In the taxi, the driver bopped to reggae, the dashboard informed us that ‘Don’t worry, God is in charge’ and ‘Lazy men get no food’, and the road wound up the mountain side of the 2100 metre Zomba plateau. The hike was 24km along, taking six hours to ascend the 700 metres in altitude from where the taxi dropped us off to the highest point on the plateau.
Our guide was Isaac, a softly spoken Malawian Christian, proud of his biblical name. The six of us trundled off, past the giant kachere, a local strangling fig, that marked a traditional tribal meeting place, and was also the start of the path to the summit. Shortly after we started, Sam started voicing his displeasure.
‘I am tired, I want to rest.’
‘I want to go back.’
‘This is too far for me. How much further is it?’
I placated, encouraged, and tried to distract. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The complaining continued but didn’t escalate. Jules, a Dutch who couple had joined us, and even Isaac encouraged Sam to keep going. He would complain for a while, then get back into a zone of just walking before starting up again.
‘We should get a car back.’
‘There are no cars here, Sam.’
‘Let’s call a taxi.’
‘Taxis can’t come up here, the track isn’t big enough.’
‘I think I am going to faint.’
He got that last line off a Harry Potter movie, voiced by Hermione Granger. Still he kept going, and we kept going. It was hard work up the steep incline.
The path cut through forests of pine; Patula and Cyprus. Planted by the Malawian government, their timber was a vital source of revenue for the local economy. Local women carted logs tied together on their head, down the path to the city below. Isaac informed us they could carry more than their body weight this way.
The view opened up as we exited the pine forest. Sweeping grass plains rolled across the enormous bowl-shaped plateau, dotted with red mahogany, chitsiru and jacaranda. Wildflowers were buzzed and tickled by brightly coloured locusts and butterflies. Livingstone lories, red eyed booboos, sunbirds and blue waxbills darted for their prey. Flocks of manakins soared above, and a rare pin-tailed whydah was spotted by Isaac. Africa was turning on a show again.
On we plodded, and on Sam continued, complaining intermittently when not too short of breath. The summit approached. With Sam’s low muscle tone, it was harder work for him than the rest of us. The path took us disconcertingly close to the cliff line, only a metre or so at times to the drop, hundreds of metres down the side of the plateau.
Finally we got there, tumbling onto the soft grass at the apex, a sweaty mess. We ate our cheese and tomato sandwiches, provided by the tour company for lunch, gazing across the grassed plateau, the forests on its lower reaches, and the plunging cliff lines on its edge.
Upon restarting, Sam’s complaining eased somewhat as we now headed downhill or horizontally along the narrow walking tracks. Some locals had set up a makeshift shop on the side of the site, selling precious stones collected from the plateau; black tourmaline, jasper, avasite and pink quartz. Jules bought a couple but I preferred to try some gooseberries also on sale.
We reached Chingwe’s hole, a mere ten metres across, but of unknown depth, it having never been plumbed. Hundreds of years ago, bodies of those who had died of smallpox or leprosy were cast into the watery depths of the hole. It made for an unpleasant image: a soup of diseased and decaying bodies in the darkness. I hoped the bodies that were cast down were actually dead.
Sam didn’t like it.
‘Are the bodies still in there?’
‘Their bones would be.’
‘Are they skeletons?’
‘Well, sort of. Do you want to join them? We could push you in.’
‘NO! You are JOKING!’
It was good to see a smile on his sweaty face. We followed the rim of the bowl around, skirting along cliff lines, over mounds of granite, through grassy fields. The far side of the plateau was home to a valley where potatoes were grown. Local farmers and their family members would cart the produce on their heads to Zomba, as they walked along a track over the plateau, unsurprisingly called The Potato Track.
We followed this path and slowly descended towards the city. Sam called to me from the rear of the troupe.
‘Hey Dad, I am more relaxed now.’
It was an interesting choice of words. He was relating his distress to an emotional issue, rather than a physical one. Now he was realising the end of the walk was approaching and he was going to make it, he was feeling more comfortable. You would have thought that his complaining would have been worse at the end of a long walk, but it was improving.
We descended off the rim and through a forest of mahogany covering the steep slopes; trunks and limbs carpeted in moss and draped in beard lichen. That is, the tree’s trunks and limbs, not ours. The light glinted through the canopy as we tumbled down to a series of waterfalls, our finishing line from where the taxi would collect us.
‘Yes, I did it!’ Sam said.