Mulanje Massif

 

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Mulanje, Malawi

After our night in Zomba town, we treated ourselves to a fairly fancy breakfast the next day of pancakes, waffles, honey and fruit at the backpackers in town. It was mainly so we could use the WiFi as I needed to book my flight home, but it was so slow that it wasn’t even worth it. Then we took the minibus down to Blantyre. Adrian was ready to get back up to Lukwe and start working – he would be working there for at least a couple of months. I was going to spend some time with Diana, who I had met on the bus from Mangochi, and also sort out my Mulanje hike. Diana said she would pick me up at the bus station, but she was a bit late (coz Africa) so we stood there for a while and it wasn’t the nicest area, we had some drunk local guy who wouldn’t leave us alone, so I was glad Adrian was with me. I could not understand anything this guy was saying, but Adrian seemed to understand him perfectly and was chatting away. Apparently he was quite philosophical.

Eventually Diana arrived and took me to her place. It was a bit out in the sticks – not near the city at all, and we had quite a long minibus ride, but beautifully located under a huge mountain that Diana thought looked like an elephant. After the minibus, we had a long-ish walk down a dirt track and farmlands, also the occasional vibrant (but small) shopping area where she waltzed around buying spices and chatting to her friends. Everyone was very surprised to see me! She lived a very simple life, with a small house consisting of a living space and also a bedroom with one bed which she shared with her four children, including one baby. Everything was slow and relaxed. The children played all sorts of games outside with the neighbouring kids; they have no special toys or technology, but all games come from the power of their own imagination, and maybe the odd discarded flowerpot, plastic bag or wooden stick. Apart from Diana’s eldest daughter (who had grown up in South Africa), the kids didn’t speak any English, so they seemed to find it hilarious to hear me speaking! Although we spoke different languages, it wasn’t hard to communicate, and to join in the games and dancing. Dinner was a lovely spicy curry with rice – Diana is the first Malawian I’ve met who doesn’t really like nsima – and we ate with our hands. I crashed at 9pm on a mattress on the bedroom floor, whilst Diana and her children sat in bed eating spaghetti from the pan.

The following day was also relaxed – it was a bank holiday, so no school. Everyone was up early, but there was no rush to do anything. We strolled around the market and the base of the mountain before breakfast, and then went back for some porridge, followed by bread and tea. Bread and tea is a standard breakfast here and is almost like a ritual. We sat on the floor to eat and drink. Late morning, Diana walked with me back to the bus stand, as I would be going back to the centre that day to start organising my trips. I promised to return before I flew home; it was such a fun place to hang out especially with all the kids around, and Diana is a great person to talk to, as she is so open-minded and I feel like I can ask her anything and she won’t be offended. Adrian was still around in Blantyre, he would be leaving that evening on the night bus, so I met him and we had a drink followed by some nsima. Another guy eating in the little hut with us was so happy that we were eating the local food, especially when we told him we really loved it. We both had plans in mind for that day – I wanted to get down to a marsh-y place in the south where you can go on boat rides in a dugout canoe, and Adrian needed to whizz back to Zomba as he’d left some stuff there, but somehow neither of these things ended up happening and instead we went into the centre and ran around the markets buying random things and eating satsumas. It was such a cool market with a light-hearted vibe.

Later, me and Adrian said goodbye yet again. This would be the last time we’d see each other for at least a couple of months. He’s been such a big part of my trip that it felt strange waving him off on the bus. The following day I was hoping to head to Mulanje town to organise my mountain hike, but I woke up feeling very ill, and had to spend most of the day in bed. I’ve been on-and-off sick since the beginning of my time in Malawi, so I really hoped I hadn’t got some illness or infection. Sometimes I’d feel fine and other times I would feel awful. So I ended up going to Mulanje the following day instead. Apparently the minibus only took about an hour, incredibly short for Malawi, but the one I got on took about three hours – I later found out that there were two routes and I had got on the slower one! The bus kept stopping at all these random towns for ages, so I was glad I had my book and some music.

Because I hadn’t been feeling well, my plan was to just do a short, easy-ish hike for 2 days. However, when I arrived and I was under the shadow of the dominating mountain, I fell in love and I just had to spend more time there, and do some more challenging hiking. I organised a three-day hike, climbing to the top of one of the peaks also. Mulanje is like a huge plateau rising up from the ground below, of which most is just over 2000m in height. From this plateau rise numerous peaks, of which the tallest is rocky Sapitwa, at 3002m. It doesn’t seem so high when you compare it to beasts like Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya, but it should definitely not be underestimated – it’s a powerful, prominent mountain and the climb is tough and steep. That goes for most of the peaks on the Mulanje plateau, and even getting up to the plateau is not easy.

I found a really cheap guesthouse ever to stay in that night – $2! There was a huge green bug under the toilet seat, and it had a tendency to pop up while you were sitting down, but at that price I didn’t mind. Actually I probably wouldn’t have minded anyway; it was a cute bug. Spent the evening stocking up on fruit, milk, biscuits, and other things that were easy to snack on. I had an agreement with my guide that we would share dinner and he would just buy some nsima and meat, so I didn’t have to worry about carrying pots, pans and heavy ingredients. Once it got dark I retreated to the guesthouse, stood in the courtyard and managed to make out the silhouette of the great mountain by noticing the absence of stars. I was nervous, but couldn’t wait.

