Dedza Mountain, An Adventure for the Child In Me

Having concluded my Q1 (January – March) with a successful visit to Bunda Hill on Easter Saturday, I thought I could finish the Easter break and start Q2 (April – June) with a visit to one of my favourite mountains in Malawi. Dedza Mountain was a natural choice, being only about 100 km from Lilongwe, my home ground, and being the second highest mountain in Malawi, standing a proud 2,000 m amsl tall (read it as the height of the mountain at 2,000 metres above mean sea level). Dedza Mountain has lost its mature coniferous trees in the forestry reserve areas due to legal but thorough log harvesting, and with it, most of its former beauty. Nevertheless, it still maintains sections where the trail from the bottom to the plateau is covered in dense foliage composed of indigenous trees and thick undergrowth.

 

There are two popular approaches when viewing the mountain from Dedza Town, one starting from south east, and the other from south west. My preference has always been the one from south east, which begins from the Forestry Office, and has a more direct trail to the top. The other one follows the road to the towers at the peak facing the town. This second trail snakes across the mountain as the road goes back and forth, infolding in many places as it traverses the rather steep contour of the mountain.

In the usual manner, my host was Blessings Chingaipe, the plantation manager for Dedza Mountain Forest and a very good friend. This day’s hike would see me only carry a two litre water bottle, and a walking stick. I wanted to see how I would fair without getting energy boosts from energy bars. This was exactly how I had started the year, when Nkhoma Hill, the cat’s ears’ hill in Lilongwe opened the door to outdoor adventure for 2018. The hidden purpose was to cut down my dependence on sugar whenever a physically strenuous activity was in play. The playful side of the matter was simply to add some garnish to the awesome dish called hiking. Having been on this mountain a few times, a variation to the hiking theme keeps each expedition fresh.

 

Again, this was a solitary adventure which would allow me to imprint the trail in my mind as I would navigate the path with multiple branches without a guide. Surprisingly, for someone who enjoys trekking in the bush, my sense of path details is completely terrible. I can only remember the big features, but the details easily fade away. In order to reinforce the little permanent markers on the trail, I need to train constantly to track my way without assistance. After all, others expect you to know the way, taking comfort in the number of visits to different mountains across the country.

As soon as the hike started, I noticed blackjack lining up both sides of the trail, ready to hitch hike to the top. The path was overrun with grass, as if it had not been used for a while. Being that the rainy season this year has decided to extend its period, the growth was very impressive. Such a state of the trail increases the possibility of crisscrossing the highways of snakes, with fair advantage being with the other camp. It immediately reminded me of the time when I was very young in Blantyre, the only designated commercial city in Malawi. The big boys had taken my friends and I into a forest near our neighborhood for a foraging adventure. We were hunting for guavas and other wild fruit that were a delicacy among us. Suddenly, Fred, who was the oldest boy, froze in his tracks and signaled us to stop. We picked the cue and stopped in our tracks.

I could not make anything other than a thick rope hanging directly in front of us straddling across our path. Then someone whispered, “snake”. Oh my goodness. It was one long snake, and others identified it as being venomous. It was my first time seeing such a long snake in the wild, and have not seen its kind since. Everyone was briefly mortified but after Fred chased it away, we bolted forward foolishly determined to resume our search for super sweet wild fruit. I was sure, without the sharp eyes of Fred, someone would have adorned the live coils for a venomous crown, with an accompanying hissing sound for a royal requiem.

 

So with that in mind, I kept my eyes open, pushed away any crippling fears, relaxed and proceeded with my hike. The trail was virtually empty except for a pair of loggers that had taken down a young supple tree near the edge of the trail. Despite the duo parking a sharp panga knife, which had sliced through the tree with a single stroke, the conservationist in me erupted into a concerned public lecture. In the end, we all agreed the need to preserve trees for future generations, and that for immediate firewood demands, it was best to harvest pruned branches laying around the forest.

The yellow on the flowers on this mountain was much brighter than the one I had seen on Bunda Hill, two days prior to this hike. Perhaps it could be that there was plenty of resources from decaying leaves and grass, and with a steady supply of water for most of the year, the plants could indulge a bit more than their counterparts on the nearly desert hill in Lilongwe. Some sections of the trail got swampy, and there was a significant presence of birds hovering near the trail, as if to say, this part of the mountain had been visited less by humans. At some point, I heard deep throaty grunts, and images of a leopard came into my mind. I wondered if it could be put off were I to confront it with the walking stick waving it frantically like a magic wand? Well, I thought those sounds better be coming from some huge monkey, or some strange bird. As much as I find the big cats fascinating, a lone encounter on a lonely path was not exactly something to look forward to.

Soon I was lost in the natural beauty all around me. Everything was green with endless variations of the colour of life. And the patterns and sizes of leaves were captivating. Others were small, while others big. And some were single affairs, while others were arranged in rows. Fibonacci patterns were in abundance, boldly challenging the mind to count, sequence and discover the beauty in mathematics expressed in nature. The mountain air was so fresh, it felt like walking in a luxurious air chamber supplied with platinum grade imported air. You know our love for imported stuff with a hint of exotic origins. Yet all this was homegrown, supplied for free, and open to anyone who would join the hike on this day.

