Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Endowed with spectacular highlands and extensive lakes, it occupies a narrow, curving strip of land along the East African Rift Valley. Lake Nyasa, known in Malawi as Lake Malawi, accounts for more than one-fifth of the country’s total area. We took a 10-day tour of Malawi that included visiting two wildlife reserves, a high-forest plateau, a beautiful island on Lake Malawi an stopping on a tea plantation. It was an amazing journey and one we will never forget.
Our journey to Huntingdon House took us back through Zomba and south of Blantyre, taking about 3 hours from Liwonde National Park. And not for the first time this trip, the GPS took us right there.
Huntingdon House was the family home of the Kay family, who to this day run the Satemwa tea plantation, where the house is located. In 1923 Maclean Kay arrived from Malaysia where he had been growing rubber since 1910, having originally emigrated from Ayrshire, Scotland. He decided to start growing tobacco, which was a traditional crop in the area. In 1924 he planted his first tea bush, and by 1926 he had a field of tea – which is still in production today. When the great depression sucked the life out of economies worldwide, he went to work on another tea plantation, where he got married and had three children. In 1934 the family moved back to Satemwa and the house, now Huntingdon House was rebuilt, having burnt down.
Huntingdon House is now a 5-bedroom boutique hotel set in the heart of the Satemwa tea estate. It is a five-mile journey down an unpaved road to reach the house, passing seemingly endless fields of tea bushes. Although it was outside of the main tea season there was a small number of people in the fields picking tea.
We pulled up to the house, a single-story bungalow, with a spectacular lawn out front and a wonderfully manicured garden. A more typical colonialist scene was hard to imagine. There was even a croquet set on the lawn! The inside of the house is classically decorated using what I imagine is mostly original furnishings, creating an air of elegance and gentility. We were shown to our room, the Chapel room, which was enormous, with 6-metre-high ceilings and huge doors leading out to the private patio. The centrepiece of the room is a custom-made four-poster bed. The bathroom was bigger than the floor space of our fifth-wheel trailer, with a large clawfoot bath and humungous shower for two. It was all very romantic!
Lunch was set out for us on a private table on the house’s veranda with lovely views across the garden and out to the tea estate. The chef had prepared for us a wonderful vegan pesto pasta meal – the food here was amazing.
After lunch we settled in for a couple of relaxed days. Before dinner we tested out the claw foot bath and lit some candles. Very romantic! For dinner we were sat in what have been the main living room of the house. It was elegantly decorated in what appeared to be 1950s furnishings and there was a wood fire crackling in the fireplace. Once again, we had the whole room to ourselves. We had not had many opportunities to enjoy a private space like this for some time – it was lovel
I had planned for another relaxed day for us before we moved to Zambia. We had, what for us, was a lie-in (although to be honest I still wake up at the same time – around 5:30 am) and we out for breakfast on the veranda. Again, it was perfect, and the food was amazing!
We had signed up for the tea tasting at 10:30 am, for which we were joined by two nice French ladies, a mother and daughter. The tea tasting took place at the estate’s factory which was about a 10-minute walk from the house. It was a nice little stroll, along unpaved roads, passing by a field full of tea bushes and the estate’s workers who were weighing the tea that had just been picked.
At the factory, we were met by one of the supervisors and escorted through the factory’s yard. Karen was curious about the building marked ‘breastfeeding room’. Apparently, this is where local women bring the babies of the women working in the tea fields to feed their babies, so they don’t have to go back to their villages when they are working.
The first part of the tour was to watch a 10-minute video about the Satemwa tea estate, and how the tea is produced there. It is an impressive operation! During the peak tea production season, which is in the rainy season, December through April, around 2,500 people are working in the fields and the factory, working 24 hours a day. After the film finished the four of us were escorted next door into the tea-tasting room, which felt more like a little laboratory. We were even given white lab coats to wear and a hair net! On a table were set 14 different types of tea made at Satemwa, including black tea, green tea, fruit teas, oolong, Earl grey and something approximating lapsang souchong. We were given a little cup to spoon a small amount of the prepared lukewarm tea into. So, we passed down the line tasting each tea in turn – just a mouthful of each. There was also a spittoon if you didn’t like something enough to swallow it. We all definitely had our favourites – and some we did not like – which I guess is what tasting is all about!
