Mount Mulanje is Malawi’s other natural wonder, often bypassed in favour of the country’s celebrated lake. Hiking sceptic Aaron Gekoski steps out of his comfort zone and sets out for the summit
Hiking. Being at one with nature. Getting a rollicking good workout, while taking in lungfuls of crisp, unpolluted air. Freeing oneself, however temporarily, from the trappings of consumerism. It’s easy to see the allure. Yet despite this, I’ve always had a natural aversion to all things uphill. The unflattering crinkly material, fusty sleeping bags, compasses I can barely read and fires I can hardly start. Besides, why bother when we can live vicariously through alpha males such as Bear Grylls or Ray Mears? Far easier on the legs, too. I am, however, an excellent armchair hiker.
So when I received a filming assignment for a Malawian tour operator and found a mountain on the itinerary, I was somewhat perturbed. A period of Googling ensued. This ‘Mulanje’ appeared a somewhat formidable beast, which represented a dilemma: how to scale a 3000m monster without actually climbing it? If we can jettison a man to the moon, surely an escalator to the top, or at least some kind of elaborate pulley system, wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility?
Sensing I might be making a mountain out of a molehill, Dom and Kate Webb, owners of The Responsible Safari Company, assured me that while Mulanje is a challenging climb, many older, less able-bodied visitors than me have made it to the top. They’ve quite enjoyed it, too. And so, reluctantly, I agreed to my first foray into the world of mountaineering.
Onwards and upwards
Driving 65km from Blantyre, Gem and I make our way to Mulanje. En route, people line the road three deep on either side: men struggle with giant bags of charcoal on bicycles; women carry even larger, longer bundles of wood on their heads; and children throw ninja poses at the passing car. Over the past half century, Malawi’s population has increased from only 4 million to more than 15 million.
And then it appears: a great granite protrusion of peaks and plateaus, so high that as we get closer we have to crane our heads out of the car window in order to view its summit. I had drastically underestimated Mulanje — hoping for something approaching more of a large hill. Mulanje is most definitely a mountain. I take a quick glance down at my feet: woefully inadequate pumps stare back, flimsy, thin-soled and wholly unsuited to a climb of this magnitude.
Covering an area of 650sq km, it is claimed that this is south-central Africa’s highest mountain. Its loftiest peak, Sapitwa, stands at 3002m: so high, in fact, that it disturbs air flow, allowing rain clouds to form around it, which in turn feed Malawi’s rivers. This massif — colossal, imposing and about to be scaled — is in many ways as important to Malawi as its celebrated lake.
We stop off at the small town of Mulanje to get supplies and meet Moses who runs Mulanje Outdoor Adventures. Chiselled and with the customary broad Malawian smile, it appears as though muscles — replete with python-like veins — are trying to escape from his bulbous calves. Together we travel to base camp at Likhubula, our jump-off point for the mountain.
Path to the sky
A number of possible routes lead to a total of 20 peaks. These range from the supremely difficult (the Boma) to the difficult (such as the route we’ll be taking, along the Lukulezi path).
Our guide Joe is a perky 20-something, who leads groups in his spare time to help support his studies. Did he have any tips for novice climbers? “Put one foot in front of the other, then repeat a few thousand times. Oh, and try to enjoy the views,” he responds, with a cheeky grin.
The first few kilometres through deep, forested ravines are a crash course in sprained ankle avoidance. I slip and slide on twigs, trying not to fall and break my camera, cursing my naivety, while concentrating like a man possessed and wondering why on earth anyone would do this for fun. As we pause to catch breath, eat a few biscuits for energy and take on water, a porter springs past us with our backpacks, equipment and dinner on his head, barely breaking sweat. Pumps? He’s not even wearing shoes.
Reaching the foot of the mountain, the next stage of our hike is all about the ascent. We hop over small streams and navigate slippery boulders, framed by giant Mulanje cedars. Due to its durability and resistance to termites, Malawi’s giant national tree has been heavily logged. Now, only a few small pockets remain.
