Since independence from France in 1960 Gabon has had just two presidents, with the late, Omar Bongo, in power since 1967. Despite being made up of more than 40 ethnic groups, Gabon has escaped the strife afflicting other West African states. As Gabon’s oil reserves diminish, eco-tourism has been growing in economic importance. The country’s rainforests teem with wildlife, including lowland gorillas and forest elephants. National parks make up around one tenth of the land area. Tourism in Gabon is in its infancy and while the areas that we have selected for our holidays are absolutely wonderful in terms of flora and fauna, it should be remembered that Gabon can be humid for large parts of the year and accommodation while very clean and comfortable is not five star – yet!
Location: West coast of Central Africa
Size: 267, 670 sq. km
Population: 1.2 million
Climate: Tropical, always hot and humid
Status: Republic; multiparty presidential regime
Main towns: Franceville and Port Gentil
Currency: CFA franc
Language: French (official) and 40 living African Languages
Religion: Christians (60%), Animist and Muslim
International telephone code: +241
Time: GMT +1
Gabon’s most popular areas:
Libreville and the Estuary
Gabon’s capital lies in the far northwest of the country, spread along the Atlantic Ocean for some 15km. Libreville is French for ‘free town’. The French lieutenant Bouet-Willaumez chose the name inspired by the example for Freetown in Sierra Leone when slaves freed from captured slave ship L’Elizia were settled here in 1849. This date is generally regarded as when the city was founded, although people, mostly the Mpongwe, had been living here long before then.
In fact, in preceding years the French has been making great efforts to increase their power on this part of the coast. In 1839 the local Gabonese chief Rapontchombo put his mark to a treaty placing his territory under the French flag, the first of many such treaties signed with local chieftains.
By 1860 Libreville is thought to have consisted of the village of the freed slaves, a trading post and a handful of missionaries. The city grew a bit after World War II, but the real sparks to its growth were independence in 1960 and the petrol boom in the 1970s, which made the city an irresistible magnet for immigrants from neighbouring countries. The city’s population increased in great leaps. Today Libreville has an official population of 450,000, which accounts for about 40% of the country’s inhabitants.
The coastal road runs from the airport to the north of the city centre – through the city and on to the port of Owendo, to the south on the Gabon estuary. On the way, roads lead away from the waterfront to the different quartiers. Batterie IV is the city’s grandest area full of embassies and large houses and Quartier Louis is primarily an entertainment district. The grand boulevard Triomphal Omar Bongo was built on what was once the marshland on the Sainte Marie Valley. The next big road junction leads up to Mont-Bouet, the busiest part of the city. Stretching from the Presidential Palace as far as avenue Felix Eboue is the commercial centre of the city, known as Nombakele, and butting up to it is the old colonial Quartier Glass, where many trading companies once had their headquarters. Continuing brings you to the industrial area Oloumi, then the lively residential area Lalala, and finally the train station and port of Owendo. All distances in Gabon are measure from the Bessieux roundabout, ‘le point kilometrique zero du Gabon’.
President Bongo had big ideas for his capital back in the days when the coffers were overflowing with petrol money. For most of the 1970s the city resembled a massive building site. A new presidential palace was built, the first skyscrapers, big roads, new ministries, luxury hotels, plus the futuristic buildings of boulevard Triomphal. Recession in the mid 1980’s slowed construction, but there’s no denying that on one level Libreville lives up to the image of the flourishing international capital that Bongo envisaged. The buildings and hotels are still impressive, and you can dine on food from anywhere in the world if you can stomach the international prices – les Librevillois, immigrants and expats all agree the city is ‘tres, tres cher’. But of course, there is another, less visible side of the city behind the modern buildings, ‘les matistis’ or shanty towns.
Within the Estuary region are a number of places where it is only too easy to forget the proximity of the big smoke. Just minutes out of Libreville on the airport road the forest begins. Both along this coast and on the other side of the estuary, there are dreamy beaches where it is possible to walk for miles along the shore at low tide. On the southern side of the estuary is Pongara National Park., which incorporates the tourist resort of Port Denis. Neither side of the estuary is short on birdlife – kingfishers, little egrets, reef herons, sanderlings and other fast-moving waders abound.
The Middle Ogooue
The Ogooue splits into two channels at Lambarene, before re-joining a large alluvial plain with a series of picturesque lakes fringed by papyrus marshes, reed beds and dense forests. This is one of the largest deltas in Africa, extending from Lambarene to Port Gentil, and it is hoped it will be granted protective status such as a Biosphere Reserve. Lake excursions can be made from either Lambarene or Port Gentil, but the Lambarene lakes are more accessible and less pre-planning is required. Aside from the lakes this region is known for two reasons: the hospital founded by Albert Schweitzer and the peculiar fierceness of its mosquitoes.
