There's no Bilbo in this Shire
We are flying north over Africa, the rivers spooling below - first the Limpopo, then the Zambezi and finally, the Shire in Malawi - formidable waterways that once glittered in the great African darkness and lit the imaginations of the explorers.
It is to the Shire that I am headed, a mercurial waterway which tells a story not just of a river and a country, but of a great explorer, David Livingstone, and to a lesser extent, a story of my own family.
As a young man, my great-grandfather, Dr James Stewart, joined Livingstone in 1861 in his search for a viable river trade route into Africa.
Heartbreak followed, for Africa's rivers did not easily give up their riches.
I will follow Livingstone and Stewart's journey up the Shire; in luxury, not adversity, I admit, never paddling a dugout in crocodile-infested waters, or waking to find a python coiled on my chest, or lying for weeks with fever, or hunting vainly for food, or burying travelling companions. None of that Scottish privation for me, thanks very much.
Instead I am embarking on Robin Pope Safaris' "Malawi Route", an expedition that follows Livingstone's difficult journey from southern Malawi up the Shire to Lake Malawi, passing the Murchison Falls (Kapichira Falls) which, like the Zambezi's Kebrabasa Rapids, destroyed his vision of a continuous river route into the interior.
My journey will end at Lake Malawi, where Stewart instigated the Livingstonia Mission and appointed its staff, including Dr Robert Laws, who ran it for 40 years. It has educated many eminent Malawians and is operating today, though it has moved from malarial lakeside to higher ground.
Even 152 years on, Malawi is a mystery to many travellers, unspoiled by mass tourism. It's poor, but with some of Africa's richest ecosystems, a land of beauty and contrast - high plains, riverine forests and floodplains, fertile rift soils, woodland forests and savannah.
And this lean country dominated by lake and wedged into the Great Rift Valley between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania lives up to its hospitable reputation - it is truly "the warm heart of Africa".
Blantyre, in the Shire Highlands of southern Malawi, named after Livingstone's Scottish birthplace and founded by the Scottish Church, is where our journey begins. A journey, incidentally, that will have a number of Where's Wally? moments, with ancient Stewarts popping up, even on street signs.
We are not alone in our journey in the footsteps of the explorers. We will meet many travellers still fascinated with this part of Malawi's history, especially in this bicentennial year of Livingstone's birth.
Malawi still has strong ties with Scotland and accepts seemingly without rancour its missionary explorer past. Partly perhaps because these explorers fought the slave trade, introduced a modern education system and opposed Cecil John Rhodes' attempted land grab.
We visit the Blantyre Mission, which another relative and civil engineer, also James Stewart, laid out and designed in Livingstone's honour. And we visit Mandala, built in 1882, Malawi's oldest building, treasure trove of Malawi history with its rich reference library and archive.
Hello again, great-grandpa.
Samuel Chihana, who will be our guide at our first Malawi Route destination - the gorgeous Mkulumadzi Lodge in the 70,000-hectare Majete Wildlife Reserve - collects us for the 70-kilometre drive from Blantyre. This is stunning country, the pink-blue Rift escarpments ever present.
We descend the Shire Highlands into the Shire Valley (pronounced Shiray, sometimes Shiree, though I secretly prefer Bilbo Baggins' pronunciation).
The broad and winding Shire, a Zambezi tributary that drains Lake Malawi and follows the Rift Valley southwards, comes to life. My Zambezi Journal of James Stewart has already given it magical qualities with its Elephant Marsh, rapids, waterfalls, reed and borassus palm-lined banks and thick riverine forests.
The Shire was an important Arab slaving route and it was the belief that trade could supplant slavery that brought the missionary explorers to the former Nyasaland.
Though Islam is well represented, Christianity is everywhere, even, charmingly, in shop names - Psalm 23 Cafe, God Favour Salon, True Saints Screenprinting, Blessings Tailor, with only the odd recidivist (the Paparazzi Booze Den).
The lush landscape brings to mind Livingstone's comment that "Malawi resembles England if it weren't for all the sun". Or the tribal wars, savage beasts, brutal slave trading, infighting missionaries, malarial marshes, death and horror, he might have added.
Majete, now a Big Five reserve, is a remarkable story of recovery and restoration after years of poaching. The non-profit African Parks Majete, partnered with the government, is restocking and managing Majete. Game now includes black rhino, leopard and lion, which arrived last year. Cubs were born during our stay.
Mkulumadzi access is across a swing bridge and the lodge is built at the historic confluence of the Mkulumadzi and Shire rivers, on the fateful cataracts that stopped Livingstone. Downstream are the Kapichira Falls, which Livingstone named Murchison for his friend, Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographic Society.
Eight exquisite riverbank chalets blend into the environment, all solar-powered, with insulating plant-covered roofs, shaded by giant leadwood, marula, and wild mango. You drift off to the sounds of bush and rushing river in your climate-controlled "breeze bed" (airconditioned within the mosquito netting, allowing the chalet to remain open).
It's exhilarating to walk the same woodlands and river valleys as the explorers, but it's a far cry from the privations they endured. We are spoiled rotten by staff, including manager Emma Kilner, chef Guy Kleynhans, the irrepressible Samuel and ranger John Jiya.
Beginning with excellent Malawian coffee or tea, our day divides into game drives, walking, birding, cultural and boating safaris, lazing, and lavish meals on the lodge deck overlooking rapids and hippo pools with buffalo grazing.
