Mushroom Farm, a mythical destination on the African backpacker circuit, was hard to get to. Half way up a mountain pass on the road to Livingstonia in northern Malawi, people said it was worth the effort.
The packed minibus ascended through tanned muscular hills lined with a stubble of nkholongo and mitsango trees. The winding road joined the Kasitu River, a babbling brook as it ran up a valley, lined with banana groves and vegetables grown on terraces on the steep slopes. The majestic Nkita plateau towered above us on the left, and then we swung around a ridge line to the right, to reveal the world’s third largest freshwater lake, Lake Malawi.
Apricot beaches stretched off into the distance south, separating the escarpment from a sheet of sparkling blue, receding to the horizon. The bus swung down the bends, dodging traffic, forest debris and scuttling, screeching monkeys on the road. Down to the shore and along to the turn off to our destination, Sam and I exited with our bags at a throng of tatty shops that sat at the base of a narrow two-wheeled track back up into the mountains. At its base a rare road sign half-obscured with weeds: Livingstonia 15km.
I’d been nervous we would have trouble finding transport up the track to town, which was 4WD only. The good news was as soon as we exited the bus a young boy escorted us straight to a group of 4WDs behind the shops, exactly for that purpose. The bad news was we wouldn’t leave for the three hours it took for the car to fill up with passengers. This is Africa.
While we waited, I bought some pork and kasava (for me) and chips (for Sam) off the barbeques that lined the road in front of the shops. The car was surrounded by chickens and drowsy male teenagers. I got Sam to do some reading. Eventually the packed utility bounced up the winding narrow track with its twenty hairpin bends numbered in descending order as we ascended; at least the numbered turns occupied Sam’s attention.
It soon became apparent this was a special place. The precipice towered over the lake, and the road clawed its way back and forth across the face. It reminded me of Sani Pass in South Africa. The horizon across the lake was no longer a line but a blurred transition zone of blues, ultramarine at the lake and the faintest of cobalts at the lower sky.
We finally reached the turn off and pitched out of the utility, backpacks slung on shoulders, at a simple sign pointing down a dirt track to Mushroom Farm.
The ‘farm’ was a scatter of huts perched on a cliff edge towering over the escarpment, centred with a terraced bar and restaurant with a seriously impressive menu and staff that were keen to please. Yay! The view was breathtaking, sweeping across vast valleys folding below, forest, terrace and fields; a patchwork quilt thrown all the way to the soft arced lines of beaches a dozen kilometres away.
Sam and I settled in and went through the usual process of not only orientating ourselves, but also orientating staff and guests to Sam’s quirkiness.
On arrival, pointing at a man of European descent sitting at a table, he said: ‘You are a white man.’
The ‘white man’ turned out to be Michal from Poland. Along with Americans Chelsea, Ellie, Annalina and Michaela, and Danish Mia, they were all in their twenties and were all fascinated by our trip, autism and of course Sam. As well, there was a girl from London with cropped brown hair that introduced herself as ‘Harri’. I wonder what Sam will make of that – a girl with short hair called Harri.
They had well and truly picked my brains about Sam and our situation before he rocked up to the dining table for dinner and proceeded to have one of the best reciprocal conversations I have seen him have. It would be hard for any 14-year old boy to have a conversation with seven older strangers, especially young women, but Sam did really well. Harry Potter, school, Australia, Africa and our trip, it went on and on; I was so impressed. He even managed to handle Harri’s moniker without any dramas.
To be continued…..