The worldview of any tourism attraction is shaped by the locals’ way of life.
Times Magazine travel writer James Ellis recently wrote about the Likoma’s “very traditional” ways when he picked 30 secret islands “to really get away from it all.”
“The locals make their living fishing or farming rice and cassava,” he writes.
The larger of twin populous islands on the south-eastern tip of Lake Malawi ranks 20th on Ellis’ chart topped by France’s Cavallo Island, “a blissfully car-free natural reserve” visited by Hollywood stars Beyoncé and Alicia Keys.
But, to be fair, Likoma, whose unforgettable link with US film culture was merely hoax sights of Rambo film star Sylvester Stallone flying to the island, is a greater escape.
Forget tales of on-off passenger ships and perilous wooden boats that make the trip to the rocky island in the sun appear long and scary.
Some voyagers vomit as they cannot stomach a ship dancing to high tides.
Yet the six-hour journey across the lake, the islander’s lifeline to the mainland, offers a sense of overcoming.
This triumph over adversity and freedom is sweeter on the topmost deck of Ilala, the country’s largest vessel which has been on the lake since 1975.
Up there, travellers get astonishing views of the crystal-clear waters, the postcard-ready shoreline of the lake, tanning sunshine, fresh air and cold drinks.
Music lovers’ escape comes with Likoma Arts Festival’s annual return to the ‘gem in pure water’.
Just last year, organisers trialled live music performances on the ship from Monkey Bay to the island.
However, every trip confirms the adventure to remember begins the moment tourists step into the marine vessel.
“Welcome on board,” says Captain Chipiliro Mponda, the first woman on the wheel of the oldest ship.
She smiles with friendliness, passionate about her job.
Her long-time mentor, Captain Tasauka Mkamata Ngwira, is equally welcoming. He tells stories that keep passengers smiling, giving insights into highlights of the continent’s third-largest freshwater lake where he spends six days a week.
His trips, experience and his childhood in Mlowe, a shoreline rural setting in the northern tip of Rumphi District, have made him familiar with the vessel’s maritime route.
However, he speaks fondly of Likoma.
“The island will never disappoint,” he says. “The people, the place, the nightlife and all that you see. It’s awesome.”
Contrary to popular perceptions, the island of almost 8 000 people is not negligible and dull.
Likoma is lively–too good to slumber, the locals say.
They call it half London, with no big Ben in sight.
Going up a bell tower at St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, climbers see the splendour of the island from Nkhwazi to Makulawe reserved for those who fly in using choppers and jets.
Up to seven planes land at the newly upgraded Likoma International Airport.
The touchdown marks the start of inroads into breathtaking sights of the densely populated, deforested island.
A walk across its breadth and length yields many memories to remember.
The most memorable pep talk for ardent adventurers came from Ulisa Bay proprietor Christopher Stevens. It is not for those who keep leaving.
“Islands are places where you stay longer,” he said. “They offer a great escape from the hustle and bustle on the mainland. So you come to the island to relax, swim, walk even in the night without worrying about onlookers. You get to know more places of interest and more about local culture.”
Well-travelled Stevenson, who owns Nkhotakota and Dedza Pottery, has been to several islands in Europe.
Visitors who walk the talk sometimes wind up at Nkhwazi, the setting of Kaya Mawa and Mango Drift, exquisite lodges built on outcropping rocks by the Lake of Stars.
Wandering off to Makulawe, visitors bump into many rocks, including three giants.
They include Mwala wa Maria which resembles artistic impressions of Mary the mother of Jesus Christ; Mwala wa Belu which produces the sound like a metallic bell when stroked; and Mwala wa Phazi on which lies a footprint.
Elders attribute the mysteries of the rocks scarcely visited to their ancestors.
Their geological narratives reveal that the island dominated by Anglicans, who congregate for nearly four hours in the continent’s third-largest cathedral every Sunday, have undying bond with those dead and buried.
Similarly mystic is a giant baobab tree with a roomy cave in its stem.
Elders say the tree, inhabited by a parasitic Kachere tree, is the oldest of its kind on the island decorated with baobab forests.
The “over a century old tree” is located at the centre of a lakeside market built by Germans in 1985. The roomy tree serves a storeroom for traders, an inn for tired fishermen dying for a nap, a magnet for tourists taking one-off photos and a talking point for reverent storytellers.
Traditional Authority Nkumpha terms Likoma a tourism destination rich in scenic spots, tranquillity, history and culture.
But he feels the country is getting a raw deal because its tourism scene is underdeveloped, with most hospitality places owned by foreigners and too expensive for Malawians.
At the Department of Tourism, principal tourism officer Sarah Njanji is convinced the airport upgrade will improve connectivity of the island.
But Nkumpha urges government to invest in hotels and inclusive policies to ensure the nation and Malawians benefit too.
“Government has invested a lot of money in the airport, but Malawians and government do not own any noteworthy business on the island,” he says.
The few Malawian-owned businesses include Breeze Bar, Pangani Zanu Lodge and Khaiko—where the locals fleeing exclusionary prices nest day and night.
The hottest of them all is Breeze at Alemekezeke Lodge.
The hot spot’s unrestricted nature, the latest party hits DJ Christopher Gunde collects from shiploads of visitors, influx of sex workers from the mainland and moneybags fishmongers make the shoreline club really hot.
And it does not sleep although the island’s diesel-powered electricity brinks off around 10pm until the next day 5am.
Gunde, who has been at the club for years, ranks Breeze Bar the “people’s favourite” when it comes to nightlife.
“We have something for everyone. We don’t want to deny visitors things they enjoy on the mainland,” Gunde says.
In this way, the islanders are not missing much.
Ship and boats bring essential cargo, including crates of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
“Many people think Likoma Island is starved of fun, but are not thirsting. We have the entertainment in our midst,” says the youthful DJ.
Those who do not hang out in clubs are not thirsty either. The islanders love tea at daybreak, noon and evening.