Road trip to Zomba!

Amy in Malawi has returned from a trip to Zomba, in the southern region of Malawi.  I’ve been somewhat ill, so this post will be heavy on photos and light on text.

Shruthi, a fellow Fulbrighter in Zambia, arrived in Lilongwe early last week.  After a quick trip to the lake, we spent New Year’s Eve together and then headed south for Zomba on Thursday.  We were joined, at the last minute, by one of my housemates, who decided this would be an excellent opportunity to test out his 4-wheel drive car.  Though we ended up doing more driving and less hiking than we would have done with my sedan, it was quite an adventure!

Shruthi is very excited!

We had originally planned to leave fairly early Thursday morning, but due to the number of guests staying at our house (adopted from the hosts of the New Year’s party), didn’t leave until about 1 PM.  The trip was fairly uneventful for the first hour or so.  We were entertained by several prolific examples of Malawian transport stacking skills and enjoyed the mountainous countryside.



Around Dedza, it began to get cloudy.  As we drove through the mountains, Shruthi and I snapped photos of the approaching storm as it brewed over traditional Malawian villages.

Storms over Dedza

Storms over Dedza

A few hours later, we made a stop in Balaka, where we had heard that textiles (sold for absurd muzungu prices in Lilongwe) were made by the Chifungu Artisans Network.  After some wandering on dirt roads (none of which had signs), we made the fortunate mistake of asking for directions at a large, well-walled house – which turned out to be the house of the project’s director, Tamara.  Although the artists were off until the 5th, she happily agreed to show us the studio and open the shop.  She explained that the textiles are made using sadza painting, which uses a flour paste to produce a batik-style product.  The flour paste is applied first, then the paint, then the textiles are baked and the flour paste washed off (leaving nice white lines between the colors).  We all bought a few items and made it worth her time to open the shop for us!

We were still about an hour from Zomba and evening was fast approaching, so we said our goodbyes and headed further south.  We made it through Zomba town and up Zomba mountain just as it was getting dark.  Upon Tamara’s recommendation, we decided to stay at the Trout Farm, about 3/4 of the way up the mountain.  The accommodation they had left when we arrived was a cabin that slept 4 people, for 5000 kwacha (~$35 USD).  It was a bit rustic – no electricity, only cold water, a dead 6-inch trout stuck to the “kitchen” faucet, and a semi-functional toilet.  I got the impression that it used to be much nicer; we had a paraffin stove, for example, but no paraffin to make it work.  So, note to travelers in Malawi:  it’s cheap, and the view is spectacular, but be prepared to roll with the punches!  (I suppose if you’re in Malawi, you should be, anyway!)  Rusticness aside, we had a lovely balcony overlooking the trout farm and mountain vista, and we spent most of the daylight hours we were at the camp sitting outside.

Trout farm cabin

Trout farm cabin

For dinner, we made our way to the Kuchawe Inn.  Though one of the nicest hotels in Malawi by reputation, the food there was highly disappointing – my vegetable lasagna was little more than eggplant and carrots in pasta and cream.  Lots of cream.  I’m okay with a disappointing meal, but this was an EXPENSIVE disappointing meal, and I was again reminded of my mother’s edict:  “You wouldn’t ask to sleep in a kitchen, so why would you eat in a hotel?”  Alas, this was really the only food option on Zomba Mountain, so we went with it for the night.

We spent Friday exploring the Zomba Plateau by foot and by Pajero.  We began the morning with a hike around the Mulunguzi dam, which didn’t lead nearly as close to the waterfall as we had hoped.  There were, however, lots of monkeys!



The Zomba Plateau is a fairly well-developed tourist area for Malawi, which basically means that there are occasional signs telling you which way to turn for the waterfalls.  Though the trail network is robust, it is not well-maintained, and we definitely had some tense moments of giant puddles and impossibly steep and rocky slopes.  The fog came and went, but we were fortunate to see some excellent views – and then see them swallowed by the fog.  After getting lost and finding our way again, we made it down the mountain and into Zomba town.

