In mid-June there was a public holiday in Malawi, and Cathy and I decided to take advantage of it. We were looking for an easy getaway, and two choices presented themselves. There was Bunda hill, small, bare, chewable. And there was Nkhoma, a bit bigger, with more vegetation and right on the fringes of Lilongwe, the Capital City. So after a quick open invitation failed to yield any positive response, my wife Cathy and I took off for Nkhoma Hill.
Nkhoma Hill is beautiful throughout the year. I have covered it before on this blog. In fact, it was the first hill which I hiked this year. The views are incredible, the air fresh and the interaction with nature, magnificent. However, Cathy has always hesitated to go there on the account of one misadventure that took place in 2016. That time, I was preparing to go to Kilimanjaro, and Nkhoma was one of the hills I was trying to explore for the first time. I wanted to gain experience by visiting different hills and mountains. It was an excellent strategy.
When I got to Nkhoma for the first or second time, some insect sprayed venom on my neck. It created a ring of burning torture, and peeled off the skin. I was in pain for over a week, and it took months before my skin could return to normal. That spooked my better half, and since that time she has always skirted around any invitation to the hill. So on this particular day, it was exciting to see that she had finally overcome her fear for the mysterious sprayer. She happily and bravely accompanyed me to this scenic hill.
Sugar and Salt for Mountain Hut Guards
Our initial pace was aggressive. We wanted to reduce the time on the trial and spend more time at the peak. On the way up we came across the mountain hut that belongs to Nkhoma Hospital. The guards that look after the camping facility have lovely stories to tell. My favorite guard is Mr. Viremu. And on this day we had brought him sugar and salt. Unfortunately, he had left a shift earlier. Instead we met Mr. Enos Kalichero, who turned 73 in July. He’s still energetic, and was able to recall our previous meeting. We left him with the sugar, but asked to keep one packet for Mr. Viremu.
Then we took time to inspect the facility. There are two rooms each fitted with two single beds. There’s also extra mattresses in case you have brought in a large group. The rooms are at each end of the hut, and the mid section contains an open lounge with a fireplace. A pantry sits at one of the corners, and it has enough utensils for a group of ten, and perhaps even more.
It has been on our radar to bring up the little ones here for a night of camping. It will be their treat and the first taste of cabin camping. Anytime outside the rainy or cold seasons will perfect.
The Peak and Its Obstacle Course
Nkhoma Hill is small in terms of altitude. What it misses in height it doesn’t lack in character. The trail has pleasant twists and turns. However, the section going towards the peak is something else. It packs a punch and guarantees a sweat. There are boulders that must be negotiated. Thick shrubs line up the trail and offer a shade of sorts.
This is the section that makes hiking the hill worthwhile. Variety is key in keeping return visits to a hill fresh and interesting. In the case of Nkhoma, the pieces of rock that stand in your way offer a fresh perspective on each new visit. I truly wish there were many places that could hold your attention like the way this section does.
On our way up, we met a pair of foreigners making their way down. And other than the pleasantries that we exchanged, the only other thing that was expressed by one of them was how difficult this part of the hill was. We certainly appreciated sharing mutual respect for the terrain.
And as usual the peak was a beautiful reward. Cathy was beaming like a little girl who has just been given a bar of exotic chocolate. She took it all in one sweeping glance, and settled in by the trig pillar to enjoy the incredible view. The air is always fresh regardless of the time of the year. And on this day, it was no different,
German Shoes vs African Thorns
One special attention on this hike was a set of hiking shoes we had just ordered from Germany. My foot companion that I have used since 2016 is now showing signs of aging. It has faithfully stood by my feet, but now effects of the African sun, wind, and dust have taken their toil. The same story was happening to Cathy’s hiking shoes.
The new pairs were rather pretty, light and came with a fantastic grip. My pair was everything I would look for in a hiking shoe. And I was happily gliding along the trail until a sharp pain from my foot woke me from my blissful state. I let out a shriek and limped to a halt. What could have possibly pierced through both skin and flesh with such intensity?
My eyes followed down my leg that was painfully suspended in the air only to find a troop of thorns hugging the sole of the new shoe. One member had managed to pierce through what I had assumed to be the rugged base of the shoe. Its menacing tip was now lodged deep in my foot. I could not believe it. For all the great praise we shower on German engineering, the African thorn had just proved itself untamable.
Being non-discriminatory, the thorn had easily defeated the first world engineering marvel and sent an alert to me at the same time. The message was loud and clear. Despite all the advances in science and technology, the wild still remains aloof above man’s achievements. At a moment’s notice, it is able to demonstrate, rather cruelly, just how much still needs to be done to guarantee man’s safety and comfort.
I pulled it out. I examined the damage and proceeded with the hike, a bit more cautiously of course. And after a while, the pain subsided, the beauty of surroundings took over, and soon I was back into my blissful state again.
Wrapping Up First Half in Style and Looking Ahead
Come to think of it, this was our last adventure in the first half of the year. It had started with a visit to Nkhoma Hill, and ended up with a return to the same hill. The third quarter of the year has been planned to be a resting period. And once the body has taken care of all aches, burns and tears, it will be time to resume a return to the wild.
Sweet time on Nkhoma
Cathy among the wild flowers
Cathy on Nkhoma summit
A moment with the hut guard
Cathy on Nkhoma Hill
On the way to the hill
Malawi, just like most parts of the world, has a lot to offer. And in the second half, we intend to explore the northern parts of the country. There is the Elephant Rock in Mzuzu, Hola mountain in Mzimba, Misuku Hills in Chitipa and the escarpment in Karonga.
There are also a few interesting places in Ntcheu in the Centre and Machinga in the South. So let’s see how many we will be able to visit in the coming three months.
In the meantime, I’m extremely proud of Cathy for overcoming her fears, and at the same time I have my respects to the thorn that cheapened the superior German engineering.
This is the tale of Nkhoma Hill, whose turns and twists will never cease to evolve as long at the Earth stands on its orbit, and the sun continues to give us light and warmth.
Few weeks ago Mountain Club of Malawi (MCM) sent out an invitation to its members for a sleepover on Mulanje mountain. This is the highest massif in Malawi and it is famous for beautiful trails, crystal-clear waters and amazing views.
The highest peak on Mulanje mountain is set in stone, standing at 3,002 m amsl. It is traditionally believed to be inaccessible and its name says the same in the vernacular. Explorers have nonetheless, created a trail to the peak but the environment at the top remains hostile.
The invitation was however focusing on a different aspect of the peak. This was an opportunity to view the most amazing sunset and sunrise in the country, if not on the continent. And the best way to enjoy both is to spend the night on the peak, and hope for the best.
The Preparation for the Sleepover
Having visited Sapitwa earlier this year with my brother and friend, Daniel Dunga, I already had an idea of what I was getting myself into. When we were there in January, it was cold, wet and windy. The environment was not friendly at all. But then what would you expect of the highest point from Mozambique in the East and Namibia in the West?
Therefore, it meant that preparation for the sleepover would be in two aspects: physical and mental. The former was a straight forward affair while the latter was in a different league altogether.
For physical fitness, I went to Senga Hills last week. Before that I took a 21 km run, which I’m also using to prepare for the Be More Race this coming Saturday. There was a shorter run with a running mate. And I thought this was adequate.
As for mental preparedness, first of all I removed all fear. I also used the reputation of our Mountain Leader to calm my nerves. In addition, I committed the whole trip into the Hands of God. When He created these extreme environments, He also knew His curious children would come exploring.
The History Of Sapitwa Sleepover
Maggie O’toole and Brian Lewis, the pioneers of the extreme Sapitwa Sleepover
I’ve covered the story of Maggie O’toole and her husband Brian Lewis in a different article. She’s the current president of Mountain Club of Malawi. She’s a veteran hiker with a hiking CV that spans across all the major mountains of Malawi. What I love about this power couple is that they are both unassuming, humble, very approachable, and highly skilled in organizing mountain events.
Back in 1997, she decided to spend a night on top of Sapitwa Peak. It had not been done before that. When she pulled off this jaw-dropping stunt, it became institutionalized. Now the sleepover attracts participants from across the world. It is an annual event and takes place in the month of June, which incidentally is the beginning of the cold season in Malawi.
When I once asked her about why they decided to attempt this impossible feat, she dismissed it with a brush of her hand as if it was not a remarkable moment in the history of hiking in the country. Maggie and Brian will forever be remembered for a legacy that will never fade away as long as Mulanje mountain stands.
