Our bus dissected the lush green acres of tea plantation, snaking its way South towards the Thyolo region of Malawi. This was my first real taste of rural life – the pristinely trimmed tea plants looking like a carpet of privet hedge that has been acutely maintained by a professional gardener.
We were heading for the Satemwa Estate – the first Fairtrade tea plantation in Malawi. The estate consists of 940 hectares (around 4 square miles) of which 890 hectares is made up of tea plants and the rest coffee plants.
Our accommodation for the night was the modest, charming, colonial styled Huntingdon House, a fantastic single storey, five bedroom property set in the middle of the estate.
Once a family home, Huntingdon House has been fabulously maintained and is situated right in the middle of the estate. With manicured lawns and impressively floral gardens the house is the perfect retreat for those looking to relax in the Malawi countryside within a more temperate climate.
We arrived a couple of hours before sunset, and it was only when I headed out onto the neat lawn in front of the house and had blades of grass between my feet that I realised what a peaceful, serene place I had come to.
Strolling through the gardens surrounded by bright hibiscus and hydrangea (my dad is a nurseryman – don’t judge), the birds began their evening song in earnest, creating a setting that could only be recognisable as African.
Huntingdon House is only one piece of the Satemwa jigsaw, so to explore the rest of the estate we jumped in the back of a truck and headed to one of the highest points of the plantation.
After the enjoyment of a bumpy ride and running into countless rotivators with engines and trailers stacked with tea, we hopped out of the truck, helped ourselves to a Malawi gin and tonic (MGT) and took in the views over the estate.
The plantation stretched as far as the eye could see, with narrow paths cross hatching each field, which looked like they had been scored with a knife.
As the sun disappeared and the mosquitos began to close in, we headed back to the house for some well needed dinner.
I must admit, I wasn’t expecting anything fancy at Huntingdon House, but dinner really set the benchmark for my whole Malawi trip. The meals here are made from locally-sourced ingredients, all made to perfection by the resident chef.
The five bedrooms at Huntingdon House are all cutely named: Mother’s Room, Father’s Room, The Nursery, Planter’s Suite and The Chapel. The latter was actually a former Chapel, so the space inside the room is enormous! This room is definitely for honeymooners 🙂
My bed for the night was in the Nursery, a twin-bed room with a spacious bathroom and lovely five-framed bar window that looks out into the gardens.
I know this is pun-tastic, but I really did sleep like a baby in the nursery. A combination of a long days travel and a comfy bed contributed to a deep 8-hour sleep!
Our second day in the Satemwa Estate was all about coffee and tasting. But not before breakfast was served.
I’m a big eggs Benedict fan, and can often by swayed by a good eggs royale, so when I saw both wrapped up in one tremendous egg dish on the menu, I ordered in earnest.
If day one was all about exploring, day two was all about learning and tasting. We set off on foot towards the back of Huntingdon House and headed along the plantation road towards the coffee factory.
The tea pickers were already hard at work, clipping tops of the tea bushes and throwing them into bags carried on their backs. Only the sound of their shears and the distant hum of the tea factory broke the rural silence. These guys collect 100 tonnes of tea leaves per day, so starting early and finishing at sundown is the daily routine.
Our path led us through a forest of young blue gum trees and we eventually reached a corner of the coffee plantation. The main harvest time for coffee beans in Malawi is March / April, but we were walked through the process and shown where the coffee beans dry in the sun.
On the way back to Huntingdon House, we were introduced to one of the longest serving members of the Satemwa workforce. Meet Fraser – he’s worked at Satemwa for over two decades.
What struck me was how happy he was. He’s been working the same job for 20 years, and still have the same zest for clipping tea as the day he first started work.
I was amazed.
So amazed in fact, that I wanted to understand exactly what it was like to clip tea. I waded through the thick tea plants until I looked like a floating half man, and asked Fraser to give me his shears. He duly obliged and I began clipping.
I used to do a lot of hedge trimming as a kid, and this was very similar. It was pretty easy to understand why he enjoyed it.
He wasn’t alone either. There are over 2,000 workers at the estate. The owners have built a school and a small health centre, so children are educated and the whole working family is looked after.
We eventually reached the Satemwa tea factory, where we learnt a little more about the tea making process, and tried a few fresh out of production. In fact we tried eight different black teas, four white teas, three green teas, an oolong tea and several more fruity teas – passionfruit being my favourite flavour!
After walking off all the tea, it was finally time to pack our bags and head North to our next stop.
I sat on the steps of the house and stared out across the front lawn. Slightly to the right of the middle of the lawn stood a huge, dishevelled-looking tree.
“Chip’s father planted that tree“, came a voice over my right shoulder.
Chip’s real name is Robert Gordon Cathcart Kay. He is now 86 years old and ran Satemwa for many years, and is still seen as the friendly boss. His father built Huntingdon House.
“Sadly Chip is of ill health at the moment…health that seems to be mimicked by that tree“.
He’s not alone. The global coffee and tea market is also struggling, and as a result is taking its toll on Malawian revenues and putting the strain on the Satemwa Estate and other plantations around the country.
The first tea bushes were planted at Satemwa in 1923. Amazingly, tea plants last 100 years. If the global tea market doesn’t pick up, travellers and tourists probably have around seven years to come and explore this wonderful part of the Malawi countryside.
If the tea market does pick up, I hope it has a knock on effect to Chip, the tree and the whole Satemwa estate 🙂
Disclaimer: I visited Malawi thanks to an invitation from South African Airways and Malawi Tourism. While the trip was sponsored by them, the views and opinions I present here are explicitly my own. To find our more about Malawi, please visit the Malawi Tourism website, and for more information about Huntingdon House, visit Huntingdon-Malawi.com.