The Ngounie region takes its name from the River Ngounie – an important tributary of Ogooue – which feeds its forests and lakes. It is sometimes also known as Mitsogho country, after the people who have traditionally lived here. To the south lies the Congo, along this region’s eastern flank rise the du Chaillu Mountains, and along its western flank the Ikoundou Mountains. Sandwiched between there forested mountains lies the grassy Ngounie valley, location of the town of Ndende. The Ngounie must be one of the least visited regions of Gabon. If it welcomes any visitors they are invariably passing through on their way to or from Mayumba, or making a brief southerly foray from Lambarene to Fougamou and Sindara. Those who linger a while, however, and venture deeper into the Mitsogho country, are rewarded with the beauty of a little changed part of the country.
The Ogooue Maritime, or Coastal Ogooue, is a region that combines economic resources and diverse beauties in its 23,000sq km. The region’s capital is Port Gentil. From the late 15th century, Europeans, notably the Portuguese, descended on the coastal peoples to trade in ivory and timber. Later, in the 17th century, their commercial interests turned to slaves, while by the 19th century the missionaries were arriving to battle for souls. In the 20th century the attraction was oil, and that of the 21st century looks set to be tourism, thanks to the spectacular scenery and plentiful wildlife. The camps here have long been a place of pilgrimage for tarpon fisherman, and are now broadening their net to welcome birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts.
The coastal Ogooue region has many different ecosystems harbouring enormous biodiversity. It is a region that includes forests, lagoons, lakes, floodplains, savannahs and over 200km of coastline. This is one of the richest and most beautiful areas in Central Africa, and preliminary research has shown it to have one of the highest densities of elephants and apes. Yet such riches have not been a guarantee against exploitation. The government has been in the past given logging and oil companies the right to operate in the region, and their presence has both improved access routes for poachers and increased the demand for illegally hunted meat. Now the Gabonese government, in conjunction with the conservation agencies, has given the region two national parks of Loango and Moukalaba-Doudou. They are keen to find a workable solution to the twin issues of conservation and economics by encouraging tourism. Loango National Park is probably the only place on the African continent where western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, buffalo and hippopotami can all, with luck, be seen on the same beach. Even leopard have been spotted on the beach. There is also the chance to see manatees and crocodiles, and at the right times of year, nesting leatherback sea turtles, humpback whales and dolphins.
Port Gentil is located on the north-eastern edge of an island some 30km by 6km, an island surrounded by ocean and swamps. At the end of the 15th century it was named Lopez Island by the Portuguese sailor, Lopez Gonzalvez. The name did not stick, although the island’s furthest point is still know as Cape Lopez. Instead, the island became known as Mandji Island, a name chosen by the Myene people because of the concentration of mandji trees growing here.
The city itself takes its name after a certain Frenchman, Emile Gentil, an administrator for Afrique Equatoriale Francaise (AEF) who was sent to perform a mission here between 1890 and 1892. Port Gentil at this time was little more than a handful of villages and a mission, and was to remains so until at least the end of World War 1. Today Port Gentil is the economic capital of Gabon, a city that got rich quick, and in the process acquired a disproportionate number of hotels, restaurants and expats (mostly French and Lebanese). The residents of Port Gentil claim there are three separate groups of people here: the Gabonese, the expats and those working for Elf. The question on everybody’s mind is what will happen to the city when the petrol runs out?
Loango National Park
The Loango National was created in 2002 when the Iguela and Petit Loango Reserves were merged to become one. The Iguela Reserve has covered an area of 230,000 hectares surrounding the lagoon alternatively called Iguela or Nkomi. Neighbouring it to the south was the smaller coastal reserve of Petit Loango. Visitors come to Loango National Park to enjoy the irresistible combination of scenery and wildlife – ocean, lagoon, forest and savannah – and the different ways of exploring them: namely by boat, 4WD or on foot. The attractions change depending on the time of year. The whale season begins around mid-July and continues through to mid-September, the tarpon fishing season October to mid-November, and the turtle season is October to mid-January. At all times, you will see at least some of the following: buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles, manatees, elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas.
Nyanga is in the far southwest of Gabon, its limits defined by the ocean to the west and the border with Congo to the south. The provincial capital, Tchibanga, lies beside the River Nyanga in a low-lying corridor between the Mayumba Mountains and the Ikoundou mountains, paralleling the Ngounie valley to the east. It is a fairly wealthy region with fertile soil. Its agricultural industry – based largely on rice and some vegetables – is centred around Moabi, and marble is quarried near Tchibanga. Tourism is an embryonic industry at the coastal town Mayumba, famed for its pristine beaches. Talk of building a port on Gabon’s southwestern coast has raised fears about the future of Mayumba, but it seems an unlikely choice as long as oil is not found here.
