Cape Maclear, Malawi

(Click on thumbnails below for pictures, slideshows, and notes from a journey to Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia, Sep/Oct 2015.)

Cape Maclear lies on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the southern end of Lake Malawi. It’s a tiny tourist town, a single lane of tourist lodges along the waterfront. A kilometer offshore is Thumbi Island, where we went by boat to snorkel in the placid, crystalline waters in a region of the lake protected as a national park and UNESCO world heritage site. The lake glimmers green from above, but as we eased down into the water with our snorkeling masks, an astonishing azure viewscape opened up, dappled with multicolored fish cruising about us. Lake Malawi is famously home to some thousand species of cichlids, and in a single glance, you can see at least a dozen kinds, from thumbnail-sized to hand-sized, from powder blue and peach colored to fluorescent indigo, orange, and purple. Rock cichlids congregate among the rocky shallows and picturesque boulders that hover near the shorelines where we swam. Oddly, the fish hung around close to us, utterly fearlessly; in fact, our guide demonstrated how easy it was to catch them by hand using a piece of bread, grabbing two of them within two minutes. (Apparently, they’re not good to eat, though; too many fine bones.) The fish intermingled casually between species as they swam, and seemed to include us in their accustomed range of cichlid diversity. But when we stood still too long, they’d come nibble at our legs—just as they nibbled at the rocks—a brief, hard little scrape against the skin that left no mark. Cruising around the lake, our guide threw out some fish so we could watch the fish eagles swoop down and scoop up their food. Before throwing the bait, he whistled and called out to each eagle by name, recognizing each individual, who loiters every day in the same area with the same mate.

The eastern end of the Cape Maclear beach lies in front of Chembe village, where it’s crowded with fishing boats, fishing nets laid out to dry, long tables of drying fish, and local people washing and playing in gentle surf and soft sand. We walked through Chembe with our guide, Dudu, who showed us its busy little market, two schools, two maize-flour mills, and three adult drinking establishments, two of which primarily sell their own cornmeal moonshine. The two elderly women who own and operate one of them were happy to show us their tub of fermenting mash and their still, steadily steaming away in the back. Most of the village women grow small plots of maize, the staple food of southern Africa, while most of the men in the village work as fishermen, selling their catch in the markets of Lilongwe and Blantyre. But the lake is now heavily overfished, so more villagers are looking to the growing tourism of Cape Maclear for employment opportunities.

Chembe is a Chewa village, a matrilineal society, so land and immovable property are owned and inherited by women. Most Chewa are Christian, but some are Muslim and this village of 15–20,000 people boasts at least a half dozen churches of different denominations, and a mosque. But here, as throughout Malawi, people intermarry freely between religions and even across ethnic groups. We learned about the Chembe Water Project, set up by a local lodge to provide clean drinking water to the whole village from public taps, by distilling lake water, but its pump had been broken for 2 months at the time of our visit and was still waiting to be fixed. [—Usha Alexander, October 2015]

Lake Malawi, Cape Maclear (1, 2)

On the shores of Lake Malawi

Drying fish

Street behind our lodge

Children of Cape Maclear

Evening on the lake

Lake Malawi sunset

Lake Malawi sunset (more)

Lake Malawi sunset

Lake Malawi sunset

Lake Malawi sunset

Nsima with vegetables

Boat to Thumbi island

Thumbi island

Near Thumbi island

Snorkeling area

Snorkeling in clear waters

Colorful Cichlid fish

Diving fish eagle

No end in sight (more)

Lake Malawi vista (more)

Otter Point in the distance

Approaching Otter Point

Otter Point

Sculpted rocks

Many hues

Clear fresh water


Water at Otter Point

Around Otter point

Shades of green

Boating on Lake Malawi




Lake Malawi vista

Coastline (more)

Village homes

Parked fishing boats (more)

Beach at Cape Maclear

Street behind our lodge

Domwe island

Lake Malawi sunset

Lake Malawi sunset

Chembe Village

Kids welcoming visitors

Village homes (more)

Village meat shop

A corn flour mill

Classroom under a mango tree (more)

A school

A brick kiln

Local couple with child

Shop named after Genesis verse

Village kids

Chembe village kids

Village chief's house

Village lane

Village lane (more)

Village lane

Village lane (more)

Market lane


Market lane

Food for sale

Uncle Charlo Booze Den

The bar

Art inside the booze den

Men drinking

Fish drying in the sun

Fish from the lake

Drying/smoking the fish

Smoking the fish

Fishermen resting

A boardgame called bao

A rigged up pool table (more)

Boat with night lanterns

Village life by the lake

Village life by the lake

Village cemetery (more)

Drinking water, provided by Chembe Water Project

Government school

Girls playing soccer

Main road coming into the village

Chembe village from afar

Local moonshine distillery

A drinking den

Beer in cardboard carton

Clinic, by Billy Riordan Memorial Trust


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