Samuel is deeply knowledgeable, not just about Majete's complex ecosystems but also about Malawian history. He takes us to nearby Maganga village, introduces us to the chief, as is customary, to see the 1863 grave of Richard Thornton, a young geologist on the same Livingstone expedition as James Stewart. Thornton succumbed to malaria.
The grave beneath a 1200-year-old baobab is in excellent condition but Samuel still gently chides village elders for allowing children to "disrespectfully" play nearby. Samuel explains why Malawians honour the European explorers: "They are central to our country's development," he says.
Four hours' north is our next route stop, Wilderness Safaris' lovely Mvuu Wilderness Lodge in the 548-square-kilometre Liwonde National Park, home to black rhino, elephant and the ubiquitous Nile crocodiles and hippo (Mvuu means hippo in Tonga). Liwonde has diverse landscapes - riverine swamps, deciduous forests, open grasslands dotted with the eerie candelabra trees, mopane and miombo woodlands, palm savannahs and baobabs.
Mvuu, built right on the river and offshoot lagoon, is reached by boat across the river's broad expanse. There's more evidence of Malawian hospitality thanks to manager Sarah Glyde and guide Justin Mwaiwatha, who has an almost mystical love for this place. Excessive spoiling includes Justin and chef Christopher cooking us a full breakfast on the river. And there's a private champagne dinner on our chalet's verandah.
Mvuu has eight luxury "Hemingway-style" tented chalets and the wild sounds of the night - honking hippo, thrashing crocs, and rutting warthog - are unnervingly close.
Julian takes us on boating and game safaris, getting close to black rhino, elephant, buffalo, crocs and hippo, while a game walk exposes the environment's inner workings.
Nights around the campfire bring other guests, some of whom are also tracking the explorers. We visit the "Livingstone tree" for sundowners - a 1500-year-old hollow baobab, where the explorer reputedly camped. Perhaps my great-grandfather also camped here, I muse, as I squeeze inside with my gin and tonic.
It has occurred to me as I pop my anti-malarials that I am fortunate to be here at all - lucky my intrepid rello had a strong constitution, despite arriving back at the coast after 18 months on the Shire and Zambezi half-dead with fever; his 190-centimetre frame wasted. My frame is definitely not wasted.
Next is Robin Pope Safaris' luxury beach resort, Pumulani Lodge, at the south end of Livingstone's "Lake of Stars" - Lake Malawi. This gigantic inland sea measures 600 kilometres by 80 kilometres at its widest, the southernmost of the Great Rift lakes. It is home to countless fish species including the luminous tropical cichlid.
Pumulani has 10 elegantly curved villas on the hillside, linked by wooden walkways. The main lodge presides at the top with infinity edge pool, bar, campfire and dining terrace; the private beach is a slice of white below. There are watersports and a traditional Arab dhow for sunset cruises and sundowners.
Our chalet is the length of multiple cricket pitches with expansive views - from bed, deep claw-footed bath, double showers, various sitting rooms and decks. We can watch the dugout fishermen paddle out to catch the bream-like chambo.
Charming chef Tapiwa Mamurse plies us with delicate gourmet meals which we try to work off with activities that managers Alex and Karien Eigner suggest. Justice Sumali guides us on lakeshore bushwalks, telling us not just about the prolific birdlife but also how Malawi's tribes settled the land and related to the explorers, some of whom arrived at nearby Cape Maclear, the first site of the Livingstonia Mission. Today, all that remains are the two original baobabs.
Justice also organises kayaks for us, then he organises a rescue, but that's another story.
All too soon, it is time to head to the capital, Lilongwe, and home. Mkulumadzi's Emma, aware of my interest, has suggested we visit the Mua Mission between Pumulani and Lilongwe. Its Chamare Museum describes the Chewa, Ngoni and Yao cultures, their rites of passage, their interaction with one another and their encounter with Islam and Christianity.
We are sad to leave this exquisite country that deserves more, and feel fortunate to have experienced it, not just its wilderness areas and wildlife but its rich culture and the extraordinary warmth of Malawians.
The writer was a guest of Robin Pope Safaris; South African Airways; Africa House; Protea Ryalls.
MALAWI FAST FACTS
LOCATION Landlocked Malawi borders Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. It is half the size of the UK at 118,480 square kilometres.
CLIMATE Subtropical: rainy from December to May; dry from May to December.
AMAZING LAKE Lake Malawi, Africa's third largest lake, is known as the Calendar Lake for being about 578 kilometres long and 84 kilometres wide.
POLITICS President Joyce Banda, no relation to the country's controversial first president Hastings Banda, who lived to 100 and once banned trousers for women, will stand for re-election next year. The country is poor but considered safe and stable.
CURRENCY 1000 kwacha equals about $3.
POPULATION 15.9 million.
MAIN EXPORTS Tobacco, sugar and tea.
TOURING THERE Robin Pope Safaris' 11-day Malawi Route Safari operates between April and January. Prices are from about $5125 per person sharing and include all transfers by road and air starting in Blantyre and ending in Lilongwe, accommodation at Mkulumadzi (three nights), Mvuu (three nights), Pumulani (four nights), full board with alcohol and laundry, safari experiences with professional guides, and other activities. See robinpopesafaris.net
STAYING THERE In Blantyre, Protea Hotel Ryalls has king doubles from about $268 with breakfast. See proteahotels.com/ryalls. In Lilongwe, Africa House has double suites from around $185 with breakfast. See africahousemalawi.com.
MORE INFORMATION robinpopesafaris.net.