Gordon Benbow, the Irreplaceable Iron Man and Mountain Leader for Sapitwa Sleepover
Gordon Benbow is the custodian of all things extreme in Malawi. Somewhere between 2002 and 2004, he took over from Maggie on organizing the Sapitwa sleepover. He has been to Sapitwa Peak a record 25 times and has overseen the sleepover 14 times.
At 62, he’s as sharp, focused, strong and agile as ever before and looks set to watch the sunsets and sunrises from the bare slab at the top of the mountain for another one thousand years.
Gordon also organizes and leads in the annual Three Peaks Walk. This a grueling 48 km walk around Blantyre that includes summitting three mountains – Michiru, Ndirande and Soche, all in a single day.
Gordon is the face of Sapitwa Sleepover and the Three Peaks Walk.
Premium Packing and Five-Star Accommodation
Two things that are usually grossed over when recounting adventures are packing and accommodation when the hiking destination is out of town. When packing is done haphazardly, it can mean a difference between a comfortable hike or not. And in some cases, it can also mean the difference between life and death.
Cathy, my beloved wife and premier organiser
For that reason, I will not tire praising the crucial role Cathy, my wife, plays in getting ready for my hikes. For the Sapitwa Sleepover, she methodically ran over the checklist and packed every essential piece of clothing and equipment. She packed my food, which for this expedition, was outside the usual.
Just like the hike on Senga, I wanted to avoid processed food, sugar and meat. Instead, I opted for fruit, nuts and water. I wasn’t very sure how far I would go with that diet, but it was worth giving it a shot. Cathy got all that ready.
On Thursday afternoon I said goodbye to my extremely excited boys and kissed Cathy. Then I jumped into a bus from Lilongwe to Blantyre. There was no looking back.
I sat next to Frank Maele in the Axa bus. He is one of the pioneers in the ICT industry in Malawi. He is the founder and owner of CompuByte. He’s also the owner of Byte Lodges in Lilongwe, both a going concern that have weathered the harsh economic climate facing the private sector. He’s a fountain of business wisdom and I learned a lot in the 4.5 hour ride between the cities.
Uncle Gustave, my gracious host
Gustave Kaliwo, or Uncle Gustave, as I love to call him is an uncle, brother and mentor all rolled into one. He’s a veteran lawyer, just like my father, George, and both very patriotic to the core about this country and its various systems.
Uncle Gustave picked me up for the night and fixed me more fresh fruits and macadamia nuts. However, by the time I was starting off for Mulanje the next day, I had nearly cleaned off the box of macadamia nuts and munched a significant amount of bananas and some tangerines. I guess it was a smarter way of packing food for the hike.
On Friday, 1 June 2018, I woke up fresh and energized. I was eager and ready for this epic adventure in every sense of that word.
Ride to Mulanje
As previously arranged, I got dropped at the pick up point. I made sure to be at the Midima Roundabout in Limbe way before 12:45. This was using the event to improve my time-management skills. Again, I wanted to make a good impression on Gordon.
Like clock work, Gordon’s car arrived first. He had left someone behind who was five minutes late. She had to catch up with him within a 10 minute window or risk being left behind.
I jumped in the second car with Jan van der Velde . He had just moved from Lilongwe to Blantyre and he had just reported for a new job in the commercial city of Malawi. We took off to Mulanje in a convoy of three cars. The rest would catch up with us later. But few had already left before us.
It’s one hour drive from Midima turn-off in Limbe to Chitakale in Mulanje. You can do less than that when the road conditions are better. Other than the broken bridge at Nkando, the rest of the road was in excellent condition. The broken bridge was a patchy affair, which needs urgent and proper repairs.
Likhubula Start-off Point
Our start off point for the sleepover was Likhubula Forest Office. We would be spending the night on Chisepo Hut, 6 hours away. Starting off at 14:00 meant we would be at the hut by 8 in the evening.
Those that did not have an appetite for walking in the dark had started off in the morning instead. That included Barbara Swarthout-tenKate, a medical doctor, Chinga Miteche and Ngamise Gumbo, a power hiking pair, one as an IT Consultant with an international company and the other a product manager at TNM, the biggest local mobile company in Malawi.
I met Charles Nembele, a friend and my personal trainer for many years; Racheal Mijiga, a director at Airtel Malawi, the other big mobile company in the country; and Humphreys Gerald, a networks engineer with Airtel, and cyclist who enjoys covering 80 km in a day between Blantyre and Liwonde.
The rest of the hikers were from different countries across the world – UK, Germany, Netherlands, Canada, USA and so on. About 22 hikers had confirmed the invitation and had booked a seat.
A Smooth Take-off
Exactly at 14:15 we started off for Chisepo Hut. Gordon had introduced us to the guide Frank, his assistant guide Stanford Duncan and the porters. Each one was assigned a porter according to the number of bags. I opted for two porters to carry my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food and water. In addition, I brought along a backpack too for my torch, headlamp, knife, phone, power bank, raincoat – just in case, and a warm coat.
I caught up with Racheal’s team and convinced them to slow down. Humpreys decided to join Gordon instead. This towering giant was later to recount the hard task of keeping up with Gordon. Gordon left us the assistant guide to help with the navigation. Then he took off as if he was powered by nuclear energy. I expected no less than that from him.
Chapaluka Trail to Chisepo Hut
Mulanje Mountain is gorgeous beyond words. It has 62 peaks in all shapes and sizes. The biggest peak is Sapitwa, which is not visible from the western face of the mountain. To get to Chisepo Hut from the Likhubula Forest Office, one is presented with two choices.
There is Skyline and Chapaluka trails. Skyline is shorter, steep and a delight to veteran hikers. Chapaluka is gentler, has a river running alongside it, with a double crossing. It has pools that you can swim in. It is a tourist’s choice. For this trip we all picked the Chapaluka trail.
Once at the plateau, the two trails join together and take you to the hut via the knife edge, a trail that teases your senses.
The Beauty Of Chapaluka Trail
This was my first time going up Chapaluka. The previous time was back in January when returning from Chambe hut. That time we were descending from the top. The trail did not disappoint. The air was fresh, the canopy was green with mountain flowers here and there. Some protea had a small bloom. I’m not sure if these were early or later bloomers.
Our assistant guide kept us entertained with folklore. He has also been trained not to leave any piece of litter behind. So at some point, when I was failing to open up a packet of groundnuts, I bit off a corner of the packet with my teeth and spat out a tiny piece of plastic. He immediately reached down for it and put it in his bag. I was humbled especially considering how I promote for clean hiking environments.
A Lick of the Cold and a Touch of Mountain Pools
Our focus was to make sure to complete the first ascent before sunset. We managed to do that. And just before reaching the western plateau, we went through a rainforest section. It like walking through a cold room. I felt my fingers burn with cold. Here was a foretaste of what was to come. I said nothing to the team about it.
When we reached the top, we saw stars coming out and sun bowing out of stage. We descended into a valley where the Chapulaka trail connects with a trail from Skyline. We crossed a make shift bridge composed of a loose tree plank. There is a series of pools here, and everything just looks out of this world. This is the last major watering point until Chisepo Hut.
On the other side of valley, the trail sharply rises up. The grinding started right here. Further up the trail, there’s also another steep section similar to this one.
The Night View
Darkness set in and the moon came out. The pretty little purple flowers were radiant under the bluish LED light from the torch. The silhouettes made beautiful illusions of animal shapes. Nameless peaks glowed under the moonlight.
The Milky Way, which looks absolutely exquisite here, spanning across the sky from the eastern side, slicing away towards western south, finally gave way to the luminance from the moon. The lunar charm was in full force.
Directly in front of us Scorpion menacingly glared at us with its red star. The Dipper was to our North, apparently not bothered by the presence of this stinger. A few more constellations kept us company.
A little more walk, frequent rests and careful, measured sips later and we were over the last incline. We were greeted by flashing light from the hut. When we got there it was around 22:00, 2 hours later than the scheduled period. In any case, the relief was immense. Those that we found awake gave us comforting words of solidarity.
The Night at Chisepo Hut
Chisepo Hut is the Base Camp for hikers attempting to summit Sapitwa. It proudly seats at 2,229 m amsl. At this altitude, it is further up than the highest peak on Dedza Mountain, the second tallest mountain in Malawi.
The hut is square, with a roofed veranda and a chimney that juts out from the middle of its pyramid hip roof. It has one entrance facing north. And there are two wooden bathrooms at the back. There is a big rock in front of the hut, from which you can catch a glimpse of the rock formations that tail off Sapitwa Peak.
