The Malawi/Tanzania Songwe border is reputedly a swift and eventless affair, but it still took us the best part of a morning to get the bike through, stamp our passports, get the visa, buy a SIM card with data and change money at a surprisingly good rate ($1 to TSH2250). Once we got through, the mountainous jungle of Mbeya district welcomed us with its tangled vegetation, green tea fields and heavy showers – which were welcome after a sweaty passage at the border.
So we were in a bit of a state when we arrived at Utengule Coffee Lodge, a little pocket of heaven in a very green part of the earth. After Malawi, where deforestation is rife, sitting in Utengule’s garden sipping one of their exquisite coffees by the pool is a different scenario altogether. Tucked away at the foot of Mbeya peak, the Lodge is steeped in history. The name comes from the local Safwa tribe, meaning big wall or fortress, as a century ago a local chief built a fortress in this area, the remains of which are still visible near the lodge.
For the busy traveller who likes to explore, the lodge offers day hikes to the nearby peaks of Mbeya and Rungwe, as well as trips to the coast of Lake Nyasa at Kyela, to Ngosi crater lake and the beautiful Tegemeo waterfalls. Otherwise, one could easily spend the whole day at the lodge, relaxing by the pool, playing tennis, squash, volleyball or ping pong, or even pampering oneself with a massage or beauty treatment. The gardens are rife with beautiful flowers and vegetation, as well as a very rich bird population, providing a calming soundtrack to your day.
If this all sounds incredibly upmarket, fear not. Utengule caters both for the prime and budget traveller, by offering anything from camping at $11.5 to self-catering bungalows for groups. The rooms range from Standard to two-story King-size with a balcony overlooking the pool and, beyond that, the gloriously lush rift valley, and they are all exquisitely decorated with soft furnishings and wood details.
While coffee in all its forms is their speciality, the restaurant also excels at a varied menu of Tanzanian and international dishes, including curries, stir-fries and an amazing coffee flavoured pulled pork wrap for the intrepid taste buds.
Coffee lovers will feel at home and they, as well as the coffee layman, should absolutely visit the coffee farm ($10). The Manager Admire will take you on a splendid journey from seed to cup, explaining all about coffee growing and telling you about the farm history, which, together with the lodge and a small coffee house in Zanzibar, is a family-owned business, and will celebrate its 100th birthday next year.
Owned by a Swiss-Danish family, the farm exports roughly 50% of the beans coming from the 122 hectares of the estate devoted to coffee planting. Producing around 100 tons a year, during the busy picking season between May and August the farm can process up to 30,000 litres of beans a day! While most of the roasting is done at their facility in Dar Es Salaam, a sample of the processed beans is roasted directly on the farm for quality checks.
At the end of the coffee tour, we enjoyed an espresso made from freshly ground beans – it might just be a suggestion, but it seemed as if one could taste the very ripeness of the coffee cherry, the dark green leaves and the freshness of the breeze caressing the plants in the estate…