Who discovered Lake Malawi?

East Africa's Lake Malawi: the mysterious blue

East Africa's Lake Malawi is almost as big as Belgium - a freshwater sea on which only a few ships sail. If you go on a sailing tour with Howard, the passionate skipper, you will not only discover remote coasts and islands. He can also expect helpful spirits to emerge from the depths

Consultation with Doctor Kumpalotta

Doctor Kumpalotta jumps off the stool, swings his prepared horse tail and starts a hoarse chant: "Makora, makora" - it will be fine, it will be fine. Only one candle provides light in the mud hut. The doctor is dressed all in black. Rasta braids twist around his head like furry snakes. "It has to do with the sea," I hear myself say. "I mean with the lake; I'm sure the lake is to blame." Doctor Kumpalotta opens his leather case: animal claws, roots, little fur bags. He crumbles a powder and rubs it on my face, chest and hands. Immediately the skin burns like fire. What did I get into here? How did I end up in this hut on the island of Chisumulu in Lake Malawi?

Consultation with Doctor Kumpalotta

Ten days before the consultation with Doctor Kumpalotta, I went on board the catamaran "Mufasa". Shortly afterwards the boat glides across the southern Lake Malawi, gleaming white, the double hull spread like wings. In the wake of the catamaran, the home port of Cape Maclear is getting smaller and smaller, while the south wind carries us out. Africa's third largest lake is almost as big as Belgium, a freshwater sea with slightly curved horizons, an aquatic mystery that I would like to fathom on this trip to the most remote islands and coastlines of East Africa. Mainsail and jib billow over me, the "Mufasa" lurches strongly in the waves. My stomach responds, I shiver, and even without a mirror I know how pale my face should look now.

"Look at that lovely wind," said Howard, the skipper, happily. Look at? I'm confused. But the native South African often speaks of the wind as of a familiar person and looks in a strange way, as if he could see something in the air current. In 1992, the trained electrical engineer came to Malawi for the first time, saw the lake and knew that he would start all over again here. His dream: a life under sail, on his own boat, with guests from all over the world. Howard sold his consulting company and had the Mufasa built in South Africa according to his own plans. Since then, he has covered more miles with the luxurious 38-foot catamaran than the equator can measure. Howard and his crew of three spend 300 nights a year with their passengers on board.

We dock in Chiofu, a fishing village with scattered mud huts on the south-eastern shore of the lake. A little later we are sitting, surrounded by a crowd of curious children, in the shade of a cashew tree. Silver-blue "Usipa", Lake Malawi anchovies, dry on long reeds. "The lake is all we have," says Chitenje, the oldest fisherman in the area, and lets his perfect white teeth light up with a laugh. "We drink from the lake, we bathe in it, the women do the laundry on the bank, we water our gardens and fields with the water - and the lake usually gives us enough fish." Chitenje's smile dies suddenly, he presses his lips together, wrinkles dig in his forehead. "More and more fishermen are coming," he adds quietly. "More and more often our networks remain empty."

The secret of the lake

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has practically no mineral resources, and hunger prevails in the event of drought or floods. Lured by the water, the population on the shores of the lake has multiplied in recent decades. On the market today, fish is more expensive than meat. "He's been angry for a few years," says Chitenje suddenly. "He's locking the fish away, he's sending us crocodiles." I don't understand who "he" is supposed to be. "The man in the lake," whispers the old man. Back on board the Mufasa, Howard whistles through his teeth - it sounds like a gust going into the jib. How does the "man in the lake" lock the fish away? And the crocodiles: did he train them like sharp dogs? "The lake is full of secrets," says Howard, holding out both hands to the wind as if taking something from it. "We're on the trail of one of these secrets."