There was adequate space inside the beautiful wooden hut, but I decided to sleep outside. I joined a few brave souls that were wrapped in their sleeping bags on thin mattresses along the veranda. I kept my body shielded against the wind, and slightly exposed the head to get a vantage point of the following day’s sunrise.
Sunrise At Chisepo Hut
On Saturday morning, we woke up early to bright clear skies. The sunrise was soothing. The color play offered rich hues of red, orange and purple on the fringes. The moon was behind the hut. It complimented the sunrise.
The pains of the previous day vanished. The air was fresh, and the wind went away with the night. Phalombe, the next district to Mulanje lay quietly below us in the direction of the sun.
Today, was the day we would be spending the night on Sapitwa. While I was busy giving myself some pep talk, Marc Henrion took off from the hut. He was wearing, in the cold of the morning, a thin t-shirt and a whimsical shot. He went for a 7 km trail run in preparation of this year’s Porters Race. A little bird told me that he’s the top performer among the foreigners’ category. By the way, this race is an annual half marathon across Mulanje Mountain, and this year it will take place on 14 July.
To go beyond extreme, he went and took a bath in the cold stream next to the hut. At such a sight, I knew I had nothing to worry about. I was surrounded by hardcore characters and that Sapitwa was going down.
A Walk to Sapitwa
After breakfast, we all set off for Sapitwa. Those that had the intentions to return to the hut on the same day left earlier than the rest of us. The wind of the previous night had convinced a few souls that it was better spending a cosy evening around the fire in the hut than having a sleepover on bare rock above us.
I joined Gordon to have a sweet taste of super performance. With tremendous effort I stayed just ahead of Gordon until the first major break. But alas, I should have known better. At that point, I felt like the heart was in my mouth. I dropped to the rear and continued at my comfortable pace. For the record, I had already told Gordon that he was a Martian straight from Mars. I got better and told him that he was powered by nuclear energy. That didn’t daunt the Mountain Leader as he scaled up the peak.
A Glider on the Obstacle Course
The trail to Sapitwa is the most twisted and savage route I have ever seen on the few mountains I have visited in Africa. It is an obstacle course that can easily stand tall in the world. Steep slopes, sharp bends, huge steps are framed with precipices in strategic sections that could claim lives.
And at some point, after we had squeezed ourselves through a thin gap between towering boulders, we saw someone approaching us at lightning speed. It was a lady and a porter. When she caught up with us, she introduced herself as Pilirani Chuma. She had started off at 4:30 am that morning from Likhubula Forest Office. She reached Chisepo Hut at 9:30 am, 15 minutes after we had started off for Sapitwa. And here she was. She overtook us and disappeared towards the peak.
I have never seen anything like that. We didn’t see her again until we reached the peak. A small bird (another one) told me that she runs 15 km daily in less than an hour and never takes second position. I was among giants of perseverance, determination and focus.
Later in the afternoon we got to the top. Just like last time, the view was amazing. But it was also cold and windy. The guides and the porters dropped our bags and left us to our own devices. I overheard a few porters wondering what got into our heads to decide spending a night there in such weather conditions.
I found a sweet spot between Chinga’s and Barbara’s tents. It was like the bottom of a shallow trench, with a vertical stone wall on the southern face no more than one meter tall providing some shelter. The northern side gently slanted towards it like a grand entrance. The trig pillar on the highest point was visible from the open ended enclave.
A Gourmet Meal after Checking-in
I quickly set up my tent, unpacked and changed into warm clothes. Pilirani offered me bottled water to quench my thirsty throat and Ngamise gave me chapatti (pitta bread) and beans. That served both as my lunch and dinner. The fresh bananas that I had struggled to carry were mashed and not fit to be consumed. What a waste. But the tangerines were still in good shape.
When we all got set, we gathered on the western end of the peak for social interaction. There was laughter, anecdotes and tales of adventure between clenched teeth and rubbing hands. This was a point of no return. Sleepover mode was activated.
Sunset on Sapitwa on Saturday Afternoon
After about an hour of chatting, I excused myself and retired to my tent. At that point, I was tired and cold, which made me fall asleep easily. When I woke up around 5 pm I found the peak covered in mist. The sun was going down and was casting beautiful shades of red and orange. The mist was wispy, just enough to make the sunset look mysterious.
Then it lured me to the western ledge and captivated me with its melancholic tones. It felt like immersing in a giant, invisible bowl of whipped cream that soothed the heart and brought tears to my eyes. Something seemed to say that there’s hope to life. For even if there’s a sunset in your life, there will be a sunrise the following day. Life doesn’t just fade away. It comes back. The Bible says the same thing.
Standing alone, oblivious to Marc Henrion behind me who was leaning against a rock in a sitting yoga pose and was staring into the sunset, I went into deep mediation. Pure thoughts infused my mind, and I worshipped silently. I felt connected to the best of nature. The cold, the wind and the mist disappeared. I was reaching out. Calm beyond description engulfed me. I was grateful to be alive.
I watched as the sun started to sink into the western horizon. Strangely enough, instead of sitting on the brim of the sliced globe, it was somewhat inside the ring of fire. It looked like the red and orange ring behind it had nothing to do with the giant deep orange and crimson red ball.
It hesitated for a moment, then vanished out of sight. The red ring on the horizon disappeared, and dark came rolling in. I woke up from my meditative state and hurried back to the tent. This was clearly my best sunset this year. Thank you Dear Lord for such moments.
The Night on Sapitwa Peak
Then the night came. Everyone resigned to their own tents. Some slept alone, and others in groups. I was a lone wolf in a tiny, two-person domed bubble. This was the only thing protecting me from the elements. The wind went incessant and raged on furiously throughout the night. More than once it felt like the tent would be pulled off its four pins and be sent hurtling over the edge of the peak. I could hear the wind slapping the tents next to mine too.
The tent kept on shaking like exaggerated effects of old Hollywood movies. Someone had left some pots outside, and the tinkling sound of metal became the unwilling percussion section of this grand concert with powerful acoustics. I slipped in and out of sleep. I added another layer of clothing and wore thermal gloves above my normal pair of gloves. My thermal pants joined my hiking pants. I had already worn my balaclava but felt cold air caressing my neck. I rummaged in one of the hiking bags and fished out a scarf. Ah yes! Thoughtful Cathy had packed this sweet little gift for me. I wrapped it around my neck and fell in love once again with my wife from the highest peak in Malawi. A special kiss was awaiting her on my return. A kiss of love and gratitude.
I slept comfortably on the super thin mattress against undulating rock surface. The hard bed was shaped like one of those posh chairs you see on photos of first class cabins on luxury airlines. After a while, I could feel a spongy layer from less than an inch of shallow soil and bare traces of grass thinly absorbing my weight. This comfort was only available on the southern side of my bed, while the northern side gently sloped away into a hard base. The trick here was to keep on alternating between the extreme luxuries. Truly, they don’t make beds like this anymore. Hehehe!
Despite all this comfort, I only dreamt once. It was a disturbing dream. I dreamt that I had visited a shop and the person I found in the shop dropped a bomb. He told me that my current CEO at my work place had just resigned. I have worked for NITEL for 16 years, but my CEO and Managing Director Andrew Kamkwalala joined the company a year earlier than me. He’s the bulwark of the company, and has unstoppable passion for the company and all it represents. I woke up startled, searching for meaning.
More than once, I would unzip the tent’s side window and peep outside. The view of the sky was surreal. It was clear without any trace of clouds. The moon was out, casting tantalizing lays on the peaks. I was tempted to step outside, but the cold kept my enthusiasm in check.
A Quiet, Quality Time
Having much time between the sleeps, I seized the opportunity to sing and pray. I prayed for my family, friends, church, nation, children of God, everyone on Sapitwa and myself. I was grateful that such a weakling like I could find the courage to spend the night in such a harsh environment.
Lately, it has occurred to me that I had spent my life praying to God to remove obstacles in my life. Yet the Bible does not teach that. I should have been praying to God to see me through the challenges. Let the challenges come. Let the obstacles show up. So what? As long you overcome them in the end in whatever way it really doesn’t matter how your life is shaped up right now.
The prayers on this night took that form. “God, don’t let me be a coward. Don’t let circumstances cower me into submission. Don’t let negative events quench the fire in me. I’m a child of God. I have faith, and I want to live a fulfilled life. Help your children today to know what they are, so that they can stop listening to the devil, and believe the Truth that you have given us an abundant Life.” I rejoiced my victory in Christ.
