The journey from London takes us via Johannesburg. It is rather long but landing in Blantyre, the economic capital of Malawi, feels familiar. I am reminded of Hararé 20 years ago, with dirt roads in the middle of the city and people walking everywhere. Malawi is a small country in size, mostly known as one of the poorest in the world, with a population that has tripled to 20 million over the last 20 years. It is squeezed between Tanzania to the North, Zambia to the West and Mozambique to the East.
We make our way to base camp as soon as we land, eager to kick-start the discovery of the country from the top of the Mulanje plateau. I have read about the hike before leaving home, and I am a little nervous. The next day is arduous, so you must get a good sleep, says Anton, our mountain guide for the next 2 days. He sets to find us some hiking sticks, prettily carved by the locals and we adjust to the slow pace of Africa.
The sound of the waterfalls echoes by the veranda of our cottage. The hike is steep and hard indeed, but although I have not done any particular training, I am relieved to make it to the top in five hours, one step at a time.
The total elevation is 1,200m and sometimes we crawl on rocky paths, sometimes we hold hands to give each other’s balance. Anton’ smile and good spirits are contagious and I barely notice the time passing, chitchatting the whole hike up.
He tells me about his youngest son’s dream to become a pilot, I tell him about my little brother’s determination to fly A320s. And just when I ask the dreaded question ‘are we almost there’, he delights me with a little riddle which sends my mind back into positive territory: what does KISS stand for? Keep It Short and Simple. Thank you for the story-telling advice. I smile back.
The warm heart of Africa
France’s cottage, set in the middle of the plateau, is our base for the night, a simple little house in the middle of the plateau. English writer Van Der Post stayed here in the 1940’s when he went on a tragic expedition with forester Freddie France who died while crossing one of the rivers. Van Der Post’s fame came with his book Venture to the Interior, set right here in Mount Mulanje.
The cottage is basic but the logs burn out nicely in the fireplace. We rest our legs in contemplation of the changing colors in the sky, while Anton and our porters prepare a tasty meal on the open fire. We are in the warm heart of Africa, far far away and very content. This trip is off to a good start.
On our way back down, we come across several barefoot children collecting bushels to resell in town. They do that climb up every week, and sell a bushel for 500 kwacha, which is about 0.50p. This is what deforestation looks like. Ordinary, poor people scramble to live in Malawi, without any electricity or running water, so when they get hungry, they chop, they have no choice.
Thirty years ago, the plateau was covered with Mulanje cedar trees. Then the population doubled, tripled, and the helicopters came, chopping them all. Fires ravaged the area and today, almost 40% of those cedar trees have disappeared. The government has replaced them with Western-type pine trees. It is terribly sad to witness but over 95% of the population in Malawi still uses charcoal burning and until renewable energies are widely accessible, the quest for survival will prevail. It’s as simple as that.
Focusing on the positive
My brief to Dominic, who runs the Responsible Safari Company, was to put together an itinerary that would highlight the positive stories taking place in Malawi. And there are many. Our next stop is Satemwa Tea Plantation, where Annette greets us with a smile and an enormous brownie. She is a charming, tall, blonde lady. I can’t help wanting to know her story. She smiles and shares a condensed version of it. It sounds straight out of a romantic comedy. Originally from Lapland, Annette went on a solo motorcycle trip in her early twenties, from Cape Town to Morocco, and met her now-husband in Mozambique. He was on a similarly epic journey.
We arrive sweaty and dirty, and settle in our large room with a colonial four-poster bed, as if we were part of the family. The serene Huntingdon House was the family home of Annette’s Scottish in-laws until not long ago. Her father-in-law came to Malawi in the early 1920’s – like many Scottish settlers before him – and started the tea plantation.
Tea-plantation with a purpose
We listen to Annette’s explanations about the benefits derived from fair-trade, effectively empowering the tea-pickers to decide how to spend the funds released every year from the scheme.
In the last couple of years, those fair-trade funds have gone to purchase malaria-prevention medicine for the community, install a new rooftop for the local school and solar panels in the village.
In the early evening, we head to the tea factory for a tasting of twenty different varieties produced on the estate. It is fascinating how such contrasting flavors can be achieved with the exact same leaves processed in different ways.
My legs are still aching from the hike when I get on a mountain bike the next day to tour the plantation. It is one of the largest in the country.
We find a sweet spot to plant three seeds of mahogany trees, for each of our three children. It’s a small gesture in honor of all the trees that have been chopped before us. Annette encourages me to see them grow on Google Earth back home – Oh, the world we live in…