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Malawi: Cycling on caffeine

Caffeinated plants permeate through this two-wheeled tour in the tea trails of Malawi

Malawi: Cycling on caffeine
Satemwa Tea Estate, Malawi. Image: Getty

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I should feel more fatigued mountain biking around the hilly Satemwa Tea Estate. The altitude is high and a heavy downpour of tepid rain has left the ochre-coloured tracks sticky with clayey mud. Yet in truth I’m totally wired. If this were a professional cycling event my exorbitant caffeine levels would warrant a lifetime ban for cheating.

One-hour from Blantyre Airport in South Malawi, Satemwa has grown tea and coffee in the Shire Highlands since 1923. The estate is third-generation owned by the Kay family who heralded from Ayrshire. My room, a stately high-ceilinged former chapel with vermillion-cushioned armchairs, funnels out on to one of the patios surrounding the estate’s colonial Huntingdon House, which has an arched verandah like a Spanish hacienda.

Anette, the Swedish wife of the current estate manager, Alex Kay, is a keen cyclist and has helped develop a cuisine flavoured by the estate’s homegrown beverages. That morning I’d already downed a pot of bergamot-fragranced Earl Grey before tucking into coffee-infused French toast before we set off pedaling. Not to mention the previous evening’s tea-stained chicken with oolong rice and a Cubano-Malawian ‘mo-Tea-to’ cocktail blended from green tea and rum.

Our ride wends around hillsides textured by 900 hectacres of clipped tea-bushes plucked to waist height. The stony tracks test our shock absorbers as we pass workers’ cottages that attract gaggles of children who give chase in hysterics. Stands of fast-growing blue gums exude scents that remind me of the Australian outback. They’re grown as a sustainable wood source for the tea-drying ovens thus ensuring the remnants of native forest hardwoods remain unmolested and still inhabited by banana-yellow canaries.

At the oldest field first planted in 1926, we pause to watch the smiling Fraser Bredesen plucking with bionic hand speed fresh leafs to make oolong tea as he has done so for 21 years. He demonstrates how the plucked leaves are rolled into spheres to make the oolong.

I get to try this specialty tea later as our day takes in a visit to the processing factory where Mr Custom has boiled up 15 different types of black, green, and white tea for a tasting session. Guests are required to slurp as per etiquette and I’m soon deeply immersed in the science of how essentially one species of tea bush can spawn so many flavours. I go back for a second slurp of a wood-smoked tea and a zesty green tea infused with mint.

After juddering that afternoon around slopes of Arabica coffee bushes, their green buds just emerging before early May’s harvest, we return from our cycle quite muddy as threatening clouds snuff out the distant peachy sundown. Emerging from a deep sunken bath in my room I soon sip ‘Gin & Tea’ cocktails under the stone veranda watching fruit bats whirling in incessant circles. The energy of cycling Satemwa has created ample appetite for the evening’s black tea-and-butternut-ravioli and a rather delicious Earl Grey panna cotta. Caffeine level restored I anticipate another sleepless night at Satemwa.

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