Malawi: Trekking on Mt Mulanje

24th April - 14th May 2002


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After four days resting at Doogles the swelling in my toe began to ease and at last I was confident that I would be fit enough in a couple of days to trek up the Mulanje Massif. Graeme and myself left Doogles late on Tuesday afternoon and drove to Mulanje, 80km to the east. It didn't take too long to leave the urban sprawl of Blantyre and Limbe behind us and soon we were driving along a good road through the rural Shire Highlands. As soon as we were out of the city we could see the giant, granite massif of Mulanje rising up in the distance, dominating the landscape. This area is the centre of Malawi's tea growing industry as the Shire Highlands provide the perfect climate for the tea bushes to thrive. Tea bushes were first imported from India during the early days of the Nyasaland Colony and today tea is one of Malawi's main export crops. It is a very labour intensive industry and is only really viable in countries where manual wages are very low, such as Malawi. All along the road and in every direction the gently rolling hills were covered in tea bushes, like a thick green carpet. The bushes were so bright green they almost looked unnatural, as the new shoots grew from the tops of the bushes almost luminescent in colour. Amongst the bushes pickers slowly moved, both men and women, plucking the new, bright green shoots by hand and throwing them by the handful into baskets strapped to their backs.

As we neared Mulanje the massif towered in front of us, surrounded by tea plantations and forest on the lower slopes before the escarpment became too steep and rose up from the surrounding hills as a sheer rock face. The late afternoon sun was casting an orange glow against the granite rock; it looked like an ideal place to spend a few days trekking away from life in the always bustling African towns and cities. We turned off the main road at the small village of Chitikali, just past the Likabula River, and followed a small dirt road that weaved through the tea plantations around the western escarpment of the massif to the Forest Resthouse near to the settlement of Likabula. We arrived just as it was getting dark, which happens very quickly in this part of the world, and set up a tent in the gardens for the night. The rest house was a very smart looking place with a caretaker and cook but the new, very high barbed wire fence around the grounds did give the place the feel of a prison camp. At the barbed wire fence about eight potential guides had lined up, all shouting at us and offering their services; they had followed our car through the village. It was like being in a zoo; eventually when it got too dark they all slowly wandered away back to the village.

We rested for one more day at the Forest Resthouse, my toe was well on the mend and I was confident that I would be fully fit the next day to start our climb. Continuously during the day we were hassled by one guide who eventually took to just sitting and staring at us for hours on end; a very strange way of picking up business, he would be the last person I would hire to take up the mountain. In the afternoon we went along to the Likabula Forest Station to book the huts and hire a guide for our four-day trek up onto the massif. We intended to trek to the Chambe Hut, up Sapitwa Peak and on to Thuchila Hut from where we would descend the massif. The Forest Station has a list of all seventy registered guides who they use on a rota basis, so we could not pick and choose whom we would take. The guide who had been staring at us all day had followed us to the office and sat outside listening. He claimed that he was the next guide on the list and that he would be taking us up the mountain. I pointed out to him, if that was the case, then why had he been hassling us all day if he knew that he was next on the rota and guaranteed work. Graeme and myself refused point blank to hire him whether it was his turn on the rota or not. In the end we were introduced to our guide, a young lad of 23 with a nasty scar on the side of his neck. We agreed to set off from the Forest Resthouse at 08.00 the following morning.

The massif is approximately square in shape measuring 26km by 22km and covers an area of about 640 sq km. The Forest Resthouse sits at 800m above sea level from where we would be starting our trek. The massif is made up of a number of bowl-shaped river basins that are divided by rocky ridges and peaks. There are twenty peaks measuring over 2,500m, the highest being Sapitwa Peak at 3,001m, the highest peak in Malawi and Central Africa. The massif is made of granite that was forced up through volcanic activity over 130 million years ago; the surrounding rocks are much softer, eroding over the years to now leave this huge mass of granite towering over the encircling undulating hills. The massif is a forest reserve and commercial pine plantations were established in a couple of the basins, the Chambe and Sombani, during the colonial period and now supply timber for the whole of southern Malawi. The rest of the massif has remained as natural forest and grassland.

