Malawi’s Zomba town and plateau
Malawi’s Zomba town and plateau: In southern Malawi, between Blantyre and Liwonde, you will find the country’s former capital, Zomba. The city could be the 4the city of the country, it has a very different atmosphere from that of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu. In Zomba there are no traffic jams, it is green all year round and there are no shopping centers! It is a charming city with a rich history and well worth a visit, especially for access to the magnificent Zomba plateau which dominates it!
There are rumors that a large supermarket will soon open in Zomba and that they are building a mini-mall at the corner of Mountain Road (the road that takes you to the Zomba plateau). But, for now, the traditional downtown market is the commercial center. It’s a wonderful and very accessible example of local African markets selling (almost) everything; auto parts with dried fish, electricians and electronics. There are fruits and vegetables available at the Zomba market that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. And the best thing is that you don’t have to haggle. As a visitor, you generally pay the same price as the locals.
Zomba’s big attraction, of course, is the Zomba Plateau, a 2,000-meter-high mountain that embraces the city. It is a beautiful place for short hikes or all day. One of the walks is the so-called “nature trail” of the Mulunguzi dam (MWK 200/20 pence to cross!) Via Mandala falls along the river to William falls. This trail was created by WESM Zomba, the local branch of the Malawi Wildlife and Environmental Society, which supports over 120 wildlife clubs in local schools to raise awareness of environmental issues such as deforestation and conservation. A printed plastic route can be taken at the local lodge, Pakachere, where you can also book a guide and buy a packed lunch for the mountains.
On clear days, Queen’s View and Emperor’s View (3 to 4 hours round trip) will give you a breathtaking view of southern Malawi. Chingwe hole is a longer walk (5-6 hours) and it is recommended to take a guide. A guide not only makes sure you don’t get lost on the mountain, he can tell you stories about life in Malawi, the flora and fauna on the mountain, and you will give work to a local man who uses her to support her (extended) family. If you want to combine a mountain hike with a traditional Malawian meal, the guides will be happy to introduce you to their family and share lunch with you.
Zomba has an association of tourist guides; These guys not only take you wherever you want on the mountain, but they clear and maintain paths, patrol to find illegal loggers and help prevent fires during the hot season. All member guides of the Zomba Tour Guides Association have a photo ID. The guides’ work is supported by TREEZ, an organization launched by Zomba Forest Lodge to protect the mountain. TREEZ organizes each year a Run4Reforestation to collect funds to plant trees from local communities, raise awareness of the effects of deforestation and train guides to protect the mountain against loggers and forest fires. Without Zomba Forest Lodge and TREEZ, the mountain would be in a much worse state than it is. Zomba Forest Lodge is an amazing place to stay for the night and the food they serve their customers is fantastic. The restaurant is not open to outside customers and has only 4 rooms, so it is necessary to book in advance.
Pakachere is another charming lodge in the town of Zomba, on the edge of the golf course. From there, it’s easy to walk to the botanical garden, which has a nominal entrance fee of 300 MWK / 30 pence. Along the way, you can admire the historic buildings from the time when the British settled in Zomba and made it the capital of Malawi. The gardens are opposite the immigration office. It is worth going up the road to see the old Parliament and government buildings. Unfortunately, the governor’s first house (built in 1886) burned down in December 2019. After the botanical gardens along Mulunguzi Road is The Chocolate Factory, a charming cafe where to stop for lunch with a shop to buy Belgian chocolate made in Zomba as well as other quality Malawian products. There is also a fortnightly Malawian manufacturing market at The Chocolate Factory (2North Dakota Saturdays every two months). African Heritage also serves lunch and has a nice curio shop, but the best souvenirs are bought either in the mountains or at the curio market on the side of the main road near banks and supermarkets.
For an early dinner, most people go to Casa Rossa; early because the view is magnificent during the day. If you are lucky, you can see Mulanje mountain from the veranda. Casa Rossa serves Italian pasta dishes and homemade ice cream. They also have rooms. For a more Malawian flavor, Villa Kupa on the upper road above the botanical gardens offers chambo (fish) and other dishes. Not the best place for vegetarians, but the kitchen is open until late. Pakachere offers delicious homemade dishes for most food needs; gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan like hummus, the famous bean wrap, vegetable curry and guacamole (in season), but also pepper steak, pizza and beef burgers. For breakfast, the favorites are pancakes with mountain fruits and hash browns with fried eggs. They organize quiz evenings every 2 months on a Friday or Saturday evening with details published on their Facebook page and the Zomba event log. There are many local places near the market serving chicken and fries or nsima and relish, while other people may prefer “fast food” (although it is not really very fast) at Steers or Kips.
Zomba is home to the University of Malawi where around 5,000 students study law, science, social science, education, economics or the fine arts. Sometimes the arts department offers a play or a concert. The campus is a mix of old and new architecture and is a nice place to walk around. Because Zomba is a student city, there is a lively night scene. There could be live concerts at Vibes, which can be a little rough but that’s for sure! A more relaxed atmosphere can be found in Havana, where you dance to the latest African tunes until early in the morning.
On the way to Blantyre (70 km) is one of the smallest and most original museums in the country, the Post Office Museum. The sign has faded, so it is not easy to find but it is worth stopping. On the way to Liwonde (45 km), you can stop at Chilema Tree, ask a guide to take you to the unique geological formation of the pillars of Chikala or have a traditional meal at Mandevu farm. Near Mulanje (60 km) are the Thutchilla pools, a pleasant place to cool off in the cold water at the foot of the mighty Satipwa, the highest peak (3000 m) of Mount Mulanje. Other day trips from Zomba include the tea estates and Lake Chilwa.
Lake Chilwa is an incredible experience; most people bring food to share lunch with the people of Chisi Island. Host families can be arranged via Isaac in Pakachere; expect a real local experience without any comfort but it will be an experience you will never forget. The people on the island of Chisi are poor, but you will be welcome and staying with the people helps the local economy. It’s quite a journey to get to the island; you first drive an hour and a half on dirt roads, then you have to take a small boat. Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat, enough drinking water, toilet paper and food to share with people. Isaac can fix everything in advance.
Zomba has a nice atmosphere. It is not too big, but big enough to find supermarkets, pharmacies and nice places to stay and eat. With enough things to do in town, mountain activities and excursions in the region, as well as a choice of charming accommodations (Pakachere, The Chocolate Factory, Casa Rossa and Zomba Forest Lodge), this is the great place to stay for a few days.