Written by: Simon OChen
“Sapitwa means, ‘Don’t go there’,” Hope said, explaining the name of Mount Mulanji’s highest peak. “Then that’s exactly where we’re going,” I grinned.
At 3 001 meters, Mt Mulanji is Malawi’s highest mountain. We leave for the climb up to the peak at 5am.
“The first hut is 3 hours away,” Christopher Jairos, our guide, briefs us as we begin to head up the Chambe Skyline track (named for the cable car that used to operate there). No one told us it’s one of the steepest tracks on the mountain. “The second hut, Chisepo, is another 3 hours from Chambe,” he continued.
The Chambe Plateau is a belittling hunk of rock. By the time we hit it, I was a walking waterfall with sweat cascading from every pore. I looked to Hope who had gone from her usual pastel white to a deep tomato red. Then I looked to Chris – not a drop of sweat had escaped the man’s body. He hadn’t even packed a water bottle while Hope and I gulped down our 5 litres as though we’d just hiked the Sahara.
“I do this climb twice a week since I was a boy,” he shrugged.
We replenished our H2O supply at Chambe and continued on to Chisepo on a relatively even-grounded track, crossing small streams on wooden bridges and past small waterfalls.
Although our calf muscles and lungs would hold a grudge against us for a while, our eyes thanked us for the view that unfolded. It was a beautiful blue-skied day, tufts of cloud surrounded the mountain, pockets of green forest spread out across the earth beneath us.
As we traversed the ridge, I saw the hut at the base of the cloud-covered peak. The Chisepo River pooled amongst the rocks where I dipped in the soprano-making cold waters.
That night we pitched our tent on the veranda of the hut, listening to the blitzing rain and thunder.
It was a clear sky when we awoke but Chris foresaw the future. “We won’t be able to go up,” he said. “Because it rained it’s very dangerous. And it will rain again soon so we should head back down.”
As we began our descent I looked back one last time, ever hopeful. But alas, Sapitwa disappeared behind a wall of intimidating clouds that had suddenly appeared. As we continued to hike we were suddenly enveloped by clouds rushing in, the trees resembling a scene from Sleepy Hollow.
Our next stop was the Dziwe Lankhalamba – The Old Man of the Pool. A beautiful waterfall where legend has it that the spirit of an old man resides and disappears into the water every time someone comes to swim.
We hadn’t made it to the top but it was an experience nonetheless and one day we will return to try to conquer it again.
Tips for climbing Mt Mulanji:
– You must reach the Forestry Offices in Likhubulu (15km outside of Mulanji town) and register (100 Kwacha per person entry fee or, 200 Kwacha per car).
– You will be assigned a registered guide (I highly recommend Chris who can be reached at: email@example.com). Only take a guide that is registered with the Mt Mulanji Guide and Porters Association. Illegitimate guidesporters usually hassle you at the entry to the reserve or even in Mulanji town. Guide fees are $25 USD a day. Use of the hut is a dollar plus tips for the caretakers. You will not be permitted to climb without a guide due to the dangers of unpredictable weather and easy-to-get-lost paths (deaths have occurred).
– You’ll need at least 3 litres of water per person until the first hut where you can refill.
– You can stock up on food in Mulanji town or the village market at Likhubulu (Mulanji has more food options). We had raisins, nuts, dried fruit, onions and garlic to cook with rice.
– Rain gear is essential as is warm clothing (snow has been recorded on Sapitwa).
– Electricity is non-existent. Drinking water is boiled river water and rainwater is collected for washing. Heat is provided by a fire in the fireplace that doubles as a cooking station.
– Boots aren’t essential. Hiking sandals are better as on the downhill your toes will try to penetrate your boots which can be very painful.
– Beware of baboons, vervets and blue monkeys. Also beware of snakes.
– When it’s wet, it’s slippery. Be warned.
– A basic level of fitness is needed.
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