Exploring Zomba

As we wound through the streets of Zomba town centre, we were all on the lookout for these much talked about colonial buildings. The market was in full flow, fruit sellers, vegetable buyers, roaming chickens and scavenging goats. Alas amongst the hustle and bustle, no such colonial buildings. After a bit of drive time passing many-a-building we figure we must have missed them. The mysterious hunt goes on …

Buildings aside, Zomba is green, lush and mountainous. The views are breath-taking, the walking enjoyable without being too extreme and the air is ‘mountain’ fresh – it is also noticeably cooler so it’s wise to bring a few warmer layers. As you wander over on the plateau you could be in the pine forests of the UK, the Alps in France or even Yosemite in California. And it’s this variation in landscape that makes it a popular stop-off for travellers and locals alike.

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Having visited the plateau previously in the torrential rain within a limited time frame, I was keen to come back and do a proper hike and maybe even embrace a bit of riding at Zomba Stables, which I had heard so much about. With another long May weekend coming up, three of us decided to head south from Lilongwe into the mountains for a bit of an adventure. Although hard to find online, we’d done a bit of reading about the town and the plateau and had a vague plan for what we wanted to do – here we offer a few pointers for anyone who’s also thinking of spending some time in Zomba.

Zomba itself – This fairly small town used to be the capital of Malawi until 1974. It was the first settlement of the colonial administration and as many books mention, is renowned for a number of interesting colonial buildings including the old post office, the old residency of the first commissioner of Nyasaland and the Gymkhana Club. This takes us back to our hunt – perhaps our expectations were set too high – when I think about colonial buildings I anticipate something grand looking with interesting features. After referring to good ‘ole Google to confirm where specifically we should be looking we realised we had in fact driven past these colonial buildings a number of times. I am sure in their day they were quite something but perhaps years of wear and tear has made them look rather tired and not-so-spectacular and this is sometimes also cited in more recent write-ups of the town. Anyway, this wasn’t our (and shouldn’t be your) primary reason for coming here. We were here to experience the plateau and it’s only once you make that winding journey to the top and start wandering do you get a true feeling for why Zomba is one of the must-see spots for visitors.

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Where to stay? There aren’t so many accommodation options on offer so this should make the decision slightly easier… There is a backpackers with dorms/rooms at the base of the plateau called Pakachere. While it’s definitely a sociable place for travellers and budget groups to stay it is at the bottom by the town and if you don’t have your own transport it may not be so convenient. This is however where we chose to camp using their tents and for $7 we got a mattress and bedding; all-in-all very comfortable. Moving up the plateau you have a few options; you can choose to camp or set up base in a basic self-catering cabin situated on the Ku Chawe Trout farm (0888 638 524) set in beautiful surroundings – it’s definitely rustic but ideal if you just want something simple. The popular Zomba Forest Lodge is a small colonial cottage sitting amongst 20 acres of woodland with walking trails. It’s rustic but comfortable and the food we have heard is some of the best in the area – overall it offers an ideal relaxing spot to switch off and enjoy nature.

Getting up the plateau It probably takes about 15 minutes (7km) to drive from the base to the top of the plateau with a number of tight hairpin turns along the way. If you have your own car this makes it easy and you can park at the Sunbird Hotel. Alternatively, you can try hitchhiking, renting a bike (Pakachere has bikes for hire) or going by foot – although be prepared for a 6-hour hike. If may be preferable to organise a taxi. For those willing to start their hike from the very base there is a ‘potato’ path, which is a slightly more direct (yet steep) route up the plateau…so named as it’s the path that the locals use to carry their potatoes from the village down to Zomba market.

Up the plateau; As you start winding you’re way up the plateau you will come across the small Botanical Gardens next to the Old Parliament building. These gardens are very pretty and are definitely worth a visit –you can enter them from the roadside (we didn’t see an official entrance and were soon found by one of the garden officials to pay 200 kwacha which I have also read, is the standard entrance fee.

There aren’t any shops or cafes up the plateau – just something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of getting supplies on your way up. The closest thing to a coffee shop that you’ll find is the Sunbird Hotel, which although a chain, does actually have pretty gardens area where you can grab a refreshing drink and bite to eat after a day’s walking.

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Which Hike? There are a number of different length hikes that you can choose from.

Shorter 2-3 hour walks or a longer 6-8 hour one; go it alone with a map or take a guide. This time we opted for a 6-hour route with a guide. I have heard that the maps aren’t always so clear and often the paths they use are through long overgrown grass, which may or may not suit your group so be prepared! Our route included heading to the top viewpoint, Chingwe’s hole, the Potato path and William’s waterfall, which we were able to take a cheeky swim in – the water was definitely refreshing! The views from the Highest Peak viewing point are fantastic and we were lucky enough to have great weather for it. It’s worth noting that there are a number of other routes you can take so worth a bit of exploration time. It’s easy to pick up a guide when you’re heading up the plateau where you can negotiate your own price or you can organise a hike from where you’re staying for a set fee inclusive of lunch and lift up the mountain…

Horse riding on the plateau. Definitely a recommended experience for beginner and expert riders alike. The horses are in beautiful condition and the owners extremely friendly and welcoming. We opted for a 2-hour ride which was just about ok for our bottoms which hadn’t ridden for a while. Tip If you say that you’re a beginner expect to be led throughout the ride. If you’ve ridden before and are fairly confident you should say that you’re novice level and above. If you’re also keen for a bit of speed I’d mention this in the booking so they can plan a suitable route as a lot of the areas are quite steep or rocky!

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Overall, Zomba is definitely worth a weekend visit. Another example of how varied Malawi’s flora and fauna can be and makes for a refreshing change of scene from the city or lake!

Extra info:

  • One of the most impressive sights (aside from the views) is the effort of the locals as they carry large stacks of wood balanced on their heads, along the winding 7km road down from the plateau to sell in the town. On the flip side to this, be prepared for extensive deforestation going on which is sad to see but an on-going problem as people fight for survival in one of the poorest countries.
  • Casa Rossa, is a pretty good Italian restaurant hidden off the main road up the plateau. The pesto pasta was delicious but I believe the steaks are also very good! And it’s nice to find a place which has a choice of wines – in case you’re in need of a change from a chill or a green! Accommodation is also available here although renovation works are currently going on so there is limited availability
  • From Zomba, Blantyre and Liwonde National park are 1-2 hours away so definitely worth fitting into your trip if you have a bit longer. Blantyre is a pretty city surrounded by rolling hills with some of the best restaurants in Malawi. For something a bit more bush-like, Liwonde will sweep you away into nature once again; take a river cruise or game drive, and while you won’t see any of the big cats there is still plenty to see!
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