To the Mushroom Farm and Beyond

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

“Where you off to?” A gruff South African twang echoed up the Mayoka Village steps at me as I hauled my backpack onto my shoulders. I glanced down to see a short, burly, brash-looking man, the type of look, I imagined, that belonged to a tow-truck driver.

“Livingstonia,” I said. “We’re going to the Mushroom Farm.”

“How many of there are you?” He eyed me carefully.

“3,” I responded, eyeing him equally as carefully.

“OK, well, if you want, I can take you as far as Mzuzu. Then I’m heading south.”

“Oh!” A gesture of goodwill, out of nowhere?! “Sounds great!” I said.

“1000 each?” His voice pitched upwards at the end though I’m not sure how much of a question it was.

“Er, yeah, sure, no worries,” I chuckled. Definitely a tow-truck driver.

Once we’d shooed away the disgruntled taxi driver, who would’ve charged us more, Roy, our lift, pulled round in a double-cab bakkie. It turned out that he runs quite a little business: he organises safaris and trips around Malawi for backpackers, and lifts travellers up and down the country as an alternative to death trap minibus taxis. He was actually just heading out on one such safari; as such, the bakkie was already quite full. Undeterred, and eager to save some cash rather than sheepishly recall the taxi, Adi clambered in the middle with four other men, while Benny and I were squeezed in the back amongst all the luggage.

It was a very uncomfortable ride, yes, but it was fast. Additionally, as we were trapped in a rigid position facing out the back window, I was able to see the lake drop slowly out of view. A bittersweet moment, of sorts: four days of relaxation behind us, and some hard uncompromising African travel ahead of us.

After rushed goodbyes to Roy and his new crew as we stretched our cramped legs, we caught another minibus taxi that would speed its way north towards the mountain town of Livingstonia. The landscape, indeed, seemed to climb with us; it was as hilly as we’d seen since we left, populated with dense, dry bush either side. The small village clusters that we did pass, for there were certainly less, were also smaller and scattered.

Suddenly, we raced up a steep incline as straight roads gave way to winding passes that sat above immense valleys. These were the mountains all right: big, imposing, magnificent. You would think, given the curvy roads (and the state of them) that we’d be going a little slower; of course, this was but a dream, as the driver screamed round the sharp corners in a manner of a rally car driver. Apart from the odd baboon, however, there was not all that much to hit, thankfully, though the prospect of flying off the edge down the sharp steep ravine walls was not altogether enticing.

Soon, we snaked back down the mountainous roads towards ground level, and back towards the lake. Almost immediately we came across the small town of Chiweta, nestled between the mountain ranges and the lake, where the minibus played another game of 5 people off, 10 people on. I made an effort to make a head count at this point, wishing I’d done so since our entry to Malawi: in this particular rusty rattling death trap, as we left Chiweta, there were 19 adults, 2 children (seemingly travelling by themselves) and 3 infants (mostly breastfeeding).

Finally, we reached Chitimba, another lakeside village from which a separate trail (you couldn’t call it a road) stretched up into another mountain on our left. A rickety sign pointed up this trail saying ‘Livingstonia,’ with a ‘15km’ mark underneath. This was our stop, and we fell out the minibus onto the hot roadside. Now, however, we had to figure out a way to get up the mountain to the Mushroom Farm, which lay just short of Livingstonia; we contemplated this problem under the shade of makeshift tin roof while slicing up some tasty mangoes.

“How long will it take to walk up?” We asked one of the kids who offered to guide us up (for a price, of course).

“What time is it now?” He asked, in good English.

“About 12:30.”

“We’d probably get there at 4pm or just after,” he looked at us expectantly.

“Oh…” We stayed under the protection of the tin roof, grimacing at the midday heat.

