Weekend at Fort Mangochi

Mangochi Forest Reserve
Mangochi Forest Reserve

Mountain Club of Malawi (MCM) recently sent out an invitation to its membership for a weekend of hiking in the Mangochi Forest Reserve and camping at Fort Mangochi. This is one area rich in colonial history about trade, migration, battles and slave routes.

So at midnight on Friday last week, I sneaked out of bed and headed out of town. Coming from Lilongwe I took the Salima Road, which would later join the road to Mangochi and then towards Namwera. My rendezvous was Skull Rock Estate in Majuni. I got there very early and found out that Maggie O’toole, the president of MCM, and Poly Boynton, another hardcore MCM member, had already arrived the night before having cycled all the way from Blantyre, covering a distance of 140 km.

Our guide was Jailos Sinto, who has local knowledge about this area. We were expecting over 20 members. We were all set by 10 on Saturday morning and ventured into the bush. Normally, by this time of the year the trail would have been maintained by a team of locals. But this year, the project got derailed somewhat. As such there was tall grass everywhere. Parts of the path was so overgrown the leading guide had to clear it with a slasher.

The traffic jam that would follow gave a chance to armies of red ants to have a go at us. I was the first victim and this continued for a good part of the day. Just when we were about to theorize that the ants preferred local flesh, the barrier was breached and everyone became a candidate of the merciless stinging bites.

These red ants were much bigger and more vicious than the ones I had encountered on Easter Monday on Dedza Mountain. These ones were after causing maximum damage and inflicting intense pain. I politely tried to disengage them but when it became obvious this was a war, a few heads rolled.

On the way to the fort, we skirted past the Skull Rock hill, a rocky affair with three huge boulders for a summit. One of these has a profile of a skull. Going round the hill reveals a much dramatic view. The skull boasts of two asymmetrical sockets fiercely staring down into the valley below. Professor Eric Borgstein, a prominent surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, joked that dinosaurs in the prehistoric era gorged out the sockets off the rocky face. Now, we know how this outstanding feature was formed. Brian Lewis, husband to Maggie, and a crusader for managing dairy cows for over 7000 smallholder farmers, suggested that the block of stone was probably soft, and got sculpted by forces of nature. I’m inclined to go for Eric’s theory, after all he’s the master of sculpting of the human body!

Some of us had been worried that it might rain on this day, given the trend of recent rainfall in the country. Instead, it was very hot and very humid. Others minded the heat and others the humidity. I belonged to the latter group. With an aerial assault from the skull’s stare, red ants on the ground and the humidity wrapping an invisible steaming blanket around our struggling bodies, the situation invoked a deep respect for nature from everyone. This was a challenge worth undertaking.

Mangochi Forest Reserve miraculously stands intact. It was refreshing to walk for miles on end in a thick forest, surrounded by nothing else but forest sounds, wild blossoms and supreme greenery. The rolling hills gave an illusion of an endless pleasure ground like one could be lost forever wandering from one spot to the next oblivious of the passage of time. The natural beauty far outweighed the challenges we were encountering on the way.

Fort Mangochi

We reached the ruins of Fort Mangochi just after midday. It was such a welcome sight after walking in the endless bush. The ruins still have an intact thick perimeter wall made from masonry stones and mortar. The wall is one meter thick and has rectangular openings from outside, which widen away as a recessing wedge in the inside of the wall. This was designed to allow two soldiers to man the hole and fire at the enemy with a much wider horizontal scope without being exposed to the opposing fire.

Inside the square compound are the remains of buildings made from burnt red bricks standing in neat rows. The ground, though covered in grass, is even and firm as if it is a modern construction site. The walls are perfectly aligned to the four cardinal points – with the main entrance facing East. Outside the perimeter wall were remnants of what are houses for officers. These were added to the fort much later in its evolution.

We camped inside the stone wall perimeter. Everyone was expected to find themselves a spot. Some opted to stay close to where the camp fire would be. Others went to the suburbs where the grass was receding. And others chose to be buried in thick grass. One adventurous member even found time to beat a path from his tent to the campfire.

A Walk to the Rainforest

We pitched our tents, ate our individual lunches, rested a while and then set off for the rainforest. I had forgotten to bring along a cup. So instead I took my midday tea in a breakfast bowl. No sweat there as that is exactly the spirit of camping. Anything can be turned into a versatile instrument. My lunch consisted of shredded tuna and a cookie. The creativity failed to make an impression on the team but it got the job done anyway.

On the northern side of the camp, there’s a next ridge with a rainforest. We were aiming to summit it before sunset and return in time for a communal dinner around the campfire. Once we cleared our top flat ridge we came across an overgrown path full of protruding roots, vines and nettles. I lost count of yelps, ows, and ouches from young and old, lady or gentleman. Red ants couldn’t resist joining in the torture spree. The guide tried his best to hack a passage through the thick grass as fast as he could but he couldn’t stop a jam from building up and grinding the team to a halt.