Sapitwa Sunrise, the icing on the cake
Now came the crux of the matter. The reason we were on the peak was not the sleepover. Although that was lovely in its own way. We were here for the sunrise. We had all come loaded with expectations. I had heard from Maggie O’toole that this time of the year was the best time to enjoy the sunrise because the skies were crystal clear. The only variable out of control for anyone was the weather. The weather on Mulanje is unpredictable, and during the onset of cold season, it is very easy to have showers, cloud cover or fog. So we came hoping for the best.
I woke up at 5:00 and peeped outside. There was a faint line across the eastern horizon already. I got out of my tent, woke up Chinga to my left then Barbara to my right, and Gordon to my second right. I went to two more tents beyond Chinga’s and then rushed to claim a seat on the trig pillar. It wasn’t a wise move as this was too exposed. But it was the view I was after, and not any shelter.
Within minutes I couldn’t feel my lips and nose. So I made a makeshift face cover from the scarf and settled to watch the most spectacular sunrise in the country on this particular day.
The Sunrise on Sapitwa
What I experienced about the sunrise here was my first encounter, ever. I had always assumed that during the sunrise the sun reaches across the entire visible arch of the horizon. However, that is not the case. Instead of a ring of light, there was a slit of light on the eastern horizon. The rest of the world was still covered in darkness. You could actually see how far the light had penetrated the dark.
I watched as the slice of light increased in height when viewed as a profile. It seemed to have a centre where the intensity of light concentrated. On the left of that centre, the light was more diffused as if there was a giant cotton ball that was floating in a mist of yellowish red. On the right of the phantom centre, the light was sharper and was mostly bright yellow with a subtle hint of red.
I could see that most parts of Zomba and Phalombe on my left, Mulanje on my right and Blantyre, Thyolo and Chiradzulu behind my back were still in darkness. Security and street lights were still on. This was a bizarre phenomenon.
The Magic of The Sunrise
Then came visual transformations. The right side of the slice took less prominence. The centre shifted towards the left, which became brighter than before. I was confused. Could the point of ascension shift? It shouldn’t be, but in this case it looked like it moved away from the central point.
Between the peak and the horizon, there were seven layers of silhouettes, showcasing the jagged edges of the mountain peaks. Each silhouette had a different depth of its shadow. Beyond the seventh peak, clouds simulated a similar shape pattern, making it an eighth layer. It was picturesque.
In the meantime, the ring of light on the horizon started elongating. And what had looked like land meeting the sky became a floating bed of flat clouds. Up until this moment, I had not realized that sunrise was such a complex process. It was so mesmerizing.
Then fire reappeared on the centre of the original ring. The sky lit up in colors of reds, orange, yellow, purple and blue. This is the stage I’m most familiar with. Then out came a shimmering globe resplendent with celestial beauty.
The jury was out. The verdict on the sleepover was that this was by far the best sunrise I have ever seen. The last time I saw something close to this was the sunrise on Kilimanjaro back in 2016 following the summit night.
This was a day to remember.
The Sleepover over
With a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction we wrapped up our affairs and left the mountain. I joined Chinga and Ngamise for the descent. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep up with their pace. Chinga slowed down for me, and Ngamise would take breaks to allow me to catch up.
It was a clear day and the mountain was radiant as usual. I drank as much of the mountain water as possible. We took the Chapaluka trail and met a few tourists going to Dziwe La Nkhalamba, an amazing natural pool set below a beautiful waterfall.
They dropped me at the Axa bus terminal in Blantyre. We said our goodbyes and I left for Lilongwe.
My biggest lesson in all this was that fresh bananas are difficult to carry to Sapitwa unless if they are placed in a special container. So next time I’ll go for dried fruit.
No, seriously, this was not the biggest lesson.
The biggest lesson is that in life challenges will not go away or get any less. We should strive therefore to get better at facing these challenges. Truly, for every cold, windy sleepover on your Sapitwa Peak, there’s a beautiful sunrise waiting.
The Expedition List
Likhubula Forest Office Start-offs
(A brave attempt on the mountain)
Jan van der Velde
Sapitwa Day Excursionists
(Summiting Sapitwa but no sleepover)
Sapitwa Sleepover Hiking Fiends
(Spending a sleepover on Sapitwa Peak)
Gordon’s son’s friend
Donna’s tent besties
Donna’s female friend
Donna’s male friend
And the quiet guy
(The list will be updated once the names become available.)
The Apostle John of the Bible is one of the most blessed men to ever walk the face of the earth. Jesus met him when he was a young man, and immediately took him as an object of love. He walks besides Jesus and grows in knowledge and character. He builds experience to the point that he becomes a veteran of the Gospel. In his ministry, he becomes a pastor of the Church of Ephesus, which was founded by the Apostle Paul. He also becomes a prisoner of Christ when he gets banished to the terrible and isolated isle of Patmos, which was reserved for dangerous and desperate rejects of the Roman society. John sees it all.
In the end, he gets to write one of the four cornerstones of the Gospel. Then while at the Isle of Patmos, he receives a series of the most spiritual visions ever recorded by man, and he as a faithful scribe writes the Book of Revelation, the last of the New Testament. And when John gets old, he writes the three beautiful books, I John, II John and III John. He gets to experience every facet of a Christian life first as a young disciple, then as a young Apostle, then as a pastor and as a prisoner of Christ.
So when he says that which he has seen, he’s reflecting across the entire spectrum of his Christian life. He identifies Eternal Life from the beginning and mentions it in all the three groups of his books. But he doesn’t stop there. He emphasizes that he has seen Eternal Life with his eyes, he has looked upon it, he has handled it with his hands. He calls it the Word of Life.
Read 1 John again. When he says he is a witness and that he shows us the Eternal Life, which is the Father, we better listen. Of all the people that ever walked on earth, he is the definitely the right candidate to make such a statement.
Two weeks ago, my bosom friend Chikondi Kachinjika or CK in short sent me an open invitation from the Hill Climbing Club for a weekend hike on the famous Senga Hills of Salima. The date for the event was 26 May 2018, the last Saturday of the month. Later on, another friend Alick Bwanali alias Onyamata AKB sent me the detailed program for the day.
I quickly marked the date on my calendar. This was not an opportunity to miss, for I had been trying for the last two years to find myself there. Senga Hills rise up from Senga Bay, a beautiful corner of Lake Malawi as it transverses the lakeshore district of Salima.
The program for the day promised some goodies. Admission was free. The rendezvous was the Parachute Battalion of the Malawi Defence Force. The main trail would be the same one that soldiers use for training.
My Preparations for the Day
I took two runs of about 7 km each in the week of the hike. I had plenty of rest, and were properly hydrated the day before the event. My supplies were simple – bottled water, one apple and some dried dates.
Unfortunately, I also picked a slight injury. What started as muscle cramps on the second run persisted for two days. I got advice from one of my trainers on how to speed track the recovery. It was very important for me not to miss the hike.
On Friday, just after lunch, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to stock up on calories the native way. I asked Cathy, my beloved wife, to prepare roasted local maize. It has never been my favourite but I thought I’d get a kick from it. Big mistake! The flinty grains destroyed my jaws and smashed my digestion. That evening was spent hunting for anti-acids in a few pharmacies in town. So much for beefing up on energy reserves the native way.
Idyllic Drive to Salima
For some reason, I could not go to bed and sustain a long sleep. I kept waking up due to excitement. At four in the morning, I got out of bed. I decided to skip my morning shower. I convinced myself that my evening bath was adequate. Ah! This was a weak line of reasoning. I gave up on it and took my hot bath – by the way, which I find relaxes the muscles much better than cold water.
I packed my essentials and started for Salima just after five in the morning. This is usually a one hour ride in a good car, but having destroyed the engine firing sequence with my recent adventure in Mangochi, I needed to take it easy. It was still dark when I left home, it was cold and as I was leaving the city boundary, it got foggy. I switched on my faulty air conditioning unit and settled in for the ride. The road was virtually empty except for very few cyclist and a lonely pedestrian here and there. At one point, a local dog, which was busy twisting its tail for the owner, lost focus and took the dance to the road. Fortunately, my speed was slow and it managed to get off the lane with a soft honk.
After a while, the fog cleared, and a soft light appeared towards the east. There was a single blueish-white star directly ahead of me. A few more stars were to my right, towards the south. Salima is a hilly district, and the road follows the contour of the area. Going up and down, curving to the left then right, the ride was getting sweet.
