We rolled into Mbeya late in the afternoon, all of us anxious to get to our evening’s accommodation. The drive had been pleasant enough: our drive north of the border had been dominated by the surprisingly dense and lush environment compared to the average Malawian scene. The typical landscape there was always beautiful, but dashed with physical destruction. What once should have been a land of dense forests covering fertile ground had long been stripped of its earthy fecundity by the taxing population.

While our excursion to far north of the country had revealed a gradual improvement of climate as barren, hilly plains eventually gave way to flooded paddy fields and more impressive groups of livestock, we were startled by the dramatic difference in our surroundings immediately after crossing over into southern Tanzania. The contrasting combination of flate plains and gumdrop hills had been replaced by impressive, rolling hills and mountains covered with trees. Along the side of the road were huge bunches of bananas and busy-looking people. The houses tended to have tin roofs instead of straw. What wasn’t shrouded in tree or residence was being used to plant vast fields of tea, each plot marked with a wooden sign indicating its quality and hectarage.

We had enjoyed these sights for the past hour and a half, but the fresh dampness of the country seemed to unclot as we reached the southern city. With most of its trees hacked down, Mbeya was awash with mud and, as the rain continued to pelt down, seemed as though it was preparing to swirl away. In some strange way, it reminded me of the damp towns near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, places I’d often traveled through when I was university.

While there was a proper city centre, much of the town seemed to stretch along the main road which ran through it. Before we proceeded to our destination, the Utengule Coffee plantation, we needed to stop and get our bearings and some batteries.

Phil parked the car next to the market, and Ranil and I clambered out. It was cooler than I expected – I reached back inside and retrieved a pullover, then stepped back out into the abating daylight. I wondered if we were in the same timezone as before.

I followed Ranil to a storefront, waiting outside as he disappeared in to inquire about his batteries. I called out to a Tanzanian man who passed me, unsure of his grasp of English.

“Excuse me, have time?” I grunted, gesticulating wildly to convey the checking of a watch.

“Why of course,” he replied in perfect English, “Let me just check my mobile phone.”

He confirmed that Tanzania was an hour ahead of Malawi. It was already six-thirty in the evening.

Ranil came out of the store.

“They seem to have a good handle on English here,” I said.

“I know!” he nodded, “I tried to say a couple of words in Swahili to the shop-keeper, but she replied in English.”

We returned to the Patrol and continued on down the road, following the signs to the coffee estate.

* * * * * * *

The main road to Utengule was destroyed, a massive pile of earth stood between us and the gorge that used to be our path. Phil swung the car around towards a bumpy detour, taking us down a windy residential road, past troupes of screaming children and glassy-eyed adults, slowly making their way up or down the hill. Several minutes later the rocky terrain became mode muddy as we proceeded into more wooded terrain. It took us roughly fifteen minutes to reach the final turnoff for the coffee estate.

The last path up to Utengule looked nearly impassable, but not beyond the large 4×4 that Phil commanded. Snaking its way up the side of the mountain, it was covered in deep, unsettled mud; the kind of mud that swallows up saloon cars. The sort of mud that, if you were unlucky to get your foot stuck in it, you’d be better off abandoning the shoe. Phil shifted the Patrol into 4×4 and began to proceed up the path. We slid around a little bit, but were making progress.

We passed a sign that read “Sandwich,” which left us all a little perplexed.

About two minutes up the mountain, we reached the top of a slope revealing a small branch blocking the way, and two Tanzanian men wielding machetes.

Perhaps it was just residual, unfilled paranoia from living in peaceful Malawi for so long, but the sight of those blades, barely visible in the failing light, made me nervous.

The men indicated for us to pull of this main path onto a side road which led to a series of small houses. Phil turned off to the right and drove down the road. I turned and looked at the back glass to see, to my immense dismay, that the two men were jogging after us.

The Patrol puttered up to the cluster of houses and stopped. A dead end.

The men were still trotting up to us, although one of them dropped his machete into the high grass. They walked up to the glass.

“Uh..maybe…,” I said, trailing off.

Phil rolled down his window. The savage attack I had been expecting did not materialize. Instead the man began speaking in hastened Swahili and motioning.

It took some time and multiple explanations, but eventually we determined he was suggesting we all get out of the car and walk the rest of the way to Utengule, due to the awful state of the road.
Fuck that,” I mumbled, noticing I was the only one who was quite so apprehensive about the idea of leaving the safety of our car, and our lives, with two valet attendants on secondment from the Interahamwe. Luckily, Cynthia was able to reach the owner of Utengule, who verified that the two desperadoes were indeed his employees. The mud had just recently been pressed, but the torrential rain had ruined it; hence the blockade.

Phil expressed interest in trying to get up there with the Patrol anyway. He turned back onto the road and we began, wish the occasional slide, to continue up the mountain. With a few, briefly nerve wracking moments we reached the top, to the astonishment of the few staff who came out to greet us. The drizzle had ceased, and we began to haul our bags out of the back of the slumbering Patrol.

I remember little more of the evening, other than laughter, a divine meal, and a few unfamiliar beers. From our dinner table we looked out over the plains adjacent to Mbeya, which were surrounded by a rim of mountains topped with clouds. They seemed like the final embankment, marking the ends of the Earth, and imagination.