From Dedza we made our way south-east to Liwonde National Park. On the banks of the Shire River, the park is well known for large numbers of hippo, crocs and elephants. We stopped at the Baobab Bush Camp, a back packers favourite which was cheap but comfortable, with a great lookout on stilts which caught the little breeze to be found in this low-lying and humid place. With beers in hand we joined several backpackers – a friendly and a little bit too charming Italian who ran his own guest house during the summer and closed up and travelled during the winter, a serious Israeli student, a bubbly Belgian girl who was working for an NGO and her sweet Spanish friend – at the hide and exchanged travel stories and tips as we watched a couple of elephants in the distance. We discovered that access to the park was restricted by high water levels and our $45 dollar entry fee would get us about 3km round. It was hot and humid and we decided to give it a miss and moved on the next morning. At the gate we had the same greeting from the girl who manned it as we’d had when we arrived the day before – “Give me my money”. Said with a huge smile as if she was saying hello or goodbye. We discovered later that this is a phrase that many of the young locals know and use (frequently) to foreigners without actually knowing what it means.
We took the tarmac road to Zomba, the old colonial capital of Malawi which sat in a stunning location at the base of the Zomba Plateau forest reserve, whose green slopes rose steeply above the town. We found Pakachere, a backpackers lodge that had been recommended by Alex, the Italian traveller. It was a good recommendation, with a nice atmosphere and set in a beautiful location on the edge of the town. The young Israeli, Ulaav, had beaten us there and was setting up his tiny lightweight tent. We met the Dutch manager, Kieran, who told us they were having a pub quiz that night and we arranged to join his team. It was a brilliant evening, with beer and wine flowing and lots of revelry. The room was full of teachers, volunteers and NGO staff. The quiz master was a professor from the local university. Our team came a respectable 3rd (apparently the best score Kieran’s team had ever got!) and bed came late (very late for Gareth).
After a ‘civilised’ start the following morning, with Angela’s tummy still a bit dicky and Gareth’s head slightly thick, we headed up to the plateau, giving Ulaav a lift. This entailed Angela squeezing on top of the fridge again. Not the most comfortable drive in the world and probably illegal too… We dropped him at the camp site he was planning to stay at and paid a nominal fee to park the car there. After convincing the locals that we didn’t want or need a guide (which took quite a bit of doing) we headed up for our planned two, or at tops three hour walk on the plateau, passing the appropriately named “Williams Waterfall” on the way. Although the pic doesn’t show it, this place was absolutely heaving with people, mostly kids screaming and laughing as they tried to negotiate the pools without falling in. It was great to see them having such fun but we moved swiftly on!
We followed the river uphill through a small area of native ‘rain forest’, which was rapidly being depleted by illegal felling. We could hear axes and chainsaws throughout the woodland. Very depressing as not only is the natural environment being destroyed but there is a huge knock-on effect on the people as deforestation leads to a range of problems from soil erosion to siltation of rivers and flash flooding. But the people need firewood for cooking and heating so they continue to fell the trees. We’d seen it in Dedza and, with such a large and poor population, will continue to see it across Malawi.
As we walked up we passed Alex on his way down, riding with panache (as all Italians seem to do), on the back of a dodgy-looking motorbike taxi. We also bumped into Ulaav several times as we followed a similar route to the top. Our reward for the trek up was the most amazing view over the town and surrounding landscape, from a place once visited by Haile Selass and hence named the Emperor’s View. What a beautiful place.
The Emperor’s View
We decided to push on to another view further round the mountain. It took longer than we’d thought and our months in the car (probably not helped by the excesses of the night before) stated to show. Legs ached and old twinges returned. A nerve in Angela’s hip started to hurt and Gareth was struggling with ‘museum hip’. We made it to the view point, had a rest and headed back, taking the shorter side of the loop back to the car. The path started out ok but slowly became more and more overgrown and rocky. We missed a side turn which was barely more than an animal track, and by the time we realised we’d headed a fair way down a difficult path. We had to retrace our steps, by this time Angela limping badly and dragging her leg and Gareth also struggling and absolutely knackered. The final path was almost totally overgrown, steep, rocky and with deep slippery ruts caused by erosion.
The view that nearly broke us
Yes, there really is a path here….
By now Angela’s hip was screaming and her knee, taking exception to two hours of twisting and dragging of the hip, also joined in. We were sipping our water to conserve it when we really needed to drink more. We finally reached to car nearly six and a half hours after we’d left it, immediately downing a litre of cold water each from the fridge. Aaaah, that was a good drink.
We wearily headed down the mountain to our planned destination – Casa Rossa. Although we’d really liked Pakachere we’d been told about this fantastic Italian restaurant (yes, really, in the middle of Malawi) and wanted to give it a try. They also had camping. Perfect! And indeed it was. The owners, Sylvia and Mark, were a charming Italian and her Italianised Russian husband. They’d left Italy 6 years before, spending 6 months back-packing in Africa before buying this place, with no previous experience of running a restaurant! They were great company and she particularly enjoyed teasing us and the Americans about recent political decisions at home and in the US, humorously saying “we’ve had to endure years of ridicule over Berlusconi – it’s nice to be able to get our own back”. We gorged on homemade pasta, Panzarotti, steak fillet in peppercorn sauce, fried custard (if, like Ange, you love custard you really have to try it) and the most delicious home-made ice cream. This was usually after shovelling down the complementary plate of guacamole and toast (not very Italian but very much in season and very delicious) supplied to every table, and was all washed down with very reasonably priced South African wine (Italian would have been way too expensive to import) and good conversation.
We loved the place. Breakfast was included in the ridiculously cheap US$5 per head charge for camping and the food was so good we didn’t feed ourselves once. We walked (hobbled) around the local lanes and explored the town, getting the occasional taxi to help our aching limbs heal. We could quite happily have set up roots there but, to protect our wallets and our waste-lines, we finally dragged ourselves away after 3 contented days. This was not before we had to reluctantly evict a unwanted tenant that had built the most amazing little nest on the Landy roof rack. A solitary wasp of some kind had built a structure, perhaps 1 cm across, which looked and felt just like a tiny little clay pot. It was beautiful. In it she’d laid a single egg. We felt bad removing it but, considering Ange’s work on pests and diseases back home, we didn’t want to risk taking it somewhere it shouldn’t be. Sorry Mrs Wasp.
Incredible but unwanted lodger
And finally, we never did find out whether people from Zomba are called Zombies….