Eddo Stefano wears a wide, toothy grin. His frame is slight and wiry but has a raw strength that comes from the water upon which he has spent much of his life.

“If you catch fish, you make money. If you don’t catch fish, you make no money,” he explains matter-of-factly. “Yeah, it’s hard work. You spend the whole day row, row, rowing,” he continues, dropping a mock oar into the cobalt waters of Lake Malawi, digging deep with sinewy shoulders and laughing lightly.

The sound resonates across the lake as we near the small island of Domwe.

Our kayaks crush gently onto the sandy beach, an oasis in a watery wilderness. Cape Maclear, the peninsula from which we paddled, hovers vaguely in the distance. We crunch our feet in the warm sand, feeling like Robinson Crusoe, spectacularly shipwrecked in a tropical paradise.

Domwe is one of two islands in the southernmost part of Lake Malawi where Kayak Africa has concession rights. This is an area that encompasses one of the few National Marine Parks in Africa. Eddo now works for the eco-adventure operation as chief boatman, after abandoning the area’s major income-providing occupation nine years ago. He is still sharply attuned to the different moods of these waters, a habit ingrained through years of plying the lifeblood of his country.

Malawi is a landlocked nation with much of its past forged in the huge freshwater lake of the same name. It’s a long sliver of land where armies of ancient baobab trees reach for the stars with twisted fingers, while water and history course through their roots.

This is where Livingstone launched numerous attempts to find the elusive source of the Nile River, a quest for which he ultimately sacrificed his life in the murky bowels of Zambia to the northwest. The lakeshore also served as a highway for the slave trade, along which people from the heart of the continent were herded, exported first to Zanzibar, and from there to the world at large. This is a place where the deep and slow rhythm of Africa, with all its danger, intrigue, and allure, has been beating steadily for centuries.

All that’s left today to remind one of the brutal slave trade is the Trail of Tears, a network of paths along which mango trees have grown from the discarded seeds of fruit fed to the hapless captives. The shame of history still bears fruit today.

Like an inland ocean, Lake Malawi is, for paddlers, a vast expanse of liquid paradise. More than 370 miles long and up to 25 miles wide, it plunges to depths of more than 1,300 feet. The first thing that one notices is the lukewarm water: purely iridescent, uncorrupted by sedimentation and murkiness. As you dip your paddle, you’re likely to scatter hundreds of rainbow-hued cichlid fish. The lake is home to 600 documented species of this fish, many of which are endemic, forming a unique ecosystem.

Paradise Almost Lost: The next afternoon, we paddle along the edge of another island. Fish eagles size us up from shore, then dip low in a screaming curve when they spot prey.

“It’s beautiful,” says Gary as we slice through the early-evening light. He is responsible for Kayak Africa’s operations, a job where his office is the ninth-largest freshwater expanse in the world. He has traversed hundreds of miles of Lake Malawi, and feels a special attraction for its tiny, almost insignificant islands. It’s easy to see why.