After a couple nights in Nkhata Bay we had fallen into the quicksand that seems to trap so many other backpackers that venture through this part of the country. Our plans to skip through had changed, and now we would be staying for a week. Ben and Chris decided to do the scuba course (which would be starting on a Thursday) and we would now try to take the ferry that departed the following week. With about four days until the beginning of the scuba course we had each decided that doing a mini side-trip would be a good way to break up our stay. Amanda was still really hot on the idea of visiting the (well talked about) Livingstonia area and Chris had decided to follow his new friend Izzy to Ruarwe. The fact that we randomly ran into Maddie, the new owner of the well known Mushroom Farm at our hostel the night before we left and were able to get a ride the following day with her to Livingstonia set our plans in stone.
We awoke bright and early on Saturday morning and joined our friend Meryl to begin our journey back north. Together we took the mini-bus to Mzuzu where we then meet up with Maddie. She had spent the morning gathering supplies for the farm with her parents who were visiting from the States. Together we all pieced the puzzle of how to best fit the six people and loads of supplies in her small pickup truck. In about twenty minutes we had successfully found a spot for everything and the three of us (Ben, Amanda, and Meryl) were snug in the back of the pickup truck bouncing along the road north. We guess it was quite a sight for the locals to see three muzungus (similar to our first ride in the country in the back of the pick-up) because many kids and some adults would point, smile, and wave ecstatically as we rode along. The ride from Mzuzu to the turnoff to Livingstonia was about 130 km (ninety minutes). The ride started fine but Amanda noticed about half way through that she and Ben were getting pretty dusty. She found this strange since the road was paved… but this was Africa, so she didn’t really think too much about it. She was really shocked though when she turned to Ben once the truck had pulled off the road before the turnoff and he had aged almost ten years. He was covered in this ‘dust’ and was almost completely grey/white. At this point Ben started shuffling around in the bags of supplies and let Amanda in on a little secret. It wasn’t’ dust that had been blowing all over the place. We aren’t sure where but somewhere along the route a bag of flour had burst open and the white powder was slowly ‘antiquing’ primarily Ben.
One of the beauties (and also challenges) of Livingstonia is that it is a town that is perched atop a hill that is only accessible by two roads. One from the back (which is much less direct and harder for backpackers to get to) and the other a small, windy, dirt road of about 13km with 20 numbered switchbacks that turns off the main highway M1 running north to south along the lakeside from Tanzania to Mzuzu. There is no public transportation that runs up this road, so if you are without a vehicle you have two options: hike up or hitch up. Those who choose to hike usually leave their big bags at the bottom of the hill with a local lakeside guesthouse or hostel and then take a smaller pack up for the night or two they plan to stay. Some will pay the locals to port their larger bags up for them if they plan to stay longer. Either way the hike is hard. It is a steep incline and takes about four to five hours if you stick to the main road, or possibly three hours if you take the shortcuts. The only other option is to hitch up with a car that is going up the hill (which half the time means you are actually paying a local unless you get lucky and find another tourist with a car headed uphill). This was what James opted to do when made his way up the hill the following day. We’ll tell you how that went in a bit.
So as you can see we were very very lucky to have run into Maddie and have our ride uphill all set. No hiking or hitching required. This was like winning the lottery and seeing a double rainbow all in the same day. We didn’t realize what a beast the road was until we were about ten minutes into the ride up the hill. Although the road from the turnoff to the farm is only 13km it took almost one full hour for her pickup truck to fight its way up. We arrived just as the sun was setting and the moon was rising – giving us the ultimate welcome to Mushroom Farm.
Life on the Farm
Mushroom Farm is probably one of the best known places to stay near Livingstonia. It is a destination in itself for many who travel along this route, despite the pain it takes to get there. We had heard all the great things about Mushroom Farm as well but you really can’t comprehend what is so magical about the spot until you are there. As you arrive down the driveway your spirits might begin to be let down as it just seems like a spot in the woods, but soon after you pass the entrance to the actual ‘farm’ you emerge on a hillside on top of the world overlooking the beautiful lake below. This paired with the great set-up and layout of the farm will immediately fill your heart with a peacefulness that makes you want to stay for days. Ben and I opted to camp with our own tent (we were still excited to be using it at this point) so we found one of the self-camping spots and set up our private romantic camp home. Meryl got a steal on a safari tent with a cliffside view and a bed that felt like a cloud.
