Published: June 18th 2010June 18th 2010
It's continuously tempting to use superlatives when writing a blog, but equally I try to keep them to a minimum to remain fair to the competing subjects. But this one simply has to be full of them.
Refreshed from Nkata Bay, we decided to head for a small town at the top of a big hill in Northern Malawi named Livingstonia after the great explorer. Rather aptly, there is no straightforward way of getting there! Thankfully, there is a backpacker's hangout at the bottom of the hill which provides a decent enough stop before the early morning hike - necessary unless you are very lucky and happen to coincide with the weekly bus that goes up there or one of the very few private cars that aren't already totally full. The lodge was extremely pretty and based on a beach on the lake which made a change from the rocky Nkata Bay. Sadly it didn't have the best atmosphere - the owners seemed rather off, the internet was ludicrously overpriced and the food portions were laughably meagre considering the quite offensive prices. We decided to have an African breakfast at a local restaurant as fuel for the hike first thing
in the morning instead.
We had been told by the Lonely Planet that the route was plagued with muggers so we started off the day a bit anxious but it soon became clear everyone was typically Malawian on route and extremely helpful pointing out short cuts and wishing us well as we went. The climb wasn't as steep as Tiger Leaping Gorge but the rather intense heat made sure it was a proper workout. Our first aim was to reach a small hotel two thirds of the way up called "Mushroom Farm". We'd heard nothing but good reports about this place and the fact that people are still making the effort to make it up the hill to stay there, we felt confident. Our first viewing of Mushroom farm made us want to stop walking then and there and just enjoy the views, but we had to continue on after a Fanta, up to our final destination via a stop off at a waterfall.
We didn't really know what we were doing in terms of finding the waterfall but luckily a Malawian boy with reasonable English approached us and offered to show us around. In general we have
Note the rather deadly drop
been wary about this sort of interaction. It's a tough call to decide whether or not paying youngsters who could otherwise be in school to help you out in Africa is doing them more harm than good. This ended up being the only time that we hired a young guide and he told us that his family could no longer afford his school fees and that was why he was not in school but that he hoped to go back when a family member returned from the city to help pay for him. We'll never know how true this story is but given the remoteness of his village it seemed reasonably plausible that schooling was not an option for him and we felt that talking to us in English and trading knowledge was hopefully one of the more productive things he could be doing that day. He was also certainly grateful of the tip, and he turned out to be a great guide!
He showed us the waterfall from four very different angles. The first allowed us to see it from a distance which highlighted quite how tall it was, free-falling for at least 50 meters into the valley
From the top of the falls
below. The second was at the lip of the falls which gave a very dramatic perspective of quite how high up we were! We then scrambled down a dangerously steep mud cliff to underneath the falls in a cave which was reportedly used by 19th Century Malawians as they hid from slave traders! Finally we followed the falls upstream to where they formed a perfect natural bath and shower. Nathan and I decided we'd make use of it and got out the shampoo and shower gel! Our guide seemed rather confused as to what to do with the shower gel as he got out of the pool without rinsing it off before we explained the concept! I wonder what his mother must have thought when he got home smelling of lemon and eucalyptus! Clean and refreshed, we said farewell to our guide and continued on to Livingstonia.
The town itself was rather an anti-climax. Although it is at the summit of the hill, we both agreed the views were better from a lower altitude, and there was next to nothing of interest to see. We stayed in what seemed to be the only tourist orientated place in the town
which was a converted missionary station. The museum in our hotel was a relatively interesting introduction to the history of the area but in fairness we both headed down the hill feeling like we wouldn't have missed out if we had have just seen the waterfall then come back down the hill. There are also no restaurants up there and the food at the guest house was rather uninspiring. In fact, on the first night I ordered chicken and was brought a carcass of a chicken. I am serious when I say it probably had about a spoonful of meat on the whole thing! So the next day I ordered beans just to be sure that I got some protein. I was brought beef. I didn't have the energy to complain and yammed it down, along with the week's worth of salt that was flavouring it.
No matter. We slowly made our way down the hill the following morning to mushroom farm and this was the real highlight. With a bit of time to digest the view it became clear that this was definitely the greatest "room with a view" we had seen since Tiger Leaping Gorge and I'd
be hard pushed to decide which of the two won the ultimate prize. But what is certain is that "Mushroom Farm" had the greatest hammock I have ever seen. If anyone has seen a hammock that beats the one in the pictures I would be very grateful to receive instructions as to how to find it and I'll be booking my flights very soon. This hammock was suspended between two trees about two feet from a 100 foot drop into the abyss below. The view was across a valley sandwiched between two vertical cliffs and the glorious lake lapping up against the fine golden sandy beaches. The greenery of the Nyika Plateau Hills to the West and the forboding hills of Tanzania on the far side of the lake stood firm and proud as though they were competing for ownership of the waters that separated them. As the sun set we sat around with Siri and Bruce who had joined us, a couple of British doctors who worked at the mission hospital and the affable Aussie owner of the site around a camp fire putting the world to rights. A truly magical place.
Like with Tiger Leaping Gorge, the
The Slave Cave washing my hands
journey down seemed a chore rather than a fun part of the adventure and trying to hitch out of the village proved to be difficult. None the less, after surviving a near death experience where our driver actually had to pull over and pray to thank god that we didn't die, we made it to the Tanzanian border town of Karonga. It was a typical border town hell-hole and we got out of there as quickly as possible, avoided getting ripped off at the border by exchanging money with other tourists and generally dealing with the touts with efficacy. We made it to Mbeya in Southern Tanzania just after nightfall which was rather unnerving having been warned not to walk at night in the town but we found a functional if not particularly friendly guest house to stay in and gather our thoughts after what was a 12 hour journey of walking, hitching, taxiing, and bussing! Arriving at this dark and sprawling town, we didn't know what to expect from Tanzania, but it was to delight, confuse, amuse, irritate and fascinate us for the next two weeks...
There are more photos below