In the south of Malawi, between Blantyre and Liwonde, you find the country’s former capital, Zomba. The town might be the 4th city in the country, it has a very different feel to it than Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu. In Zomba there are no traffic jams, it is green all year round and there are no shopping malls! It’s a charming town with a rich history and one that’s well worth a visit, not least for access to the stunning Zomba Plateau that towers above it!
There are rumours are that a big supermarket will open its doors in Zomba soon, and that they are building a mini-mall on the corner of Mountain Road (the road that takes you up Zomba Plateau). But, for now, the traditional market in the centre of town is the shopping hub. It’s a wonderful and very accessible example of a local African markets selling (almost) everything; from car parts to dried fish, electricians and electronics. There are fruits and vegetables available at Zomba market that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. And the best thing is that you do not need to haggle. As a visitor you usually pay the same price as the locals do.
The big attraction for Zomba, of course, is Zomba Plateau, a 2,000m high mountain that hugs the city. It is a beautiful place for short or all-day hikes. One of the walks is the so-called ‘Nature Trail’ from Mulunguzi Dam (MWK 200/20 pence to cross!) via Mandala Falls along the river to William’s falls. This trail was set out by WESM Zomba, the local branch of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi that supports more than 120 wildlife clubs at schools in the region to create awareness about environmental issues like deforestation and conservation. A laminated printed route can be borrowed from local lodge, Pakachere, where you can also book a guide and buy a packed lunch to take up the mountain.
On clear days, Queen’s View and Emperor’s View (3 to 4 hours there and back) will give you stunning views on Southern Malawi. Chingwe’s hole is a longer walk (5-6 hours) and it is recommended to take a guide. A guide does not only make sure you don’t get lost on the mountain, they will be able to tell you stories about life in Malawi, the flora and fauna on the mountain, and you will give work to a local man who uses his earnings to supports his (extended) family. If you want to combine a mountain hike with a traditional Malawian meal, the guides will be happy to introduce you to their family and share lunch with you.
Zomba has a Tour Guide Association; these guys not only take you anywhere you want on the mountain, but they clear and maintain the paths, patrol to find illegal loggers, and help preventing fires in the hot season. All guides who are members of the Zomba Tour Guides Association have a photo ID card. The work of the guides is supported by TREEZ, an organisation started by Zomba Forest Lodge to protect the mountain. TREEZ organises a yearly Run4Reforestation to raise funds to plant trees with local communities, create awareness about the effects of deforestation and train the guides to protect the mountain from loggers and wildfires. Without Zomba Forest Lodge and TREEZ, the mountain would be in a much worse state than it is. Zomba Forest Lodge is an amazing place to spend the night and the food they serve to their guests is fantastic. The restaurant is not open for outside guests and they only have 4 rooms, so it is necessary to book in advance.
Pakachere is another charming lodge, in Zomba town on the edge of the golf course. From there, it is easy to walk to the Botanical Gardens which has a nominal entrance fee of MWK 300/30 pence. Along the way you can admire the historical buildings from the time that the British settled in Zomba and made it the capital of Malawi. The gardens can be found opposite the Immigration Office. It is worth a walk up the road to see the former parliament and government buildings. Unfortunately, the first governor’s house (built in 1886) burnt down in December 2019. Past the Botanical Gardens along Mulunguzi Road is The Chocolate Factory, a lovely café to stop for lunch with a shop to buy Belgian chocolate made in Zomba as well as other quality Malawian products. There is also a bi-monthly Malawian Made Market at The Chocolate Factory (2nd Saturday of every other month). African Heritage also serves lunch and has a nice curio shop, but the best souvenirs are bought either on the mountain or at the curio market at the side of the main road close to the banks and the supermarkets.
For an early dinner most people go to Casa Rossa; early because the views are beautiful during the day. If you are lucky, you can see Mulanje Mountain from the veranda. Casa Rossa serves Italian pasta dishes and homemade ice cream. They also have rooms. For a more Malawian flavour, Villa Kupa on the upper road above the Botanical Gardens offers chambo (fish) and other dishes. Not the best place for vegetarians, but the kitchen is open until late. Pakachere offers tasty homemade food for most dietary requirements; gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan like hummus, the famous bean wrap, vegetable curry and guacamole (when in season), but also pepper steak, pizza, and beef burgers. For breakfast, favourites are the pancakes with fruits from the mountain and the hash browns with fried eggs. They run quiz nights every 2 months on a Friday or Saturday evening with details published on their Facebook page and the Zomba events diary. There are many local places near the market serving chicken and chips or nsima and relish, while other people might prefer ‘fast-food’ (though it’s not actually very fast) at Steers or Kips.
Zomba is home to the University of Malawi where approximately 5,000 students study law, science, social sciences, education, economics or fine & performing arts. Sometimes the arts department puts on a play or a concert. The campus is a mix of old and new architecture and is a lovely place to wander around. Because Zomba is a student town, there is a lively night scene. There might be live concerts in Vibes, which can be a bit rough but is safe! A more relaxed vibe can be found in Havanna, where you dance to the latest African tunes until early in the morning.
On the way to Blantyre (70km) is one of the smallest and quirkiest museums of the country, the Post Office Museum. The sign has faded, so it is not easy to find but it is worth a stop. On the way to Liwonde (45km) you can stop at Chilema Tree, ask a guide to take you to the unique geological formation of the Chikala Pillars or have a traditional meal at Mandevu Farm. Close to Mulanje (60km) are the Thutchilla Pools, a nice place to cool down in the cold water at the foot of the mighty Satipwa, the highest peak (3,000m) of Mulanje Mountain. Other day trips from Zomba include the Tea Estates and Lake Chilwa.
Lake Chilwa is an amazing experience; most people bring food to share lunch with the local people on Chisi Island. Homestays can be arranged via Isaac at Pakachere; expect a real local experience without any comforts but it will be an experience that you will never forget. The people on Chisi Island are poor, but you will be most welcome and staying with the people helps the local economy. It is quite a journey to get to the island; first you drive an hour and a half on dirt roads and then you have to take a little boat. Don’t forget sunscreen lotion and a hat, enough drinking water, toilet paper and food to share with the people. Isaac can arrange everything in advance.
Zomba has a lovely vibe. It is not too big, but big enough to find supermarkets, pharmacies and pleasant places to stay and eat. With enough to do in town, activities on the mountain and day trips in the area, plus a choice of some charming accommodations (Pakachere, The Chocolate Factory, Casa Rossa and Zomba Forest Lodge) it is the perfect place to stay for a few days.
Kelly White is Director of the Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium. Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium aims to provide you with the best information to make Malawi your tourism destination.