From the tea tasting, we were taken on a tour of the factory following the process from the drying of the tea leaves to the cutting of the leaves, sorting out the cut tea into different sizes and putting them into the large bags for shipping. Passing through the factory was a little scary, and it is questionable whether it would pass muster with the health and safety rules in Europe or the United States! Anyway, as it was out of the main tea production season none of the machines was working but it was still airless and relatively noisy inside the factory building. I can only imagine what it is like when it is in full operation during the summer months here! The last place on the tour was the quality control room. Here samples are collected of each batch, logged in a large handwritten book, and tasted. If the tasting goes well, samples are sent to buyers overseas for approval before shipping. The samples are kept in tin cans, not too dissimilar to paint cans, for up to three years. It is a very manual process, with the records mainly being kept in handwritten books (which seems to be the norm in Africa). Goodness knows what would happen if there was a fire! We’d asked so many questions during the tour that we were running a bit late, so a truck was sent to pick us up to get us back in time for lunch. We got to sit precariously in some seats in the bed of the truck, which made us a little nervous as we bumped along the unpaved roads back to Huntingdon House.
We had decided to skip lunch and instead chose to take afternoon tea on the lawn. Very English. The food we’d been given so far had been incredible, so we were very excited to see what was served for tea. The staff had set us up in the shade of a tree on the lawn. Then the food arrived. We had a small round of sandwiches, to whet our appetites, followed by scones, chocolate cake and a lot of other sweet goodies. And of course, Satemwa tea served in a silver teapot, which reminded her of the teapot Ian’s auntie had. By the end, we were totally stuffed and had to back to our room to fall into a food coma! Much later on we did recover enough to have a late dinner.
We had decided to skip lunch and instead chose to take afternoon tea on the lawn. Very English. The food we’d been given so far had been incredible, so we were very excited to see what was served for tea. The staff had set us up in the shade of a tree on the lawn. Then the food arrived. We had a small round of sandwiches, to whet our appetites, followed by scones, chocolate cake and a lot of other sweet goodies. And of course, Satemwa tea was served in a silver teapot, which reminded her of the teapot Ian’s auntie had. By the end, we were totally stuffed and had to back to our room to fall into a food coma! Much later on we did recover enough to have a late dinner.
Planning your visit to Huntingdon House
Best time to visit Huntingdon House
The best time to visit Malawi is during the dry season between May and October. It’s a cooler time of year, with bright sunshine, lush green landscapes, fresh evenings, and temperatures anywhere between 64°F and 91°F.
Temperatures start to rise in September and remain in the eighties throughout the rainy season, which runs from November to April. The heaviest rains are often in December, January and February.
Because of Malawi’s varied landscape, regional variations in weather are significant. The lower lying lake shore areas are warmer all year round. Temperatures in the highlands are refreshingly cool in the day, with chilly evenings, particularly in winter.
Malawi – Month-by-Month
Visiting Malawi December to March
These are the wettest months, characterized by torrential downpours in the afternoon. Afternoon temperatures are around 29°C/84°F and the humidity is high.
Visiting Malawi in April
Rain is dwindling and so are the temperatures. Daytime temperatures still reach 27°C/81°F but evenings and early mornings can be chilly.
Visiting Malawi in May
This is the end of summer and the rain has stopped. Temperatures are relatively cool, typically 16°C/61°F in the morning and 26°C/79°F in the afternoon. Nighttime temperatures start to drop.
Visiting Malawi in June – August
The average morning temperature is 14°C/57°F. Bring warm clothing for the cold morning game drives in open vehicles. Afternoons will be more pleasant, with temperatures around 25°C/77°F. Nyika Plateau with its high altitude is much colder.
Visiting Malawi in September & October
he heat gradually builds, and the first rains bring relief from very dry conditions. Daytime temperatures will be around 29°C/84°F in September and 31°C/88°F in October, the latter being the hottest month. Peak temperatures can be much higher.
Visiting Malawi in November
This month is unpredictable – the rain starts in the afternoons. Temperatures are between 20°C/68°F in the morning and 31°C/88°F in the afternoon.