On this trek I had not done much research and had left the planning of our route to Graeme. My main goal was to reach the summit of Sapitwa Peak, a climb that I thought would be the easiest on my trip through Africa being that it was the lowest peak by over 1,500m. I also felt that by having a guide there was less reason to study the route we were taking, all I had to do was follow the guide; you could say I had become lazy, but at least it meant that I was in for a few surprises. Our guide arrived early in the morning as we were doing our last minute packing and checking we had not forgotten anything. The path from the Forest Resthouse lead up to the Chambe Basin following a steep valley cut by the Likabula River into the side of the escarpment. The walking started off fairly easy, walking through forest along paths and tracks, crossing streams, until we reached the base of the climb. We had originally intended to take the longer and easier route along the Chapaluka Path that follows a gentler gradient up the valley, because of the recent problems with my foot. Our guide wasn't aware of this and led us up the Skyline path, the steep and quick route up to the basin. The path is named after the cableway that runs up the side of the mountain, which is used to bring sawn timber down from the plantations.

The going was very steep and tiring, as we rested our guide told us that we were not on the Chapaluka Path as intended. By then it was too late to change our route as we had made fairly good progress up the mountain along the Skyline path. The Skyline cableway was broken so the timber was being carried down by labourers, some of them carrying up to three very long planks down at a time. The planks were long enough that they almost scraped the path behind them as they carried them on their heads, such was the steep gradient of the path. It certainly looked like very hard work as a constant stream of these men pounded down the side of the mountain barefoot, sweat dripping from their foreheads. It made our job look easy, just carrying a well fitting backpack weighing about 16kg with a good pair of boots on our feet. The path followed up a ridge; to the south we could glimpse views through the trees of the Likabula Valley and Chilemba Peak on the opposite side. Where the path became really steep, steps had been cut to make the climb easier, especially as the damp clay was very slippery at times.

After a long, hard climb we reached the top of the Skyline path where the path flattened out as it crossed the Chambe Basin. The whole basin was covered in a rather ugly looking commercial pine plantation that the path lead through crossing over some small streams along the way. A lot of the trees had been recently felled and the area burnt. New pines had been planted but the whole area looked a bit of a destructive mess. It took about an hour walking to reach the Chambe Hut from the top of the Skyline path. The hut was just set away from some nearby forestry workers houses, on a patch of short grass alongside a stream where some tree ferns were growing. It was a wooden hut with a very large veranda at the front. There were two large rooms inside, a bunkroom and a dining room where there was a brick fireplace, tables and chairs. It was 11.30 when we arrived; it had taken us three and a half hours to climb the 1,000m from the Forest Resthouse.

The caretaker at the hut immediately lit a fire for us and we borrowed a pan to boil up some water. We were the only two people staying there, our guide stayed in a separate hut just behind ours. The caretaker kept us supplied with firewood and a bucket of water from the nearby stream. I felt exhausted from the mornings climb; the past five days resting with a bad foot had not been the best preparation for a tough hike like this. Despite this I felt quietly confident about tomorrow's climb to the summit of Sapitwa Peak, as we would be leaving our backpacks at the hut and only taking daypacks to carry what we would need for the ascent. We spent the afternoon relaxing at the hut in front of the fire, soon the memory of the Skyline path began to fade and it all began to seem easy. We kept a pan of water on the boil during the afternoon and made soup, tea, noodles and more tea as the afternoon wore on. Our guide came over and asked us if we wanted to go for a short hike but by then we were quiet content sitting around the fire watching the logs burn. No one else arrived at the hut that day and we had the place to ourselves. By 20.00 we turned in early for the night and planned to get up at 05.00 the next morning so as to start our summit attempt at 06.00. Our guide warned us that it would be a long day and the earlier we started the better.

We were woken at seven minutes past five as the caretaker arrived to light the fire for us. Graeme was quick to get up and seemed very keen to get on; I lay on my bunk and said there is a slight problem; it's too cold to get out of my sleeping bag. It probably was not that cold, but it was the coldest I had felt since I had climbed Mt Meru in Tanzania back in March. Graeme had a thermometer that gave a reading of 10'c, it felt a lot colder but then we were probably very used to warm weather, both of us spending over three months in Africa by now. The water was soon boiling on the fire which we huddled around to keep warm as we ate some porridge and drunk a welcome mug of tea. At 06.15, just as it was getting light we began our hike to the summit following the large path behind the hut that lead up steeply through the pine trees.