About half way from my destination, I could make out a flat line on the horizon. This is where the lake was located. A thin line of clouds had formed above it. It was flat at the bottom, with cotton puffs at the top. I could see a faint sky blue sipping around the clouds, with hints of light purple towards the far end on my right side.
Then as if on a cue, an infusion of orange started intensifying on my left side, and the cloud started getting bigger at the top. The bottom remained relatively flat. Then all at once a bright orange ball pierced through the clouds, and cast a diffused light into the morning atmosphere. I stopped the car to take it all in. This was beyond gorgeous. This was a special gift to those that were awake at that hour. It was so serene.
By the time I hit Salima Boma (the local district government centre) the rest of neighbourhood was awake. There was a concentration of bikes, people and cars. I asked for directions once or twice and finally found myself at the Parachute Battalion. I was the first to arrive, and not surprisingly, having left Lilongwe rather too early.
The long awaited hike on Senga Hills
Bit by bit, hikers arrived from all corners of the country. Some arrived from Nkhotakota, some from Lilongwe and others from within Salima. It was a good mix of seasoned hikers and rookies. We had both civilian and military officers.
We got a briefing from Captain Soko, who is second in command at the Battalion. The Chief Special Forces Instructor, Corporal Joseph Lipande, towering above everyone, and packing muscle everywhere on his super chiselled body, was introduced. Cpl Lipande gave us a detailed plan for the day. Senga hills is a collection of 12 to 15 hills. And the day’s hike would focus on the three main hills, culminating at the trig station on the highest hill. We would then descend down to the beach.
We were then introduced to the team of medics. We had an ambulance on standby that would be following us on the road parallel to the hills. And the military hospital was on alert to handle any cases of injury and exhaustion. We were immediately put at ease that we were in good hands.
Major Chimbayo, who is the Commanding Officer for the Battalion, gave us a battle cry for the Airborne Division and led us into battle – a battle with the rolling hills.
We trekked out from the Senior Officers Mess, which was our hosting station, to the starting point. The little walk warmed up our muscles as anticipation grew in the air. When we got there, ladies were asked to join the leading guides and then men came next. The medics were spread across the group, and the rear was brought up with medics and those doing Admin. Whistles were blown and then we took off.
We took a roll call, and we were 63 strong. The military is unbelievably organised and efficient to the core. The medics at the rear broke into seedy military songs. We had frequent stops to allow people to catch a breath. Everyone was encouraged to be sipping water regularly but in small portions. Not that the instruction was heeded very well as some hikers who were by now feeling very hot wished they were carrying gallons of the cool, crystal stuff. The cruel twist however was that at this point, anything heavier than a shirt would feel like it was weighing a tonne.
Corporal Joseph Lipande (left) giving us initial instructions
Up on Senga Hills
Major Lameck Kalenga (right)
HCC members getting ready
Target for the hike
Major Mabvuto Chimbayo (centre) leading.
When we took the first major break at the top of the first hill, and were told this was the easy part, admiration mixed with deep respect spread across the faces. These hills, though, not as tall as mountains, had a serious punch. The trail was somewhat steep and the military pace, though, slowed down a million times for us, was still significantly challenging. By the way, from the beginning of the trail, to the end, the best of the MDF officers are on record to have completed it under 30 minutes. On our part, we were planning to cover the same distance in 3 hours. As a result, the military officers with us hardly broke sweat.
We started the first hill, and got to the second major hill. The trail twisted up, went up rocks, threw in a cruel practical joke here and there. By the time we reached the top, it was clear this was an obstacle course. Our guides, made sure to mix and match the trail. We got some soft parts, with a few points that required all our strength. The group started breaking up into three parts. The super fit were upfront, the majority were in the middle, and some brought up the rear. But no one was left alone. Even the slowest among us, dictated the final pace of the group. Whenever we took a major stop, we would not start again until the last hiker had shown up, flanked by medics and other military officials.
The view at the top was amazing. On the first hill, we could see the lake on the southern part of Senga Bay. The waters were a calm blue, hardly disturbed on the surface. When we got to the second hill, we could see some parts of the farthest parts of the bay on the northern side. However, the front, in the eastern direction was still hidden by the hills we were yet to conquer. Being a forest reserve used for training military personnel, the hills were well covered in green canopy. The density of trees was impressive, and in some parts almost impassable.
The descent from the second hill was the steepest. This is called Khwekhwerere or Mchombo Lende in the vernacular, and loosely translates to slippery, sliding trail and topless (you are guaranteed to take off your shirt) respectively. The slope went all the way down almost to the same level as at the beginning of the trail. Brake pads on people’s legs were smoking, and a few here and there took a slide. We were told to be five metres apart so that a falling bundle of human flesh would not take down the entire team with it. Members were openly groaning, and the guides were busy whipping up morale, by running up and down the slope. I have never seen such a display of bravado!
When we got to the bottom, we were made to rest. We took our snacks, water and listened to some music. When we were all back together, we were told that this was the last way out point. Anyone going beyond this point would be expected to complete the hike. We lost 25 members, who opted to terminate the hike. I admired their tenacity. This was a difficult trail, and they had all done very well.
Towards the Trig Point, the highest of Senga Hills
The rest of us continued towards the third hill. But in between there was a small matter of dealing with the steepest incline in the hill collection. My heart popped into my mouth, and I felt like all my energy had been sucked out of me. And with my current no-sugar diet, the body was tested to the limit to dynamically generate sugars on request. The guides in the meantime were going up and down as if they were running on a plain ground.
I remember at one point, one of the soldiers offered to pull some of the ladies. How I wished I could be offered a hand too. But my male ego stood in the way, and I forced myself forward, inch by inch. Fortunately, the temperature was alright. It was just warm enough with a lot of cool breeze trying its best to prevent our bodies from overheating. The air was fresh, and we were surrounded by sounds of the wild. Of course, at this point the singing at the back had ebbed into a grinding silence, and the DJ had broken into Gospel tunes. The timing couldn’t have been better.
We had to take a major stop before reaching the summit of this small hill. This was perhaps the most difficult section of the entire trail. Water was dangerously running low. Fortunately, those that had carried theirs in camel bags generously offered the few drops they had. Coincidentally, it was only the military that still had water on them. The civilians had emptied theirs on the way up. I was a participating student on discipline and endurance here.
When we reached the top, there was a sense of accomplishment. Although, there was still one more hill to conquer, it was clear we had persevered a hard course, and the end was nigh. One military officer told me that a victory is not sweet unless the battle is long and hard. I got the meaning immediately. In order for us to enjoy conquering the Senga Hills, it was important for us to tackle the hard parts first. I couldn’t agree more, though I doubt if my feet saw the amusement in that small talk.
Soon it was time to aim for the trig point. When we got there, we were greeted by the best view in all of Salima. The entire Senga Bay below was in view. We could see where the islands were, a few kilometres from the sandy beaches. We could see where the rice paddies were. There was a beautiful tributary feeding into the lake. In contradiction, as always, we were told it had the highest number of crocodiles in that part of the lake. So it made sense to admire it from a safe distance up in the hills.
Our pains disappeared. All that effort to get here melted into folds of satisfaction, liberally mixed with waves of accomplishment. This was worth fighting for. This was worth the pushing, shoving, towing and everything in-between. This was a great moment. If there was a technology out there to freeze moments, this would be the one place to put it into action. We took photos. We smiled. We laughed. We cheered our guides. We thanked the medics, and the rest of the military officers. There was nothing to compare this moment with anything else.
But like all good things, it had to come to an end. We descended and finally connected to the road leading back to the base. Others immediately jumped into the cars that were following us. Some of us, hanged back a little bit, and squeezed in a little stroll before the next pick-up.
In total, we had covered approximately 10 km of rolling hills, in about 3 hours of active walking. The rest was spent on well-deserved breaks, and view watching.
Interview with the Commanding Officer Major Mabvuto Chimbayo
I later caught up with the Commanding Officer Major Mabvuto Chimbayo. He is the officer in charge of the Parachute Battalion and leader of the Airborne Division. I wanted to get his view of the hiking expedition. Here is an excerpt of our chat:
Please, sir, tell me about your role in the hike today.
Well, today, I was your host and facilitator for the hike. We had to provide access to the training arena for our military officers, and provide health personnel and facilities for all the members that came to participate in the hike. We had to arrange for guides, medics, ambulances and put our military hospital on alert.
We also had to make sure you had a comfortable station to start from, that is why we opened the Senior Officers’ Mess to the HCC members. This was for your refreshments, braai and relaxation.