Once settled into our new home for the next couple of days we sat down to an incredible veggie meal that made us feel like we were back in San Francisco. Amanda had a bean burger with fresh salad and rice while Ben and Meryl had a vegan peanut stew with chapati. We enjoyed our meals as an almost full moon rose above our heads shining down on the lake. The atmosphere of the farm at night was soothing with chill lounge music. Many tables splayed along the hillside paired with hammocks at various spots. Everything with a perfect view. The main common area was on the upper part of the hill and had comfy pillows, books, yoga mats, and games. One of the cool highlights of the farm is that it is built as a sort of eco-village/camp. So all the toilets are composting toilets. The hot water from the showers comes from a local spring. There are gardens where fresh veggies for the meals are grown. Chickens and other animals are found along the grounds as well. This includes a super cute kitten (and her mom) who can be found playing with the flowers or napping in the sun.
Over the next few days between outings we spent a lot of time relaxing and reflecting in this amazing spot hidden from the rest of the world. Together as a group we did sunrise yoga (led by Amanda) on our first morning. There were many naps taken in hammocks, games of cards played, and good meals eaten. It is definitely a spot you could stay for weeks and just forget about the world. It is also a great place for people to come together. But our last night we had reunited with James (who joined up with us on day two), ran into a German couple that we met at Butterfly Space, ran into the Chilean couple we met in Zanzibar, and met a new found friend Gareth who had spent the prior evening with Chris and Izzy in Ruarwe. This was only the beginning. The small world of travellers and ex-pats would continue to get even smaller as paths would cross again and again down to the road.
Exploring the town of Livingstonia
On our first full day we decided to check out the actual town of Livingstonia. James joined us that morning after almost twelve hours of travel the prior day from Iringa to Chitimba (the town along the lake where the turnoff for Livingstonia from the main road is). His lakeside night had been an interesting one and to top it all off he had waiting almost four hours for a ride up the hill, only to have the truck break down half way. Luckily there was another truck not long after the breakdown that passed by to rescue all the abandoned passengers (for a fee, of course). At about 11am Amanda and Ben spotted a pickup packed with people slowly inching it’s way up the switchbacks. Among the children, women, and bags full of vegetables there was James and his bag atop a large speaker. It may have taken all morning to make it up the hill but from what we have heard it beats the four hour hike.
After some refreshments and a little catch-up we were off for the day to see the big town. We took the shortcuts whenever we were able to which cut our hike time down to forty minutes. The hike itself wasn’t bad at all, but the heat from mid-day definitely added to the exhaustion. The views were beautiful though and the sense of peacefulness and simplicity surrounded every part of these areas atop the mountain. Children would chase after us and ask us where we were going. They would ask us to take photos of them as well. At first we thought maybe they would ask for money for being such great models but we found out fast that they just genuinely loved posing for the camera and seeing their smiling faces on the screen afterwards.
The town of Livingstone is an interesting one. Strangely enough this isolated spot is the location for one of the better known Universities in the north of Malawi. Livingstonia was founded atop the Chombe Plateau further north in Malawi roughly a dozen years after David Livingstone died. His fellow missionaries needed to set up a camp further from Cape Maclear (or anywhere along the wet lake lands) because too many of them were dying of Malaria. Once we had reached the town itself we spent the afternoon just wandering, learning a bit about the history of the town, meeting locals, and buying what limited food supplies we could use without the ability to cook.
Today the town remains full of landmarks from the missionary era and many church run facilities (such as schools and clinics) are still seen on the sides of the one main dirt road that runs through the town.
