The continuation of my aunt’s one month visit to Malawi.
After two out of two weekends out of town, we spent the third weekend in Lilongwe. Not that there is a whole of excitement in the capital, but I am generally not used to being out and about quite so much. Malawi has let C and I slow down a wee bit. The Lilongwe weekend had been planned from the beginning and it came at a good time. The previous year, February had been the quietest month at work, but this year the month was proving anything but. I stayed late at work several nights a week so that we could have our fun when I was home.
Our Lilongwe weekend included a visit to another grocery store (wow), a stop at the Woodlands Farmers Market, held on the last Saturday of the month, and a lunch at the lovely Kumbali Country Lodge, where Madonna stays whenever she is in Malawi.
For our fourth and final weekend would be our longest – five days traveling down south.
On the first day we drove three hours from Lilongwe to the town of Balaka, where a friend of a friend had opened up an art & craft center and Italian restaurant. Down a bumpy dirt road we found a beautiful grassy courtyard full of flowers and lemon trees encircled by villas that looked as they had been spirited there from Italy. The artist/manager showed us around her workshop, the craft and art store, and the property. Then we sat down to a splendid authentic Italian pizza lunch, well the most authentic one can probably find in Malawi.
We continued south to Game Haven, a lodge in rural Blantyre, and our stop for the evening. What should have been a two hour drive though took about an hour longer for a combination of reasons that include: Malawi roads generally suck, there were a lot of painfully slow moving trucks on two lane curvy and hilly roads that made passing difficult, we had to right through the city of Blantyre because major roads do that in Malawi (no beltways or ring roads here), and it was the last day of the month when the majority of Malawians get paid and thus more people were out and about spending money.
But pulling into Game Haven, walking through the lobby, finding a grassy lawn with zebra, wildebeest, and nyala grazing, and a stunning view of unspoiled, undulating hills in the light of a late afternoon African sun, and my frustrations melted away. C quickly found some other children from her school were also staying at the lodge and she ran off to play while my aunt and I enjoyed sundowners on the patio. We followed this with a good dinner and then a good sleep. (Well, C and I slept well, Aunt C had a defective mosquito net and spent the night hiding under the covers from the buzzing of insects set on devouring her. Ah, well. #Africa).
The next morning we started our day with breakfast and then a 1.5 hour game drive around the property. While I have taken a few safaris in national parks, this would be my first time in a game reserve. It turned out to be rather pleasant to have the vehicle to ourselves and in a place where we were pretty much guaranteed to see all the types of animals in the reserve. (Our guide told us “I will find you a giraffe. If you go on a game drive and do not see a giraffe, then you are NOT at Game Haven. And he found one!) A 1.5 hour drive, instead of the four hours I have found most game drives last, too was a treat.
Then we headed on to our second destination, the historic Huntingdon House on the Satemwa tea estate in Thyolo district.
Well, wait, that makes it sound easy. And it should have been, but thanks to a quirk with Google Maps it was not so straightforward. Instead of just taking us 20 minutes down the road to the entrance of the Satemwa Tea & Coffee Estates and then through to the lodge, we were taken on an unusual detour. Google Maps has one actually pass the estate gates, through Thyolo town, then on to a small earthen road, that quickly becomes only a dirt track through a maize field, then down a ravine where at the bottom there were only a few wooden planks over a stream. Ummmm…this cannot be right. I thought, even had there been two plank bridges for both sides of my car, I could not have trusted the wood would hold the weight of my SUV. Turning around on the steep rutted path, with one-foot deep ditches on either side presented a bit of a challenge. Luckily, once back to the main road the GPS single returned and we drove back to Satemwa.
Established in 1923 by a Scottish immigrant via the rubber plantations of Malaya, Satemwa may not be the largest of Malawi’s tea estates, but it is probably its most well-known, largely because its former family home is now an idyllic getaway among stunning, picturesque grounds. In the rainy season (though we were blessed with little rain), we were treated to miles and miles of rolling green hills, most of it covered with the verdant leafy bushes of tea.