Out of sight — but within earshot — lurk animals native to Mulanje, including birds such as the white-winged apalis, along with squeaker frogs, numerous species of butterfly, dwarf chameleons, and even a limbless type of skink.
With each step upwards, the view expands and I begin to ignore the lactic acid build-up in my calves and newly formed blisters. The air lifts. The smells grow in intensity. Every chirp is amplified. I feel complete detachment from the congested realities that play out beneath us.
Reaching above it
After half a day’s fairly brisk walking on tired legs, we reach Thuchila, a small wooden hut straight out of Little House on the Prairie (but with far superior views). Built in 1901 — and the oldest of all Mulanje’s public shelters — it is one of 10 huts that help bind the walking routes together. The shack is heavenly in its simplicity. A small kitchen contains basic supplies. Strewn across a few attached rooms is a scattering of tatty mattresses, which appear to tired minds like perfect, spongy apparitions.
After a three-course meal, including some perfectly seared fish from the lake, we play cards in front of the fire, while sipping cans of golden beer. Afterwards we crawl into our sleeping bags and embark on one of the soundest night’s sleep I’ve had in ages.
Thuchila is ideally situated for keen climbers to stretch themselves further and reach some of the other crests. Over the next couple of days, Gem scrambles up testing Nandalanda Peak, before taking a dip in nearby natural pools. I opt for local strolls to Elephant’s Head, which — to my surprise — really does resemble a pachyderm’s bonce. Beneath it lies a sprawling Malawi: a patchwork consisting of Zomba Plateau, Lake Chilwa and one of the highest rural population densities in all of Africa.
I’m treated to the most spectacular sunset of smoky pinks and oranges. My head in the clouds, high above the busyness that lies beneath, I am free from telephone reception, free from electricity and free from luxuries. Despite my initial reticence, it’s been an overwhelmingly liberating experience. And shhh — don’t tell anyone — I might just be a hiking convert.
Having plied their trade since 1923, the guys at Satemwa Estate, in the foothills of Mount Mulanje, know a thing or two about how to make tea and coffee. This family owned business is a must-see before or after a trip up the mountain. Take a wander around the emerald-green plantations, as workers pluck leaves and toss them behind their heads into baskets. For photographers, a visit at sunrise can result in spectacular photo opportunities. An early start also offers the perfect excuse to indulge in a little colonial decadence. Originally the family home of owners the Cathcart Kay family, Huntingdon House offers five beautifully appointed bedrooms and some of the finest food Malawi has to offer: a lot of which was sourced from the manicured gardens out front. Needless to say, the coffee and tea’s not bad either.
• Getting there Kenya Airways and South African Airways fly to Malawi. From Blantyre, travel by car to Mulanje township via Thyolo. After this, it’s a dirt road to the Likhubula Forestry Station. The easiest way to arrange your trip is through a tour operator, such as Cedarberg Africa or The Responsible Safari Company.
• Logistics Permits (US$3-5) must be bought and hut fees paid before you climb the mountain. A guide (US$25 per day), available at Likhubula Forest Lodge, is compulsory. Porters (US$20) are also available. Some guides provide food, others don’t, so check.
• Where to stay The various routes up Mulanje have huts (US$3-5) equipped with mattresses, fireplaces, water, firewood and basic cooking facilities, which must be booked on arrival at Likhubula. For greater comfort you could book a room at Likhubula Forest Lodge (dorms from US$11; chalets from US$30 per person). Conversely, if you’re on a tight budget there’s a campsite nearby. Permission to camp elsewhere must be obtained in advance from the Forestry Officer.
• When to go The coolest months of May-August are the best time to visit. During the wet season (November-April), hiking is not recommended.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Malawi (6th Edition) by Philip Briggs; or visit the Malawi Travel website (malawitourism.com).