More importantly, I also had to coordinate on the request from the Hill Climbing Club to the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for permission to access our military base.
Lastly, for the hike to be successful, we had to provide a brief about the difficulty of the terrain, and take charge of the walks so that it would be enjoyable to the club members as you have seen for yourself.
That took a lot of arrangement and coordination. Thanks very much for that. Now tell me a bit about the trail we took today.
The trail we took today was a mixed route. Some parts were difficult, and some parts were easy. We have three main trails, and today, we sampled from each one of those. As you could see, there were moments where you had to challenge yourself. You had to push yourself. I believe this is better than going to the gym.
The most difficult routine is a hill run. We did not do this one today as it requires you to be very fit. Our officers are able to complete the trail we took today in about 25 minutes.
We also had to pick a trail that would allow you to enjoy the scenic view of Senga Bay. You can see islands to the south, and the rice paddies to the north. The trail allowed you to see the best of Salima.
What is your message to the public?
As you know, non-communicable diseases (NCD) are ravaging our communities. NCDs can be prevented or managed if one is to adopt an active lifestyle. Lack of exercises contributes to the development of these diseases like types of diabetes and blood hypertension. So we advise the public to adopt exercises. It can be fun as you saw today.
Our training facilities are open to the public upon making proper arrangements. And we are there to help support the nation to get fit, lead a healthy lifestyle and contribute to the wellness of all the citizens of our country, Malawi.
Thank you, sir.
A Bit About the Hill Climbing Club
Then I caught up with organising members of the Hill Climbing Club to learn more about its origin, the hike, and about planned events in the year. I had a chat with Mr M’theto Lungu and Major Lameck Kalenga.
Thanks for inviting me to participate in the hike today. It was awesome.
Thank you for coming to be with us today.
Tell me about the club. Who started it and when was it started?
Well, before we start with the history of the club, let me first of all thank the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for granting permission to our request to come today to the Parachute Battalion with members of the club for a hiking day on Senga Hills.
This is part of Civil Military Relations, which the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri is promoting to enhance the relationship between the military and the public. As you might be aware, Malawi Defence Force(MDF) has been promoting public health by encouraging the citizens of the Malawi nation to adopt an active lifestyle.
We cannot thank the General enough for such a great consideration. We are looking forward to building a special relationship with the military, and will continue to engage MDF for support in granting access to training facilities for our club members.
Now, to go back to your question, this started as a discussion between Captain Bright Chanika and I (M’theto Lungu). We wanted to encourage people to adopt an active lifestyle. This was back in December 2017. We arranged for people to take walks on weekends in Lilongwe between Kaunda Filling Station and Bunda Turn Off. We also encouraged people to share on social media details of any physical activities that they had undertaken.
The original plan was to attempt a hill monthly. Unfortunately, weather and other factors got in a way.
Do you have a club president?
No, not at the moment. We have an organising committee. At the moment the members for the commitee are as follows:
Organising/ Coordinating Team are:
1. Major Lameck Kalenga – Technical Coordinator/ Advisor
Vice: Francis Muwalo
2. Capt. Kelvin Ezron Soko – Strategic Coordinator/ Advisor
3. Major Bright Chakanika – Fitness Advisor
Vice: Capt. Henry Tembwe
4. M’theto Lungu – PR Coordinator
Vice: Fatsani Menyani
4. Lipenga – Associate Coordinator (Salima Fitness Club)
5. Lt. Tiya – Gender Affairs
6. Major Gilbert Mittawa – Legal Instructor
But in the future, we will need to elect members to various positions. Especially since we are planning on involving companies to sponsor our activities. As you heard, today’s hike was sponsored by various companies. We are thanking them profusely. Such sponsorship has to be accounted for in a transparent manner. Hence the need to have elected members to take up leadership positions in the club.
Tell me about the membership.
The club has an open membership. The current members come from Malawi Defence Force and also from the public. We have members across the world. The majority are in Malawi, but we have some members across Africa and beyond.
At the moment, membership is free. And anyone can join our group on WhatsApp and on Facebook. If a member has a question on fitness, others will come in and assist. It is a dynamic group meant at encouraging one another to adopt an active lifestyle and remain fit.
Sorry to ask an obvious question. What is the club about?
As you might already be aware, NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are killing more people in Malawi than even AIDS. This is a shocking state of affairs for the country. We want to encourage people to adopt regular exercising as part of their lifestyle to help prevent conditions such as heart attacks, types of diabetes, fatigue, obesity and so on.
Living a healthy lifestyle allows one to live longer. And it involves three aspects: exercising, nutrition, good health habits. All these depend on personal choices. We are here to encourage people to make those good choices in order to allow them live long happy lives. We strongly recommend that people should start exercising before doctor’s orders. Do it while it is still your choice, that way it will be fun, and cost effective. When you have to do the same as remedial, you will have to deal with heavy medical bills.
We also want to promote bonding with family members. Our activities involve all family members including children. If people had brought children today, we would have kept them entertained outside the Senior Officers’ Mess.
Finally, we want to promote local tourism. Why should it take only foreigners to come from the end of the world to appreciate the beauty around us? It should start with us. When we take hiking to different parts of the country, it will allow members to appreciate the many beautiful sceneries and views. We are going to achieve this by partnering with various companies.
We are asking companies to come forward and support us. Just like we have received the support from the companies that made the event today possible. We received support from Zambezia Health Drinks, McWise Prints, Skyline International, NaMEDIA and AutoBoiz of Kemstc Group of Companies.
We also partnered with different clubs including Salima Fitness Club, Nkhotakota Gym Centre, and Makawa Fitness Centre. Such is the partnership we are looking for, and are open to all fitness groups across the country.
What have been the activities so far this year and do you have any plans for the rest of the year?
This was the biggest event so far this year. We had over 60 hikers who participated today. Men and women. But this was our second trip to Senga Hills. The first one was in February.
We are planning to have quarterly events. The next big event will be a walk and run on the Khwekhwelere section of the Lakeshore Golomoti Road in Ntcheu. It will be in two categories – one will be 10 km and the other 20 km. We will start from the bottom of the road and climb up the famous Khwekhwerere escarpment. We will announce the dates, and we ask companies to come forward and support us.
In the meantime, we will continue having weekend walks and runs in Lilongwe, and members are asked to continue participating in physical activities wherever they may be in the world, and share the moments with fellow members on our social media groups.
Any last words?
Yes. We are a non-partisan group. We don’t have political or religious affiliations. We are inviting all members of the public to pick up an active health lifestyle regardless of age, profession or social status.
Not only will this be beneficial to individuals, but this will help the nation to reduce its national budget on health on remedial interventions and instead use the resources for national development.
Remember, exercise is difficult to start and exercise is difficult to stop. So get started. Lastly, once again, we are very grateful to the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for granting us the opportunity to have the hike today on Senga Hills. This was a very successful event.
Thanks. [End of interview]
So what do you think?
So dear reader, what do you think? Has your appetite for outdoors been whetted up? Nature is ours to enjoy, and when we undertake such an outing, we get to enjoy, relax and praise the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ for all the good things He has given us.
I thank the Hill Climbing Club for organising such a great event.
Standard Bank has been sharing wellness info on its website and other social media platforms to help runners get ready for the Be More Race slated for 9 June 2018 in Lilongwe. The Bank has been also motivating the general public to embrace outdoors lifestyle.
Lilongwe City Run Winner
This year the bank introduced City races in the three major cities of the country. I, myself, participated in the final leg of the city runs/walk which was hosted in Lilongwe and it was covered on this blog.
All the top winners covered 10 km under an hour. Such was the passion and dedication to the sport. This takes countless hours of training throughout the year. And more and more runners are being encouraged to turn professional. You can have a career in athletics.
In Lilongwe, John Kayange came first after finishing the 10 km distance in less than 40 minutes. Kayange is a professional runner. He will be one of those athletes to watch in the main event in two weeks time.
John confidently says “I can and I’m good at it too. It is also my source of money”. He’s challenging other runners to get good at it and consider it as a career.
To you and I, who have never done a run before, it would seem counterintuitive to be told to slow down and start incorporating big breaks. Thoko Unyolo, Head of Marketing Communications at Standard Bank personally advised me to cut down on the distance if I’m preparing to do the 21 km hit.
She should know having interacted with health professionals and athletic consultants during her organisation of 2017 and then 2018 Be More Race and having participated in this year’s The Two Oceans ultra-marathon in Cape Town, South Africa.
