Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 2

The Hiking Team at Likhubula. From Left to Right: Daniel, chickens, John, myself, Rex, Dan, and Henry.
The Hiking Team at Likhubula. From Left to Right: Daniel, chickens, John, myself, Rex, Dan, and Henry.

This is the second article about my adventure on Mulanje mountain with my friend and brother in Christ, Daniel Dunga. We just call him Dan. During this trip he was my client having sponsored the entire trip. Our plan was to spend the first night on Chambe hut, and proceed to Chisepo hut the following day. Depending on the weather, we would then make an attempt to reach Sapitwa Peak and return to Chisepo hut for the second night. Then we would descend to the bottom of the mountain on the third day, on Chilembwe’s Day, a public holiday in Malawi.

So on Saturday we drove to Chitakale to confirm our presence with Info Mulanje and to pick up our guide and his team. Our guide was Rex, who has taken me up the mountain twice before. His principal porter was John, who has been with me only once before. A young man, coincidentally also called Daniel, made a second porter. We hired a day porter as an advance team and then we were ready to go. We packed Dan’s car at the Forestry Office and shared our hiking plan with the tourism officer there. We picked up the latest intel, and got cautioned not to try to go up Chambe peak, being a technical climb in good conditions and down right treacherous in wet weather.

We started off at 08:31 from the Forestry Office in Likhubula and hit the well paved trail. We were aiming to reach Chembe hut in the next four hours, and we had two choices. Either take a more direct but steep climb using Skyline trail or take a more convoluted but easier climb using Chapaluka trail. Being that we were looking for a slow rush, if there is such a thing, we opted for the Skyline trail. And Rex, the guide, with the porters took off in earnest and I immediately stepped in to intervene. I recalled how I had suffered on my first trip going to Thuchila hut. That time I was not fit, yes, but the pace was way above my pay grade. And then I also recalled what I had learned hiking up Kilimanjaro, where the porters tell you, “Pole,pole!”. This is a Swahili phrase asking you to take it easy, by slowing down.

Before long the guide went ahead of us. In the meantime, we immersed ourselves with the beautiful mountain sounds coming from the Miombo woodland with its gorgeous trees. These are mostly charcoal grey trunks not interested in polite posture, assuming all sorts of twisted upright positions. But each tree having a wonderful canopy, silently showed in off well choreographed leaves that have learned to dance with grace in the mountain breeze. The breeze itself was barely perceptible, sweeping down fresh mountain air, even this early in our hike. This was truly a captivating opening which got us immediately hooked.

With “Pole, pole!” on my mind, Dan barely broke sweat and we soon came across the monkey sweets trees. Being late in the season for masuku, as they are commonly called in Malawi, we could only imagine the feast that might have been at the onset of the rainy season both to monkeys and humans alike. Beyond that, the tranquility of the forest was broken by the sound of an axe chopping a tree trunk. Something inside me shattered as I remembered seeing a few tree stumps that I had already seen on the way. I held my peace. But soon I heard Dan complain at the disturbing noise, knowing that another beautiful natural tree had fallen victim to the energy needs of the surrounding communities. This cacophony, not in rhythm but in meaning, was a terrible coda rather to a perfect symphony we had been enjoying all along.

After an hour, we overtook the guide and his team refilling their canteens. Instead of taking frequent rests, we only had two breaks. The go-slow, go-steady technique was working. Before long our team was out of sight. We soon caught up with the advance team of porters that are sent ahead of everyone to set up camp and get the guard at the hut ready for our arrival. Again, after quenching the thirst of these young men, and having shared our energy snacks, we took off and gently disappeared before their bewildered eyes. Now, mountains can be a treacherous place and it is very easy to get lost even when one has experience and has modern navigation equipment. So we soon came to a junction on the trail. Fortunately, a lone porter showed up at the same time and showed us the direction to take.

The steep climb was behind us at this point, and the hike became a walk in the park. The trees had receded and grass covered the rolling grassland. On our right, a mountain river running down in a deep ravine greeted us with cascading falls on what looked like half-metre natural stairs. The water ran over a thick slab of rock, creating a thin sheet of transparent liquid crystal, only frothing at the next step a few metres down the river. We could clearly hear the ripples of the river from the trail and the effect was truly hypnotic. Nature was doing what it knows best – wooing us with its beauty and asking us to put down the cares of city life below. We were being welcomed to serenity that can best be experienced rather than described.

We then came across a beautiful cottage, which we were told is Francis Cottage. It once belonged to the Forestry department but is now part of the mountain huts. At least that is what was claimed by the guard there. We inspected the place and found it to be clean and very inviting. Just across the cottage was Chambe hut, a wooden affair that held its appeal elsewhere. And in front of both huts, stood the imposing Chambe peak. It rises above the top of Mulanje, like a hill on top of a mountain. Its rocky face threw in a cave here and there, decorated itself with cracks and other forms of rock deformation. The effect left us wild-eyed. This is a peak that wanted us to forget that we had come up here to summit Sapitwa Peak.

We were greeted at Chambe hut by Mr Thauson, a gentle old guard, who smiles with his eyes. It felt like we had arrived at our village, only this time, the village was high on the mountain, and only had one main hut. Around the hut, there were a series of small wooden structures. These served as bathrooms and toilets. Behind the hut, there was a small hut that is used to keep the guard and offer shelter to the guides and porters that come with visitors to this magical spot on the mountain. Inside the main hut, there was fire place in what should be a lounge, and there was an adjoining room which I believe, would be a bedroom. This room has a store room with blankets, mattresses and essential utensils. These are always under lock, and are managed by the Mountain Club. So remember to arrange for the keys before setting foot on the mountain, otherwise you might end up making an egg omelette using the back of your palm over the open fire.

The guide finally caught up with us, and then the porters. He was looking anxious yet with open admiration which he could not hide over how we had effectively outpaced his team without breaking sweat. Dan is a driven executive who is result-oriented. His face beamed with a sense of achievement that filled my heart with pride. So far so good. The Lord had heard our prayers and the first leg had ended up on a great note. We got an icing on the cake by taking a walk around the hut, and returned to the hut to settle for the night.

The adventure will continue in the next article that will take us to the next hut called Chisepo.


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