“We’re on the home stretch” observed my great-niece Julia-Rose reassuringly as I clambered up a gradient clearly needing crampons for progress, my hands grappling desperately with dead branches and loose pebbles to heave my legs and body up and over huge Sumo boulders that bulked the “path” to the top of Zomba’s eponymous mountain. There, a kind of Shangri-la could be observed through dense foliage and altitude mist, where lunch, cool drinks, and my sister-in-law Julia were waiting patiently for our arrival, already delayed by nearly two hours. My own progress had become a febrile crawl, so I paused one more time to straighten my back, keep my heartbeat slower than a military drum roll, and my pulse in double figures. Just then, two scantily-clad teenage maidens, carrying enormous multiple rough-hewn rope-secured trunks of wood on their shoulders, came pirouetting barefoot along the path, smiling coyly as they adagioed past me like ethereal nymphs, floating their dainty way down between the boulders. A couple of minutes later I could spy them down in the lowland distance. Then, with heavy heart, body, and soul, I turned back to my Sisyphean task of getting myself atop Mount Zomba without tumbling back downhill.
For context, I was on a four-week visit to my sister-in-law Julia’s 1700-hectare farm in Toleza, in the Balaka district of Malawi, southern Africa. We were spending a weekend with Julia-Rose, who was working in Zomba, two hours south from Toleza. She had asked me to climb the Zomba mountain with her and a guide. Somehow I said yes.
We used the historic Ndisale trail and an old track, the Mwendolende potato path, used by generations of porters to bring down the potatoes planted near the summit. We passed a profusion of sub-tropical trees, including the elegant acacia mellifera, also named the “umbrella thorn” – Malawi’s national tree – and a fauna fantail, including baboons, vervet monkeys, bushbabies, multi-coloured birds, and giant and tiny butterflies, all appropriate reasons for me to pause and rest. My sensitive co-hikers repeatedly paused “to enjoy the view” at exactly the same times as I ground to a halt to prevent myself from expiring altogether.
The hike overall was a splendid idea, providing an unforgettable experience. In retrospect I am very glad to have done it. In prospect, as Alli had earlier texted me, I must have been mad. Julia-Rose was consistently helpful, encouraging, and a model of patience as a hiking companion. She, I, and Jonas, the local guide, all started out from the Kefi Hotel on the Zomba plateau on an initially gentle slope leading to the sadly denuded Zomba Forest. On the way up we had seen some men hacking at a mature and lone eucalyptus that stood out proudly in the stump-ridden valley. Jonas later reported the incident to the local forestry group. Wood to burn for heat is invaluable throughout Malawi, where many are struggling to survive as prices of commodities are rising fast. There are persistent petrol and diesel shortages, with long queues of cars at almost every garage in the country. Everywhere, trees are cut down by men and women who then heave the wood onto huge piles and bundles balanced precariously on bicycles or on their backs, to the town to sell. Debates about protecting the environment will not change this agonised equation.
I used much of the time in Toleza to learn more about the farm, its practices and policies, and the legacy left by my brother Clive. Most days I visited the administrative offices to ask Mike, the farm manager, and his staff various rookie questions about the cattle and the crops. As it was winter in Malawi, the first few days were often cloudy and the evenings often cold, which prompted us to light a fire in the hearth. It restricted but did not exclude outdoor evening activities such as the sundowner in a nearby sacred field with a majestic view of the mountains, behind which the huge red sun gloriously and gradually sets.
In the afternoons, I managed to make progress with a couple of creative writing projects and some reading, finishing “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton, the wonderful “Just so stories” by Rudyard Kipling, and some books on Malawi. I cooked occasionally for Julia and once for our guests at a dinner party. Our food choices were limited by availability on the farm and in the local markets but I enjoyed the unending supply of luscious paw-paws, salads, and big ripe tomatoes grown in the vegetable garden. I often accompanied Julia when she went out to see friends, for example we long-lunched in Lilongwe with the distinguished and imperious Mama Cecilia Kadzamira, Mama of the Nation, Chief Escort of the late Hastings Banda, the President of Malawi since its independence; and in Balaka with Andrea and Tamara, proprietors of the best and only Italian restaurant in town, the Arthouse. I also travelled often along the bumpy farm road to Balaka in the company of the farm’s philosopher driver, Mr Chapotera. We went on farm errands, or to extract wads of Kwacha from the bank, and to purchase essentials such as washing powder, gin, and white vinegar.
On our last weekend we went to Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi, one of Africa’s greatest lakes with around a thousand different fish species. After negotiating another nature-contoured track, we found the Pumulani Lodge, specialising in safari tours, hiking trails, bird walks, canoes and kayak hire, sundowner boat trips, and even scuba diving in waters apparently no longer harbouring the dreaded waterborne disease, bilharzia. The rooms were extravagantly large and well equipped, although the food was poor, with tiny servings and uninspiring cooking, markedly inconsistent with the quality of the rooms. This impression was mitigated when we took the sundowner boat trip featuring drinks, vegetable fritters, and a blood-red sun across the water.
In the morning, Julia-Rose and I went on a brief bird walk with Precious, our guide and boat captain. On being told that the hyperactive monkeys scurrying around the canopy cover were known as “mango monkeys”, I felt I had to ask him which was their favourite fruit? He thought about it, then said “figs”. On the way back we visited the Mua Mission, teaming with religious buses and coaches, and stayed to look at the famous art gallery which showed local Ngoni artwork and wood sculptures. Our journeys to Lake Malawi and back were avenued by the Tree of Life, the baobab (Adansonia digitata). I love the sight of this magnificent and surreal plant, which stores tens of thousands of litres of water in its thickened trunks, can live a thousand years, and generally prospers in arid conditions. However, I was upset to read later that too many of the oldest have been dying in recent years, apparently another African victim of global climate change.
Back in Little Britain, Alli and I have had an offer for a house in Uckfield accepted and, DV, the purchase will be easier, quicker, and more successful than our previous attempt. Gwen left for a long-prepared self-financed tour of south east Asia, incorporating well-planned visits with different friends to Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and Bali, and is sending back spectacular photos as her journey unfolds before our eyes.
Yours from the home stretch,