Lake Nyasa is the 3rd largest freshwater lake in Africa and the 8th largest in the world. In Swahili ‘Nyasa’ actually means ‘a large body of water’ – in other words a ‘lake’ – and the unlikely name ‘Lake Lake’ is probably the result of early miscommunication between European explorers and local tribesmen who were perhaps rather bemused when asked what to them must have seemed a very obvious question.
The name has never-the-less stuck in most of the countries in the surrounding region, although in English we now more commonly know this beautiful body of water as Lake Malawi. While the lake’s western and southern shores are well trod and much frequented by travelers, the small northern strip which lies against Tanzania is little known and mostly disregarded by the tourist crowds.
This makes the Tanzanian region of Lake Nyasa a gem of isolated beauty and although you won’t find luxury resorts and water-sports, also absent are persistent touts and thumping music. This is an area of peace and solitude; for sipping Safari Lager while you gaze across the water at the lush Livingstone Mountains; for fires on the beach at night; a place where locals smile when they see you and are happy to engage in hours of sign language on the crafting of their intricately carved wooden furniture – without insistantly trying to sell you some.
On the north western edge of the lake the port town of Itungi serves as the main ferry stop for travelers journeying up the lake from Mbamba Bay and Malawi. Itungi itself is not worth lingering in and has a distinctly oppressive air. There is no accommodation available and photography is not allowed. The nearby town of Kyela is little better and it is only further east that the beauty and tranquility of the area can be readily enjoyed.
Matema is a small fishing village on the north east corner of the lake with a friendly and wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Accommodation consists of one small lodge as well as a Lutheran-run guesthouse and campsite, with another campsite just out of town currently under construction. All are located right on the beach, with welcoming staff and the sort of atmosphere that makes you want to extend your departure date and stay as long as possible. The guesthouse and campsites are cheap and fairly basic, while the lodge’s clean and pleasant beach front chalets are larger and more luxurious with en suite bathrooms and private balconies on the upper floor.
A holiday in Matema is mostly about relaxing on the beach and interacting with the friendly locals, but if you’re feeling energetic, canoes can be hired for trips to some of the local villages – notably Ikombe where clay pots are made and exported throughout the region. There is also a local waterfall which can be reached by a 3 to 4 hour guided hike up the Mwalalo River. There you can soak in the natural beauty of the verdant forest and swim in the deep pools under the falls.
Getting to Matema is not easy without your own transport. Local buses do run along the national road between Mbeya, Ipinda and Itungi and there are daily connecting buses to Matema, but leaving times can be erratic and the buses themselves are generally filled to bursting before departing. Alternatively, bakkies can be hired from any of the surrounding towns and for the price of a couple of beers you can hop in the back and be rattled down the rutted dirt roads. There is also a daily ferry from Itungi to Matema although you have to go back to Itungi if you then wish to take the ferry further south.