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We have been in Blantyre for quite some time and we are frothing to see some of Malawi’s most noteworthy attractions. Also, Nick has mistakenly formatted his SD card with all our photos of Malawi so far, as well as, footage needed to do a video edit for an NGO, Music Against Malaria.
We are both feeling despondent. How better to forget than seek an adventure?
We are heading from Blantyre to Mount Mulanje, about a 60km drive, in search of some mountain peak solace. Mount Mulanje, in the South-east region of Malawi, is located near the border of Mozambique. This area is one of only two regions in the country where tea is grown, providing residents with a much needed source of income, as well as colouring the area with bright yellow-green plantations which creep up the slopes of the mountain. Mulanje, is a gigantic granite massif protruding from the earth’s surface at its base around 650m rising to 3002m at its highest peak.
We are on a mission to reach this peak and stand atop its summit shouting a yodel in the hopes of a reply. Our route will take us to a pair of overnight huts which will house us whilst on the mountain and supposedly keep out the cold .
We arrive on a Saturday afternoon.
On our final approach toward the gate of the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve, we notice a group of people who hastily arise from their afternoon slumber at the sight of Rafiki rolling up the drive. Arriving at the gates we are swamped by a relentless group of self appointed guides who all insist they have “the stuff” to help up reach the summit of the coveted Sapitwa Peak. A young chap, insists on being our guide and duly appoints himself so. He quickly rushes to meet us at our accommodation later. A grueling three day, two night hike up Malawi’s tallest mountain, is no easy feat with only a guide and no porters, as we brazenly opt to carry all our own food, water and gear to make it a more budget friendly experience. As it is compulsory to take a guide, we allow him to a guide us to Likhubula Falls in an effort to gauge his capabilities as a mountain guide (with full knowledge of the fact that this walk doesn’t require a guide). Our Sunday afternoon is spent feverishly readying and packing our kit and buying food supplies with a small hike up to the waterfalls. Upon return from the falls we sense that our ever enthusiastic guide (although he is a great guy) is slightly too young and inexperienced to escort us up the mountain on a multi-day high altitude hike. We later find out that he is not a registered guide with the forestry office which is compulsory when taking people up the mountain.
Instead, we opt for another guide who is suggested to us by one of the watchman at the CCPA hostel where we are camping. We meet with him to discuss the cost and the routing of our ascent, and with all planning in place, we give him a deposit in order for him to buy his own supplies and pay our hiking and hut fees. Our aim is to leave at 7am the following morning.
The next morning, we are approached by a group of men from the forestry office along with their chairman inquiring about our hike route, hut fees and why we opted for a last minute change of our guide. We’re not sure how he has come to know this information but we assume this is normal procedure and thus give them the required explanation. Upon hearing this they are not satisfied and we are cordially escorted to the forestry office. We suspect our initial self-appointed guide is disgruntled and has tittle-tailed because we told him we already had another guide. Long story cut short, our new guide is actually a porter not a guide, he has failed to pay the hut fees and the forestry office follows a rotating list for assigning guides to hikers and it’s not his turn. After much discussion, the forestry board members assign us another guide, Patrick Kachala. We are now slightly peeved as we are over an hour late to begin the trek which we know will take us the entire day to reach our base camp. Lesson learned: although no guidance is given on arrival at the gates or the hostel, the Likhubula Forestry Office should be visited prior to any arrangements being made with a guide in order to pay the hut fees, before any attempts at hiking the mountain are made.
With Patrick leading the charge, the first part is a gruelling, arduous 12km uphill from Likhubula Valley to Chambe plateau with a steep 1000m rise in altitude. We follow the Skyline path where Patrick points out a disused cable car wire that was used back in the day to transport harvested pine down the mountain. He tells us about the Porters Race happening the next weekend, a gruelling 21km race on Mulanje that the best runners complete in just 2 hours. When we reach Chambe Basin, we sit down for a much needed rest and scrumptious lunch of canned sardines in a tomato sauce on bread, yummm. Needless to say the taste of fish lingered on the lips for the rest of the day. The next half of the journey, Patrick pointed out an indigenous Mulanje Cedar sapling. The mountainside used to be full of the huge indigenous Cedars but sadly due to their status as a highly quality raw material, the timber is fashioned into furniture and other local wood crafts. There is a reforestation project underway which is run by the forestry office where saplings are grown in an effort to regenerate the once abundant indigenous cedar forest. (which give off an incredible aroma by the way).
