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Into the warm heart of Africa – part 2

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Mikoma Beach Lodge, Karonga

After spending the night at our wild camp in the Misuku Hills Forest (S9.65140° E33.55907°), we were adamant to keep heading north to see if we can reach the Tanzanian border before turning further east towards Lake Malawi and our next destination in Karonga. We stopped one of the passing locals on a motorcycle to ask directions and that is when we met Ali, a local coffee grower whose farm was in the area, and who gave us clear directions towards the S100 without having to backtrack. He also invited us to his coffee “de-pulping factory” which was not far from where we camped and on route to where we were heading, so we decided to visit his “factory” which ended up being very informative and worth taking the time to see.

In the heart of Misuku Hills Forest

From there, after giving Ali a small donation, we made our way down the Misuku hillside on a challenging bush road carving up and down through the most amazing rainforest, pine trees and rural villages until we finally reached the S100 (S9.72277° E33.58458°) at a Catholic Mission Centre 15km later. After consulting our GPSs and Tracks4Africa printed map we continued north on the S100 which, according to the maps, continues along the Songwe River towards the Songwe Border Post between Malawi and Tanzania. But we soon realized that this road is no longer in use especially after we had to start hacking our way through an overgrown track and down some serious 4wd passes until we reached 2 locals that informed us that the road was not accessible and we should turn back. We had spend about two hours on the past 14km to get to this point and we were quite deflated that we had to turn around. This turned out to be the correct option, which was confirmed after we did a quick on-foot assessment of the road ahead. It was completely washed away, and it was now clear that the S100 towards Songwe is no longer in use.

Wild Camp in Misuku Hills Forest

We managed to turn our rigs around and started to head back the way we came and now had to face some serious obstacles in the opposite direction, which fortunately were no match for our Toyotas and Conquerors. We were dead-set on not taking the same road back and eventually reached another road that branched towards the east (S9.72342° E33.63453°) labelled the T303. On the GPS this road also stops halfway towards Karonga, but according to numerous locals this was the way to Karonga and that it is a “good road”… and good it was! The road is very scenic as you drop down the escarpment into the East African Rift Valley towards Lake Malawi. After 35kms, we finally reached the M1 north of Karonga (S9.76865° E33.87391°) driving down numerous steep passes and through long stretches of rice fields.

Famous Coffee Beans of Miskuku Hills

Mikoma Beach Lodge (S10.01234° E33.95647°), which is situated 12km south of Karonga, was our destination for the night and we were extremely glad to see the signpost as we were all exhausted and extremely dirty after exploring the unknown for the last few days. This place was a real treat and has all the amenities you need to relax, including a bar, restaurant and massive blue swimming pool on the beach overlooking the lake, which the kids really enjoyed as it was their first swim on this trip. They do not have a dedicated campsite, but the lodge was relatively empty with lots of space to set up camp and they even allowed us to camp directly on the beach with our cars and trailers with access to one of the rooms for a bathroom and toilet. This was really amazing and prompted us to stay for two nights. All their facilities are clean and the staff are exceptionally friendly. The beach, although not secluded, is very private with hardly any locals crossing between villages, making it extremely safe.

Rolling Hills of Northern Malawi – Misuku Hills towards Karonga

The next day we went into town to visit the famous Karonga Museum (S9.94149° E33.92321°), which was established with the help of International Research Co-operations and showcases the strong cultural history of Malawi as well as the unique “Malawisaurus” fossil that was found in the area. The architecture of the museum is stunning and it has an impressive interactive exhibition called “From Dinosaur to Democracy”. Of course the museum also has a bar where you can sit and enjoy a variety of ice-cold local and Tanzanian beers. Karonga has plenty of shops and local markets where you can buy all sorts of fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh Chambo (local fish from the lake). We spent the rest of the afternoon at the poolside enjoying local chicken and fish that was prepared at Mikoma’s restaurant.

