6 of the best: African Inland Beaches
A day at the beach is a classic and favourite getaway, but let’s face it, it has its drawbacks. The sand, sun and water combination is what we go for, but in most seaside locations the wind blows sand in your face, the waves pound you into a pulp and the salt burns your eyes. A different type of beach beckons – Africa has some of the world’s largest and most beautiful lakes, and most of these lakes have great beaches that offer sand, sun and water without the salt and seaside weather. As an additional bonus, they are often set in amazing landscapes and near some amazing cultural and wildlife destinations. So grab your bucket, spade, towel and sunblock and head inland…
1. Chikale Beach, Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi, Malawi
Lake Malawi, or the “Lake of Stars”, is a massive, pristine, crystal clear inland sea almost 600km long which is home to more species of fish than any other body of fresh water in the world. It gives the landlocked country of Malawi one of Africa’s longest coastlines, and the small town of Nkhata Bay, about halfway up the lake shore, is the most popular destination. It is a delightfully relaxed and stunningly beautiful place, but be careful – after a couple of days here all the pressures and commitments of real life seem very far away, and you’ll be bargaining with yourself about ways to extend your stay. Nkhata Bay is full of people who came on holiday twenty years ago and never went back! Malawians are exceptionally warm and friendly, and even a quick dip in the lake will have you surrounded by brilliantly coloured fish found nowhere else on earth.
Best for : Snorkelling, chilling out
Stay at : Mayoka Village Beach Lodge; Njaya Lodge
Nearby attractions: The surprisingly massive Anglican cathedral on Likoma Island, horse-riding and mountain biking at Nyika National Park. Ask at your lodge or around town for details.
Getting there : The nearest city is Mzuzu, about 50km away. Regular buses run from Blantyre and Lilongwe to Mzuzu, taking six to eight hours. A new ferry service began operation in November 2013 so check this out for a unique way to travel.
2. Matema, Lake Nyasa, Tanzania
Head north along the lake shore from Nkhata Bay and in about five hours you cross the border into Tanzania, where Lake Malawi is known as Lake Nyasa. The only Tanzanian village on the lake is Matema, a sleepy little place wedged between the lake and the Livingstonia Mountains. There is nowhere near the same level of tourism development here, but the beach makes up for it – a huge expanse of perfect sand fringed by palm trees and mountains that seem to leap out of the water right in front of you. Being less tourist-oriented it takes some time and effort to uncover the area’s attractions, but they are worth it. Or you can just relax on the beach…
Best for : Exploring, solitude
Stay at : Blue Canoe Safari Camp; Matema Lakeside Resort
Nearby attractions : Hikes to several nearby waterfalls, as well as boat trips to the Nakyala Ritual Cave. Contact Newton Weston at EnviCulture to arrange activities
Getting there : Matema can either be accessed from the south through Malawi by boat or bus, or from the north via the Tanzanian city of Mbeya. Flights are available from Dar es Salaam to Songwe airport near Mbeya, from where it is an hour or so to Matema. The bus direct from Dar es Salaam takes about 12 hours.
3. Mahale Mountains, Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania
Lake Tanganyika is Africa’s deepest lake, and vies with Lake Malawi as the most beautiful. They are the two most southerly Rift Valley lakes, and have similar characteristics – fringed by forest-covered mountains that plummet straight down into deep, clear waters teeming with tropical fish. Tanganyika is the more remote, extreme and mysterious of the two. Most of its 700km east coast belongs to Tanzania, and about halfway up a cluster of forest-cloaked mountains jut out into the lake, creating the Mahale Mountains National Park. This is one of the few places in the world where you can see chimpanzees in the wild, and it is fringed with some of Africa’s best beaches to boot.
Best for : Wildlife, snorkelling
Stay at : There are 4 very luxurious private lodges with price tags to match: Kungwe Beach Lodge; Greystoke Mahale Camp; Flycatcher Mahale Camp and Nkungwe Luxury Tented Camp. Best option for the budget conscious: KasihaCamp
Nearby attractions: The Mahale Mountains National Park is primarily a chimpanzee sanctuary, but there are also rare baboon and monkey species as well as big game to be seen. Mahale has no roads to speak of so walking and boating are the only ways to get around the park.