The secret of the lake

The Mufasa is anchored in a lonely bay. The wind has died down and the water is smooth. We jump headlong into the sea, excuse me: into the lake. It must be because of the resemblance of Lake Malawi to an ocean, the vastness and the blue. No matter how often we bathe in the lake, every time we are amazed that the tropical warm water does not taste salty, but sweet. Only then does it occur to us that crocodiles also swim in Lake Malawi. But we trust Howard's theory: crocodiles need cloudy water to hunt. In the crystal clear bay in which we bathe, we would see the predatory reptiles from afar. After all, fish nibble on our legs. Through the diving goggles we see schools of cichlids - yellow, red, blue, striped, spotted, spotted. Because of the isolated location of Lake Malawi in the African Rift Valley, hundreds of species have developed that can only be found here. We paddle through a huge aquarium.

After lunch, a deep dark blue moves towards us. Drifting whitecaps in front of it, it comes closer; then the south-east throws itself against the Mufasa, with a loud thud the sails tighten, and we feel a thrust, as if Howard had depressed an accelerator. The water begins to hit the boat walls violently from below, waves explode under the double hull, fountains shoot up through the coarsely woven mats, in which we otherwise lie lazily in the sun. "This wind is a gift", shouts Howard and embraces the gusts with wide open arms, while the spray splashes over him from all sides. "Here you can feel the whole lake," he calls out as if in a trance and puts my hand on the oar. "Here you can feel the power of the wind." I think Howard's wind is more of a storm. He howls in his ears, turns constantly and drives the waves towards each other - the short, steep waves typical of Lake Malawi that come from all directions at the same time. The uneven movements of the ship don't feel good, not good at all. I have to yawn all the time. I have a cold sweat on my forehead. My heart is beating loudly, my stomach is squeezing, lunch heralds the way back. I test various recipes: salty pretzels with lukewarm cola, progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobsen, ear plugs - with the right hand into the left ear and vice versa. When all else fails, I lie on my back and count asterisks.

Swing week on the sea

Lake Malawi, which is up to 700 meters deep, knows no tides and hardly any currents, and it belongs to Howard almost all alone. There is only one motorized liner on the immense expanse of water, fifty-four times the size of Lake Constance. We meet him that night. The wind has died down, the water is thick and black as oil. Stars are shimmering in it like fluorescent little animals, as a bundle of light grows out of the darkness in the distance. "Look at that, Ilala‘, "says Howard, and it sounds like he's talking about a goddess. The steamship has been transporting freight and passengers since 1948. For many villages and islands, the Ilala is the soul of the lake: the only contact with the outside world. But we only see lights of it that grow out of the night and burn up again in it, somewhere between Metangula and Nkhotakota.

Swing week on the sea

After a week of rocking on the sea - I mean: on the lake - "Kaya Mawa" comes right on call. The lodge is one of the most beautiful in East Africa; she awaits us on a dreamy beach in the southwest of the island of Likoma. After a permanent incline, I bring my body back into an upright position, enjoy the tranquility of my luxurious chalet made of natural stone, which is located on a tiny island and is connected to Likoma via a footbridge. From my private terrace I slide into the water, crawl through the turquoise bay, paddle in the canoe around smoothly washed rocks or just lie in the hammock under a mango tree and pinch myself from time to time to whisper to myself: "Hey, what a life. " Over dinner by the pool, high above the lake, Andrew Came, the owner of Kaya Mawa, tells how he backpacked to Malawi in the late 1980s: "I hid my long hair under a huge bandage and put my arm in a sling . "

Just the sound of the waves

The camouflage was necessary because Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the dictator who ruled Malawi from independence from 1964 to 1994, had long-haired men shaved on entry. Andrew cheated his way through as sick. TV sets and trousers for women were also banned under Banda. Half a million people fell victim to his state terror, it is estimated. In 1994 Malawi became a peaceful democracy. Andrew has lived on Likoma ever since. "When I travel, I often get the feeling that something is wrong," he says, looking at the horizon. "Then I realize that I miss the lake, not just the sound of the waves, but its presence, its energy." Skipper Howard says: "Sea fever" and claims that everyone who lives on Lake Malawi will sooner or later get it.

Course for Mozambique

There is only one slope on Likoma. Only a few houses on the eight-kilometer-long island with 6000 inhabitants have electricity. Utaka cichlids sizzle on round trays in the lively market. Girls balance firewood on their heads, women in brightly colored robes sell tomatoes and cassava roots. Down on the beach, João Bernardo unloads his dhow.