We settled in the Planter’s Room, one of the five beautifully-appointed suites, and then sat down to a fabulous lunch whipped up by the Huntingdon House kitchen. Then C and I set off through the gardens on one of the scavenger hunts. At 4 pm we all piled on to metal seats jerry-rigged in the back of a pick-up truck for an hour drive through the estate, partially up Thyolo Mountain to the picnic spot, from which one can look out over hillsides of tea bushes, Thyolo town, and the countryside extending to Mt. Mulanje. On the other side one can see the Shire River sparkling in the valley below.
Following breakfast on our second day we took an hour guided walk. We strolled from the Huntingdon gardens on to the red-orange dirt road fenced in on both sides by the bright green hedges of tea. Then we turned and waded through it uphill heading to the taller shrubs of coffee. The blindingly azure sky against the emerald green tea took my breath away.
We stomped through tall grasses full of flowers and stopped to watch colorful birds. We paused for the guide to tell us about the estate history, tea and coffee processing, and the nature around us. I generally love learning things like that and my Aunt seemed particularly interested. Yet, I also felt preoccupied by the thick, tall grass around us and the thought of snakes. (The day before on our game drive we had come across a black mamba lying prone across the track, its head raised aggressively in the direction of our jeep. I kept thinking of that snake, one of the most venomous in the world, slithering angrily into the brush.) We circled round to another road and passed by the grove of towering eucalyptus trees, planted originally on the property in 1895, and returned to the house.
We spent the afternoon just enjoying the room, the house’s portico fronting the lawn, and the grounds. As my aunt and I sat out on our room’s patio we heard crashing through the trees and I realized we were paid a visit by a local monkey troop. I ran off to get my camera and followed them as they leapt from branch to branch, tree to tree. C and I took part in another treasure hunt. At 2:30 we headed to the garden to enjoy high tea. We had skipped lunch to make sure we had plenty of room. It was a very good thing we did as we were plied with hot and cold tea, finger sandwiches, tomato and cheese tartlets, scones with cream and jam, chocolate and coconut snowballs, various cookies, and three massive slices of chocolate cake. It was all so good.
Thinking back I felt we were there at Huntingdon for much longer than two days. Our stay there was one of the most calming and relaxing trips I have ever taken. I think we will go back. I just have to decide which other room to request.
We stopped next in Blantyre to stay at the Protea Ryalls Hotel, the oldest (and probably the classiest) hotel in Malawi. I wanted to show both my aunt and C this place — for my aunt as she would appreciate the history and beauty of the place and C so she can picture where I usually stay when I take my work trips – and take an hour off the drive we would make back to the capital. Otherwise I find there is even less to see tourist-wise in Blantyre than Lilongwe. Just for a wee bit of fun we went to the Museum of Malawi, where you can see the skulls of a zebra, leopard, lion, and rat as well as various poorly-marked and dusty old agriculture tools, food containers, weapons, musical instruments, and Gule Wamkulu masks (a ritual dance of the Chewa people listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage), and old vehicles from Malawi’s bygone days in the overgrown yard. We also visited the Mandala house, the oldest house in Malawi, but only the exterior as it was closed. But we dined at Bombay Palace and Grill 21, two of the best restaurants in the country.
On the final day we made the long drive back to Lilongwe stopping at Dedza Pottery and Lodge for lunch about 1.5 hours south of home, a surprising little place with a lovely yard It was a lot of driving — it rather cannot be helped in Malawi if you want to get to anywhere of note — and there are few stops along the way. But the we weather we experienced was fantastic as were the locations, meals, people, and company.
Two days later my aunt C returned to the U.S. After weeks of beautiful weather with little precipitation, soon after she took off the skies opened up and it rained for about 60 hours straight, the first time I have seen it rain so consistently since arriving in Malawi.
The visit of our first guest to Malawi was a success. Who knows if anyone else will visit — but Aunt C left a bag of coffee behind for her next trip…