Mulanje

Every July there is the annual porter’s race up and down the slopes of Mount Mulanje. Our route this last weekend took us up the same track which the porters storm up during the race, though they are no doubt oblivious to the fantastic scenery they whizz past.

Intrepid hikers Rob, Gareth and Rick

Intrepid hikers Rob, Gareth and Rick

Rob, Rick and I met our porter and guide at the manager’s hut early on Saturday morning, hoping to get to the hut before the midday heat. The hiking and the porters are regulated by the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian – an offshoot of Church of Scotland) in Malawi, and are well organised, with the porters taking turns to carry bags on a rotational basis.

Small man, big backpack. No problem.

Small man, big backpack. No problem.

Timve and Peter, our guide and porter for the weekend, nonchalantly shouldered one of our large backpacks each as we began stretching in anticipation of a long difficult hike, tightening laces on hiking boots, having a last minute drink of water.

Peter, dwarfed by Rob’s enormous backpack, was wearing slip-slops, and no doubt found our frenetic preparation amusing. I asked him about the race while we walked. He said there are about 300 porters who run, the route taking them up to the plateau, across from one hut to another, and then down a different route.

The winners board on display in the office

The winners board on display in the office

This course would take about 18 hours to complete at a normal hiking pace. Peter said his time was 4h33, and he came 65th out of 300. The record time is held by Byson Willie (his real name, now famous in the district) who in 2005 did it in 2h12, a staggering achievement. The winner gets K20000 (£80), a T-shirt, and enormous prestige.

The mountain is indeed majestic and foreboding, as Laurens van der Post wrote in Venture to the Interior, and as it rises from the flat surrounding plane to tower over the surrounding villages one can easily imagine that it has a personality of its own.

Village with Mulanje in the background

Village with Mulanje in the background

It is apparently nothing more than a very large koppie, much like those found in South Africa, formed by extruded igneous rock around which the softer rock has been eroded away. It rises up to a plateau of about 2000m, with various peaks rising up a further 1000m from the plateau. Although we only had time to go up and down in two days, the rolling plateau and its peaks can apparently keep hikers well occupied for at least a week.

Tea plantations

Tea plantations*

The mountain is surrounded by huge fields of neatly arranged electric green tea bushes, which I’d never seen before. (The tea in Malawi, all grown locally, is cheap and excellent, and comes from around here.) We had overnighted at the foot of the mountain in small and unexpectedly luxurious chalet, complete with running water (hot), shower and well stocked kitchen. (The hot shower was particularly special for me, as the water supply in our Matawale house has become intermittent, the hot water has stopped completely, and the shower has never really worked. Rob, living at his house in Blantyre, and Rick, staying at Zomba’s Hotel Masangola, had no idea what a privilege a hot shower can be!)

Panoramic view*

The walk up takes just under four hours, the first two climbing steeply through a ravine and crossing a few small rivers, and the last two mostly flat on the undulating plateau. The vegetation is splendid and colourful, the leaves varying from fresh green to autumnal browns and reds.

Barefoot loggers

Barefoot loggers

Sadly though, there are large patches which are burnt, and many areas which show evidence of continuing recent deforestation. This felling is apparently regulated, and only those with a licence may bring down the famed Mulanje Cedar from the top. There are also many planted pines which are also carried down. We climbed up the Skyline Path, so called because it runs for much of the way parallel to the cable which used to transport timber down. I asked Timve if it was still used, but he says is hasn’t worked since about 2004. He didn’t know why, and his finality suggested that there were no plans to fix it. So each tree trunk or set of planks is carried down on foot (often barefoot) by loggers, in the same way as was described in 1949 by Laurens van der Post.

We too had to make way occasionally for the brisk trot of the heavily laden loggers. It hasn’t changed in half a century, though I suspect there are far fewer trees now.

These kids of the mountain whizzed past us, obviously well prepared. Is that Irn Bru??

These kids of the mountain whizzed past us near the bottom, obviously well prepared. Is that Irn Bru??

Chambe Hut

Chambe Hut

We arrived at Chambe Hut, run by the Mountain Club of Malawi of which Rob is a member, after four hours of hot hiking. Inside we found to our astonishment and delight, not only cokes and fanta, but some “Greens” as well!! They were even fairly cool. These are brought up by the porters and wardens of the hut, bless them, who double the price but it is absolutely worth every kwacha. We sat on the stoep (verandah), shoes off, drinking beers and soaking in the view.