By the time we had finished exploring and collecting a fair share of mangos and tomatoes to snack on for the next couple days it was almost 4pm. Ben had also began to have pain in the bottom of his foot again from where he had stepped on the sea urchins (this was two weeks ago now in Zanzibar). With a limping Ben we slowly headed back down the hill as a group. This time there was no heat but the trek took twice as long because of Ben’s foot. We made a quick stop at the Lukwe Eco-Village (more details below) for a cold drink and to give Ben’s foot a break. Retrospectively this may have not been the best idea, even though a break was much needed, because once en route again after sunset it became dark very fast. This made it near impossible to find the short-cuts. But as they say in swahili, pole pole (slowly slowly) – which is what we did. James and Meryl managed to make it back faster which left us as a half hobbling couple taking the long way and taking our time. Although the situation wasn’t ideal, we managed to smile at the moon and the beauty we had found ourselves in. In fact, if you were to take out the pain in Ben’s foot, it was all quite romantic.
Lukwe Eco-Camp and Gardens
Before we had decided to stay at Mushroom Farm we had considered staying at the close-by ‘neighbor’ the Lukwe Eco-Camp. And by neighbor we mean 2km down the road before heading another kilometer down the driveway to the main camp and restaurant. Having read that this spot had amazing gardens we wanted to make a point to visit it before we left. On our return from our day hike to Livingstonia we managed to make it here for a sunset beer. The vibe was much different from Mushroom Farm. While Mushroom Farm seemed more communal with people gathering in the common areas during the days, this space seemed more meditative and for people who were perhaps more interested in seclusion. The view from this spot was stunning as well and it even had a hanging swing placed at the edge of a drop-off patio.
Since we didn’t have time to explore the gardens during our first visit we made a point of returning to explore them on our way to see the waterfall. Unfortunately Ben wasn’t able to join the group (by this point we were five including James, Meryl, the Chilean couple and Amanda) for this outing because of his foot. After close examination we determined that the foot just needed more rest. There didn’t seem to be anything inside and we both though perhaps we just hadn’t given it adequate time to heal. So while he rested in hammocks at the farm with the cats, we explored the eco-village.
The grounds for the village were huge. You could view and borrow hand drawn maps from the main restaurant/patio area. With the help of this we took a little hike along a trail that ran on the edge of the mountain. After a couple of sneak peaks of the waterfall we found the gardens. Workers were tending to the many plants as we entered. There were plants of all kinds among ponds and wandering dogs. It was a serene spot that matched the vibe of the patio space where all the veggies grown in these gardens are served on the menu. The salads at Lukwe are some of the best salads you will probably find in all of Malawi and are something not to be missed, even for those who aren’t able to see the gardens themselves.
Another one of the highlights on the Chombe Pleateau was that Malawi’s highest waterfall is located here surrounded by lush rain forest. We made two trips to the nearby Manchewe Falls just outside the town of Livingstonia. The waterfall was about 4km down the main road from Mushroom Farm making it a nice hike for the day. Part of what makes visiting the falls so special is not only the nature, but the swarms of local children who are eager to offer their expertise services as professional waterfall guides. We were surprised to hear the little 5 and 6 year olds talking to us just like any adult would when touting – “I’m the best tour guide, these others are all fakes. You want to see the waterfall? Come with me, I’ll show you the swimming pool.” — It was both cute and disquieting at the same time.
We first decided to check out the falls on our return from our visit to Livingstonia for the day. Not knowing too much about the falls we entered where the sign indicated and paid the 500 kwacha entry ($1.50). A small herd of little Malawian boys were in tow as we walked along the edge. We got a view of a small waterfall, then they brought us to the ledge where we could see the large waterfall (80 meters) from a couple hundred feet away. We learned at this point that there is another entry point and path you can use to get up close with the waterfall and swim underneath. As it was late, we opted to go back and return the following day to get the full experience.
The next day, Amanda and the crew that set out to explore the Lukwe gardens headed back toward to falls with the hopes of going under them. Maddie, the owner of Mushroom Farm, had filled the group in on how to get to the trail that lead under the falls. Just like the previous day there was no problem finding some local little tour guides to show us the way. Even before we reached the turnoff point to the waterfall the kids poured out of homes (almost seeming to appear out of no where) and eagerly wanted to hold any hand they could find and just walk down the road with us. It was hard not to have your heart melt as the kids eagerly spoke whatever sentences and words of English they knew. Often they wouldn’t understand your response but would instead offer a huge smile, just happy to be there with you.