Course for Mozambique

Every morning the muscular, boy-faced man joins a small fleet of ships whose sails are patched together from old clothes and sacks of corn. With the traditional boats, the sailors, driven by the east wind, manage the route from Mozambique over to Likoma. Much of the east bank belongs to Mozambique. While the lake in Malawi makes up one fifth of the national territory and is considered the country's landmark, it is only a remote border region for Mozambique and can only be reached from the capital Maputo after days of driving on the slopes or in a bush plane.

"There are no shops over there," says João, leaning on the oar, "all goods come and go by boat via Likoma." The dhows mainly bring back maize, bamboo, firewood and planks for furniture construction from Mozambique. João's work is hard, and sometimes dangerous. "The man in the lake can be cruel," he whispers and immediately bites his tongue. It was bad luck to talk about him, only the healers and wizards knew about him. The most powerful is Doctor Kumpalotta. He lives on Chisumulu. Then the wind turns, as always around noon, and João hoists his rag sail to set course for Mozambique, heavily laden with freshly made beds, sugar sacks, cooking oil, clothes, soaps, shampoos.

Take a deep dive

Doctor Kumpalotta's island is only two hours sailing from Likoma when the wind is good, but the sea, pardon me: the sea doesn't mean it well to me. While Howard steers the Mufasa, smiling to the wind, my paleness slowly changes to green. I chew fresh ginger, try acupressure and breathing exercises - all to no avail. There are said to have been seasick people who jumped overboard out of desperation. Or wished their ship would sink. As the catamaran plows through the waves, I come to believe that these stories are definitely true. Doctor Kumpalotta lives under a huge baobab and looks at me with penetrating eyes. I am describing my symptoms. "It has to do with the sea," I finally hear myself say. "I mean with the lake; I'm sure the lake is to blame." Makora, makora; the mysterious powder; my skin that burns like fire. "You are diving into the lake now," says the doctor. "Deep, very deep, deeper than a human can dive."

The man in the lake

I close my eyes and hold my breath. It's getting strangely cool. I open my eyes again - and look into a face. A man's face. White skin. Long hair that stands in all directions under water. He gives me a smile. Then the face disappeared. "The man in the lake smiled at you," says Doctor Kumpalotta after I reappeared. "The lake will never make you sick again, it is now your friend, your brother."

The man in the lake

Lake Malawi is a living being. He speaks his own language, in which the people on his shores communicate with him. On a good day, the fishermen throw back part of their catch - for the man in the lake. Peasants offer him the first crops of a harvest. He is addressed to anyone who needs help. The healers dive into the depths in their rituals to ask the man in the lake for medicine. He also tells them in which village the sick need to be treated.

At two in the morning the Mufasa lifts anchor. We want to go from the Mozambican bank to the Malawian. At Chisumulu the lake reaches its maximum width of almost 80 kilometers. In the morning the sun lights the sky. Clouds like lava. Nowhere is more land to be seen. We pull up the spinnaker and the ship chases at 18 knots across the seething lake. "Fly, my angel, fly!" Shouts Howard, maddened; he leaps in the air and reaches into the wind as if he were harvesting the fruits of an invisible tree.

I swing in the patio on one of the bow tips and savor every wave. No more twitching in the epigastric region. I am healed, actually healed. The waves that hit me yesterday are now triggering euphoric states. And suddenly, between two violent gusts, I also know what Howard receives with his enigmatic gestures. It is the wind that opens up the lake to the skipper, drives him here and there. The wind infects Howard with sea fever. Only when the sails billow does the dream of this aeolian-led hiker begin to come true - the world of Lake Malawi. It doesn't matter how Doctor Kumpalotta showed me the man in the lake how he healed me. Whether it was the powder or some kind of hypnosis. The Mufasa surfs on powerful waves - up, down, up, down. Thoughts stop, everything loses its meaning: questions, answers, the distant shore, the sky, even the wind. We come from one horizon and drive towards the next. The lake is a sea is a lake, the voice from the depths, it speaks to us - and we listen to it with full attention.

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