A lovely vista about to be obscured by the fog

A lovely vista about to be obscured by the fog

Amy by Williams Falls

Amy by Williams Falls

Finding vegetarian food in Malawi is always an adventure, and this day was no different.  Shruthi is a strict vegetarian, but found something on the menu at Uncle Dan’s Cafe (a hole in the wall if ever there were one) that seemed edible:  a vegetable burger.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from something on the menu called an “egg burger,” but it turned out that burger was here defined merely as something on a bun.  Sadly, the vegetable burger was a mayonnaise-based vegetable salad on a bun, with more of the same salad and chips on the side.  My vegetable rice dish (its proper name on the menu) was somewhat better, but one got the impression that the kitchen had to finish one dish before it could start on another:  I ordered last and my companions were finished eating long before my food even arrived.  But this is Malawi; I fail to be surprised.

After lunch, we wandered around Zomba town a bit, visited the grocery store and the market, drove by (and walked a bit in) the botanical gardens, and took in the architecture of the city.  Zomba was the capital of Malawi until the 1970s, and has a much grander (probably colonial) style than Lilongwe.  Built in a valley and the surrounding foothills, it is a very pretty city, far more pleasing than Lilongwe.

We returned to the Trout Farm in time for dinner; spaghetti, which we had ordered in the morning.  (It turned out the Trout Farm does have a cook and a limited menu, if one orders ahead of time.)  Again, a culinary adventure: yes, there was pasta; no, this did not resemble any spaghetti I’ve eaten before.  (Fortunately my Italian housemate was not with us.)  Salt and hot sauce helped the dish – oily pasta, eggplant, carrots, and green beans, with a side of gritty spinach – go down, but I was glad we had had a late lunch.  We watched moths and giant mosquitoes throw themselves into the candlelight over dinner – I’m not sure I’ve ever observed so vividly “moths to a flame” before – and then played a game of Koehandel, an excellent Dutch card game that translates to “cow trading.”

Exploring at the Trout Farm

Exploring at the Trout Farm

Saturday morning brought more exploring as we headed for a lookout point, Chingwe’s Hole, and the highest mountain (made obvious by the proliferation of cell phone towers at its peak).  The lookout point was obscured by the fog approximately 10 seconds after we arrived, and though we waited for almost an hour, it never lifted.  Chingwe’s Hole, nearby, was equally unimpressive.  As the name suggests, it is a hole – more of a crevice in the ground, really – that, according to local lore, was the graveyard for people infected with leprosy in “ancient times.”  (One of the crystal entrepreneurs at the site said “at least 100 years ago,” so I’m not sure what sort of timeframe the legend encompasses.)  The hole is said to be bottomless (though recent explorations have suggested a depth more like 20 meters) and connected through a cave to the Shire River, so during the rainy season the bodies would wash out from the hole and down the river.  Interesting story, but the hole is rather overgrown and not terribly exciting to see.  And no, I didn’t want to buy any crystals.

Chingwes Hole

Chingwe's Hole

The vista from the highest peak was similarly obscured by fog, so we made our way back down the mountain and stopped for coffee at a promising little place called Annie’s Fast Food Garden.  Our hopes were obviously set too high, however, and what the waitress assured us was real coffee was actually packets of instant Koffiehuis.  We decided to hold out for lunch until Liwonde, about an hour into the journey toward Lilongwe.

Of coffee and skepticism

Of coffee and skepticism

We stopped at Hippo View for lunch, and enjoyed the surroundings – it’s a nice hotel on the banks of the Shire River – but didn’t see any hippos.  This meal also may or may not have been a signficant contributing factor in my current gastrointestinal malaise.  After Liwonde, it was about 3 hours back to Lilongwe, and we again drove through rainstorms and muddy waterfalls flowing across the roads.  I can only imagine how much topsoil is lost with rainstorms like these, even in relatively flat farmlands.  Most of the nitrogen fertilizer here is top-dressed only, and there was an obvious difference between corn that was well-fertilized and corn that wasn’t, particularly in southern-most region where the growing season begins earlier.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos of this, but will leave you with this amusing clash of cultures:

Text speak meets the outhouse

Text speak meets the outhouse


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5 Responses to “Road trip to Zomba!”

  1. Kaitlin Says:

    I love how you start off this post by saying: I’ve been somewhat ill, so this post will be heavy on photos and light on text. and then it ends up having a ton of text (and a ton of photos)!
    Sounds like you had a fun (and very interesting) time– thanks for sharing!

    I hope you feel better soon!

  2. Rachel Says:

    The last photo made my day…

  3. dish network Says:

    Yeah this pictures look so natural and lovely. I wish i get a chance to visit Zomba.

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