And when things couldn’t get any better, the terrain started rising up sharply. I tanked. I sat down to catch a breath, and someone joked that I looked like one of the ancient wise ones – a sage. I brought up the rear and matched on into the rainforest. This section looks dark and ominous. It just feels like its a place a leopard would be comfortable to wander around. But once inside the canopy that blocks out the sun, the ambience is totally different. It’s an air conditioned chamber with humid control. It was totally refreshing, and the air divine. I don’t recall being attacked by a single red ant inside this forest cove, if there’s ever such a thing.

Our next stop was where people camp within the rainforest, and we decided to end it there. We were not going to proceed to the summit in the interest of time. Well, mostly that. But there was also the small matter that most of us by this time were totally thrashed. So instead we branched off to this ledge that stands above the cover of the rainforest. And talk about view. We could see the eastern leg of Lake Malawi glistening in the sun like a precious piece of glass. And then Shire River, the only outlet of this magnificent water body, snaked across the land like a ribbon before emptying itself in Lake Malombe, before proceeding its journey to Zambezi River, and then eventually hitting Indian Ocean. Shire River, being the longest and biggest river in Malawi is around 402 meters long. From where we were standing, we only saw a small chunk as it came out of the lake.

We returned to our camp inside Fort Mangochi and started our campfire.

Sumptuous Dinner and A Rousing Talk by the Campfire

As the open flames crackled above the burning firewood, a group of self-made chefs gathered around the fire and started preparing dinner. Yaseen Mukadam, our treasurer and also a long time member of MCM, was the rice grandmaster. He was cooking up a big dish from our famous Kilombero rice, the most aromatic long grain rice in Malawi. Carl Bruessow, an avid hiker, author, historian and champion of the replanting effort for Mulanje Cedar, was preparing mushroom entree. Others were making an assorted dish, and a special platter for vegetarians. When it was time to serve, it was so difficult not to put a small hill on one’s plate. Vegetarians were served first. The rest come after them, and wiped out whatever was being served.

Afterwards, some washed down the meal with a glass of wine. Some of us, a glass of water did the trick. Then came a surprise. Brownies, served with whipped cream! Aahh! Such good times.

We had an AGM – Annual General Meeting, led by Maggie, the president. She kept it succinct and informative. We received two reports and then we elected new leaders. Maggie and the rest of the officers were unanimously re-elected into office without being opposed. This committee is truly dedicated and strives to bring out the best for the club. We wish them another successful tenure in office.

Then it was time to settle down and have a talk from Carl Bruessow, who also happens to be the current president of Malawi Society, the custodians of colonial history artifacts and knowledge, which happily assists in the preservation of this rich heritage. After being taunted for a power presentation, Carl held out slides of photos and maps in his hand and delivered a moving oration. He told us about how the Yaos migrated from the coastal regions of Mozambique to this very spot. The Yaos loved mountains, and were attracted by the rolling hills in the area, and its plenty sources of water. The Yaos were tradesmen who had been dealing with Arabs, trading in the precious commodity, salt, in exchange for honey and other goodies from the interior of Africa.

Unfortunately, the trade turned its ugly head and stooped as low as in the sale of human souls and ivory. Slavery, in this region, started as a way to get rid of unwanted characters in the society. But soon became a huge human trafficking undertaking. At its zenith, the trade route passing through this area could have more than 20,000 souls per month. Until authorities in Britain said enough was enough, and started a campaign to abolish slave trade.

This led to three major battles that took place in different campaigns, led by different British officers. It involved British soldiers, Indian Sikhs, irregulars from the Ngonis, regulars from Zanzibar and more Ngonis. Irregulars would be the equivalent of modern day mercenaries, who came from the Dedza area. If I heard the narration very well, I think there was also a presence of some Yaos from Zomba, especially during the last battle that flushed out the Yao chief together with most of his 25,000 subjects. The headquarters of the chieftaincy was then later turned into Fort Mangochi, comprising of the thick stone perimeter wall and the structures inside it.

We learnt a lot about the local tribes, their historical behaviour and influence. And personally, I have never seen such delivery, with flair and decorum. This will be a night to remember for a long, long time.

I collapsed into my tent for an early night and drifted into a peaceful sleep. I stopped feeling the clods from the collapsed grass, and after a while the tiny thin polythene sheet for a mattress got comfy. I woke up fresh the following morning. Lost interest in having a cereal, and took instead a bowl of hot soup and got ready for the hike back to Skull Rock Estate.

This was one wonderful weekend, and I hope to return one day. Next time, I will want to reach the summit of the ridge where the rainforest resides.

 

PARTICIPANTS’ DETAILS:

Maggie O’Toole

Brian Lewis

Yaseen Mukadam

Carl Bruessow

Gill Knox

Chinga Miteche

Ngamise Gumbo

Pedram Kaya

Polly Boynton

Lloyd Archer

Adrian Thomas

Eric Borgstein

Sophie Borgstein

Marc Henrion

Nisha Schumann

Stephanie Darling

Kate Gooding

Kristina Cuisinier

Olivia Butters

Olivia’s friend

Rob Stewart

Sarah (friend of Rob)

Kondaine Kaliwo (me)

 

Joined for the day:

Cameron Caswell

Stefan Witek-MacManus

Stella

 

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