The trail lead up out of the pine plantation and through some indigenous forest where the tall Mulanje Cedar grew. We were soon crossing over open grassland dotted with indigenous flowers and plants, including the vellozia plant, a few still in bloom with their white flowers. At last we were away from the pine trees that we could see below us covering the Chambe Basin. The path followed a narrow ridge that joined the Chambe and Thuchila basins together, at times the path was very steep and slippery as it lead through the forest. After two and a half hours we reached the turnoff for Sapitwa Peak, I was already feeling tired, there seemed to be no energy in my legs today. On hearing the news that this was the start of the trail to the summit and that we had almost 1,000m to climb I began to feel depressed and doubted my chances of reaching the summit. It had already felt like we had climbed halfway up the mountain just reaching this point from the Chambe Hut, but all our climbing was just to get over the ridge between the two basins. We had climbed up out of the Chambe and descended into the Thuchila; all of the climbing we had done we had also descended except for maybe a couple of hundred metres. Now the hard work of the day would begin.

I was still blisfully unaware of how hard the climb would be. In front of me I could see a broad ridge leading up to a slight saddle between two peaks, Sapitwa was further on behind this ridge. The path crossed over a small stream and wound it's way through grass until we reached the base of the main ridge that was a sheer slope of large granite slabs and giant boulders; it looked difficult. There was not a path as such from here onwards; the trail was just marked out by red splashes of paint on the rocks. There were huge boulder fields we had to cross, scrambling up or around these giant lumps of granite. Plants continued to grow in this rocky wilderness, finding a foothold in the cracks in the rock including the aloe mawii with it's bright red flowers. At times we were walking up slabs of granite at an angle of between forty and fifty degrees. My legs were quickly turning to jelly, a problem I had not encountered before on this trip; I was becoming seriously concerned whether I would make it to the summit. I decided to see what was on the other side of the ridge we were climbing, if we had to go down again to reach another ridge to the summit I would give up, I no longer had the energy to climb this again. It was a 550m slog up to the top of the ridge where we sat down and rested, dripping in sweat.

We still could not see the summit but at least the trail continued upwards but at a far more gentler gradient. Despite the easing of the slope the hiking did not become any easier. The trail wound a tortuous route across a huge boulder field and through gullies and ravines that were thick with giant heather. It was a constant battle scrambling up or between the boulders; some were so large that the only way past them was to crawl through tunnels underneath them. The gullies were just as challenging where it was easy to loose the trail in the thick tangle of vegetation. Eventually, just when it felt like we were never going to reach the summit, we came up over a small ridge and there in front of us, clearly visible was the summit cairn. It was one last hard push for the summit crossing another deep, overgrown gully and then beneath an overhang from the summit where there was a small pool of water covered with a thin layer of ice. We passed a cave and then scrambled up the last few metres, crawling through another tunnel under the boulders to emerge on the summit.

I was totally exhausted as I stood by the cairn, I could hardly believe I had made it, the final 450m ascent had definitely been one of the hardest climbs I had ever attempted. The views across the massif and beyond were stunning and suddenly all the hard physical effort seemed worth it to gaze at these wonderful views. There was a blue sky above us and some cloud had begun to bubble up over the massif and the hills far below us. There was hardly a breath of wind at the summit and as we sat in a grassy hollow between the rocks it was perfectly still; there was not a single sound to break the silence around us as we ate our much-deserved lunch. It was exactly midday, it had taken us five hours forty-five minutes from the Chambe Hut, far longer than I had expected. We sat on the summit for an hour, it was pleasantly cool but not cold under the bright sun; all the time the cloud was rolling in around us and wisps of cloud floated past. Eventually we had to begin our descent in order to get back to the Chambe hut before dark fell.

