Tag Archives: Mulanje

Beany Has a Farm In Africa

Located just 40 minutes from Blantyre, there is a 200 hectare farm nestled in a patch of wilderness with views of Mulanje and Chiradzulu mountains and Zomba Plateau.  The tobacco farm, established in 1915, has 36 hectares are reserved for coffee.  Our friend, the farm’s Managing Director (appropriately named Beany), is an officially trained coffee taster and is trying to increase the farm’s coffee exports and develop the domestic market.  Desperate to visit and imagine myself as Karen Blixen on her coffee farm in Out of Africa (where is Robert Redford?), I was also interested to see how coffee gets from the plant to my mug.

Rows of Coffee Plants with Chiradzulu in the Background

Coffee Cherries

Beany showing the beans that come from the ripe cherries

We had a chance to visit the farm a few weeks ago.  It was a beautiful day, warm in the sun but with cool breezes, soft light, and big cream colored clouds.   Beany took us through the coffee fields, showing us the berries that are just beginning to turn bright cranberry red.  The berries are picked by hand and the reaping season will get into full swing in a few weeks.

The plants were three years old in the first field we visited and five years old in the second.  The plants are cut back but grow quickly.  The berries weigh down the branches and the weakest plants seem to topple over.  The spacing of the plants is very important – they must be far enough apart that the berries can get sunlight and then the rows should be far enough apart for a tractor to come through and spray.

Beany showed us the two white coffee beans inside the berry, covered in a thick coating.  The picked berries are taken to a de-skinner (my name for the machine – not sure of the official one) and the de-skinned beans tumble down into large concrete tanks where a naturally occurring bacteria eliminates the mucus coating.  From there, the beans are rinsed off and laid on burlap bags (or in concrete channels) to dry.  Left for about a week, the beans loose most of their moisture, becoming light and brittle, and turn from white to a richer parchment color.

Ripe red coffee cherries

The beans inside the ripe cherries

The de-skinning system.

Beans drying in the sun

The beans are then ready for sorting.  A coffee business oddity is that beans are sorted, graded and sold based on size.  Regardless of the flavor of the bean, the bigger the bean, the more expensive it is.  The beans are put into a large machine that has several layers of perforated metal; each layer has different sized holes, allowing the beans to fall into the different grades.  From there, people check each beans as they travel by on a conveyer belt.

Size and grading distribution machine

Most of the coffee is then bagged in 50 kg bags and exported to Europe or Japan.  Beany, however, reserves some for the local market and roasts and grinds his own.  Beany’s coffee, labeled Makoka Coffee, is widely sought after in Blantyre.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to stock up, we had made our coffee order before the tour and it was roasted while we were in the fields.

50 kg Bags

High-quality Makoka Coffee

The roasting machine was fascinating – the roaster is brought up to a high temperature, the beans are dropped in and as the heat increases again, they pop, like popcorn.  They expand with the heat and the hope is to cool the beans down again before the second pop.  The beans go through a range of smells as they are roasted  and you can pick up on the notes of honey and hazelnut.  After about 8 minutes, the beans are cooled and ready for grinding.  The whole roasting process seems to be a highly technical art form in and of itself.

The Roaster

Freshly Roasted Beans

The finished product

We enjoyed  warm cups of coffee at Beany’s home, high up on a hill, while monkeys jumped around the parked cars.  Beany showed us the case of coffee smells – small bottles that encapsulate each of the identifiable tastes and smells in coffee, everything from the predictable hazelnut and honey, to lemon and orange, and even earth and rubber.

We drove back to Blantyre, enjoying the rich smell of freshly roasted coffee and the spectacular sunset.


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An Easy, Pleasant Stroll


As mentioned before, Mount Mulanje is the third tallest mountain in Africa.  It is not a mountain for the faint of heart; hikers come from all over the world to climb its peaks and some have even died trying.  The tallest peak is called Sapitwa, loosely translated as “place from which you do not return.”  During his time in Mulanje, Sandy hiked for two days and spent the night on one of the peaks (not Sapitwa).  This past weekend, however, neither of us were up for such an intense hike.  Instead, Sandy suggested a leisurely hour long hike to the waterfalls – a “nice, easy stroll,” he said.

