Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 4

Back Part of Sapitwa touched by sunlight, near top right. (Taken on the way back)
Back Part of Sapitwa touched by sunlight, near top right. (Taken on the way back)

This article continues from the previous entry, which left us at Chisepo Hut, preparing to go up Sapitwa Peak. The peak is the highest point on Mulanje Mountain, the tallest mountain in Malawi. The peak is famous for being impassable, hence the name Sapitwa, which locally means one cannot go there. Now, does that not just invoke the spirit of challenge in you to try and reach the top? There is something sweet about overcoming difficult obstacles to emerge victorious. Hiking is not about the pain, the effort, or the sweat but it is about the feeling of accomplishment when you reach your goal. In our case, the goal was to reach this peak. If successful, it would be my first time to be on this peak. It would be the first time too for Dan, my hiking partner.

Peaks usually rise up from the top of a mountain like a piggybacking hill. And because the peak may have much smaller volume, it often will have steep edges to allow it to rise quickly to the top. So in this case, I expected to face some challenges on certain sections as we would rise to the ceiling. But nothing prepared me for what lay ahead. As soon as we had left Chisepo hut, the path started ascending right away. We were assured that this would be easy on us until we hit the rocky surface about a kilometre or two away. When we got where the igneous rock or what looked like it protruded from the ground, it became immediately clear that we had embarked on a tough obstacle course. The rock surface was blackened in many places, an evidence of regular surface runoff.

Sapitwa Peak demanded of our humility. We had to go on all fours to climb this part. A compromise could only be reached if we bent forward, as if paying homage, and proceed with extra caution. I could feel sweat breaking all over my body. My client had a transforming experience. Whatever, could have been his fear of heights before would be overcome by the time we reached the top. Inch by inch we moved forward. At some point, even the chief guide had to take a break. In fact, he trailed behind while I gave him some encouragement to keep pressing on. Later on, the steep slope eased a little bit and gave us a chance to assess the damage.

Ahead of us lay another section that was tougher than the previous one. Apart from having a steep slope, it had running water across the rock surface, and had a few parts that required one to reach above one’s knee height to negotiate the terrain. Gaps between rocks, over which our tired legs would need to jump across, opened to chasms ready to swallow the weak. This was so different from the prior parts of the hike. While we had come across steep slopes, slippery surfaces and jabbing vegetation, we had not seen all those challenges concentrated within such a short distance. Here, every challenge was magnified, and more often than not, offered real danger to one’s life.

I should have been terrified. But instead I felt thrilled. Here was a challenge worth going through. All my previous experience climbing different mountains and hills came into focus. And though it was my first time being on this peak, I was able to intervene and suggest different approaches on sections that were particularly challenging. I gladly welcomed the strain on my muscles. I felt my shin engaged, my calf muscles pumping with great intensity, and my quads straining under heavy load. This was Sapitwa and I loved it. Unfortunately, I expressed my joy loudly and Dan remarked that what I called fun, was truly questionable. Yet I could see in his eyes that he was having fun too. Maybe he wanted it called determination, or better still Grit!

Soon we reached the head of this slope, and things eased down. We were told that the first section filters the faint-hearted from those determined to proceed to the peak. Apparently, we were among the determined ones. The guide at this point had recovered and proceeded to assist negotiating difficult bends, twists and jumps. Then came another interesting portion. This section has a very narrow path, and first it required us to pass through two big boulders with a very narrow approach. We had to shift sideways to pull through the gap. Talk about adventure, this was first grade by all accounts. But it did not stop there.

Soon our hands were called into action once again. We had to bend acutely to pass through a cave, and emerge on the other side. We had to prop ourselves on our hands and lift the body in order to leverage over the limited reach of the poor burning legs. I could only think of words like, wow, amazing, splendid, sweet. Yes, sweet. I was home. You see, Mulanje in terms of height does not command much respect across Africa. In fact, it is not even in the top 10 among the tallest mountains in Africa. The first is Kilimanjaro Mountain in Tanzania, the second is Mount Kenya in Kenya. Mount Meru, again in Tanzania is probably the 9th tallest mountain in Africa. But this obstacle course compensated hugely, what Mulanje lacks in height. I felt super proud of our mountain. Yes, this was worth calling hiking by any standards.

At some point we caught sight of the peak. We could easily see the pillar standing on the summit. It looked so close, within reach. We were shocked to learn that it would take another one hour before we could reach that point. It did not make sense. Yet once we resumed the hike, it became clear why that was the case. The obstacle course kept throwing in one surprise after another.

Finally, we reached the top but the pillar was not visible. There was one last twist. We had to go over a ledge, with a precipice on one side, and a yawning chasm on the other. I must admit, at this point my brave heart skipped a beat. This was too much. After contemplation, Dan gave it a try first by utilizing a loose pipe that was leaning against the wall of the base of the ledge. Bad mistake. The pipe moved, his foot slipped, but the guide who had gone ahead of us caught him by the hand just in time, and he landed in my hands, bearing most of his weight. Oh no! This moment will haunt me for a long time. The what ifs are just too horrible to ponder.

Soon it was over, and the summit came in full view. It felt good. It felt wonderful. For a very brief moment, all the cares of the world vanished. This was exhilarating. We screamed with joy. Sapitwa had been conquered. Thanks be to God.

As they say, good things do not last. It was time to return to base. The descent was a tough one but it did not matter. We were now conquerors. We rested briefly at Chisepo hut then proceeded to walk in the dark to Chambe hut. What had started at 6 in the morning took the whole day and gave us 15 straight hours of action and fun.

After such hard work we need to relax. Come with me for the last article that will relax our muscles and calm the nerves. Then we will put the matter to rest, until the next adventure, God willing.

13 thoughts on “Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 4

  1. Beautiful pieces KK. I was in the action. It’s so beautiful to now stand outside and watch the action unfold. Great adventure. Would I do it again? Hmmmm. Let me think. Thanks for everything my friend

    1. Thanks Dan. You made it all special with your spirituality, determination and focus. I saw Grit in action. And most importantly, thanks for the motivational talks on the mountain.

  2. Ha ha – great, I enjoyed reading the blog post. I’ve climbed Sapitwa once every decade since the 1970’s (except the 2000’s – a wasted decade). I think you conveyed the variety of different parts to the ascent. There are lot’s of different quirks to going up there. I am glad you photographed the rabbit ears. When I climbed in 1995 I had almost forgotten about the rabbit ears since my previous climbs in 1978 and 1982. Seeing them was like an emotional and surprise reunion with old friends.

    1. Wow! I was only one year old in 1978. It must have been very beautiful that time with Mulanje cedar everywhere. If there is one thing I miss, it is the abundance of trees that was once on every hill and mountain.

      I find your story very fascinating. I hope to have an opportunity one day to hear about the rest of it. When is your next climb?

      Thanks so much for your kind remarks.

      1. The main difference I felt was that there was no Chisepo Hut in those days. So the first time I climbed we set of from Thuchila Hut before dawn and returned after dark, the second time we set of from Chambe Hut before daylight but that time we got back before it was dark.

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