Malawi: Livingstonia and the Mushroom Farm

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Whilst staying by the lake in Chitimba we had planned to make the trip up to the old Scottish mission town of Livingstonia in the hills above. We considered leaving our packs at the base and maybe spending just one night up there. After hearing several rave reviews from fellow travelers on their way down, we were also told by a friendly South African couple “Take your packs and go to Mushroom Farm… It’s a special place, you won’t want to leave.” Here we are a full seven nights later, very reluctantly leaving the most relaxing place in Africa…

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Very soon we were wishing we had a presidential Kombi!

The journey to Livingstonia is not an easy one. 15km worth of steep, winding, rocky dirt road. There is no public transport, so you can either hike it, or wait at the bottom and try to hitch a cheap ride. Since we left quite late and the weather was obscenely hot, we decided to roll the dice and hope someone friendly would be driving up that day. 3 hours later, a car was finally going up. Car is not really the word though. It was a Toyota minivan with no handbrake, bottomed out suspension, the rear door tied down with a rope, the sliding door rusted shut and enough stupidly heavy cargo to make it almost drag on the ground. On top of that were eight other passengers. At first glance it looked about a 60% chance of certain death. We decided to take a pass, however as happens when you don’t actually want something, you become the master bargainer. A fellow impatient passenger bartered a price we couldn’t refuse, and before we knew it we were racing up the mountain in the world’s shittiest van. Our heads smacked into the ceiling on every bump, a scorpion decided to join us on the back seat, and the men on board started to drink heavily. Chances of certain death rising to around 75%. Halfway up, the road became too steep for our deathtrap vehicle, so the conductor jumped out and searched for large rocks to chock the rear wheels. This seemed OK until the driver joined him… with the rear of the van pointing at the cliff face. Our chance of survival dropped to an all time low. Somehow they got the rocks under without too much slipping, and we were told everyone had to get out and walk the next hill as the car was too overloaded to get up there. Now we were glad to have paid such a low price. This happened several more times, but a lady on board told us this was completely normal, despite the fact she was constantly shouting at the driver about how bad the journey was. An hour and a half, plus a few stunning views later we finally arrived, living and breathing in Livingstonia.

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Giant red moonrise, Laura trying to keep warm, the view to Tanzania and our little cabin.

Livingstonia in a word could best be described as alien. Late eighteenth century Scottish stone and brick houses plonked down atop a mountain in Malawi. Nothing like them has been constructed anywhere in the region since, and they are so un-African that they are simply strange. We ended up staying for two nights in one of the new cabins of Livingstonia Lodges. The accommodation itself was great, with beautiful views down to the lake and all the way across to the Tanzanian mountains on the opposite shore. What we had not expected was just how freezing it was up there. Each night we huddled around the campfire we built before retreating to the warmth of bed by 8pm as the temperature plummeted. Early nights turned out to be wise, as the slightly crazy staff made sure we never got a sleep in. First was the man who chopped wood directly behind our cabin at 5am each day for the water heaters, and then the cook knocking on our door at 6am asking if we’d like some tea.

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Colonial Livingstonia

Aside from the colonial style houses, there is also a hospital, university, clocktower and a massive church to be seen in the town. The most memorable part being the impressively creepy stained glass window of the church. Gifted in the 50’s it depicts Dr Robert Laws bringing Christianity to the people of the local area. To be honest, the strange vibe of the whole town makes me think they were probably better off without it. Dr Laws’ old stone house has also been converted into a hostel/museum. The museum provided some decent insight into the town’s history, but nothing Wikipedia couldn’t tell you. Aside from a few great old photographs, the comedy highlight was the cheap cutlery they have kept that was used by the Zambian president upon his visit. I’m not sure where the entrance fees go, but it certainly can’t be used on maintaining the museum. It really is a shambles.

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The church's window depicting the coming of white man to the region.

After our stint in the dry-town of Livingstonia, we decided to walk the 5km down to the next plateau for a beer and a night or two at the much hyped Mushroom Farm. Small children from the school followed us along demanding we give them things which we clearly didn’t even have “Mzungu give me bicycle!”, and a man who had just sliced the throat of a goat offered to be our tour guide. “I can show you the waterfall” he exclaimed as he wrestled the profusely bleeding animal in its death throes. I think you’re busy enough mate! I thought as the pool of claret rapidly grew around him.

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The waterfall mentioned by goat killer

Arrival at the Mushroom Farm eco-lodge was nothing short of breathtaking. The views down to the lake and across the rift valley are even more stunning than up at the peak. We quickly took one of the only available rooms, which just so happened to be their luxury Cob House. A comfortable four poster bed, a private deck with a hammock, and a bathroom with no front wall providing open views of the valley. We suddenly realised those South Africans weren’t exaggerating when they said that this place was special.

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Baby-Cat enjoying the view from our bathroom.

Owned and operated by young Americans, Mushroom Farm is one of those places that truly understands travelers. Maddy and her boyfriend Dan, along with a whole cast of Malawian staff, made our stay at the Farm unforgettable. They were always friendly and helpful, and nothing was ever a problem. Cold beers, cocktails and amazing food whipped up on demand with an unmatched level of service. Brilliant advice and travel tips as well as great stories and conversation. They are probably sick to death of providing the same info over and over again but you would never know it!

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We spent a LOT of time in these hammocks!

Two nights became three and three became five. It was just such a great place to sit around and do nothing. Everyone we met stayed longer than planned. When not sitting in a hammock over the cliff edge with a book, we’d play scrabble with a beer or just chat with other guests who were equally enamoured with the place. Dinner was a family affair every evening, sitting around a large table with an ever changing roster of characters with stories to tell. If you were lucky one of the farm cats would come and sleep on your lap (Mama cat actually had kittens just a few hours after sitting on me for hours one night!), or if you’re unlucky one of the friendly dogs might forget how big they are and try to do the same. It was easy to see why so many people seem to get stuck up that mountain.

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Mushroom Farm

When the time finally came to move on we were genuinely sad to go. Nkhata Bay was calling us, and we were determined to see more of Malawi. A group of Irish medical students gave us a great parting tip for a cheap ride down the mountain and onto the next town with a man named Magic Mike, but it came with a warning. “Whatever you do, don’t text your family like I did – I’m in the back of Magic Mike’s truck to Mushroom Farm – it sounds a lot more suspicious than it is.”

5 thoughts on “Malawi: Livingstonia and the Mushroom Farm

  1. Great blog – my daughter is currently volunteering in Malawi and the team are on a ‘treat weekend’ at Mushroom Farm. I was just researching where she was – and now I want to be there too!! 🙂

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