Two aspects of training involve muscle memory and recovery. The first one happens when we attend the range we desire. The second one is now essential to allow the muscles to rebuild after a strenuous exercise session.
So now that we have been training for 86 days, it is time to allow the bodies to rest, and give them a chance to perform wonders on the race day.
In a way, use these weeks to confirm your category based on your current performance. Remember the reason for the race is to have fun with family and friends, and not to pick up injury.
To the professionals, it is important to treat your bodies as long time investment accounts. Avoid injuries that could negatively affect your careers.
Let’s get ready! The main day is just 14 days away.
There are days when challenges come like giant waves in the ocean of life. Yesterday, was such a day. I resigned to my desk life and discounted any possibility for a run. I reasoned that I was not in the right mental state to focus where my feet would land. Oh la la! Poor me. Then my colleague and running mate showed up and asked if we were running after knocking off.
I initially declined. Then I mulled over the question and when I saw how he seemed eager for a second run this week, I changed my mind. Maybe this could be an opportunity to have a better run, having met against performance issues with the run on Tuesday.
Run In the Dark
So after the dark had settled in, we took off in earnest. We were determined to beat our previous record. This was very exciting. I reckoned that at the speed we were going, we were going to shave off some 10 minutes. This time we had a light, and we thought we could get into the grass trails a little bit away from the tarmac road.
We got into the grass trail, and missed the path. No, the plan was not working as planned. We ditched the idea and resorted to running along the main road.
After joining the main road, there was a slight incline. We tried to sprint it, but our bodies were stingy with liberal energy release. We got the message and throttled back to just above engine idling revs.
The voice from the running app declared that we were doing somewhere around 6 minutes and some seconds per kilometre. Yes! This was good.
Performance is Very Expensive
While my mind was busy chasing wild imaginations of great performances, seeing ourselves attending global competitions the terrain changed. The road was now flat, and we should now be able to increase our pace once again.
Yet that is not what brought me back to reality. It was my legs that were crying for attention. It felt like I had attached blocks of lead on either side of my lower limps. Andrew was close by, but he too was also failing to increase his pace. “C’mon heart, do something. Give us a push” I pleaded. No push came along.
So I decided to change my running technique. I decided to run on my toes. More specifically it was about shifting the weight of the body to the soles of the feet, and keeping the instep, arch and heel in the air.
I took off like a gazelle. This was awesome. My wild imaginations returned. I could now feel the cool breeze on my face. I was in paradise.
Then suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on my right calf muscle. It felt like it was caught in a mechanical vice with a vicious lockjaw. I wanted to cry out in excruciating agony. The thought of stopping terrified me. “What will happen to all the minutes we had shaved off already?” I caught myself thinking.
I switched back to being flat-footed, and limped for several metres. However, I couldn’t allow myself to take a break. At that point it occurred to me that great performance is very expensive. It is not easy at all to keep improving one’s speed and range.
Focus on the Finish Line
The next update from the running app confirmed that our speed had dropped significantly. We were still in the bracket of six minutes, but the seconds were fasting approaching the limit.
I pushed myself harder. I was openly groaning whenever there were no pedestrians nearby. Andrew, my running mate, was busy fighting his own devils. His old injury on his right knee resurfaced and it was giving him problems each time he tried to pick up speed.
A stumble, a skid and a turn later we were at the finish line. We covered 6.54 km in 6’58”. This was our best performance ever. And though the gains may not seem significant, the direction of improvement is definitely positive.
We will continue to push harder even if it means only shaving off a second at a time. So should you in whatever you do.
One day Cathy, my beloved wife and I were following behind my dream car. As I was in the midst of admiring the marvel of exquisite engineering, one of its windows lowered down and out flew a banana peel. Before we could recover from the shock, another peel followed, then another, then another! I have never felt so conflicted. Such a disregard to other road users and the environment coming from such a beautiful machine.
In 2016, I went to Blantyre to attempt the summit of one of the most beautiful mountains that form a ring around Malawi’s commercial city. A certain company had arranged a day out for its employees, which was an impressive gesture. On my way up, the amount of fresh litter was disappointing. Empty plastic bottles, plastic bags for snacks, wrappers for biscuits and so on. Instead of enjoying the view, I spent some time picking after our eager friends.
Mind the Environment
Whenever I lead a group of friends for a hike, apart from safety, I emphasize a lot about keeping the environment clean. As much as possible it is best to leave the wild the way we found it. One good way to manage the litter is to remember to bring along an empty plastic bag that can act as a litter bag.
Imagine if no one was picking after our litter, the nature trails would be an eyesore. I know of one little hill in Lilongwe that has small blue plastic bags all over the trail. Little boys from the local neighborhood sometimes help clean them up. Or the rains wash them down during the rainy season. Surely, we could do better than this.
Small Change Big Impact
If there’s one thing I would love to see adopted across the country, it would be this: let’s keep the environment clean. Not throwing empty beer bottles on the road on Friday night will help joggers on Saturday morning to enjoy their run instead of dodging broken glass. And keeping empty wrappers under wrap will help maintain pristine natural trails in forests, hills and mountains.
Such a small change could bring about a huge positive impact on our environment. Let’s keep our environment clean. It starts with me.
Many years before I knew that chitin was indigestible by the human stomach, I had a gastronomic connection to the insect gourmet diet. There are seasonal insects that are a delicacy among Malawians of all ages. Take for instance, ngumbi (flying ants) during the main rains of November and December. These airborne bundles of joy can be taken raw – to the brave hearts, or roasted, or better still, boiled, then sun-dried, then roasted with a pinch of salt. I’m not sure of what nutritional value is left at the end of it, but the taste is awesome. Taken with nsima, a native thick maize paste which is the mainstay of the staple diet in the country, ngumbi is in a class of its own. However, because the skin contains chitin some stomachs don’t handle the meal very well. But that does not diminish the wonderful sensations your taste buds will put up together with the olfactory organ.
As a boy growing up in Blantyre, the commerce centre for Malawi, any interaction with nature was seized without hesitation. Flying ants are attracted to light, so the adventure started by catching them in the evening under the street lights. The Lisimbas, our next door neighbours had a personal anthill within their compound. As such the street light next to their house had the most concentration of these ants. Each night, during the season, there would be a cacophony of voices from boys, girls and dogs each trying to outwit the other in catching them.
To reduce the possibility of cars running over me, my mum decided that I should be catching ngumbi at home. So we started using the security light on our veranda to attract the flying pizza toppings! (Yes, you can do just that.) And to increase the chances for an easy catch, we’d pour water on the floor guaranteeing a trapped landing once they let their bellies down. This was easy and somewhat lessened the fun of chasing them around, or waving them down with a shirt while being topless (for the boys only).
With time, the techniques of catching them evolved. Instead of waiting for them to come out, we could catch them right at the anthill. Unfortunately, the solder termites gave us value for each catch. They were big headed with menacing mandibles. And they were able to deliver a painful pinch. Even the smaller termites had a pinch too. None of us escaped their watch.
To circumvent the problem, the older boys started mining the anthill, creating a slanted runway and fixing a pail or a basin at the bottom of it. Then covering the trap with grass. This would create darkness and coax the flying ants to start coming out right in the afternoon. The innovation worked for most of my friends. Somehow, I couldn’t get to doing it right and at most only managed to catch a handful.
Flying insects were not the only ones keeping us busy. We also had mafulufute. I don’t know what the English name is, but these insects came in two colours, two shapes and two sizes. One was black, big and more rotund. The other was orangish red, small and crunchy. When we were young, the black ones were the clear favourites. I’m more inclined towards the smaller ones these days.
Their anthills did not have termites. Instead they had tiny ants that were very itchy. Once in a while we could chance them coming out of an anthill, and that would ensure a bigger catch. Otherwise, chasing them while airborne was not a small matter. You had to be agile, quick to spot aerial movement, and even quicker to react. Mafulufute provided the best sport when chasing them compared to the rest of the insects.
And then there was grasshoppers. Occasionally, we could find locust. This one had to be hunted with a specially designed bow and arrows. The arrow was made from a corncob. Six or seven pieces of wire with the same length would then be arranged around the cob, and then a longer wire would be placed through the centre. This became a flying trap, much like a mouse trap. Again, to catch a hopper took incredible skill, and for the majority of the smaller boys, the whole hunting experience was about recounting near misses. It was more about how close one got to nailing a hopper down than it was about the actual catch.