We drove down the long, dusty, pot-holed road to the foot of the mountain.  As we slowed down, the car was besieged by helpful locals offering to be our guide or to watch the car for us.  We chose Lawrence, who sold us with his friendliness, enthusiastic insistence, and his official guide ID.  He selected his half brother to be the official car guard. 

Our car safely guarded, we grabbed our water and cameras and set off for the falls.

We passed through a forest of tall pines and then wound our way up a steep muddy path.  The peaks rose up around us and through the trees we could see the green countryside stretch out for miles in the distance.

Lawrence was chatty and considerate.  He taught us words in Chichewa and would stop and wait for me if I lagged behind.  He walked along as if it was an easy, pleasant stroll.  Meanwhile, I staggered along, red-faced, huffing and puffing, trying to keep up the pace and keep my footing.  “Nice easy stroll,” Sandy had said.  Luckily, I now know that my husband and I have very different definitions of the words “nice,”  “easy” and “stroll.”

We passed several young women who were gathering firewood.  They would collect a small mountain of sticks and limbs, tie them in a bundle and gracefully head down the mountain with it balanced on their heads.  Later in the day, when we were on our way down an even steeper path than the one we climbed, we were passed by young men who had large cedar planks balanced on their heads.  Yes –they passed us going down the mountain.  Needless to say, once I saw how effortlessly they were able to handle the mountain, their own bodyweight, and pounds of wood piled on their heads, I shut up and stopped complaining.

After an hour, we made it to the falls.  It was one of those scenes that just kept getting better.  Our first sight of the major fall was beautiful, and then we went down a little further and it was really beautiful, and then we crossed to the other side of the river and it was just breathtaking.  Again, the pictures don’t do it justice.  I need to start carting a professional photographer around with me.  Maybe I can carry him on my head.

We relaxed on the huge boulders; several other hikers and guides swam in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.  One hiker lost her sunglasses and two guides, including Lawrence, spent thirty minutes diving until they found them. 

The water was cold, fresh, and inviting.  Next time, we’ll take our bathing suits and a picnic lunch. 

In the end, it was definitely worth the exertion and we will have to go back soon, although, it might take awhile, and some serious circuit training, before I’m ready to do much more than this “nice, easy stroll.”


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57 Monkeys – not even kidding

This weekend, Sandy and I decided to belatedly celebrate our three year wedding anniversary by taking a mini-vacation to Mulanje, where Sandy spent three months in 2005.  The hour and a half drive was beautiful, as we wound through lush green tea estates, and it’s incredible how Mulanje mountain just rises out of nothing.  The third largest mountain in Africa, it’s sheer height is breathtaking.

 We slowly made our way through the town of Mulanje as Sandy pointed out places he had known during his time there.  We made it up a steep hill on the slopes of the mountain to Kara O’Mula lodge (http://www.karaomula.com/)  The lodge is gorgeous – it blends right into the mountain side with tall trees, a “tree house” and luxurious rooms.  The beautiful veranda off the 100 year old building looks out over the Mozambique mountains.

We checked in, got settled and had a beer on the porch.  As we were sitting there, a troupe of seven baboons strolled up the driveway in a line. 

A little later, we decided to have a beer by the pool.  We were just talking and relaxing – Sandy said he wondered how many hectares the lodge had… and then he wondered how big a hectare is.  It was such a pleasant evening, with cold beer, a pretty setting, and  … at least fifty monkeys. 

About ten minutes after we sat down, two baboons darted across the path, up one tree, and into another one directly in front of us.   And they just kept coming.  There were small ones, large ones (I mean seriously big – like seventy pound baboons) , monkeys with babies, loud ones, hungry ones, curious ones… it was amazing.  There were way more than we could count, scattered in the three trees.  We had a perfect view as they were literally jumping around on limbs right above us.  Everywhere we looked, on almost every branch, there was a monkey or a baboon.  It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!

Unfortunately, I had my second rate camera with me and as it was getting dark, none of the pictures came out.   Still, it was an incredible way to spend our anniversary.


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