This is the third article about my recent adventure on Mulanje Mountain. Dan, my friend, brother and client, and I had set to reach Sapitwa Peak which is the highest point on Mulanje, the highest and most famous mountain in Malawi. At 3,002 metres above sea level, it offers rich views and is a noticeable feature for kilometres in all directions. (Actually, I wanted to say it is a notable feature for miles in all directions, but then I am not sure if that will gel with the metres I have already mentioned about the height of the mountain.)
Anyway, I should start the narration of the morning of the second day but allow me to rewind the clock and go back to the previous night. When we had settled in for the night, instead of having the expected pasta and mince meat, Dan had proposed a twist to the menu. Instead we had chicken stew and nsima, the staple meal in most districts of Malawi. The idea was great, but instead what we had looked like a local chicken that had spent its life going up the mountain every morning. It was tough, chewy and probably needed an extra gallon of pure acid to help digest it. So much for trying to go local with our mountain menu. Despite this botch, the hot tea from the metal cups soothed our tired jaws, with its infusion filling up the room. We had a fire going on the hearth, and candles completed the scene of medieval era. What remained was some early explorer showing up to join us for the night, narrating blood-curdling tales of his travels.
Outside, the stars came out in earnest. Being very high on the mountain, the air has little pollutants. And being far away from the glare of Blantyre City, the night sky becomes a deep black canvas on which the stars lodge. Each star grows in prominence both in terms of brightness and size. Faint stars that can never been seen from the confines of the city get a chance to come out and join in the starlight affair. This would be a paradise for any star gazer. At this time of the year, Orion was almost above us, and Scorpion took a position towards the south. In the north, the Dipper was visible, hiding only the North Star, which gets pointed at by the Dipper’s handle (or is it the Dipper’s tail?) with amazing precision.
We woke up in the morning, cold. We had breakfast and got ready for a long trek ahead of us. The plan was to walk to Chisepo hut, rest a little bit and then proceed to Sapitwa Peak. Upon our return, we would rest again at Chisepo hut and then walk back to Chambe hut. This ended up being an extreme 15 hour outing. Dan was feeling great and Rex, the guide, was ready for us. We took one porter to come along, who acted as an assistant guide. Dan and Rex took off at an upbeat pace. John, the assistant guide and I brought up the rear. We did not catch up with them till at Chisepo. From time to time, we could catch a glimpse of this determined pair in a distance negotiating a steep slope, or a treacherous section. I was willing to let things free-wheel for a while having confidence in Rex. But I knew that the path between Chisepo hut and Sapitwa Peak would require close supervision in many sections. So it would be great to let the client gain lots of confidence ahead of the greatest challenge that was waiting for him.
The trail from Chambe hut to Chisepo hut connects with the route that is used for Porters Race. This is an annual race that attracts runners from across the world to compete in this tough 21 km stretch up and across the mountain, and back to the bottom again. It has several categories allowing runners with different experience to participate. It takes place in June and just about now is the best time to start preparing for the event.
Hiking is not wandering aimlessly in the jungle. Often one is looking to get to a specific place, or one is searching for some remarkable feature. In this case, we were heading towards Sapitwa Peak, and we took a well established trail. What was interesting was the variety of obstacles along the way. Some places were steep, in ascending and descending, and others were slippery. Others had vegetation close to the path, poking at you whenever we got too close to it. And others were bare, allowing the sun to fry our skin. As I am writing this article, my hands have different hues of black and brown. I do not know if that makes me brock (mostly brown mixed with black) or blawn (mostly black mixed with brown). Okay, I’m black with different shades. Now, back to the story.
The view to Chisepo Hut, when approaching it from the direction of Chambe Hut is very striking. You approach the path from a high elevation, and can see the land dropping into some sort of a valley. There is a stream running across the valley, and just beyond that the hut sits comfortably among gorgeous flora. It took me a while to recognize the structure in front of me, and when I did, I could not resist but wonder at the architectural prowess that went into identifying the place for construction. This ideal location shows you the tail end of Sapitwa, just enough to whet your appetite without revealing too much. Chisepo deserves to be called a base camp. A base camp is the last point of rest before embarking for the summit.
When we reached Chisepo Hut around 9:39 am, Dan was already well rested. But the guide needed a bit of time to ingest some carbs. That was a hint in itself of what lay ahead. We took the cue and forced energy snacks down our throats. We also made sure we were well hydrated. Then I was ready for it. So was Dan.
The next article will take us from Chisepo Hut to Sapitwa Peak, a very unique experience in my hiking career. See you at the top.