This region takes its name from two large rivers, the Woleu and the Ntem. It is a frontier region, separated from Cameroon to the north by the river Ntem, and butting up to Equatorial Guinea to the west, and around the Crystal Mountains to the south. The regional boundaries were created by the French in the early 20th century. Woleu-Ntem fell under German colonial control in 1912-15 – the German legacy lives on in the cocoa they planted – but the factor to impact on the region today is the influx of immigrants from these neighbouring countries.
Woleu-Ntem has an estimated population of 220,000 people, making it second only to the estuary in terms of population density. The majority of its inhabitants are Fang, who are known for the Mvet, the name of a Fang stringed instruments and musical tradition. There are also villages of Baka pygmies near the Cameroonian border. As well as being one of the country’s most densely populated regions, Woleu-Ntem is one of the wealthiest. An immediate indicator of its importance is the beautifully surfaced main road, which allows produce from Cameroon to be easily transported south through Bitam, Oyem, Mitzic to eventually join the road to Libreville.
The region’s wealth is based in agriculture, and specifically on the company Hevegab, which carved massive hevea plantations totalling thousands of hectares of the forest here in the early 1900s. These work opportunities not only meant less of an exodus of the young from Woleu-Ntem compared to other, less-wealthy regions, but also acted as magnet for jobless young men from across the borders. Unfortunately, Hevegab is now experiencing difficulties. Jobs can no longer be taken for granted and unemployment is rising.
Because of the region’s higher altitude, the weather tends to be colder than most of the rest of the country, with a longer rainy season. Seen from the sky, the region’s overwhelming feature is the dense and breath-taking forest, broken only by the dramatic inselbergs that give shape to the landscape, and the occasional roads with their pretty villages dotted with avocado, mango and banana trees. The far northeastern corner of the region, and the country, is uninhabited impenetrable forest broken only by massive granite outcrops.
The Ogooue-Invindo is one of the least populated regions in Gabon. It is traversed by the Ogooue and Ivindo rivers, and two main roads. The regional capital is the small town of Makokou. East of Makokou the road passes through some villages before arriving in Mekambo, the furthest town before the road splits and crosses the frontier into Congo in two different places. Away from the roads, this region is inaccessible and uninhabited, except for the Pygmies living along the length of the River Ivindo and the gold panners sifting through the small streams around the River Nouna. The other people living here are mostly Fang, Kwele and Kota. They are eking out a subsistence existence, growing, fishing and hunting their food. There are iron deposits around Mount Belinda that were once a source of great hope, but the quality is simply not good enough to justify the expense of mining it and transporting it to the coast. Now the government, in conjunction with environmental organisations such as WWF, hope that ecotourism will provide a boost to the economy in a region that is after all one of Gabon’s richest in terms of flora and fauna. Until now, Lope has been the only real options for tourists, from those in search of the little-known Dja River Warbler or a rare species of orchid, to those interested in primarily in a ‘gorilla experience’. The formation of three new national parks means an explosion in tourist possibilities is imminent.
Lope National Park
Lope National Park is a vast expanse totalling 2,069 square miles. It is bordered by the Ogooue to the north, the Offoue to the east, the du Chaillu mountains in the south and the River Mingoue to the west. Lope was created as a national park in 2002 (prior to this it had been a reserve since 1946). More than 1,500 plant species have been recorded here, of which 40 represent new species for Gabon. Lope is home to 400 of the 680 species of bird recorded in Gabon, and according to the ECOFAC there are 60 different species of mammal within the reserve. Little wonder Lope is the chosen research centre for long term studies on gorillas and mandrills. In the region of 1,350 mandrills are thought to inhabit the reserve and the surrounding area. They are particularly visible in the dry season (July – August), when they hand around in super-groups numbering hundreds in the north of the reserve for up to two weeks at a time. There are estimated 3,000-5,000 western lowland gorillas roaming within the reserve.
Ivindo National Park
Southwest of Makokou is the Ivindo National Park. The highlights of the park includes its two waterfalls, the Koungou and the Mingouli. By far the greatest are the Mingouli falls – a magnificent series of falls that crash down into the river from every direction. A pirogue trip through the forest to the falls provides plenty of opportunity to glimpse birds, monkeys and hippos. The dry season is not the best time to go, as the river can get dangerously low and it will be necessary to drag the pirogue over the rocks in places.
