I’ve seen most of the tourist attractions in Malawi, but one thing I wanted to do before I left was climb Mt. Mulanje. Mulanje is the highest mountain in “Central Africa” according to guidebooks and the Mulanje Mountain Club, though several of my friends point out that this must mean Central Africa is pretty narrowly defined. At any rate, the highest peak, Sapitwa, is 3002 meters (9,850 feet), and it is definitely the highest mountain in Malawi!
Though our plans and the crew kept changing until the last minute, we set off from Lilongwe on Friday evening with four people and a plan: to climb to the plateau on Saturday, to the peak on Sunday, and come off the mountain on Monday. We would stay in huts (really more like cabins) built especially for Mulanje hikers. But first, we would spend the night in Blantyre, Malawi’s “commerical capital,” four hours south of Lilongwe and about an hour from Mulanje itself.
Bags are packed...
Our four hour drive turned into five as no one actually looked at a map before we left, and we took the road through Zomba – an unnecessary detour. Once in Blantyre, we spent another hour or so trying to find the right road to get us to the floor where we were planning to spend the night. Finally, we rolled into our destination around midnight, and after some chatting with our hosts, were off to bed by 1.
Saturday morning started later than we had planned, but we were on the road toward Mulanje by 8 AM. The area around Mulanje is where all of Malawi’s tea is grown, and the drive was quite pretty even in the rather gray light. As we approached the looming massif, I did begin to wonder what I had gotten myself into…
Approaching the mountain
We wound our way around the mountain and semi-sketchily located our porters. The Mulanje Forestry office keeps a list of porters and they are assigned in order, so everyone gets a fair chance at the work (which pays quite well). I had arranged for porters to meet us at our starting point beforehand, but we weren’t sure who they were or if we ultimately picked up the right people. (I think we did.)
After a greasy brunch of chips and omelette at Thuchila Lodge, where we parked our car and our path up the mountain began, we set off. The hike from the bottom to the plateau was, honestly, a little rough. As the only woman among three rather tall men (and three male porters), I was definitely the slowest in the group, and the trail was steep. Breakfast was (predictably) not sitting well in my stomach, and I felt bad because the boys kept stopping to wait for me. Still, I managed to huff and puff my way to the top, and we arrived at Thuchila hut a little over three hours after we started from the bottom. With no more hiking planned for the day, we had some soup and hung out in the cabin. The clouds lifted towards sunset, and we spent a little time exploring the surrounding area – and taking photos.
Thankfully, Jan brought a tripod
We were sharing the hut with a group of about 15 students from Malawi’s Catholic University, who were on the plateau conducting an archaeological dig. There were also two visiting South Africans, who were on a motorcycle trip from Namibia, through Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and back to Cape Town. Combined with our group (one Dutchman, two Germans, and an American), we were quite the international crowd.
There was even a special visitors' toilet
After a dinner of mac and cheese, we had an early (and COLD) night. Our anticipated 6 AM departure was missed by about 45 minutes, but Sunday was a clear and beautiful morning.
Thuchila hut, 6:30 AM
We set off across the plateau towards Chisepo hut, which is the closest to the Sapitwa peak. The hike took about two hours, and though it involved some ups and downs, was not nearly as grueling as the hike up the plateau. We arrived at Chisepo and refueled with some Coke (yes, someone carries beer and Coke – in glass bottles – up from the bottom to sell at the huts) and more soup, then set off for the peak. After about 20 minutes, however, the clouds started rolling in and we ultimately decided to turn back. Once the clouds settle around the peak, they rarely dissipate before nightfall. Instead, we decided that we would try to peak on Monday morning. Since it was still early (10 AM), we took a little hike to a nice view point, where we could see the entire valley below.
Chilling at the viewpoint
The rest of the day was spent puttering, sitting around the fire, eating marshmallows and peanut butter, and listening to music. Unfortunately, no one remembered to bring playing cards. We were joined at the hut by a group of Scottish high school students, who entertained/annoyed us for part of the evening, and we all went to bed pretty early…in anticipation of our 5:30 AM departure time!
On Monday morning, we were up before the sun and hiking as it rose. The first part of the hike to Sapitwa is basically straight up, and for a while I was wondering if this peak attempt was really such a good idea. After about an hour, though, the uphill path becomes a little more level and involves a good deal of bouldering and scrambling over rocks, which slowed the pace quite a bit. I enjoy this sort of more technical hiking, and it was a lot of fun. Of course, there were also a few scary moments, as some of the rocks were covered in black ice and slipping would have involved quite a fall. We made without major incident, though, and arrived at the peak about 3 hours after we left the camp. It was COLD at the top, but we spent some time to enjoy our peanut butter sandwiches and the view.
View from the peak
The clouds were already beginning to roll in as we made our descent. Going down wasn’t much faster than going up, mostly because there was so much rock scrambling. You can see in this photo how steep some of the jumps were!
Me, as seen from above!
We paused for an hour or so at the hut for lunch, and then made our way down down down the plateau and back to the car. The hike back took longer than we expected, but we walked through some beautiful rain forest, then grasslands, and finally back to the car. We arrived a little before 5 PM, almost 12 hours after our day had started.
One of many breath-taking views
By the time we dropped the porters back at their village, found dinner, and started back towards Lilongwe, it was getting late! Unfortunately, we drove through fog for quite a distance on the way home. I took the late shift driving, and was, at one point, singing to myself to stay awake while the rest of the car slept. (It’s funny how I can’t recall names or dates of important historical events, and yet I can still sing all the words to “The Fruit of God’s Spirit,” a Vacation Bible School song from preschool.)
We arrived safely in Lilongwe at 1 AM, and after a good scrub, I tumbled into bed. Two days and a few good yoga sessions later, my legs are still angry about Monday’s hike – but it was definitely worth it! Having spent a lot of my outdoor time in Malawi relaxing at the lake, it was nice to have a more active weekend – and look out from the highest peak in “Central Africa”!