From Zomba we headed to Mulanje, about 2 hours drive further south-east. This mountain is a huge granite outcrop that towers 2km over the surrounding plain. It’s a mecca for walkers and climbers alike, although after our trek in Zomba we weren’t planning anything much more energetic than a bit of walking in the foothills. The area is also well known for its tea production and the lower slopes are covered with tea plantations. We were planning to stay with some friends of Sylvia and Mark’s, more Italians, at a small camp site they were just establishing on one of these tea estates just south of the mountain. No restaurant here to tempt us!
Mulanje and the tea plantations
A tar road borders the west side of the mountain but we decided to take the dirt track to the north, called Lister’s Pass, and then head down the narrow strip of land between the mountain and Mozambique on the east side. The northern track proved to be far rougher and less used than we’d expected but the Land Rover had no problems dealing with the terrain. As the path closed in we stopped to ask some local villagers whether it was passable. They said it was so we carried on, with green hills and granite cliffs to either side. It was a lovely route and we really enjoyed being off-road and in the wilds again. We had lunch without seeing a soul. Sheer luxury in such a highly populated country.
At the end of the pass we headed south through what the guide book describes as a continuous village for about 30km. A very apt description indeed. There was a constant stream of people and settlement along the road which made the journey very slow.
By now, as seasoned travellers, we were more or less fluent in the local language, Chichewa. That is to say we’d learnt how to say “Moni! Muli bwanje” (Hello, how are you?) and to respond to the reply “Ndiri bwino zikomo, kaya inu?” (Very well thank you, and you?) with the reciprocal “Ndiri bwino, zikomo”. Just these few words opened a whole new world for us. With so many people on the road we were driving very slowly and with the windows down it gave us a chance to practice our newly-found, extensive language skills. They obviously don’t see many overlanders through here as, almost without exception, we were met with looks ranging from astonishment, suspicion and even a little bit of fear on the part of the children. But as we passed we greeted everyone with “Moni, muli bwanje”. The result was fantastic. The faces of the scowling teenagers and fierce-looking old men and women would break into the biggest smiles and they would ask how we were, and be even more friendly and amused at our stumbling but seemingly comprehensible response. It was brilliant. The little kids had a different response. We would hear loud chants of “a-zun-gu! a-zun-gu!” as we passed, the kids running and laughing towards the car. Mzungu means white person in the local language, azungu being the plural. We weren’t entirely sure that we should embrace this but they were young kids and it seems an almost universal response from them in this area.
Our camp was set under some huge, shady trees on an immaculate lawn (likely to change once they get more campers there!). Our hosts were charming and very welcoming. We had a nice relaxed evening, watching the Trumpeter and Silver-cheeked Hornbills flying from tree to tree, their huge yellow bills apparently no hindrance. In the morning, as we had breakfast, we heard a rustle in the branches next to us and watched a chameleon slowly working his way through the vegetation. He was about 18 inches long, with a rhino-like horn. His eyes worked independently of each other, at first sizing us up to see if we posed a danger and then back to hunting for some breakfast of his own. He moved incredibly slowly, his body waving from side to side as if he was just a branch blowing in the breeze rather than a hungry predator. He would then pause, standing motionless with two feet holding the branch and two hovering in the air as he surveyed the area for a target. He could hold this pose, with nothing but his eyes moving, for ages until he was ready for his next move. What a cool critter!
It was the time of the tea harvest and the fields were full of pickers from early in the morning, carrying large baskets on their backs which they’d fill with incredible accuracy by throwing the picked leaves over their heads.They worked about 9 hours in the hot sun.
Tea pickers at work
We were taken on a tour of the tea fields by one of the camp’s staff, Wilson. He also took us to the local village where we met the chief, who was only 30 years old. We had a really interesting but ultimately rather depressing discussion with them both. The chief was at pains to point out how poor the village was and how the NGOs and the government had failed the people. The people worked for low wages on the tea plantations and there was just one water pump to supply his and the neighbouring village – over 3,000 people. But there had been an election in 2016 and the same government had been re-elected, despite major issues with corruption which had led to withdrawal of direct aid from several countries, including the UK, a few years earlier. And yet the chief had voted again for a government that he felt had failed! He also complained that the party reps didn’t give him the bicycle that they’d promised if he voted for them. The irony of what he was saying seemed to be completely lost on him. It was not lost on our guide, an intelligent and thoughtful young man who gently teased the chief about his hypocrisy. His teasing seemed to go over the chief’s head. Sadly Wilson had lost faith in all the parties and did not vote. I guess we could empathise with him but you’ve got to wonder how corruption will be tackled if not from the people themselves. We left feeling a little depressed.
The following day we headed to the mountain for our walk in the foothills, to try to find one of the many waterfalls in the area. We got to the park gate where the attendant tried to tell us that we needed a guide to walk there. We didn’t want a guide, we wanted to walk on our own. After a bit of discussion it became apparent that we didn’t have to have a guide and he grumpily let us through. But the vehicle was already surrounded by people touting for business, trying to get us to pay them to guide us to the waterfall, look after the car, wash the car or buy walking sticks. They were relentless, clamouring around the car, running after us as we drove to the car park. Their prices came down and down, but we wanted to walk on our own and we we didn’t need the car guarded (except perhaps from them!). They kept on and on. We very nearly turned round and left but decided to head off on our walk and see if they’d leave us alone. Three of them stuck with us for about half a kilometre, disappearing down a side track and reappearing ahead of us several times, but eventually they got the message and left us to it. We had a nice walk, cooling our feet in a pool on the way. We searched and searched for the waterfall, following several side tracks to try and find it but we never did – heard it though. Perhaps we should have taken a guide….