The High Ogooue
Historically, the high Ogooue region as it stands today has been very cut off from the rest of the country. It even became a Congolese territory in 1925 – because of the building of the railway from Brazzaville to the ocean – and was only reunited with Gabon in 1946. Even then, it was to remain isolated from the other regions until the roads to Libreville and the airport were built in the 1970s, followed by the Transgabonais railway and the Intercontinental Hotel in the 1980s.
The rich resources in the mining towns of Mounana and Moanda in the west of the region played an important role in ensuring that Franceville be brought closer to the capital, but arguably the most important factor was President Omar Bonga himself. Of all the people in the High Ogooue – Ombaba, Bawoumbou, Banjabi and so on – the dominant people are the Bateke, the president’s people. Bongo hails from Bongoville (originally named Lewai), a village lying between Franceville and Leconi. He has been unceasingly committed to developing his region, but has not yet succeeded in fulfilling his dream to transform it into an important place on the international stage. The airport never handles international flights, and the Intercontinental is never full.
The Ogooue-Lolo is crossed by the Ogooue and its tributary the River Lolo, hence its name. A third important river, the Ofooue, marks the natural border between this region and the Ngounie region. It terms of landscape these two regions are remarkably similar, both being green and mountainous. The dense forest has long attracted forestry companies, and more recently scientists and conservationists. The du Chaillu Mountains are rich in endemic species – just how rich is not yet known – and excursions on foot guarantee encounters with numerous monkeys and birds. Climbing Mount Iboundji represents the biggest challenge, but there are other, less strenuous alternatives. The road directly south of the region’s capital, Koulamoutou, leads to the Congo border via Pana.
The name “Malawi” comes from the Marvi, a Bantu people who emigrated from the southern Congo around 1400AD. Sharing its border with Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and boasting the third largest lake in Africa, Malawi offers a unique getaway experience unlike any other. Home to the idyllic Lake Malawi, schools of rare tropical fish wait to be discovered by scuba and skin divers. Above the azure water, once can enjoy a variety of water sports. And because it’s surrounded by rocky mountains, sandy coves and beaches, there is plenty to discover along its banks.
Visit Nyika National Park and the Vwasa Marsh Wildlife Reserve in the northern region. Sip a cup of tea in colonial style at the famous Livingstonia Mission, with its interesting museum nearby. Explore Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. Hike to the 3000m summit of Mulanje Massi – Malawi’s highest mountain range.
Southern Africa, east of Zambia
Size: 118 484km²
Climate: November to April, hot and wet; May to August, moderate and dry; September to Octber, very hot and dry.
Status: Democratic republic
Population: 10 701 824 (July 2002)
Other main towns: Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba and Koronga
Economy: The economy is predominately agricultural. The economy depends on substantial inflows of economic assistance from the IMF, the World Bank, and individual donor nations. The performance of the tabacco sector is key to short-term growth.
Currency: Malawian Kwacha (MWK)
Language: English (indigenous languages important regionally)
Religion: Approximately 50% Christian, 12% Islamic and the remainder a selection of other faiths and sects.
International dialling code: +265
Time: GMT +2
Electricity: AC 240V
Flag: Three equal horizontal bands of black (top), red, and green with a radiant, rising, red sun centred in the black band.
Malawi’s most popular areas:
Blantyre is Malawi’s unofficial commercial capital, and the oldest European settlement in the country. The Blantyre mission was founded in October 1876 by the Established Church of Scotland, and named after the small village in which David Livingstone was born. Under its first leader, Rev Duff Macdonald, the Blantyre Mission ruled over the surrounding hills a despotic cruelty, flogging and killing suspected thieves and murderers with out even the pretence of a trial. The behaviour of the early Blantyre missionaries caused a scandal in the British press, forcing many of them to retire, and Macdonald to be replaced by Rev Clement Scott in 1881. The healthy, fertile climate around Blantyre proved attractive to European settlers, and the mission’s strategic position served as an excellent communication centre for the traders who operated between Lake Malawi and the Zambezi Valley. Blantyre rapidly became the most important settlement in Malawi, a status it retains to this day, with a population of around 500,000, almost double that of the capital, Lilongwe.
Blantyre is more intrinsically attractive than Lilongwe, lying at an altitude of 1,038m in a valley ringed by low hillls, the largest of which are Michuru (1,473m), Soche (1,533m) and Ndirende (1,612m). For all that, the city lacks any discernible character and cannot, by any stretch of the immagination, be thought of as a tourist attraction. But it remains the focal point of travel in southern Malawi, as well as the springboard for bus transport to Harare via Mozambique’s Tete Corridor. Most visitors to Malawi spend a night or two in Blantyre at some point.
