The road, the view, the historical past
Livingstonia is our next goal. So much about it amazes me – the atrocious road up to the town, the fascinating history, the beautiful stained glass window in the English style church, the modern university and significant hospital, the children at the waterfall, helter-skelter would-be tour guides. The town of Livingstonia, in northern Malawi, is not to be confused with Livingstone on the Zambezi River in Zambia. However both towns are named in honour of David Livingstone, the famous missionary, explorer and campaigner against slavery in 19th century Africa.
We continue north from Mzuzu up the escarpment, through hilly terrain, then down the escarpment again. We pass through a rubber plantation managed by a Dutch company. Some of the plantings are quite young, under planted with sweet potato. Lake Malawi beckons us, blue and calm and beautiful, and when we arrive at Hakuna Matata (a Swahili phrase meaning ‘no worries’, ‘no problem’) Campsite, near Chitimba, we are into the water for a swim.
The local fishermen haul in their fishing net onto the shore. They have taken it out into the lake between two dugout canoes and have slowly drawn it back towards the beach. We stand waiting to see the contents of the net as the fishermen pull it on to the white sand, but we are as disappointed as they must be, for the catch of pint-sized fish is insignificant . Eddie tells us that once the haul would have included much larger fish and unfortunately the lake is nearly fished out.
Our purpose in staying at Hakuna Matata, other than enjoying the lake again, is to visit Livingstonia, located on top of the escarpment. Our guides are setting us loose today, for we are on our own, which could mean the possibility of getting lost. Bu it is only 15 kilometres from the main road to Livingstonia, with no other side roads and we are armed with their instructions.
The road is bad. It takes us over an hour of slow travel but Martin enjoys negotiating the20 steep hairpin bends up the escarpment. He’s in his element navigating the rough rock and gravel surface of the narrow road. This is what he came to Africa for. It’s like the road to Haratonga on Great Barrier Island 30 years ago or the Skippers road in Central Otago, except that thick bush on the side of the road disguises the steep vertical stomach-in-your-mouth drops.
Fortunately we meet only three vehicles on the way up, and each time we hug the cliff or the edge and allow each other to inch past. There is another access road to Livingstonia from the south, but it is also in poor condition. Both roads become almost unusable in the wet season. Amazingly there are no public buses to the town. Locals and intrepid travellers do walk the hill, but it takes up to four hours and is, of course, physically challenging.
It is a great surprise when we reach the top to find that the terrain levels out to a flat plateau and there is an active community there. Its story goes back to 1874 when the Free Church of Scotland and Dr Robert Laws established the Livingstonia mission at Cape Maclear on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. The site proved problematic from both the tsetse fly and the malaria mosquito and the mission eventually shifted north to the higher ground above Lake Malawi in 1894. Dr Laws worked in Nyasaland, as Malawi was then called, as a missionary for 53 years, establishing a leading school and a prestigious medical work.
We stop by the stone cairn marking the spot where he and Uriah Chirwa camped on their first night there and chose the site for the church. Robert Laws’ stone house remains as a museum to his work, and we just manage to spend an interesting half an hour there before it closes for lunch. Other brick or stone houses line the roadway, former European homes from the colonial past. Nearby is the David Gordon Memorial Hospital which opened in 1911 under Dr. Laws. It continues its medical work today, serving a catchment area of 100,000 people. I later learn that its 4 wheel drive ambulances travel the arduous and mountainous routes to serve the remote villages and rural health clinics that depend on the hospital for medical care.
The church Dr Laws built is another surprise for it would easily be at home in any town in Britain. Built in brick, it features a bell tower, ecclesiastical windows and even a splendid stained glass window, showing David Livingstone with his sextant, medical chest and his companions, against a background of Lake Malawi. The church seems now firmly in the hands of indigenous leadership, for we meet the present minister, Timothy, outside the church craft shop and spend a few moments chatting together. I take the opportunity to look around the craft shop and purchase a wooden African nativity set to add to my nativity collection at home.
The town of Livingstonia also has a university, we discover. Dr Laws dreamed of creating tertiary level education, but it wasn’t to be in his time. Run by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, the university was established in 2003 on two campuses in northern Malawi, one being the Livingstonia campus, which includes the headquarters, a college of education and a technical college. We wonder how the students find their way to Livingstonia with the roads so bad and the complete lack of public transport. But they certainly have new and modern facilities in which to study.
It is very pleasant relaxing outdoors in the town café, enjoying a late lunch, watching the view across the farmland and out to sea beyond the coast, and soaking up the historic atmosphere. This is a place where the local people have benefited from their colonial past, both medically and educationally; it’s by no means all negative, as is sometimes the picture presented.
The children at the Manchewe Falls are a pack of entrepreneurial scallywags. They take our entrance fee of 500 kwachas each (about $1.40 NZ) and scamper along the 400 metre long path to the viewing places where we can see the several impressive drops of water descending into the valley below. When we return to the car, they demand their fee as tour guides. We laugh and refuse; after all, the waitress at the café only got 200 kwachas for each bottle of Fanta that we purchased at lunch time, and we have already paid 1000 kwachas to see the falls.
Our last port of call is Mushroom Farm and its café/bar, just below the top of the plateau. It’s an interesting place, with its location on the edge of the cliff, its sustainable accommodation, and its composting toilet reached by stairs. The view over the bay is fantastic. Imagine waking up in the morning and stepping out of your safari tent to the sparkling sea, the sweep of the bay and the luxurious green of the bush and crops. Wonderful. The day finishes with another great swim in the lake back at our camp site.