Friendly locals of northern Malawi

The Mushroom Farm, Livingstonia

Since Karonga is the most northern town on Lake Malawi, it meant that Mikoma Beach Lodge was to be our most northern camp and it was inevitable that we now had to head back south. The next obvious destination is the historical town of Livingstonia that offers many attractions and accommodation options to travelers, including The Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge and Lukwe Lodge. This is a relatively short drive, approximately 90km, so we made a nice hearty breakfast and started to pack up camp after a chilled two days camping on the beach at Mikoma Beach Lodge. Getting off the beach ended up being a bit more challenging due to very loose and deep sand, but thanks to some help from local onlookers (once again) and our trusty winch, we managed to get the rigs off the beach relatively easily despite the heat. Malawi is “The warm heart of Africa”; not just because of the heat but also because of its people.

Northern shores of Lake Malawi – Karonga

The M1 from Karonga southwards follows the shore of Lake Malawi and, as you can imagine, is packed with village upon village and people making their daily living from the lake and from the land. Over-fishing and deforestation for firewood and charcoal is, unfortunately, a sad reality in Malawi, but the people must survive. The road is good although not free of potholes since this is the Rift Valley at 500m above sea level and flooding is frequent. The turn-off to Livingstonia is about 18km south of Chilumba in a small village called Mkondowe (S10.59357° E34.16894°) where you have to turn right onto the S103.

Beach camping, Mikomo Beach Lodge, Lake Malawi – Karonga

After consulting the iOverlander App, we decided to head for The Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge Campsite (S10.58668° E34.13452°) since it looked like they had the best campsites in the area and the prices were reasonable. From the turn-off at Mkondowe it is the start of the 10km long 600m high climb up the Gorodi Pass towards The Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge that is situated at 1100m above sea-level. This is by far the most amazing view that we have ever had over Lake Malawi and the mountains embracing the lake makes for dramatic scenery, despite it not being a clear day. The pass was named after one of the early Scottish missionaries (Gorodi actually refers to Gordon) who was instrumental in the construction of this engineering marvel with fourteen 180° hairpin turns each clearly numbered all the way up. A four-wheel drive is not required, but good ground clearance is. If you suffer from a fear of heights, as the road is very narrow in places, you should keep your eyes closed. For those who keep their eyes open, the scenery is absolutely stunning.

Sunrise over northern part of Lake Malawi with Tanzanian mountains in the background, Mikomo Beach Lodge – Karonga

The Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge is owned and managed by Paul and Katlyn (since March 2020) and they are doing a tremendous job amid the pandemic. The place is stunning and a visit to their permaculture gardens is a must as they are fully self-sufficient. It is a great experience although it did take a while to get used to the compost toilets. The campsite is set on the edge of the cliffside with unobstructed views over the lake and valley below, which was at first a bit scary with the kids, but very manageable. The lodge has a bar and restaurant that contain food with ingredients direct from their farm and they even baked fresh bread on demand. It is a must visit and we ended up staying for two nights.

Gorodi Pass (S103) towards Mushroom Farm Lodge – Livingstonia

The following day we took a guided walk to the nearby Manchewe Falls that plunges more than 100m down the cliff’s edge, where we also had lunch and a refreshing swim in the Kazichi River. This was all pre-arranged by the lodge management and very convenient. From there we explored the town of Livingstonia that was founded in 1894 by missionaries from the Free Church of Scotland and was moved up to higher ground due to Malaria. A visit to the Craft Coffee Shop, museum and the chapel is a must as they contain the most incredible memorial stained glass window of Dr. Livingstone himself. Refer to the iOverlander app for the latest available pricing data, reviews and amenities offered by The Mushroom Farm and other attractions in the area.

View over Lake Malawi from the Gorodi Pass – Livingstonia

Usisya Eco Lodge, near Mzuzu

From The Mushroom Farm we decided to not go down the Gorodi Pass towards the M1 again since the M1 also moves inland from Chiweta. Please be aware; Google Maps indicate that there is a ‘Lake shore’ road (M11) from the M1 at Chiweta (S10.69815° E34.18527°) all the way down to the M5 near Nkhata Bay. There is no road there and we were told that many people have made the mistake by trying to drive there. So we stayed on the lower escarpment and headed directly south on the S103 past Livingstonia towards Rhumpi. This road was under construction at the time and there were a lot of heavy duty vehicles around with no regard for public safety. I presume that this will become the preferred route to Livingstonia from Rhumpi/M1 in a couple of months’ time which will surely place Livingstonia back on the map. The S103 becomes the T305 at some stage around the village called Lura, but we were advised to continue straight until we got to the junction with the T306 (S10.85251° E34.00106°). From there we turned left (east) and linked up with the M1 again (S10.88520° E34.04590°) at a village called Hangalawe just opposite the Rukuru river. From there it was roughly 80km until we reached Malawi’s 3rd largest town, in terms of population, Mzuzu.