The Shire Valley
Southwest of Blantyre, the M1 snakes and slithers over the Thyolo Escarpment, offering fantastic views across the hills of Majete Wildlife Reserve and Mozambique, before it descends to the steamy lowlands of the Shire Valley. Despite a reasonably dense human population, the Shire Valley retains much of the atmosphere of wild, untrammelled Africa. In large part, this is due to the sluggish presence of the wide and lushly vegetated Shire River, still home to sizeable populations of hippopotamus and crocodile. But even among the people, the Shire Valley seems less influenced by the West than much of modern Africa. The Shire Valley was the first part of Malawi to be visited by Europeans. In January 1859, Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition steamed up the Shire until its path was blocked by cataracts that lie on what is now the southern border of Majete Wildlife Reserve. When Livingstone travelled up the Shire again in 1861, to help Bishop Mackenzie established the first mission in Central Africa, much of the region was under the indirect control of Portuguese slavers. Worse still was to greet Livingstone on his final trip up river in 1863 – the Shire had become, in the words of Dr Rowley, another member of the expedition, ‘literally a river of death’. The banks were lined with dead emaciated Africans; one member of the expedition calculated that a corpse floated past them every three hours. The malaria that is hyper endemic to the Shire River claimed the lives of several members of Livingstone’s expedition. In 1862, Bishop Mackenzie died on a now-sunken island at the confluence of the Ruo and Shire near Bangula. Two other clergy men, Rev Scudamore and Dr Dickinson, and a 25-year-old geologist Richard Thornton, all died in the Chikwawa area in 1863. Today the Shire Valley does not see a great deal of tourism, but it is not short of worthwhile attractions. Aside from the River itself, rich in atmosphere and historical connections, this area boasts two little-visited wildlife reserves, Majete and Mwabvi, as well as the Lengwe National Park.
Thyolo and Mulanje
The M2 south of Limbe winds to Thyolo through a highland area quite different in character to any other part of Malawi. This is tea-growing country, strikingly reminiscent of the Kericho district of western Kenya: breezy, rolling hills swathed in orderly rows of tea bushes and still supporting the occasional remnant patch of indigenous forest in valleys and along watercourses.
As you cross the plantation-covered hills around Thyolo, you can hardly fail to be aware of the staggeringly proportioned granite outcrop that dominates the eastern skyline. This is the Mulanje Massif, the highest mountain in Central Africa, rising almost 2km above the surrounding Phalombe Plain to an altitude of 3,002m.
Tourism to this part of Malawi is inevitably, and rightly, centred around Mulanje, which arguably offers the finest hiking in the country, and is renowned, by mountaineers for its exceptional rock-climbing. Thyolo, too, is worth a stop, as a base from which to explore the biologically rich mahogany forest on the upper slopes of Thyolo Mountain.
Zomba and Surrounds
This is a lovely part of Malawi, a relatively low-lying plateau interrupted by a number of large mountains, most notably the vast Zomba Mountain above the town of the same name. The most popular tourist attraction in the region is undoubtedly Zomba Mountain, a hikers’ paradise with plentiful birds and small mammals, as well as wonderful views across to Mulanje and Mozambique. Also growing in popularity, especially since Mvuu Camp was privatised and thoroughly refurbished, is Liwonde National Park, one of the most atmospheric reserves in Africa, dominated by the palm-fringed, crocodile and hippo infested waters of the Shore River.
The Lakeshore from Mangochi to Cape Maclear
The southern shore of Lake Malawi is well developed for tourism. All but one of the major tourist-class hotels on the lake lie on the stretch of shore between Mangochi and Cape Maclear, and Cape Maclear itself is far and away the most popular backpackers’ haunt anywhere in the country.
The largest town in the region, Mangochi, does not actually lie on Lake Malawi but on the west bank of the Shire River a short way south of Lake Malawi and north of Lake Malombe. Nevertheless, Mangochi is best grouped with the southern lakeshore – not least because its main source of tourist traffic comes from travellers who have arrived at Cape Maclear to discover that Mangochi is the nearest place where you can change foreign currency into local money.
Lilongwe is the blandest of African capitals. Arriving as most visitors do, in the so-called ‘old town’, what you will see is indistinguishable from any number of small southern African towns. And you are in for a major disappointment if you head up to the new town – Capital City – expecting something more ostentatious. The Capital City sprawls unconvincingly over lightly wooded hill; what many maps show as the city centre amounts to little more than a couple of shopping malls and a few restaurants and government buildings melting into leafy suburbia.