Luckily, within half an hour, a muddy white 4x4 careened out of the dust from the mountain, ‘Save the Children’ plastered heroically on each side. We quickly negotiated: it was heading back up the mountain after picking up some wooden furniture (God knows where from), and we could get a lift up (again, for a price). At least it saved us from walking. 20 minutes later, the car was back, and Adi got in the front seat as Benny and I squeezed in with the newly acquired wooden furniture in the back; the path consisted of 15 bends slowly tracking its way up the mountain, though it felt like a lot more, and the ‘Save the Children’ 4x4 rattled up similar to the way a sail boat would tack up stream. The terrain was predictably bumpy and rocky, which again fell steeply off to the side into picturesque valleys, such that we had to endure being chucked around like rag dolls against the hard wooden benches and chairs. It was still better than walking.

The Mushroom Farm, as we stumbled into camp nursing our bruises, was a welcome respite from what had been quite an intense day or travelling. Given the steep mountain face we had climbed to get there, it held astounding views over the landscape, through several valleys and, distantly, over the flat lake. The air was hazy and unclear; “there’s been no rain lately,” Cameron, one of the owners, told us. “You can almost see Mozambique over the lake after it rains here…” The Mushroom Farm, which he ran alongside his sister Maddy, was an eco-lodge, complete with compost toilets, egg-popping chickens and vegetable gardens, run completely on solar power with an adventurous and brilliant vegetarian menu (though that’s mainly because of the difficulties of keeping meat so high up a mountain). There were countless hammocks, couches and chill areas, all overlooking the awesome view.

We met some old friends from Mayoka Village there, and also made some new friends. We met Naomi, long-time friend of Cameron and Maddy, who is starting an education project in the nearby town of Livingstonia and lodging in the camp in the meantime. We met Nick and Oona, the entertaining Swiss-German/South African couple with stories of Swiss military conscription and the perks of childhood on small farms.

Night-time at the Mushroom Farm was just as epic. Dotted all over the mountainside, small fires burned bright and inconsistent, around which I imagined families huddling for warmth and comfort; then, further out on the lake, rows of lights signified the night-time fisherman, hovering like fireflies in the dark, while countless stars peppered the black-blue sky above them. It was wholly peaceful but for the buzz of the mozzies and the chirp of the crickets.

On our only full day at the Mushroom Farm, we headed up to the waterfall at Machewe Village near Livingstonia. It was a beautiful spot, cut into a grassy valley and dotted with jagged rocks at odd angles. We were joined on the walk by plenty of chatterbox young kids, and some older ones hoping that we’d ‘hire’ them as guides (you know – for a price) in a place where no guides were necessary. At one point, though, as we waded lower and deeper into the bush so as to reach the best spot of the waterfall, all of the locals left us alone – they even tried to warn us not to go: “don’t go there, there are lions there!” which of course just wanted to make us go there even more (there were no lions). Maddy later told us the reason for this: “the locals think it is a voodoo spot, like it’s bewitched or something. I think a few people have died there; they’ve slipped on the rocks and fallen.” It was, in all honestly, quite nice to be left alone and be given a peaceful afternoon alongside the rhythmic pitter-patter of falling water.

The next morning, we bid farewell to the Mushroom Farm and their spectacular views, hoping to catch another vehicle on its way down the mountain. Once again, luck was on our side, as a minibus taxi passed us within half an hour. The ride down was considerably more comfortable than the ride up had been, allowing us to make friends with Esther, a domestic worker working in Johannesburg who was visiting her children in Livingstonia. After the usual exchange of phone numbers and email addresses, we quickly caught another minibus taxi at the bottom of the mountain in Chitimba heading north.

It was to take us to the border and, to pass the time, I conducted another head count: 20 adults, 1 child and 3 infants, breastfeeding. The drive, however, was relatively flat and painless, though we passed through many police checkpoints, which consisted of big men with big guns who shared a few jokes with the driver before waving them on. Soon enough, we’d passed through Karongwe, the main border town, and were at Songwe, the border post: the lake behind us, and the open expanses and savannah fields of Tanzania ahead.