The first day was an uphill struggle, literally. With my big backpack loaded and along with my guide (whose name unfortunately escapes me) we began to scale through the trees to get up to the plateau. On the way we met two Portuguese ladies also trying to reach Thuchila Hut for the night (there are several huts on the plateau provided for you to sleep in). The steep climb went on for 3.5 hours, but somehow it felt shorter. I remember hoping that I would see the hut after every corner, and always being disappointed, but when my guide finally pointed it out, snug in-between a spotting of trees, I was surprised to see it so soon. Despite feeling unwell the days before the hike, something about this mountain had temporarily cured me. It had a special power, just like the lake. Maybe it was to do with the beauty of the views and surroundings, the fresh air, or simply the lack of the bustle and stress of the modern world. Nature can do incredible things. After a quick bit of lunch I was ready to climb the nearby peak. There are three near Thuchila Hut, and I can’t actually remember the name of the one we were going up, but I think it was Nandalanda. This would be my afternoon challenge, and it was supposed to be the only peak I would climb – I was hesitant to try the famous Sapitwa Peak, because of not feeling so good. However, I was suddenly feeling so energetic I could have probably jogged up one of the peaks, and so I bugged the guide to take me up Nandalanda as well as Sapitwa Peak tomorrow. Persuading him took a while – he kept making excuses about why we couldn’t climb both, but after offering him a bit more money and clarifying with him that I was definitely fit enough for the challenge, he agreed.

My guide took a while finishing his lunch, and we didn’t set off for our afternoon climb until pretty late in the day. I was a little worried about this, but figured he knew what he was doing. This peak is climbed very infrequently; overshadowed by its higher and more famous ‘neighbours’ Sapitwa and Chambe. However, it was a pretty climb over rocks and shrubs – it looked like the exact kind of place you might come across a leopard. Unfortunately, we got lost about halfway up. The path hadn’t been cleared and was overgrown. With the setting sun not far away, and no sign of another way up, I made the decision to go back down. It just wasn’t worth the potential risk of climbing down in the dark. I was a bit annoyed at my guide who had taken so long eating his lunch, meaning we didn’t have enough daylight hours to complete the climb, but he promised to take me up Sapitwa the next day with no extra charge.

I had a cosy evening by the fire with the two Portuguese ladies. It got very cold at night up there, so I was happy to have a very early night just for an excuse to get into my sleeping bag. We would be up very early the next day, as it was a couple of hours just to get to Chisepo Hut, and from there it was a 5 hour round trip to Sapitwa Peak. The hike to the hut was absolutely beautiful! Not only were we up high, but the plateau rises so steeply from the ground below, that it felt like we were floating above everything. A thick duvet of clouds below shielded the lower ground from the early morning sun, with the exception of a few little peaks who had fidgeted their way through and stood stubbornly, like teenagers who are awake and know it is morning, but are reluctant to get out of bed. But even this sleepy white blanket could not tame us, or Mulanje, as we rose with it, high above the clouds, a dominant and omnipresent part of the blue sky above.

It was like being on our own planet, as craggy rocks rose high above and little streams ran below. Thousands of yellow flowers surrounded the path and the foothills of the mountains. I love the colour yellow in nature. It was hard to remember to watch where I was putting my feet sometimes, because I didn’t want to look down at the floor, I just wanted to soak up some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever had the privilege to see.

I only had time for a very short break once we reached the hut; then we had to get going for Sapitwa if we wanted to get down before dark. I ate as much as possible in preparation for the steep ascent. Sapitwa is 3002m above sea level, which isn’t as high as a lot of other places I’ve been, so I didn’t really think anything of it – but it should definitely not be underestimated. It’s a hard climb; a really hard climb. Everyone wants to go up because it’s the highest point in Malawi (and Central Africa), but many end up giving up part way through. The route up to Sapitwa is defined by rocks, and there are times when it’s more of a rock climb than a hike. The first few parts were the hardest, because there were a few sheer rock faces to climb, that were so steep that I had to go onto my hands and knees for parts of it, and when I did stand up, my calf muscles burned like they’ve never burned before. Thin bands of mist came and went as we ascended, slightly engulfing us sometimes, but quickly passing on. Often the path became obscure, and we had to haul ourselves up big rocks or jump from one rock to another to continue. Occasionally I was a bit too short to climb to the next bit, and had to be dragged up, or attempt to shimmy up backwards. I definitely couldn’t have done it without a guide or someone else with me. I was so determined, and despite sometimes being a little scared (I have a bit of a phobia of falling), and a few cuts and scrapes, I made it! I was absolutely exhausted but that didn’t curb my elation at having reached the top, and I walked all around this area of rocky isolation, whilst my guide had a nap. It was quite misty still, but every so often I caught a glimpse of lower areas, which were mostly also these light-grey rocks.

As we descended along the same path, my legs were shaky from exhaustion, but my mind felt refreshed and calm. Unfortunately, this hut is very popular and when I arrived back, there were so many other people staying the night as well. When you’re on a mountain, most of the time you just want some quiet time with your surroundings, so I ended up going down to the stream to read and sit by myself. The Portuguese ladies were here as well, so it was nice to see them again. The hut was lovely, and watching the sun setting and then rising in this beautiful place was very special.

The following morning I would be taking the Chigamula path back down into Mulanje town. I’m not a fan of downhill hiking, so I kept wanting to ask “are we nearly there yet?” like a child! But it was impossible to really be that impatient, because it was again stunning scenery, and it was made even more fun when we were joined by hundreds of locals – men, women and children – who were almost running down these steep hills carrying firewood on their heads. It was the weekend, and after this ‘quick’ dash up and down the mountain, they would have a bit of time to relax, so they wanted to get down as quickly as possible. When you’re being overtaken by small kids carrying heavy loads on their heads, it does make you feel a bit embarrassed. The best part of the day was when we reached a waterfall with a huge deep pool, and the guide left me for a little while so I could have a swim. The water was incredibly cold, and the shock of it made me slightly giddy, so I hopped in and out, staying in only as long as I could bear, then drying off in the sun.

The first thing I did when getting back to Mulanje town was have a huge dish of rice and beans. Then I got a minibus back to Blantyre.

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