Bland though it may be, Lilongwe is one of the most equable capitals in Africa: the climate is comfortable, getting in and out of town is simplicity itself, cheap accommodation is abundant and conveniently situated, shops and markets are well stocked, and the city is almost entirely free of the sort of tourist-targeted crime that makes so many other African cities a potentially treacherous initiation for visitors.
Lilongwe was founded in 1906 on the banks of the Lilongwe River, initially as a settlement for Asian traders, though its pleasant climate is rapidly attracted European business. In 1909, the fledgling township’s future status was assured when it became the terminus of the first road connecting Malawi to Zambia. By the 1930s, Lilongwe boasted a hotel, a hospital, a European sports club, and a mosque and Muslim Sports Club built by the thriving Asian business community. In 1947, Lilongwe was accorded full township status. By the time of Malawi’s independence, Lilongwe was, with a population of around 20,000, second only in size to Blantyre, and its central position made it the obvious choice to replace the colonial capital of Zomba. Lilongwe was formally made the capital of Malawi in 1975, since when its population has easily doubled.
Lilongwe holds little that is likely to be of interests to most tourists. Capital City is worth a look, and the old town is a pleasant place to stroll around, particularly the market and the nearby Asian quarter. The only genuine tourist attraction is the underrated and little-visited Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary which lies between old town and Capital City. But, in all honesty, it is tempting to recommend that tourists who have no specific reason to visit Lilongwe bypass the city altogether.
The Lakeshore around Salima
The Lake Malawi shore around Salima has become popular weekend getaway for Lilongwe residents. As a result, the 5km stretch of beach between Senga Bay and Kambiri Point is as well developed for tourism as any part of the lake. The Salima area, is a must be said, has neither the natural beauty of Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear, nor the sense of isolation of some of the resorts on the northern lakeshore. It is popular simply because it is closer to Lilongwe that any other part of the lake. Nevertheless, it is an attractive enough spot, relatively rich in birds and mammals, and a very comfortable place to settle into for a few days.
Salima itself lies 15km from the lake; it is a thoroughly dull small town, and purely if interest as a route focus and as the gateway to Senga Bay on Lake Malawi. The only motivations for exploring Salima beyond its bus station are practical: it has a bank, a post office, a bustling market, and a couple of well stocked supermarkets. Most visitorssimply head straight onto Senga Bay.
Main points of interest around Senga Bay are the Mpatsanjoka River (excellent birding and resident hippos), Lizard Island, and the tropical fish farm near Kambiti Point.
Nkhata Bay’s attractions are manifold. The lakeshore is gloriously lush and scenic: a twin pair of bays spilling into the wooded mainland and separated by a long, narrow peninsula. Just as alluring to many is the strong sense of traveller community that has developed in the village. The place is addictively laid back, to the extent that it seems to paralyse the will of many travellers, but Nkhata Bay’s fortunes have fluctuated. From being one of the best-kept secrets, this small port overtook Cape Maclear as the most popular travellers’ congregation point on the lakeshore, if not anywhere between Zanzibar and Victoria Falls.
The island of Likoma, 8km long and 3km wide, lies within Mozambican waters but is territorially part of Malawi, mainly as a result of its long association with Scottish missionaries. In 1886, Likoma became the site of an Anglican mission, established by Bishop Chauncey Maples with the help of his close friend and fellow Oxford graduate, the Rev William Johnson. Maples was consecrated as the first bishop of Likoma in London in 1895, but he never actively assumed this post as he drowned in a boating accident near Salima, caused by his enthusiasm to return to Likoma despite stormy weather. Maples was buried in the church at Nkhotakota. Johnston went on to become one of the most fondly remembered of all the missionaries who worked in Malawi. He arrived at the lake in 1882 and for 46 years he preached from a boat all around the lakeshores, despite being practically blind and well into his 70s when he died in 1928. Johnson’s grave at Liuli (on the Tanzanian part of the lakeshore) remained for several decades a popular site of pilgrimage for Malawian Christians.
Historical interest aside, Likoma’s main attraction for travellers is its isolation and mellow atmosphere. This is no conventional tropical island paradise, though the beaches really are splendid with the mountainous Mozambican shore rising above them, while the interior has a certain austere charm, particularly the southern plains which are covered in massive baobabs and shady mango trees and studded with impressive granite outcrops. Likoma has always generated a great deal of interest among travellers, but it remains surprisingly little visited.
Mzuzu, Nyika and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
Mzuzu is the largest town in northern Malawi and the region’s major route focus, lying on the junction of the M1 between Lilongwe and the Tanzanian border and the lakeshore road from Nkhata Bay. Mzuzu and the nearby town of Rumphi hold little of interest to tourists, but they are springboards for visits to two of Malawi’s finest conservation areas: Nyika National Park and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, a beautiful rolling highland plateau where visitors can walk freely amongst a variety of big game species. Vwaza Marsh is less publicised than Nyika, and sees very few tourists, although it is readily accessible both to motorised travellers and to backpackers, and it offers exceptional game viewing, elephants being particularly numerous.