Campsites at Mushroom Farm – Livingstonia

Mzuzu is the capital of the northern region of Malawi and densely populated with plenty of commercial activities. We were told by friends that Mzuzu also has the best Shoprite supermarket in Malawi for many years running and since we have not seen a proper supermarket since we left Lilongwe over 2 weeks earlier, it was exactly where we went to stock up. The Shoprite was very impressive and has everything you need and more. It is also situated within the Mzuzu Mall precinct with plenty shops and ATMs. From there we were advised to have lunch at the uMunthu Lodge (S11.46550° E34.01603°) in town which apparently had the best hamburgers in the north and we were not disappointed. The Lodge also has stunning affordable rooms and a great campsite which makes this the perfect stopover in Mzuzu. They even allowed us to plug our trailers into the ESKOM power supply for a good deep battery charge after two weeks on solar power. We gobbled down our hamburgers, refueled the vehicles and headed out of town to avoid unnecessary traffic.

Kids playing local game (Bow) at Mushroom Farm – Livingstonia

Our destination for the night was Usisya Eco Lodge (S11.23996° E34.23222°) situated to the north east of Mzuzu on a secluded stretch of Lake Malawi, and is apparently only accessible by vehicle during the dry season (May – October). From the M5 in Mzuzu we turned north at the S108 roundabout (S11.46314° E34.02599°) towards our destination which was 65km away at that stage. The S108 is tarred for about 10km as you go through the residential suburbs of Mzuzu and then becomes a nice gravel road for the next 30km until you start the drop down to the lake. The last 20km is where the fun starts and it was now clear why you will struggle to drive here during the rainy season. But as this was in August and we had enjoyed plenty of off-road practice in the past two weeks, we simply shifted to low range again and took in the scenery. We were now convinced that Malawi has all the potential to become one of the top destinations in South/Central Africa. The final drop towards Usisya Bay was stunning and we took photographs around each and every corner of this mountain pass. It was a bit of a struggle to find the lodge, as it was situated behind a rondavel shaped hill right on the lake and we had to navigate through a busy local village to find the entrance.

The crew visiting Manchewe falls with local guide – Livingstonia

The owner of Usisya Eco Lodge is a lovely German lady called Dani who has been in Malawi for many years and she was extremely welcoming despite the fact that we did not have a booking. The place was quite due to COVID restrictions, which is again the sad reality of the pandemic. But it can get busy there and she does not have a lot of accommodation available, so it is best to book in advance before you leave Mzuzu since this is the only accommodation in this area. They also do not have a campsite and space is extremely limited so we had to squeeze our rigs and camp in the small parking area behind the chalets which turned out to be perfect although another rig would have made it impossible. She only has two chalets at the lodge with an outside shower and compost toilet (with a stunning view) which we made use of. But the real treat was the pristine location on the lake with a private beach and beautiful blue waters and it almost seemed like we were on a remote beach somewhere in Mozambique. Finally, we had found a spot on the lake that is completely secluded so we simply had to stay for two nights.

Manchewe Falls – Livingstonia

The lodge has a small kitchen and outdoor lounge free to be used by guests and, despite our unannounced arrival, Dani managed to put together a stunning rice noodle dish for us the next afternoon for lunch. The tranquility of this place is second to none and we spent the entire time there just chilling on the beach and swimming in the lake. It was well worth the effort of getting there.

Livingstonia Mission Cathedral

Part three of this fascinating and informative story coming soon. Keep an eye on the readers travel story section to get your next installment. 

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