Eventually we found the road that led to the trail that went under the waterfall. First we got to cool off in the pools of water above the falls. Since it was a hot day we took our time here cooling ourselves and watching the kids do flips off the rocks into the pools and create natural watersides. The young ones would strip down naked, while the older ones would keep their skivvies on. Interestingly enough it was all boys that were there to offer their guiding services and swimming in the pools. After our cool-off session we had about eight kids show our group of five the way to the waterfall. The kids knew their stuff and it was cute to see them holding branches out of the way along the trail and showing us where to step to get the best leverage. First we found ourselves in the part the kids called the ‘cave’ which was just below an rock overhang that the waterfall poured over. We chilled out here before moving on. Next we got to experience being under the first section of the smaller falls. This was the most powerful pressure of the falls we got to experience. We each took turns going under the fall of water and getting mini-water massages on our shoulders.
The entire hike and day was pretty awesome. The falls were beautiful and refreshing and since it is in such a remote place we were the only group of visitors there. But what really made the experience so special was the experience with the local kids through the entire trip.
Kandewe Bamboo Hanging Bridge
After 4 nights at the relaxing paradise of Mushroom Farm in Livingstonia, we were ready to go back to Nkhata Bay where Ben and Chris would be taking their PADI scuba diving course. The night before we had scheduled to get a ride down the hill with a guy who goes 3 times a week at 8am, charging 1200 kwacha for the ride down the hill. In the morning though, as we were all packed up and waiting for the driver, we discovered another person who was staying at Mushroom Farm was going down in his own truck, and could give us a lift. This guy was from Cleveland, of all places, and had been working in Malawi for 5 years. He was working on a project for adolescents and had come up to Mushroom Farm for the weekend. He had a very utilitarian red pickup truck, which managed to fit 6 additional passengers plus luggage. We enjoyed our safari-style ride down the 20 major U-turn bends in the road, and by the time we reached the bottom, the Argentinian who was sitting up front chose to join the guy in Cleveland to volunteer with his organization for a while.
At the bottom of the road we all caught a minibus toward Mzuzu. We wanted to stop about halfway, though, in the hopes of seeing a bamboo bridge we had read about. The negotiation for paying half the price for half the distance was a challenge, but eventually we got fairly close to this. We arrived at Kandewe an hour later, and were left on the side of the road. There was not much there, but we saw a sign for the cultural center and headed toward it. A man asked if we were here to see the bridge, and he offered to show us as the center was closed. We went with him through a crop field and he and his wife led us to an elevated bridge made out of bamboo and another local wood. It led to another small village, and it had been constructed over 100 years ago from salvaged materials. It had since been fortified with some metal cables, but remains very rickety, shaky, and easy to put your foot through the bottom. The bridge spanned about 100 feet, and we were glad it wasn’t any longer. We crossed slowly one at a time, as each step felt less assuring than the previous, especially in the middle, where we felt the need to walk at a 45 degree angle at times so we could reach the basket-like sides of the bridge for stability. As Ben crossed, he thought about his mom trying to cross the metal-grated train bridge in Healdsburg in his youth and how seeing below them had petrified her, even on the immovable steel bridge. The bamboo bridge is not for everyone– unless you are Malawian. The locals of course have no problem crossing the bridge, and do so with supplies on their heads when need be.
After crossing to the far end and back, we took a while to appreciate the bridge and scenery. We then paid our helpers the suggested donation amount that goes to funding community projects. The couple then encouraged us to check out the prayer hut across the way. When we entered, there were two wooden sculptures carved into demonic forms – one for men to pray to and another for the women. These were for the ancestral gods, before the area was colonized and Jesus was pressed upon them. The idols were intimidating and gave a sense that the indigenous gods were probably considered to be powerful and meant to be feared.
The detour ended up being just over an hour, but in this time we had the chance to explore quite a bit of the small town African culture that is quickly being swallowed by a daunting Western uniformity. And this was found in just a brief stretch along the road. It was a nice stop, incredibly easy to miss, but we feel very lucky to have had these experiences of the small villages in Malawi.