Among the grasshoppers, my personal favorite in as far a catching them for a meal was concerned was the type we call abwannoni. They are often green, slender and easier to catch. They are attracted to light and get busy at night. They are usually a menace to rice paddies but in cities, they are a delicacy. These are the ones I enjoyed catching, and munching too. In fact, of all my childhood insects diets these are the remaining ones on my list. I still eat ngumbi, but it’s not as nearly tasty as abwannoni.
These days some nutritionists are promoting the consumption of insect protein to help communities that are vulnerable to effects of climate change, and are susceptible to low harvest yields. It would seem food science is finally catching up to what we already knew as boys and girls, and exploited over 30 years ago!
It’s all a matter of perspective. 10 km passed in a modern plane at cruise speed will be fleetingly small. In a car, on the open roads 10 km is nothing. In busy cities like Lilongwe, it will be noticeable. But on your feet, pounding the hard asphalt to the rhythm of your heart, 10 km becomes 10, 000 metres!
As covered in previous articles, the city run was designed to bring Standard Bank customers, staff and the community together. It was a day where runners were encouraged to come along with their family and friends.
THE TURN OUT
The turn out was great. I made out a few familiar faces including Walter Nyamilandu, the current president of Football Association of Malawi (FAM). I couldn’t resist getting a photo opportunity with him. And his deep baritone voice helped set the mood for the race. I met Kelvin Mphonda, an old friend from college days. He’s an Assistant Director of Roads, Ministry of Transport and Public Works. There were peoples of all races, ages and gender. The youngest was 8 years old and the oldest perhaps was in his 70s.
THE START LINE
After signing the indemnity forms and getting the race number, we all gathered at the start line. This was a proper affair with the modern square arch marking the spot. There was an ambulance and lots of Police and race officials. Then a trainer appeared in front of the crowd and took us through a warm-up session. It was more like a dance-aerobic session. I felt the warmth of blood surging in all the four corners of my body. I was ready.
When it was 2 minutes to the starting time, Malawi National Anthem played on the loud, high-fidelity speakers. Some runners cheered, and others stood at attention of sorts. Exactly at 6:00 a whistle was blown and we all took off.
HERO OF THE DAY
I decided to take a comfortable pace and watched a sea of faces run past me. Steady and Easy was my strategy. What’s more, there was a high chance of catching up with some of these runners later on in the race. As I was busy fiddling with my phone, an athletic pulled up next to me. He looked like a smaller version of Bolt. We struck up conversation and got to learn that he was Ian Msampha. He was a survivor of a nasty car accident that left him with a broken leg – in three places, and a broken left hand. The accident occurred off Lilongwe City limits in September 2015. After surgery, where they inserted a metal bar to support his femur, the doctors said he would never walk again unassisted. The family then decided to involve a physiotherapist from Blantyre who had strict routines, some starting off as early as 4:00 am.
Bit by bit, he started going to the gym. He started bench pressing a 50 kg bar, and went as high as 140 kg. And here he was actively participating in the race. To me he was the hero of the race.
The route that was selected was very scenic. Starting off from the heart of New City Centre, the part of Lilongwe without dust, it went past the majestic Reserve Bank building, the only structure that is thin at the bottom, and wides out like an inverted stepped triangle. At the far end of that road, the route brushed shoulders with the boundary of Lilongwe Sanctuary, where wild animals are rehabilitated and released into the jungle, if they are still capable of fending for themselves. Then the route turned north and went past the American Embassy, the new South African High Commission complex and the DFID offices (Department For International Development). On the opposite side, there was a forest composed of indigenous trees. It was green everywhere.
At the Malawi Parliament roundabout it turned west. The Parliament buildings were in sight, and this architectural marvel does not disappoint. The route had been steady until this stage. It sloped down a little bit, and then started going up. Further down the road, it turned north again at Area 18 roundabout. This is where the first challenge emerged. The slope was considerably significant. In the mornings when going to work, it is not uncommon to see loaded trucks that have broken down on this section. People and machines alike find this section difficult to navigate. The road from the Parliament roundabout and this road bordering the popular Area 18 form two sides of a rectangle housing the Botanic Gardens. This is a favorite spot if one is looking to pray, study or reconnect with nature.
Lilongwe City Run.
Lilongwe City Run.
Lilongwe City Run.
Further up the road, the route turned right into the low density Area 10. The road sloped down and offered some respite to the now tired runners. An undulating pattern led the road to a junction between Area 12 and Area 11, and the road turned right. This section, thankfully eased on the ankle, offering a gentle negative angle. In front of the road was The Golden Peacock Mall, and Golden Peacock Hotel in the background towering everything. The mall is one of the biggest in City Centre and boasts of shops, restaurants and office space.
At the bottom of the road the fun abruptly vanished. The route turned right, and up, and up and up, towards the finish line. This was the last challenge meant to test the resolve of both the experienced and the uninitiated. Capital Hotel was to the right, and Mungo Park further up the road. The latter has the only five-star hotel in the country, and also has the prestigious Bingu International Conference Centre (BICC). All these are beautiful compounds, but at this point, it was likely that the runners were not noticing these, only focusing on completing the race at BICC.
There was three watering points along the way, and at each junction a race official would pair with police members showing directions and controlling traffic. The preparation that went into this must have been massive considering the attention that was given to the details.
THE TOP TEN
Then came matters of ranking. The first position went to John Waldron who clocked an impressive 47:22 minutes, and the second position went to Jochebed Mpanga who did 53:55 minutes, followed by Maya Kachenga with 54:29 minutes. Here’s a complete list of the first ten runners to hit the finish line:
Joni Waldron 47:22
Jochebed Mpanga 53:55
Maya Kachenga 54:29
Cynthia Mahata 57:49
Lindiwe Nkhambile 57:51
Rose Chapola 1:00:08
Iris Borsch 1:02:47
Orama Mwase 1:03:06
Racheal Shilup 1:03:29
Nyasha Vera 1:05:59
Other than the first three positions, the top ten list was dominated by valiant ladies who sailed through the route as if on the wings of swans. A big congratulations to the top ten. You did us all proud.
Top Three, John to the left.
The Youngest Troop
Ladies in the Top Ten
Between the first and second booths, as we were negotiating the slope of the Area 18 road, I spied a towering figure pumping up the slope without effort. He could easily be twice my size, and than fascinated me. He was accompanied by a companion, whom I assumed was a wife. When I got close, I decided to introduce myself. I assumed he was the CEO of Standard Bank. He was gracious enough to respond to my questions while we were still in stride. After introducing myself as the blogger for Be More, I reached deep within and tried to increase my pace. I mean, I thought it was important to make the right impression being our first meeting.
I took off and left them in the distance. But by the time I was negotiating the last slope towards BICC I spotted the pair approaching with strong intent to overtake. I reached for the dregs of any energy reserves that were left in the tank and took off awkwardly. I silently promised myself that the only thing left that mattered was to be ahead of them, even if it meant just a metre separating us. I crossed the finish line with a short distance between us. I don’t think he knew there was a competition at play here.
Later on, I got formally introduced by Thoko Unyolo, the Head of Marketing and Communications and the chief engineer behind the Be More Races. I was fortunate to be granted a short interview. William and Debbie le Roux are a power couple, having participated in the Mzuzu City Race already. Debbie is a kindred spirit having a passion to hiking. She has already been to Mulanje Mountain, our famous and tallest massif in Malawi.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview:
Kondaine: “What is your message today?”
William le Roux: “We want to see more interaction between our customers and the staff. We want to see our customers and staff spend more time outdoors than being in the banking hall. For that reason we have introduced Digital Channels, and with it a digital app that is best in its class. It is linked to Airtel Money. It is an App 247, that will allow you to easily access your account anytime, anywhere. Together with online banking, you can easily access the bank services from the comfort of your bedroom, or anywhere.”
He paused. After a brief reflection he continued.
“We believe that wellness is good for business. It is good for the community. We believe that wellness is good to our customers and to our staff. And we would like to encourage everyone to embrace the outdoors lifestyle by participating in the Be More Races. That’s the message today.”
We shook hands and parted our ways. I must say this was a classy appetizer. Time and opportunity willing, I’d wish for a more comprehensive interview that will tackle a wide range of issues concerning Standard Bank, the athletics and of course the Be More Races. But for now, this was a timely glimpse into the most powerful man at Standard Bank, participating, and engaging with customers and the business community.
The stars for the day were all those that showed up, without whose presence the City Race would not have been a success. This was fun, and to say that it was an achievement would be making an understatement. The run/walk has given us all an idea of the scope of the main race. Be More Race on 9 June will be twice the fun, twice the challenge, and twice as long.