The mythical Mushroom Farm and Livingstonia

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Africa » Malawi » Northern » Nyika Plateau
January 16th 2019
Published: February 2nd 2019
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The Mushroom Farm really does exist, and it’s a magical place. Sometimes you hear about a place from a few people and when you get there it disappoints. Well, Mushroom Farm managed to exceed our lofty expectations. Thanks to all who recommended it.

There’s no gain without pain though. Getting there is far from easy as an independent traveller, and even with your own wheels it’s challenging. A minibus dropped us off by the main road at Chitimba where the Mushroom Farm have a small office. Stanley was waiting there for us and made sure that any transport heading up the hill didn’t leave without us. We had been warned that we might face a wait of a few hours so we were quite happy when, after just an hour and twenty minutes, we were loaded into the back of a pick-up truck. It was already full of luggage and a handful of other passengers. In all honesty, there wasn’t really room for us as well. Trish had to cling onto the side of the vehicle while Russ was squashed at the end nearest the cab. The road was rough and bumpy and at times it seemed that we would all be thrown out. At one point we stopped and Trish squeezed alongside Russ as it was a safer option than trying to hold on. The countless hairpin bends were negotiated with magnificent views whenever we had the chance to look at them. After 10 pretty tough kilometres we were dropped off at the end of a track and, thanks to the rucksack attachments on our bags we were able to get to our destination.

Recent rains had made the track very muddy. We were worried they might not let us in with our shoes caked up with several inches of red clay! So near and yet so far. Our welcoming committee was a huge Doberman dog who didn’t look too friendly, but his bark was far worse than his bite. In fact, he turned out to be a family pet and very docile.

We had decided to treat ourselves to a stay in the Cob House, so called because of the mud and straw cob it is built from. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the views over the forest and down towards the coast were truly stunning. A special mention must also be given to the bathroom! The shower was lovely with a clear view of everything nature has to offer over the edge of the cliff, and the composting toilet was simple – just chase your business down with half a cup of ash and half a cup of sawdust. That way you are contributing to the organic growing of vegetables on site. The cheaper options are still really good according to other guests, but the shared facilities don’t come with such spectacular outlooks! Despite the comfort, sleep was hard to come by on the first night as heavy rains hammered against the corrugated roof, and we are sure a troop of monkeys were playing games above our heads too.

It’s truly hard to pick a fault with Mushroom Farm. All of the food was stunningly delicious and served pretty promptly at 7pm for those who had pre-booked. Forgetting to do so could leave you going hungry. Going vegetarian over several days isn’t our first choice but this has to be done because of the lack of electricity and therefore the lack of refrigeration. Sadly, that also meant that there was no chilled beer. On the plus side, that forced us to drink some really nice red wine! The coffee was to die for too. Phones and tablets can be charged during the day thanks to some solar chargers, but the phone signal is patchy at best so bear this in mind if the very idea of being offline for a few days fills you with fear.

So, what do while you are there. Well, it’s quite easy just to chill out, read a book, contemplate life, the universe and everything, and get to know your fellow guests. We did plenty of that, but we got some exercise in too. Mushroom Farm is, after all, in the midst of some excellent hiking territory.

After breakfast we watched the coffee beans being sorted and roasted for a while before setting off to Livingstonia, some 7km away. We were accompanied by Benjamin, a Swiss guy who has been studying in South Africa and is doing some serious African travels before heading home. It was a fairly easy walk with a few spots of rain to keep us cool. The track was rough in places but as we got closer to our destination we came across the road building project. Soon that terrifying journey up the hill will be a thing of the past, consigned to travellers’ tales. We missed a turning and went the long way round before stumbling across Livingstonia University with its Oxbridge-like colonnaded quadrangles. It was a beautiful campus in a beautiful location.

We visited Stone House Museum (photography STRICTLY prohibited!) to learn a little more about the missionaries who founded Livingstonia, as well as the history of the town and the trials and tribulations of its founders. A Scotsman named Dr Robert Laws was actually responsible for the creation of the settlement and he named it after Dr Livingstone (I presume!). This remote hillside location was chosen after malaria claimed the lives of many in earlier places alongside Lake Malawi. We never did figure out why photos were not allowed. Perhaps the Scout uniform and the Guide blanket contain top secret covert messages.

Nearby we visited a craft shop and bought some sturdy souvenirs to take away. Then it was coffee time but sadly none of the freshly baked scones promised in our guidebook were to be found. By chance we met the keyholder for the church and before long we were admiring the stained glass window portraying Dr Livingstone and climbing up the rickety wooden stairs of the bell tower for a look out over the surrounding countryside. It was a great day out. The walk back saw us venture into thick fog as the cloud drifted along our path.

The next day we set out to see the Manchewe Falls which are just a few kilometres up the road. Retracing our steps from the Livingstone hike, we were soon surrounded by schoolchildren making the most of a day off school on a public holiday. We assured them that we were fine making our own way but some of them walked along with us chatting away like native English speakers. Their teachers must be very proud of them. Incidentally, I believe they are funded by proceeds from the Mushroom Farm. We paid the small entry fee to get down to the falls and were soon admiring the drop from the top and taking photos of a smaller cascade. Then we found the viewpoint for the real waterfall. Wow! A sheer 300ft drop makes it the highest in Malawi. It was truly impressive and was well worth the effort of walking up there. Guided hikes can be arranged to clamber down paths to the base but we were content just to admire the view.

Leaving was a bit of a wrench after three nights. We got to the road at 0820 but there was no passing transport. The other two travellers who were leaving at the same time, and were supposed to be hiking down the hill, actually took a short cut to a position upwards and took the only car all morning from us. We were not impressed. In the end a private transfer was arranged at the massive cost of $40. Still, it was a far more comfortable journey down but the damage to our moods was done. Even so, Mushroom Farm is on the list of things that you simply must do if you are in Malawi!

A minibus at the bottom took us all the way to Mzuzu where we spent the night at Joy’s Place. The city (Malawi’s second biggest apparently) has nothing to write about but the Korean food at Joy’s was a joy indeed. We arrived smelling a little fishy as we had travelled with significant number of tiny fish from the lake for substantial parts of the journey. Oh, the joys of travel!!

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2nd February 2019

A magical place
I'm not sure I'd like waiting along the road for the transport and might be willing to pay the $40. Sounds like an interesting stop.

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