The season was wrong, the dates were tight and the plan, flimsy. Still Daniel Dunga and I decided to brave the rainy season and head to Mulanje for an attempt on Sapitwa Peak. Mulanje, as the tallest mountain in Malawi receives a lot of rainfall throughout the year. It is the first barricade against the winds coming from Indian Ocean, passing through the eastern province in the neighboring Mozambique. These winds bring with them the moisture collected above the ocean, which then precipitates into unpredictable rainfall or fog.
It took a bold decision to choose to go to this mountain when Malawi is experiencing heavy rainfall. And Daniel excels in that aspect. He is the author of the most impactful book on motivation in Malawi. He appropriately called it Grit, and its opening lines claim one can ride a bike up the mountain – that in itself not a small feat by any measure. But here was the rationale for going up the massif. I have been on this mountain twice before, and each climb was in December, right in the middle of the rainy season. And each time I was there, it rained. It rained icy cold rain. But that did not dampen our hiking spirits. So I reasoned that if it could rain, we could just aim to reach Chambe and then Chisepo huts situated at the top of the mountain, and forego the attempt on Sapitwa.
Another good reason was that we were going to have an extended holiday, Monday being a public holiday in Malawi. On 15th of January is Chilembwe’s Day which commemorates the efforts of the earliest and most celebrated Freedom Fighter in Nyasaland. Nyasaland was later to become Malawi after gaining independence in 1964. Rev. Chilembwe was a local minister at the turn of last century, who after being trained in USA, returned home and led the campaign to liberate his people from colonialism. It is believed that he was assassinated sometime in 1915 somewhere in Mulanje as he was attempting to flee to Mozambique after his campaign had gone south.
If we could reach the summit a day before Chilembwe’s Day, the significance would be great. Not just in the political sense, but in the more grand and richer meaning. To face the challenge of reaching the summit would symbolise one’s quest to be free from defeat. Freedom to enjoy all that God has bestowed upon humanity. Freedom, as I understand it, is often if not always, forged in the pains of effort and persistence. And this would be just that. Besides, the pain of endurance for going up the mountain dissipates as soon as the summit has been attained. This would be a great moment indeed.
Sapitwa Peak is the most famous peak on Mulanje Mountain, and probably the most visited by international tourists. Its name loosely means No One Goes There, or Don’t Go There. The locals believed that mere mortals could not manage to go there and survive the attempt. And to discourage the curious from trying it out, there were a lot of stories created about people getting lost on the mountain, having been abducted by spirits. These legends are still believed by many locals and persist to this day through folklore and urban legends. And speaking of folklore, some of the stories about the mountain were not bad at all.
My favorite one which would be repeated to us by workers when we were young was that in the deep jungles on the mountain, one would find a bunch of ripe bananas or plates of nsima – our staple food made from maize flour, and delicious relish. If I recall very well, one would have then to stop the hike, and accept the generous offer from the spirits. But there was a catch. Whatever one gets to eat, it must be consumed completely. Failure to do that, then the spirits would abduct one into their world, never to return home again. This, in part, was told to us to encourage little ones to eat their food, and more importantly get to finish one’s portion.
So on Friday, I travelled from Lilongwe to join Daniel in Blantyre. Susan, Daniel’s wife had already coordinated with Cathy my wife, and bought us provisions enough to last us a week. We were going to hold a feast on each of the three days and two nights on the mountain. Daniel added another great idea. What if we could prepare local meals on the mountain instead of the usual pasta and mince meat, which is a favorite for hikers? Pasta and mince meat is a light meal, and easy to carry and prepare. So I suggested we could do what I had observed the guide do during the last trip up the mountain. We could go up there with live local chickens and prepare fresh meals. Talk about an a la carte meal plan.
On Saturday morning we started off for Mulanje and met our guide in Chitakale. We proceeded to Likhubula, the beginning of our trail.
The adventure will continue in the subsequent articles. Please, come along with us as we explore Mulanje Mountain together.