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A passage to Livingstonia Plateau

As Malawi joins the world in celebrating tourism month, we republish here an article, which we first published in our sister paper The Sunday Times in May 2009, about one of the treasures in Malawi’s tourism sector. CHARLES MPAKA had travelled to Livingstonia Plateau and produced this article

You have a part of my heart here,” reads a comment in the visitor’s register at the plateau.

To those that have all along been in doubt, let it be said to them one more time that Malawi has more than seven wonders of creation, all so enchanting enough to convert even the devil.

But it should be admitted too that passages to some such locations can be prohibitively narrow. It is because they have to. And for all that it is worth, one has to fight their way. This is the fight that must be fought. It is the course that must be finished.

This time, let the course begin at Mzuzu, 136 kilometres away from Livingstonia Plateau.

The Mzuzu-Chiweta road is straight and reasonably wide. The farm land on both sides of the smooth tarmac spans into the distance where it rises into mountain ranges that meet the grey skies.

As the journey unwinds through Ekwendeni, Enukweni and Mzokoto, the mountain chains continue to run spiritedly parallel to each other as though they had sworn never to get close to one another.

If they did, then the secret pact is broken just past Phwezi because from here, the two ranges of mountains begin to draw towards each other. The road begins to constrict. More bends and turns, with an increasing number of them becoming sharper, begin to appear.

The mountains, in fact, make a satisfying travel for as they draw towards one another, they bring their green sub-montane and almost primordial forests closer to the eye. And to the heart.

For a good length, the journey runs along South Rukuru River to the left. A couple of rope bridges can be seen connecting spare communities astride the perennial water course. This luxury continues until the road and the river intersect not too far from Lake Malawi where South Rukuru empties its waters.

From this point, be prepared to rise and to fall — not a serious problem this — and to bend and turn for over 120 times before reaching Chitimba. This bending and turning is, however, beguiled away by the breathtaking evergreen woodland along the course and the privilege of driving right in the shores of the lake, Africa’s third largest, the world’s ninth.

That will be accompanied by the possibility of meeting peculiar pedestrians: a herd of cattle nearly 20 in number. The cattle have been around this area for a very long time, a story is told. They are all alone, without an owner. The herd is thus wild, as it were, in charge of this part of the forest, sometimes in control of the road and not answerable to anyone in its adventures but to itself.

All the same, up to Chitimba, 121 kilometres from Mzuzu, the journey may not be as torrid. But as one takes the Livingstonia Plateau road, a 15 kilometre passage, it is not too bad for the faint-hearted to set the teeth hard and steady the heart.

The stony and bumpy ride that launches this part of the trip will be the same all the way to the end. And as the drive makes the first hairpin turn, keep in mind that there are 20 more such cases when the vehicle has to double back up the escarpment and it may take not less than one-and-half hours for a four wheel drive vehicle to finish this course.

This is Gorodi Road, a corruption of Gordon Road, named after one of the earliest Scottish missionaries during whose time the road was created.

As the vehicle doubles back on bend number 12, for example, the heart may skip to the throat for the vehicle tyres are screeching just some 60 centimetres from a cliff at which the vehicle can tip over.

A look down the escarpment, if not intercepted by some monkey or beautiful birds in the natural green woodland, can be a giddying spectacle. But further beyond is a panoramic view of the majestic waters of Lake Malawi.

There is a wreckage of tragedy too on the way. On bend number 16, there leans against the wall a carcass of a lorry. The story is that a few years ago, the lorry was being pulled by an army truck up to the plateau. On reaching bend number one on top, the chain joining the two vehicles snapped; the lorry reeled down all the way to bend number 4.

There are local people walking up or down carrying all manner of luggage. Up at the plateau, there are many essential services that cannot be found below.

There, finally, a flat land comes into view. Welcome to Livingstonia Plateau, also known as Khondowe Plateau.

Ahead, not too far beyond the plateau, there stretches the Nyankhomwa Mountains in the boundaries with Nyika National Park. The rising and falling range is a garden of flourishing green nature. In here, Robert Laws, the Scottish Missionary who established the Livingstonia CCAP Mission at the plateau, built a retreat centre where he could sneak to get refreshed from the cares of missionary work in a dark land, re-live the dreams and draw plans of growing the church and civilising the African.

