathedral in Central Africa — about the same size as Winchester Cathedral — an extraordinary edifice to exist on this tiny isle.
In 1885, Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) missionaries chose Likoma as the headquarters for their work in Central Africa. This was in response to an appeal by explorer David Livingstone, who wished to put an end to the island’s strict moral code of conduct, which involved the practice of burning ‘witches’. The custom occurred at two locations, one of which — Chipyela, meaning ‘the place of burning’ — is the setting for St Peter’s Cathedral. Bishop Trower laid the foundation stone on 27 January 1903 and it was completed on 14 November 1911.
This vast Anglican cathedral seemed bizarrely out of place but was magnificent to behold, with well-maintained brickwork, handsome archways and pretty cloisters. MacDonald introduced us to a laidback fellow called Bernard who led us inside. The interior was markedly less grand — with its corrugated-iron roof and wooden benches — but there was an ornate font and pulpit, and some exquisitely engraved stone choir stalls near the altar.
“Most of the islanders are Anglicans,” Bernard told us in patchy English. On Sundays, we learnt, the place was brimming with worshippers. I imagined it must be quite a spectacle.
Our quadbiking adventure concluded with an inspiring visit to Katundu, a workshop that creates diverse handmade textiles, lighting and interior decorations. As we approached, we walked among heaps of rusty bicycle wheels, glass bottles and timber. Men chipped away at bottles with a knife and a hammer, placing the shards into tubes, which were ingeniously rotated using baobab-tree string and a bicycle wheel until they were suitable for use.
Inside, it was a hive of activity. Lisa Njakale, the workshop manager, showed us around. Everything is handmade and the innovation is remarkable: mud and paper beads; baobab-bark laundry bags and baskets; woven-maize rugs, place mats and coasters; wind chimes and chandeliers made with bicycle wheels and glass bottles.