I was born at a miserable time and season of the year. It was a few short years after the war, with Europe still rationing everything and at the beginning of winter when Prague was covered in a blanket of smoke from thousands of stoves burning the cheapest coal available as the city dwellers tried to fight the terrible freeze. My first birthday memories are of me getting a new pair of winter boots, (my parents could never afford more than one pair of shoes for summer and one for the winter). I still remember the sound and the feel of the new boots cracking the ice on puddles of rain as the first cold wave hit my hometown. Even then, as my world was hemmed in by my parents‘ dinner discussions about when the new war between Germany and Russia will break out again, I was thinking, wishing like only a kid could: „God, let me get out of this place!“
Fast forward another 30 years or so and I am in Phoenix, Arizona. Here just like in the last few years of living in the Middle East, cracking the ice under my winter boots is one of my least problems. My November birthday is becoming part of my newly adopted country’s Thanksgiving festivities fixated on extended families we sorely lack with just our nucleus of three small children. After rather unsuccessful attempts to create the atmosphere of this very special American holiday the feelings so similar to my childhood birthday set in again: „God, let me get out of this!“ Henceforth Thanksgiving and my birthday will be spent traveling.
So this November many years later finds us, my wife and me, in Africa. I have been under her spell for a long time. I have often dreamt of traveling with dr. Livingstone or building a boat with Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island. It must have been more than 50 years since I read Daniel Defoe’s book for the first time and, like many books of those formative years, never forgot. But the world has changed very much in those fifty years and just as you cannot step into the same river twice you can not relive your past dreams and they become subject to significant revisions.
We anticipated a tough trip on bad roads and occasional leaky tent in the tribal lands of Ethiopia and decided to celebrate my birthday and lick our travel wounds in the lap of luxury on a small, remote island in Malawi. We left most of our luggage and African problems behind in Addis Ababa’s Hilton and flew to Lilongwe, capital of Malawi. Our 6-seater Cessna was waiting for us and we were cordially greeted by Jan, our young, tall, and handsome South African captain. It is just a 45 minute flight crossing Lake Malawi from Lilongwe in the southwest corner of this tiny country (when I was a kid it was still called Nyasaland after the very same lake then called Nyasa) to the central west part where you can find a small island on the map just a few miles from the Mozambique shore of the lake. I know, it is not exactly how Robinson got to his island and regarding his arrival we did NOT plan to crash which would have been closer to Robinson’s original story. But today is my birthday and I am entitled to some poetic license and some flexibility to work with the facts. Our limited luggage is safely stowed. We can carry only 20 pounds each, enough for swimsuits and suntan lotion but mine is slightly over for it is containing a bottle of French Champagne I have been dragging with us all the way through Ethiopia to this former British Protectorate governed by the “ President for life „. Well, here we have it, another African truly democratic leader who simply appointed himself, so money need not be squandered on some ridiculous election. Money, which can be sent safely to his account in Switzerland instead, while the majority of his people live bellow the poverty rate. With a slight delay caused by the bad weather between Lusaka and Lilongwe we finally board the plane with Julia, the Emergency Room physician from Chicago, another and only guest for Kaya Mawa resort. She is going to lick her wounds after a few months volunteering in a Zimbabwean hospital.
As a special birthday treat I sit up front right next to the captain and he points out to the beautiful panorama. Finally we spot a small peninsula on Likoma Island where behind the flame trees is our very own Robinson’s cave. Well, not exactly a cave. It is a stone and wood house among and on the rocky promontory.
When we touch down by the airport shack the jeep with a driver is already waiting and takes us through a promenade of baobab trees and local villages with smiling, waving children to our spectacular new home Kaya Mawa (kayamawa.com).
Kaya Mawa is everything we could dream of. It is a private resort consisting of a few spacious houses built of local or beach combed material, sprinkled over the promontory and along the beach providing for almost perfect hideaways. Each is an original design, beautifully appointed and luxuriously anointed with everything you possibly wish for in a most luxurious hotel. Not exactly Robinson’s cave, but you can feel pretty much alone here. Dr.Julia, is whisked to another house so well hidden, we do not know where she is until she remerges for welcome drinks at the bar.
The houses and shared spaces (bar, restaurant, reception, gift shop) carry elements of the similar style mostly made of drift wood or old boats refurbished and repurposed by a small workshop providing stable employment for locals – quite a few from more than 10,000 people living in the island.
And I should not forget 43 or so employees of the lodge who deliver the services you are quite unprepared for in Africa. You are alone on the beach and you decide to have a swim. Before you even get to the water’s edge a dark figure peels itself from behind the bar, bringing you a fresh towel and dropping it by the sandals you left behind. You want to kayak? Well, you can hardly do that without another black guy suddenly appearing and pushing your vessel onto the Lake as you struggle to get on.
The food, especially after a few weeks of Ethiopian tough beef and sour teff pancakes is divine. The fish are caught in the lake that morning and the fruits are picked just off the trees on the property and after we express our infatuation with fresh mangos, a freshly cut batch appears anytime we sit down in any lounge chair. The rest of the ingredients are flown in and the chef prepares beautiful feasts of exotic flavors. Dinners are being served on the sandy beach on white tablecloths and romantic candlelights with flowers sprinkled all around. One night we are even serenaded by the local acapella group, with nearly half the group consisting of our resort staff, under the guidance of our chief waiter.
If you want to simply relax with a good book you can borrow one in their library and do so by your private house plunge pool in a hammock or on a outdoor sofa. But if you want activities you can take a kayak for a spin or go snorkeling or even diving to see some of more than 1000 tropical fish species. If you have your own home aquarium one of those colorful beauties most probably came from this freshwater lake. You can also venture beyond the resort on a drive to visit the local cathedral or their Katundu Textiles workshop where local women create the chic decorations for the resort and for sale.
Kaya Mawa is truly an unforgettable experience of romantic luxury, perfect for a honeymoon or a special birthday, just like mine. A dream of playing Robinson came true without all the hard work.