Joy comes in bottles

A surprise inside the hut

Rick is a visiting psychiatric nurse from Yorkshire, and his enthusiasm and excitement were infectious and endearing. “This is just fan-TAS-tick!” he repeated, “Just fantastic! Wow! Who would’ve thought?” It was Rick’s first visit outside of Europe, and a visit filled with firsts apparently.

Brits abroad (Rick's words)

Brits abroad (Rick's description)

“That’s another big tick on my list!” It was his first time in a minibus on the way to Mulanje (another tick!), and he commented that he’d never really liked “world music” before, “but here it just works so well! I love it!” Another tick. Rob had brought a guide to the stars in the night sky, and couldn’t wait for it to get dark. He paced around impatiently as dusk came on, and then lay on his back for much of the evening finding constellations. I sat and chatted to various passers by. There were groups of three Isrealis, two Germans, two Canadians – but no Dutch, surprisingly. People swapped stories of where they’d been and where they were going, both on the mountain top and throughout Africa. All very sociable. I warmed up a very simple camp dinner (tuna and noodles), and we decided to sleep outside on the stoep. The stars were indeed spectacular, with no clouds or lights in the region. I can’t remember seeing quite so many. It is a tough job saving lives in Africa, but somebody’s got to do it.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of Pronutro, which I’d been delighted to find in a shop in Blantyre. (Many South Africans grew up on Pronutro “The most nutritious breakfast cereal in South Africa”. It is mixed with milk and sugar to form a cold porridge. Delicious.) Rob however found the Pronutro less than appetising, commenting that “This is why you eat Wheatabix quickly, so it doesn’t turn into this glop…”. His every spoonful was accompanied by a grimace. Oh, well, there’s no accounting for poor taste… We started the descent early, again a good hot scenic walk, but the highlight was definitely the waterfall plunging into a deep pool which demanded a swim. A rocky outcrop about ten meters up was perfect for a few adrenaline soaked jumps, reminding me of Suicide Gorge near Cape Town.

Magnificent pool*

Magnificent pool*

We chatted to Timve and Peter, practising some Chichewe where possible, and asking them about the local trees. The guides have all passed an exam in order to qualify as guides, so their knowledge is impressive, as they named trees in both Chichewe and Latin. Peter told me that he was studying for school exams which he would write in three month’s time, which were expensive and he could not yet afford to write them. This sort of story of people working very hard and generally cheerfully for little money to save for something we take for granted is always humbling, and rang true in this case, though one never knows. In the end we gave him a good tip.

This was a really enjoyable weekend hike, just the right distance, with a good hut and time to relax at the top, enhanced by nice company and talking to fellow travellers. I hope to do it again a few times. If anybody is interested in visiting, then we can do it as well!

View on top of the plateau - a bit bare in places*

View on top of the plateau - a bit bare in places*

*Asterisked photographs are panoramas put together from a multiple individual photos. There is a fantastic program for doing this, which is entirely free and should be part of every digital photographers software package. Google for “hugin” and “autopano” – you need both programs, but follow the installation instructions for details. They do a fine job of matching up photos – not just in a straight horizontal line, but also in two dimensions (see the pool and plateau photos for examples). Each step is customisable if you want to tweak it, but it can also do most of it automatically. I highly recommend this program.

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2 Comments »

  1. amy said

    Hi Rick, I came across this blog post, looking for information on mulanje hikes…I hope you don’t mind…my name is Amy and I also live in Malawi (just moved to Blantyre from Mangochi). My family is coming in december and my sister and I are interested in climbing mt mulanje which i don’t know much about….your blog is extremely helpful and the pictures make it seem completely worth it! If I can ask, what chalet did you stay at in the base of the mountain? I’m looking for something nice and relaxing for my parents to do while we are on the mountain as I’m not sure they will be able to make it to the huts! Also, did you stay one or two nights on the mountain and overall, what level of difficulty do you think the trip was?

    Thanks for sharing, your blog is very well written and is refreshing information to come across after searching for hours on the internet for something useful…(particularly helpful for me are the photos of the huts!)

  2. amy said

    Gareth! I am so sorry..I realize I addressed my first comment to Rick but you are Gareth! ….the name Rick just stood out from the story about mulanje and after i realized my mistake this thing won’t let me edit the comment!! I apologize and hope you will still help me with my questions!!

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