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.
Zomba was the former colonial capital of Malawi, the capital was transferred to Lilongwe after independence. It is a small town with limited infrastructure to support the approximately 2.5 million people who live in the area. Malawi is one of the poorest economies in Africa, and most of its people survive on subsistence farming. The population is one of the youngest in the world, but sadly their employment prospects are not great – so unless something changes drastically the future for the people of Malawi is bleak.
Looming over Zomba is Zomba mountain, a steep-sided table mountain. Our accommodation for the next two days, Zomba Forest Lodge was located somewhere on the side of this mountain.
We reached the lodge and were warmly greeted by our host Tom. After a bite of lunch and a siesta, we took a wander around the beautiful grounds. By this time it was nearly time for the sun to set so we got a gin and tonic for a sundowner and strolled a little way up the road to watch the sun do down.
Karen thought she might be starting with a cold the day before and overnight it broke so by morning she was feeling very rough. So, we decided she’d stay at the Lodge, and I would go off and do the hike on my own.
The staff prepared the most amazing breakfast, including some fresh, warm muffins that were to die for. Despite Karen not feeling well she managed to eat one of the muffins!
So, armed with my camera and a packed lunch I headed out to meet Chipi, my guide for the four and half hour hike. I collected him a little way down the mountain from Zomba Forest Lodge and we headed back up on a different road, parking outside the Sunbird Hotel. The top of Zomba mountain is somewhat curious. I described it as a table mountain, which is not exactly true, as the top is far from flat. The top of the mountain has a ridge that goes almost all the way around, so it seems like a crater – which it isn’t. The inner part of Zomba mountain has valleys, hills, a natural lake and a reservoir. I followed Chipi down the road passing by piles of wood and groups of men cutting tree trunks with table and chain saws. There is a lot of logging and wood collecting that goes on up here. This is not big business, it is often individuals cutting and collecting wood and taking it, often carried in huge bundles on their heads, down the mountain on foot to sell. This is a really tough way of earning a living, but they have little option. The problem being there is a huge deforestation issue in Malawi. 85% of the country’s trees have been logged in the last 30 years – by 2030 there will be no biomass left. This means no way for people to heat their houses or cook and there will also be issues with water supply and food shortages to follow. It does not look good. The government is paying lip service to the issue and is trying to educate the locals on the importance of the forests and trying to replant trees, but there is no effective management in place. The Zomba forest is a good example. There are only five rangers employed to protect against illegal logging.
Anyway, back to the hike. I followed Chipi along the logging roads that steadily climb toward the ridged summit of the mountain. We passed by groves of trees, few of which were indigenous, that had been planted by the British during colonial rule. There were also plenty of logged trees, mostly pine trees, and some areas had been replanted with indigenous trees and others with pine trees. Although the pine trees grow fast, they won’t grow fast enough to meet the demand of Malawi’s population. We took a short detour to look at Williams Falls, a small set of falls along the river that fills the reservoir. After about 2-hours of climbing, we reached the top where there are two viewpoints: Queen’s View and Emperor’s View. Queen’s view was named after Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother visited in 1962 and Emperor’s views was similarly named after a visit by Emperor Heidi Selassie of Ethiopia visited in 1964. From these viewpoints, you can see across Zomba town to the surrounding hills. The only problem was that the fog had rolled in, and I could not see a thing! We waited for a Queen’s view for a few minutes and the fog did clear a bit and I could see the buildings of Zomba below. Chipi was able to point out some of the main buildings in the town.
We started our journey down the mountain, this time taking narrow trails. It was the start of spring so there were a lot of wildflowers everywhere, together with pollinating insects. I would have spent more time enjoying all the natural beauty, if not for the fact that my glutes and quad muscles were screaming as we went down the steep trail, which was rocky in places. By the time we got to the bottom, my legs were like jelly. To think a few years earlier I had been fit enough to half-marathon trail runs and Olympic distance triathlons! Much to my relief it was now lunchtime, and we found a nice bench to sit at by the reservoir – but before I was allowed to eat Chipi wanted to show me a concrete shelter that had been built by the government that had murals painted on the interior walls to educate people on the dangers of deforestation. Too little, too late, I think! Now truly educated on matters of conservation I sat at the picnic table and broke open the packed lunch. The staff at Zomba Forest Lodge had prepared us two doorstep sandwiches filled with roasted veggies and butternut squash hummus. Delicious. I was now feeling slightly more refreshed having eaten, so I followed Chipi across the path over the dam wall and into the woods heading back to the Sunbird Lodge. Along the trail through the woods, there were a number of very nice, private cottages, including one called the American Embassy Cottage which I presume was a weekend getaway from embassy staff. Eventually, we arrived back at the car, and I was, as the Australians say “tuckered. I said my goodbyes to Chipi and headed back to ZFL, where I found Karen in the garden feeling a bit better and just having eaten a tasty calzone for lunch. It was now time to have a refreshing cup of tea and relax for the afternoon.
In the evening we got to meet our co-host Petal. She was delightful, and like Tom very intelligent. We decided to head up the viewpoint to take pictures of the sun going down – it was a lot clearer than the night before. With us we took our sundowners, gin infused with blackcurrant and my tripod, which was getting its first outing ever.
After the sun went down, we went back to ZFL for dinner, where we continued our discussions about everything under the sun. Petal joined us for the discussion, and we talked well past our bedtime! Petal and Tom are very active in the community as well as running the Lodge. They are particularly interested in trying to do something to help stop deforestation. They have an organization called Treez that is focused on educating the locals on the long-term impact of deforestation.
The food was once again amazing and they had prepared a delicious vegan meal just for us, including a dessert to die for; a chocolate torte with a rhubarb compote underneath.
Planning your visit to Zomba
Best time to visit Zomba Plateau
Malawi’s dry season from April to October is the ideal period to visit. During these months excellent weather makes adventures on the plateau thoroughly enjoyable and views from the plateau spectacular.
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.
Zomba Forest Lodge
I had researched where to stay during our visit to Zomba, and quickly decided I liked the sound of Zomba Forest Lodge, which describes itself as a ‘home away from home’ – and this turned out to be just the case!
We’d got some decent directions sent to us, and the GPS seemed to be taking us in the right direction for once. The road climbs steeply from Zomba, with several sharp turns along the way. Eventually, the tarmacked road ran out and we found ourselves on a narrow gnarly gravel road with steep drop-offs to the side. Karen was nervous, to say the least, and she was on the side with the precipitous drops. After, a few kilometres we reached the Zomba Forest Lodge, where we were greeted by the owner’s dogs Samson and Loki. The owners of the Lodge are Tom, who hails from Northampton and Southampton, and Petal (who was away tending a friend’s restaurant in town). Tom was very friendly and welcoming and after a brief introduction to the lodge, we were given lunch in the garden.
Zomba Forest Lodge is totally off-grid. There is no electricity or Wi-Fi. So, when night falls you have to rely on candles and solar-powered lamps – very romantic! We were the only people staying in the lodge for the first night, so we had a very personal dinner service. The food was once again perfect, roasted veggies, cuscus, butternut squash and meatless meatball (falafel!). Tom, Petal and their amazing staff cater for everyone’s dietary idiosyncracies.
The nights can get chilly here up in the mountains, so they will often light a cosy fire in the main room so you can sit around and enjoy the homely settings. After, several weeks on the road in safari lodges it was a most welcome change!