15 April 2020

Mulanje Massif: Climbing Malawi's Tallest Peak

See the full photo-story at exposure.co

These days, Mount Mulanje is a classic stop on the Malawi itinerary; an essential for most people passing through the country. Ed and I wound up here partly by accident, after a last-minute decision to cross the nearby border from Mozambique, rather than taking an alternative crossing a little further to the north. The town of Mulanje lies about 30km west of the border. Arriving, you’re greeted by a tiny market centre, with fruit and veg for sale on wooden stalls and mats laid out on the floor, and an assortment of cubby-hole groceries and hardware stores with bright, hand-painted signs. Like many other places in Malawi, these signs, the surrounding vegetation and the women’s Chitenge - colourful garments wrapped around their waists - form a textured, kaleidoscopic image always framed by the rich red soil. It’s an image that, for me, is totally African, and distinctive of my memories there.

This small, laid-back town, where people smile easily, move slowly, and motorcyclists amble up to offer you taxi rides, is dwarfed by Mulanje Massif, Malawi’s highest mountain. This is the subject of much mystery and awe – best exemplified by the name of its highest peak, Sapitwa, meaning “don’t go there”. Adding to the enchantment is the heavy mist that sometimes shrouds the mountain’s peaks for days at a time. If you’re lucky enough to arrive on a clear day, the massif rises out of the surrounding landscape like a green jewel against the blue sky. Once you catch a glimpse of it, you immediately understand the intrigue that first inspired 19th-century explorers – and likely, many locals before that – to climb the mountain.

Ed and I hadn’t done much research on Mulanje, and this being our first stop in Malawi, we’d initially planned just to pass through for a night or two, leaving the more serious hiking for later. But we soon realised that this would be a wasted opportunity – that visiting Mulanje without doing a day hike at the very least was practically sacrilege – especially now that it stood, in all its glory, above us. So, after a quick conversation with the forestry office, we booked a guide and porter to accompany us to the peak, Sapitwa. They advised that we needed cooking equipment, all our food, and sleeping bags – and that the return journey would take three days. We made a trip to the market to buy supplies: vegetables from the local ladies; rice and pasta from the cubbyhole shops.

Our first hiking day took us 2,219 metres up to Chisepo hut – one of ten huts scattered across the Massif. Aside from these hikers’ rests, there isn’t much infrastructure on the mountain. It’s one of the most charming things about Mulanje – no shops, no guesthouses, no mountain villages like, perhaps, those of well-trodden routes in the Himalayas. You enter into the thicket – in our case from the village of Likhubula –begin your journey through the forest path, then ascend on terrain that feels wild and untouched, gradually evolving as you climb. Our route took us up a steep, rocky trail on the edge of a ridge, so we had spectacular views to our right that got more impressive the further up we went. The village of Likhubula got smaller and smaller till it disappeared into a patchwork of green and brown. Soon the ground level faded out of sight completely. On the mountain’s plateaus, the walking trail opened out onto grassy plains layered with plants, shrubs and rocks; a diverse landscape totally raw and unspoiled.

After six hours of hiking, we were pleased when Chisepo hut appeared out of the mist. The simplicity of these wooden mountain huts, with basic mattresses on the floor and a fire for light and heat, adds immensely to the magic of climbing Mulanje. There’s something special about arriving after your legs have carried you the distance, rewarding yourself with a hot cup of tea brewed on the fire stove, with little to distract you except the cries of ravens overhead and the gentle hum of activity as other hikers come in and out. After washing our face, hands and feet in the nearby stream, we changed into clean clothes and cooked dinner over the fire, sharing stories with a few others stopping for the night. Later, pleasantly exhausted and with no light left except the fading embers, we settled down into our sleeping bags. Closing my eyes, images of the mountain and the forest passed under my eyelids, enveloping me in green and granite and blue sky. I soon fell into a deep and nourishing sleep.

We woke early on the second day for an early start to Sapitwa. With the moon still high in the sky, the sun greeted us by casting its light on the rock faces above, turning them a spectacular shade of orange. Eventually its rays reached the hut and gifted us with warmth before our departure. Not long after we began our ascent, the landscape started to change: less grass, more rock, while a few strange trees dwindled: the hardy, persistent ones, who’d found home in this otherworldly habitat.

We climbed, and hiking soon turned into clambering as we found ourselves in a landscape of boulders, without a clear path. Nelson, our guide, showed us where to put our feet and how to navigate the more challenging sections. The bouldering came as a surprise, but it was a welcome one, reminding us that we were summiting a mountain. I used the little knowledge I have of rock-climbing to conserve energy, enjoying the textured feeling of the rock under my palms each time I pulled myself up. We reached Sapitwa after about 3 hours, rewarded with a clear sky and a fantastic view of the surrounding peaks. We spent an hour or so up there, taking in the magnificence of the mountain and enjoying the total silence and serenity of the peak.

Eventually we started our descent. We retraced our steps back down to Chisepo hut, then took an easterly route to Chambe hut, staying there for the night before our final descent to Likhubula. The return journey was more challenging both physically and mentally: Balancing on steep edges, testing our knees by braking constantly, while our bodies unravelled the aches and pains that had been camouflaged by adrenaline on the way up. I eventually found that the best way of navigating the downhill was to let my mind drift, my body in autopilot, feet imitating each of Nelson’s steps ahead of me. Still, the landscape surrounding me wasn’t any less impressive the second time around, and I was basking in the afterglow of Sapitwa.

It was only when we got back down, our bodies sensing the end of something, when the exhaustion really kicked in. We thanked Nelson and our porter Masa, waving goodbye as we dropped back into armchairs on the veranda of our forest lodge. A deep exhale sent a ripple through my sore muscles, a satisfying reminder of what we’d accomplished. Trekking is always as challenging as it is rewarding – and we did feel rewarded, by an intimate knowledge of this mountain and the privilege of reaching its highest peak. We looked up and thanked Mulanje for giving us our initiation, our spectacular introduction, to Malawi.


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