Getting there : There are flights into Kigoma from Dar es Salaam every day, and from there you can fly (45 minutes), take a boat (4-7 hours) or board the historic MV Liemba ferry (10 hours) to Mahale. Arrange transport and activities with your accommodation establishment before you travel.
4. Ssese Islands, Lake Victoria, Uganda
Lake Victoria is the second largest body of fresh water on earth, a staggering 340km across, with over 4000km of lake shore. Unlike the Rift Valley lakes, Victoria is relatively shallow and surrounded by hills and floodplains rather than mountains, and millions of people live around its shores. Getting away from the crowds can be a bit of a challenge, but the Ssese Islands in the Ugandan part of the lake are a tranquil haven for intrepid travellers. There are 84 islands in total, with at least ten different accommodation establishments that provide great places to relax and contemplate the sheer size and magnificence of this huge inland sea. When the sun goes down, Kalangala Bay on Buggala Island brings out the party, but in a delightfully low key way.
Best for : Nightlife, relaxing
Stay at : Most accommodation is on Buggala Island, the largest in the archipelago: Ssese Islands Beach Hotel; MirembeBeach Resort. If you’re feeling like taking the off the beaten track thing a little further, head for the unforgettable Banda Island
Nearby attractions: You’ll be far away from everything except the islands, but if you get bored of the one you’re on you can always take a boat trip to the next one…
Getting there : Several ferries transport people and goods from the islands to Entebbe, which is conveniently the location of Uganda’s international airport. Water taxis and small boats connect the islands to each other.
5. Gisenyi, Lake Kivu, Rwanda
Rwanda is another landlocked African country that, thanks to the region’s unique geography, has a beautiful coastline. The country’s thousand hills end abruptly at Lake Kivu, another Rift Valley lake and one of the most dramatic. At the northern end of the lake is the town of Gisenyi, where you can relax on the beach with a cocktail with a panoramic view of an active volcano (Mount Nyiragongo). Like the rest of Rwanda Gisenyi is refreshingly hassle-free and well organised by central African standards, and a few days on the beach is a great way to finish off a gorilla safari in the nearby Volcanoes National Park.
Best for : Photography, bird watching, gorillas.
Stay at : Lake Kivu Serena Hotel; Palm Garden Resort; INZU Lodge
Nearby attractions: Rwanda offers incredible gorilla tracking experiences at the nearby Volcanoes National Park, its expensive and requires booking well in advance but is a once in a lifetime experience. There are lots of tour companies online, the Rwanda Development Board is a good place to start. Depending on the security situation just across the border in the DR Congo, it may be possible to arrange an excursion to visit or even climb Mount Nyiragongo – check with your accommodation establishment.
Getting there : It takes about 3 hours and $10 to get to Gisenyi from Kigali on Rwanda’s very safe and reliable public bus system, the views are spectacular, get a window seat on the right. There may also be flights from Kigali but these are currently suspended. Kigali International Airport has links to many international hubs.
6. Eliye Springs, Lake Turkana, Kenya
Lake Turkana is the most northerly Rift Valley lake, also called the Jade Sea. It is an otherworldly destination miles from anywhere, on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya, with palm trees, a volcanic desert landscape, ever-changing waters and deeply traditional local people. It will make you feel like you’ve dropped into an episode of the Arabian Nights. Very few travellers make it this far into the wilderness, but the ones that do gather at Eliye Springs on the lake’s western shore to sip cool drinks, watch the burnished copper sun go down over the Jade Sea and swap tall tales about how they got there.
Best for : Adventure, solitude, culture.
Stay at : Eliye Springs Resort
Nearby attractions: Two of the lake’s three large islands are accessible, weather permitting, from Eliye Springs. Both are national parks and offer spectacular scenery, lots of crocodiles (don’t go swimming) and occasional volcanic activity. The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival happens at the lake’s southern end each May.
Getting there : Flight from Nairobi to Lodwar, then the resort will come and collect you. Alternatively, catch the bus from Nairobi via Kitale and Lodwar, then hire a taxi to take you to Eliye Springs.