After six hours of steep uphills with few forgiving flat sections, we arrive at Chisepo Hut, our accommodation for the night. Overcome with exhaustion, we cook two minute noodles with an accompaniment of canned sardines in tomato sauce (again!). We gobble down our dinner and slip into our sleeping bags laid out on the thin, bedbug ridden mattresses as close to the fire as possible without putting ourselves at risk of spontaneous midnight combustion, courtesy of a stray ember. However, with the ice cold breeze drafting through the gaps in the timber floor boards, we find it is impossible to get a good nights rest. Day two to the summit is going to be rough.
Day two is welcomed in by the rays of sunshine beaming over the peaks, lighting up the adjacent mountains and the crisp morning air filling the lungs. Much to our surprise there is substantial frost on the ground. Our challenge for the day: Mulanje’s highest peak, Sapitwa at 3002m above sea level, which up until this point has yet to show itself. This peak is South-east Africa’s highest peak and is surprisingly very chilly with a lot of ice on the mountain top. The hike begins with an arduous two hour ascent up a near vertical steep rock face, which sees us grappling hands and feet up its length.
It is only near the very end of the ascent that we are afforded a respite and our first much needed view of our ultimate goal, Sapitwa Peak the summit.
Before the last stretch, we fill up our bottles from a small pool of water that has been iced over. We have to break through the ice to take in the refreshing liquid, which we find is actually too cold to drink but our thirst prevails.
Upon summiting, we are filled with a sense of accomplishment and accompanied exhaustion, but the stoke levels are high. We find a small ditch in the rocks to escape the powering chiperoni (Chichewa for a kind of drizzle or rain) winds coming in from the Indian ocean that slam into the side of the massif. The combination of cool air from the altitude and the moisture brought in with these winds creates the ideal misty conditions for the growth of tea and the unique forest habitats on the mountain slopes. In the comfort of our small rocky nook, we sit to eat our lunch consisting of peanut butter sandwiches and biscuits (hardly fulfilling after the climb) and enjoy the view. During our lunch break Patrick has found himself an equally comfortable nook and gone off to sleep. With the warm sun beating down we are not far behind and dose off for a short time. The descent is far quicker and more enjoyable, although very steep down the same rock face.
After returning to Chisepo Hut, after 5 and a half hours of hiking, we make a quick lunch, rest for an hour and then begin the 3 hour journey to Chambe Hut, where we spend the night. As we approach the hut, we catch our first sighting of Chambe’s famous west facade – an impressive 1700m sheer granite cliff face and also the longest rock climb in Africa. We are pleased to arrive just as the sun dips behind the mountain thus avoiding what could have been and interesting walk in the dark. We sit down by the fire that has been prepared and enjoy a much needed cup of tea. Dinner preparations are in full swing and we are reveling at the prospect of the evening meal to come… canned sardines in tomato sauce with two minute noodles (YAAAAY). After this Nick heads off to sit by the fire outside with the guides who, have also sat down for dinner, in the hopes of scoring something a little tastier. They willingly share their dinner of Usipa ( a small silver fish from Lake Malawi), Nsima (i.e pap, ugali, maize meal – it goes by many names) and tomato and onion sauce. Unfortunately, this hut is just as cold as Chisepo Hut and yet another cold sleepless night awaits (especially because the hut is vibrating with someone’s loud snoring throughout the night)
The following day is our last. We walk from Chambe Hut along the Chapaluka route to Likhubula Falls for a refreshing swim in the cool natural pools, etched away over centuries into the granite rock. We are both relieved as the sight of Rafiki comes into view along with the associated thoughts of comfort and warmth at the prospect of our rooftop tent.
Exhausted, dirty and hungry we head to Africa Wild Truck for the night. By the time we get there in the late afternoon, we are ravenous. Three days of snack food, two minute noodles, canned sardines and bread and we have started dipping into our bodies’ fat reserves. So we have no reservations at ordering their full set lunch menu- a three course meal of gnocchi, home made bread, a house salad and dessert. It’s proper Italian food made by the Italian owner/chef and it’s exactly what we need for recovery. It’s safe to say, we slept like Cedarwood logs that night!