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Discovering the forgotten islands of Lake Malawi: the Marelli archipelago

Having been featured recently in David Attenborough’s latest stunning natural history series for the BBC, all eyes are on Lake Malawi at the moment. The Africa finale of ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ focussed on the amazing fish found in the lake and there is nowhere better to view those than the islands of the Lake Malawi National Park. So, in this blog we set out to discover more about a set of little-known islands in Malawi’s the Lake of Stars! The Marelli Islands certainly tick the box when it comes to travelling off the beaten track, neglected from many maps of Malawi or illustrated as unlabelled pinpricks just off Salima’s shore. Much better known in the Lake Malawi National Park is the thriving Cape Maclear, with nearby Thumbi, Domwe & Mumbo Islands. Yet the Marellis’ three rocky outcrops rise above this great lake’s surface, forming a secluded haven for fauna, flora & surrounding aquatic life. Join us on a photographic journey as we discover Nankoma, Maleri and Nakatenga Islands. Pictured below is the Marelli archipelago, showing Nankoma Island (65 ha) first, Maleri Island (168 ha) second and Nakatenga Island (18 ha) third. Boundaries of the world’s first freshwater national park were established in 1980. This was mainly for the protection of the fascinating species of fish: Cichlids, as seen on the BBC recently and dubbed “an animal that would have amazed Darwin if only he’d known about it” (Ben Crair). In 1984, Lake Malawi National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, publicising that “its importance for the study of evolution is comparable to that of the finches of the Galapagos Islands”. Aquarists worldwide are crazed by Cichlids, but viewing them in a tank is nothing in comparison to swimming amongst them in a natural aquarium: Lake Malawi. While hundreds of Cichlids are endemic to Lake Malawi, there are also Cichilds endemic to the Marelli Islands themselves. Commonly spotted are the Mbuna (‘rock-fish), of which many are blue with dazzling shades of turquoise, nicknamed the “Blue Zebra”. Adopting its name from those iridescent fish, in 2013 a small safari style lodge opened on Nankoma Island: Blue Zebra Island Lodge, allowing a unique opportunity for people to experience the spectacular natural beauty and wildlife of the Marelli Archipelago. The lodge takes up only a fraction of Nankoma Island, operating sustainably to ensure a respectful engagement with the island’s natural inhabitants, protecting all creatures. Every traveller makes a financial contribution towards protection of the islands through the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Even though Nankoma lies only 2 hours from Lilongwe airport and a 20 minute boat ride from the shore, visitors who make that easy journey will find a truly wild island paradise “straight out of a fairy-tale with Jurassic Baobab trees and eagles everywhere” – Actress, Scottie Thompson. For the best ways to be immersed in nature at the Marelli Islands, the following top activities are available: Nature trails The main trail around Nankoma Island is 2.3km, with various paths over the top of the island. With trails expanding, you will soon be able to explore the undiscovered Maleri Island, with a short boat ride or kayak across to the start-point of longer trails. It’s a surreal feeling walking among Nankoma Island’s ‘skyscrapers’: giant baobab trees that have stood the test of time. In Chichewa, a baobab is mlambe, baobabs: mulambe, and their ‘super fruit’: malambe. Malambe sells at a high price in the western world, yet on Nankoma there is no monetary value and after the rains, fruits scatter across Malambe Trail, providing a nutritious meal for island inhabitants. Looping along you reach the majestic ancient fig tree, making the tallest human feel miniscule. A haven at night for bush babies and fruit bats. By day, you may see peculiar looking trumpeter hornbills whacking their beaks against bark, feasting on figs and chattering away to each other. Their alarming call has been mistaken for a baby crying, and often likened to mocking laughter. Early risers sometimes come across the island’s small resident antelope: duiker and bushbuck, though they are elusive. Other sightings include flap-necked chameleons, blue-tailed and rainbow Skinks, Nile monitor lizards, and diverse species of birds. The water thick knee is known as the island guide, scuttling along the trail in front of guests, as if leading them around the island. Birdwatching Malawi is world renowned for birdwatching. The country boasts over 650 different species of birds, 10 % of which are native species non-existent anywhere else on the globe.  Lake Malawi provides an ideal habitat for bird life, with the highest concentration of African fish eagle (Malawi’s national bird). The Islands sing with a plethora of exotic bird life, and the cry of the African fish eagle is heard over and above the rest, frequently echoing across the skies over Nankoma Island. The protection offered by its National Park and UNESCO Heritage Site status, coupled with the fact that the islands are un-inhabited, isolated and free of monkeys has provided a rare natural haven and breeding ground for birds. With over 350 species spotted at the islands, popular sightings include little-bee eaters & hamerkops, copper sunbirds, Burchell’s coucal, pied kingfishers, owls, storks and different species of swifts, thrushes, weavers and spinetails. Aquatic life There are many ways to explore the islands, but the best opportunities to get up close to aquatic life are diving, snorkelling and kayaking. Identifying a Cichlid in Lake Malawi is a difficult art as they are highly diverse in terms of size, colouration, behaviour, and ecology. With enough practice, however, their distinct markings and characteristics become more recognisable. Divers have also spotted species of catfish, eels, crabs and rainbow fish. If you’re lucky, you may also come across spotted-neck otters which have found safety around the islands! Photographs paint only part of the picture – the natural beauty and full invigorating experience can only properly be appreciated in person. The Marelli Islands offer the perfect getaway for nature lovers looking for a combination of adventure and relaxation in a tranquil, private setting. Perhaps it’s best summed up by a recent visitor, Alisha Keirstead:  “Nankoma Island is truly jungle paradise… The island has a rhythm, whereby you wake to active birdsong which lasts throughout the day, transitions briefly to frogs in the early evening, and changes to the lapping of lake waves and gentle hum of insects in the trees – falling asleep to nature’s soundtrack was an immense pleasure.” Kelly White is Director of the Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium. Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium aims to provide you with the best information to make Malawi your tourism destination. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Kelly White

Kelly White is Managing Director of Geo Group Marketing and has been promoting and marketing Malawi’s tourism for over 20 years, after falling in love with the country (as so many of its visitors do), on his first trip to Africa in 1995. Geo Group works for the Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium which consists of the members of Malawi’s tourist industry who are focussed on international markets. Members cater for all travel and tourism needs across the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ – tours & safaris, game lodges, lakeshore resorts, hotels, adventure activities, watersports, car hire, air charter, etc. Recent leaps in its safari experiences are helping to make Malawi one of the fastest emerging and most complete destinations in Africa. Kelly co-authored a guide book on Malawi, has now visited all the countries in southern Africa and has also been working for the Eswatini (Swaziland) Tourism Authority since 2010.

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  1. Hope that there aren’t too many eyes on Lake Malawi at the moment. I wouldn’t want such a beautiful environment over run with visitors. It looks such an idyllic place to escape to.

  2. These pictures from the waters of Lake Malawi might tempt me to have a go at scuba diving. Those blue iridescent fish are amazing. Maybe learning to dive and seeing the world in a whole new way should be one of my New Year’s resolutions.

  3. I wonder what Darwin actually would make of a lot of these incredible species like Cichlids that he didn’t get the chance to observe and discover. I think he’d be happy to know there are efforts being made to protect the creatures of the world and their habitats against the perils of 21st century living but it’s worrying to think how much man made and environmental destruction has already been caused. A renewed appreciation for our earth is nourished I think by visiting places like this. You can’t not be amazed and not want to do more to protect and care for it.

  4. It’s a lovely island but not particularly large and nothing of great significance on it. But for relaxing on a beach and swimming in the lake, it’s wonderful!

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