I was not looking forward to scrambling back down this huge boulder field; it was definitely going to be a test for my knees and leg muscles. It took two and a half hours to reach the stream at the bottom of the peak near the turn off from the main trail. At least the granite was not slippery and my boots gripped well as we slowly walked down the huge slabs of granite at almost impossible angles. Along the last section through the grass I fell over twice, the energy completely drained from my legs. For a few moments I felt relief just lying there in the grass. We stopped at the stream to refill our water bottles and rest; I had drunk two litres of water already and could of drunk a lot more. As we sat by the stream I could not imagine going hiking tomorrow; the trail we would be taking to the Thuchila Hut would double back past the turn off for Sapitwa Peak and would take about five hours. Graeme was thinking exactly the same thing and didn't want to go anywhere tomorrow. We both decided thankfully that we would take the day off tomorrow and spend it recovering at the Chambe Hut relaxing. We were both relieved we were thinking the same thing, after all this was supposed to be a holiday, not a military exercise.

Somehow we managed to struggle on back across the ridge to the Chambe Basin. I suddenly felt a lot more energetic and found myself leaping up boulders along the path; that is when the adrenaline kicked in and I realised that I had over stretched myself. The only thing going through my mind was to reach the hut before nightfall. The sun disappeared behind the huge mass of the Chambe Peak, 2,557m, and the light began to fade. My eyes adjusted to the dying light as we continued on and back through the pine forests. By now we were walking into branches we could not see over hanging the trail and stumbling on rocks hidden in the deepest shadows of the gullies that cut across the path. As we turned onto the last path that lead back down the hill through the pines to the hut it was as good as dark and the stars shone brightly above us through the branches of the trees. Finally we were back in the grassy clearing and could see the dark shape of the hut and once again hear the gentle sound of the stream splashing over the rocks. We had made it and it was just past 18:00, twelve hours after we had set out.

I never knew that it would be such a long hike and in ways am glad I never did read up on the route; if I had I might have been in two minds about climbing Sapitwa Peak, which I later found out means, 'don't go there' in the local language. As we stumbled into the hut the fire was burning brightly and the caretaker had put on a pot of water that was almost boiling ready for a nice cup of tea. We collapsed into a chair by the fire and talked briefly with two Americans who had hiked up along the Skyline path that morning while we drunk tea and ate some noodles. Within an hour and a half I was fast asleep.

I woke up the next morning, my legs feeling better than I expected, but glad that we were not hiking anywhere today. I would enjoy a day sitting at this hut doing nothing. Meanwhile Graeme was not feeling too well, a slight case of diarrhoea, so all in all we were both happy with our decision to abandon our original plans of traversing the massif. We spent a lazy day at the hut doing very little; time just seemed to slip by. I heated up a bucket of water and found a secluded spot out in the pine trees to take a bucket shower; it was great to feel clean and refreshed again. The rest of the time we sat on the veranda or in front of the fire keeping a pot of water on the boil to make lunch, dinner and a few cups of tea. Some day visitors came past in the morning, a couple of Germans who stopped by for a chat and a drink. Apart from that the place was quiet and we had the hut to ourselves again by evening.

The following morning we left at 08.00 to walk back down the Skyline path to the Forest Resthouse. The weather had changed and low cloud and mist hung over the basin, shrouding the surrounding peaks. We thanked the caretaker for all his work and for making us feel at home and for a tip gave him our leftover food supplies that he was happy to receive. We then began our trudge back through the plantations across the basin through the mist and light drizzle, which made the clay path very slippery indeed. When we reached the steep Skyline path we took it very slowly so as not to slip on the wet clay. After two and a half hours of careful walking we were back at the Forest Resthouse, none of us slipping over during our descent, which I thought was a minor miracle. After thanking and tipping our guide and also thanking the staff at the rest house we jumped back in the truck and returned to Blantyre and reached Doogles in time for lunch and a much-deserved cold beer.

Both of us were next going to Mozambique, but along different routes. Graeme was leaving the next day and travelling along the Tete corridor, meanwhile I was planning to leave in a couple of days and cross the Mozambique border at Milange and to explore the north of the country. The staff at Doogles had my passport back from the Mozambique consulate, complete with my entry visa, so I was all set to start my next adventure on Tuesday. On Monday morning Graeme left for Tete and once more I was back travelling by myself on local transport. I spent an extra day in Blantyre to have a look around the town properly, something I had not been able to do before we went to Mt Mulanje because of my bad foot. I also got myself organised ready for my trip across the border tomorrow and managed to purchase US$100 worth of Mozambique Meticais at a foreign exchange bureau on Victoria Street.

This journey continued across the border in Mozambique

Continue reading this journey: Travelling through the north