The Nyankhomwa Mountains share their life to the community at the plateau. The people here do not know a dry tap.

To the southerly part of the plateau stretches the Chombe hills, a better sighting of that luxuriant offering of natural woodland already passed through on the route to Chitimba.

The green hills stream easterly where they eventually sink into the blue Lake Malawi. Further beyond the seemingly endless blue expanse of the waters is a sweeping picture of the Tanzania Mountains.

Laws had led a Scottish missionary expedition in 1875 tracing the footprints of David Livingstone. He and his entourage arrived in Chief Mponda’s area in Mangochi in October 1875 where they established a mission station at Cape Maclear.

But following deaths of several missionaries and failure to win converts in the area, Laws moved the station to Bandawe in Nkhatabay. Although mission work spread significantly from here, the place according to history literature was still unhealthy for the missionaries. Laws thus went on a search for a better place.

He identified the Livingstonia Plateau in 1894 and it became his permanent home where he was to spend 33 of the 52 years he stayed in Malawi. The site developed into a small, self-contained town.

Today, it has a primary school and a secondary school whose blocks include a stone and red brick hall and classrooms built during Laws’ time. It has a technical college, which is part of the Livingstonia University.

It is has a monument of the first post office in Central Africa, formerly known as Cape to Cairo because of the extent of the area it was serving. The post office, a relic of British architecture in part, was the first post office in Central Africa. By 1903, it was handling 13,000 items of mail every year, according to department of antiquities.

Still in use is Laws’ residence built in 1903. It is now popularly called The Stone House, a great masonry work, still standing imposing in its archival state and intact with its missionary glossy wooden fittings and study and bedroom furniture.

The building now houses 18 beds for tourists to the plateau. Thus, one may have the privilege of sleeping in Laws’ bedroom. And the visitor can enjoy breakfast, lunch or supper in Laws’ spacious and magnificent dining room and on the furniture he used.

The other part of the house is a museum, a rich abode of records of the work of the missionaries. Among the items on display are letters and diaries about the travels of David Livingstone, some of them in his own handwriting.

There is a Chichewa Bible here, handwritten by the missionaries. So are tools of ancient methods of transportation, road construction survey equipment, ancient telegram transmission portfolio, old fashioned gramophones, items of commerce, Laws’ academic gown and blankets made from barks of trees by the indigenous tribes.

In case there is need for further information, there a study with shelves of encyclopaedias the early missionaries used and a collection of books and correspondence they produced.

The church building still stands magnificent in its ancient interior decorations and spectacular in its moderately Gothic architecture. There is a privilege to climb up the church tower. It is not a tower of Babel this one but still giant enough for a loftier sighting of Lake Malawi, of the Nyankhomwa Mountains and of the evergreen primordial woodland dressing the escarpment.

There are shops for basic groceries, fish ponds, a craft shop for all sorts of curious and the Gordon Memorial Hospital which was in the early days one of the biggest health facilities in Central Africa.

The station organises tourist excursions to Lake Malawi, to the Kazichi River and to the 125-metre Manchewe Falls on Manchewe River nearby. Manchewe Falls was the hydro station for the missionaries. The plateau was the first place to be under electric light in Malawi because of the falls.

People can afford to sleep without using mosquito nets here. This was one of the most important reasons for Laws’ choice of the place. At 900 metres above sea level, the plateau is not prone to mosquitoes that transmit malaria.

On the day of the visit, the grounds had not yet been slashed in many places. There was no evidence of a specific landscaping activity having gone on recently. Both these would have embellished the ethereal scenery.

But on many accounts, it does not fall short of being an inspiring site. Donna Fellerton of Loveland, Colorado, USA, visited it two years ago. It was her who wrote, “You have a part of my heart here.”

Going there is a sacrifice worthy taking for at the finishing of the course, at the finishing of the fine fight, there is a crown of fullness of life, a life that would flourish with Edenic verve.

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