It is wonderful to visit Tropical Island that boasts some of the finest cuisine. An island that offers many of the best golf courses this side of paradise. We could tell you that the reason you’ll visit the seven hundred and eighty square mile volcanic island for the breathtaking mountainous backdrop that can be explored on horseback, 4X4 or on foot. But we know that the real reason thousands of visitors flock to Mauritius is of course for the sandy white beaches, the warm azure sea and what lies below. After achieving independence in 1968, Mauritius has quickly earned its place as one of the top tropical island destinations for honeymooners as well as families. Little wonder, with sunny days that seem to last forever, the world’s third largest coral reef, 5 start hotels and a selection of private villas. And because the island is malaria free, it’s an ideal destination for the whole family.
Enjoy water sports such as parasailing, explore the multi coloured coral reef on an underwater walk, in a submarine or a semi-submersible scooter. Climb Le Pouce (The Thumb) at 812m and take in the spectacular 360 degree view of Port Louis. Bargain and barter your way around the city’s market where you can find everything from souvenirs to high end fashion. Swim on the northern beaches, shaded by casuarinas. Dive off the west coast with sharks, turtles and a myriad of multi coloured fish.
Location: In the Indian Ocean, south of the Equator and just north of the Tropic of Capricorn
History: Discovered by Arabs then the Portuguese, Mauritius was first settled by the Dutch in 1598. It was claimed by the French in 1715 as Ile de France and captured by the British in 1810. It was a British colony until 1968 when it became an independent member of the Commonwealth. It became a republic in 1992.
Climate: Hot summers ( November to April) with average coastal temperature of 30°C and warm winters ( May to October), averaging 24°C. Interiors are 3-5°C lower. The rainy season is January to May with the possibility of a stray cyclone from January to March.
Visitors: Tourists come all the year around; November to January and August most popular months; May to October most pleasant.
Population: 1,206,000 of Indian, African, European and Chinese origin
Capital: Port Louis
Economy: Based on industry and agricultural exports, tourim and financial services.
Currency: The Mauritian rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 cents (cs). The international exchange rate fluctuates daily, linked to a basket of currencies.
Language: The official language is English but creole is the most widely used. Most people speak (and read) French, with Hindi, Tamil and Chinese as the main alternatives.
Religion: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, and also Confucianism and Buddhism.
International telephone code: +230
Time: GMT +4
Electricity: 220 volts
Mauritius’s most popular areas
Port Louis looks best from the sea. It is a booming city that combines new buildings with old, contrasting with the spires and peaks of the threadbare mountain range behind. In the centre is Pouce, poking 811m into the sky like Jack Horner’s thumb. On its left is Pieter Both, a peak named after a Dutch notable who drowned in the bay, distinguished by the boulder balanced precariously on its tip. To the right the city’s boundary extends along a switchback of daunting crags: Snail Rock, Goat Rock, Spear Grass Peak and Quoin Bluff. The sheer sides of Signal Mountain (323m) dominate the western flank of the town.
Solid Victorian warehouses and modern concrete towers, like sawn-off skyscrapers, crowd the flat expanse of the city. Houses claim the land right up to the foothills of Pouce Valley, leaving open spaces only on the plain of the Champ de Mars and the isolated 86m-high hill in the middle of the city, on which perches the battered vulture of a fort called the Citadel. Tall royal palms have somehow survived the city’s growth to form an avenue of greenery leading from the waterfront up the centre of the Place d’Armes to Government House.
It is a city of boundless charm and has preserved a village soul, perhaps because the crowds of people who descend from the plateau towns during the day to work leave the city alone at night. Its streets are empty then, echoing with the sound of recorded music from wedding parties in upstairs halls, the click of dominoes from Chinese club rooms, or the call of the muezzin.
Northern Mauritius is divided into two districts: Pamplemousses in the west and Riviere du Rempart in the east. The coast of Pamplemousses is largely given to tourism and includes the lively resort of Grand Baie. Its boundary is the mountain range encircling Port Louis, with Creve Coeur, behind Pieter Both, as its southernmost village. It cuts through the sugar plantations east of Pamplemousses town and runs northwards to the coast at Pointe aux Canonniers.
Riviere du Rempart is a compact district of contrasts, encompassing the tourist hot spots to the east of Grande Baie, the industrial/agricultural area of Goodlands and the rugged northeast coast around Poudre d’Or. The town of Riviere du Rempart is in the east of the district, originally named Rampart River for its steep banks.
The importance of sugar in the north of Mauritius gave rise to the construction of the island’s first railway line in 1864. The Northern Line, which connected Port Louis to Pamplemousses and Placq, was used to transport sugar to Port Louis. It stopped carrying passengers in 1956 and was closed down completely in 1964.
The district of Flacq occupies most of the east of the island, which for our purposes extends from the Roches Noires in the northeast down to Bois des Amourettes in the southeast.
Much of eastern Mauritius was covered with ebony forest when the dutch settled here in the 17th century, but it didn’t take them long to start felling the trees to make a road northwards from their settlement at Grand Port. The French continued attacking the forests, using the timber to build ships and houses. The land is now primarily devoted to agriculture and the area boasts two of the island’s largest sugar estates.
The beaches around Belle Mare are glorious, and have attracted swarms of upmarket hotels. Nevertheless, there is sufficient mid-range and budget accommodation in the area.
The uninhabited Ile aux Crefs, off Trou d’Eau Douce, is one of the best-known tourist attractions of the east, with its miles of beaches, new championship golf course and copious water sports facilities. The area south of Trou d’Eau Douce is largely undeveloped owing to the lack of beaches. Driving along this coast is a real pleasure, with the road sandwiched between the sea and unspoilt fishing villages.
The south extends from historic Vieux Grand Port in the southeast to Baie du Cap River, on the border between the districts of Savanne and Black River, in the southwest.
Saved by a lack of beaches, the south of Mauritius has avoided much of the tourist development that has taken place elsewhere. The southeast is most visitors’ first experience of the island, having arrived at the international airport at Plaisance. Many simply pass through the area, returning only to catch another flight, yet there is so much for the visitor to see.
The ruins and monuments around Vieux Grand Port attests to its dramatic past: the first landing of the Dutch in 1598 and the naval battle between the English and French in 1810. Nearby is the south’s main town, Mahebourg, a sleepy fishing community crammed with colourful houses.
There is a small beach resort around Pointe d’Esny and Blue Bay, with a good selection of accommodation. Just off the coast here is Ile aux Aigrettes, a nature reserve run by the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, which is well worth a visit.
Savanne is the southernmost district of Mauritius, stretching westwards from the sugar-growing villages of Savannah along a coast that is the island’s most rugged.
Cane Fields interspersed with fishing villages dominate the coast, while the interior around Grand Bois is tea-growing country. In 2004, this area changed foe ever when the Bel Ombre Sugar Estate, prompted by the downturn in the sugar industry, allowed three upmarket hotels to be built on some of its coastal land. Thankfully the hotels were built in such a way as to minimise any negative impact on the local area and the community. For visitors looking for tranquillity, the area now offers a peaceful alternative to the north and east coast.
The district of Black River covers the west coast of Mauritius, extending from the southwest, by Baie du Cap, northwards to the boundary of Port Louis. It was called Zwarte River by the Dutch and Riviere Noire by the French, who created the district in 1768. The river itself is not black, so the name probably refers to the black rocks of its bed and banks.
Black River is mostly mountainous and sparsely populated, its inhabitants employed in fishing tourism and sugar. It has no towns, only village communities, and is the most ‘African’ part of the island. Creole lifestyle dominates, with Catholic churches rather than Hindu temples providing the focal point for communities. The region is also famed for its sega music and dancing.
The Black River Gorges National Park is by far the island’s largest nature reserve. For walkers and nature lovers, the park offers spectacular scenery and wildlife.
The west is the driest and sunniest of the island’s coasts and it boasts dramatic sunsets. Its climate, combined with some superb beaches, makes this a popular weekend escape for Mauritians. There is also plenty of accommodation for visitors, particularly around Flic en Flac.
The west is the best coast for deep-sea fishing. This is particularly so around the area of Grande Riviere Noire, where the ocean floor drops away to a great depth, attracting large predators to feed on smaller fish.
Two districts make up central Mauritius: Plaines Wilhems to the south and west of centre and Moka to the north and east.
At around 600m above sea level, the centre of the island is noticeably cooler and wetter than the coast. Temperatures are generally 3-5°C lower so a visit to the centre can be a welcome break from the heat of the beaches.
The central plateau is characterised by extinct volcanic craters, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Some of the island’s most spectacular scenery lies within the Black River Gorges National Park, which protects Mauritius’s remaining forest and offers good opportunities for hiking.
Another attraction which draws tourists to the centre is the abundance of discount clothing and souvenir shops in the plateau towns. These towns are largely residential, linked to each other and to Port Louis by the motorway that cuts through the centre of the island.