 

The walk in paradise was rudely interrupted by red ants that had abandoned their orderliness. Instead of cutting across the trail in an organized rank and file, they were all over the grass in a chaotic fashion. There was no alternative path, and I decided to walk past their blockade. I immediately knew I was in trouble, and dashed to a safe distance before examining the damage. I managed to dislodge the ants that had quickly crawled up my boots and had started attacking my socks in an attempt to reach my lower limbs. Having thoroughly combed through the hiking bottom I resumed the hike. I had barely covered 10 metres up the path, when I felt a sharp sting right on the centre of my lower back. C’mon! How did it manage to get up there so fast within the short encounter we had just had? Before I could recover, there was another sting on the right flank of my belly, and then on the opposite side. Aha! I had not dislodged them from my backpack.

It was time for another thorough examination. Again, I remembered such attacks when we were young. And how it often led to complete disrobing in order to rid oneself of the onslaught from these fiery soldiers. I had no intention of disrobing, despite the fact that the mountain was virtually empty. Having examined every inch of the fabric, I resumed the hike without further incidents from the little but powerful guys. Adding insult to injury my no-energy-bar-with-me experiment was finally catching up with me. The steep portions were daunting to negotiate. But somehow I loved it. I knew there was plenty of energy stored as fat. I could actually see the store house around my belly. No, brain. Don’t play any tricks on me. Get the energy you converted from sugars to fat, back to the monosaccharides useful for cell function. After all there was nothing here to nibble on. The berries I had seen had not been touched by any insect or bird. And a friend of mine once told me that that is an indication to steer clear of such. If it was edible, he reasoned, the animals would have had a go at them first.

 

Well, before I knew it I was at the top. I had two choices, either to turn right and proceed to the main peak, or turn left and go to the Towers. I turned left. Instinctively, I knew the path to the summit would have overgrown and I had had enough drama for one day. The peaks on Dedza do not disappoint. The views are incredibly amazing. So after resting, and enjoying small sips from the water bottle, I opted to descend using the road to the Towers. I had lost appetite for a bushy trail. After all the red ants had made a strong point, and I got the message. I would not be interfering again with their foraging. When I finally reached the bottom, I had completed 10 km of walking.

Dedza rekindled my childhood memories, of snakes, predators, red ants, birds and wild fruits. Thank you Lord for affording us such moments to escape into precious flashbacks of a time long gone.

National Bank of Malawi, City Centre Wellness Club Members on Dedza Mountain

My first Corporate Hiking Event with NBM City Centre Wellness Club

BACKGROUND

Early last year (2017), I was approached by Mark Phanga of National Bank of Malawi to see if I could help with organising a hiking event for their City Centre Wellness Club. Mark was working as a senior manager within the Wholesale Banking Division, where he continues to work to this day. The City Centre Wellness Club comprises of staff from the City Centre Service Centre and the Wholesale Banking Division.

I eagerly accepted the invitation and got to work. I was given a working committee and my key contact was Constance Nkosi. Constance poured her heart into the project, which yielded great results in the end. Out of the pool of possible mountains we chose Dedza Mountain largely because it offers a well-balanced trail. It is the second highest mountain in Malawi standing at just over 2,000 metres above the mean sea level. Yet it has parts that are not difficult and a few areas that guarantee sweating. It has a well maintained trail to the peak which is accessible throughout the year. At that time, it also offered shade for most of the way.

We settled for a date and got the estimated numbers interested to join the hike. Due to other circumstances, we shifted the date which affected the number that would participate.

A week before the hike, I was given an opportunity to meet the members and discuss the important points for each member to consider. I was introduced to the team by the Service Centre Manager, Charles Sawasawa (now managing the Lilongwe Service Centre).  We went through everything from safety, attire, the correct mental attitude to benefits of hiking. It was emphasized that for one to enjoy the hike it was best to observe the appropriate attire, to stay away from drink, to be well rested, and be properly hydrated on the day of the hike. These are basics for a successful hike.

 

National Bank of Malawi (NBM), City Centre. Day of the hike.
National Bank of Malawi (NBM), City Centre. Day of the hike.

 

On 4 June 2017, the day for the hike arrived and everyone was ready. My technical team was composed of Captain Perry Mmanga and Peter Mvuma.

Perry, with his military training and extensive outdoors experience, was going to be our chief tracking officer responsible for security and safety. Peter, with his background in medical training was going to be our chief nursing officer responsible for first-aid, and general health of the entire team. We hired six porters to help with carrying food and water.

RIDE TO DEDZA

We arrived at the Service Centre at 6:00 am. Almost everyone was there. We were expecting about 30 people to turn up. We loaded all our provisions in the private bus that was hired for the day. A few calls later and it was apparent that others would not make it. When we got a respectable number we left for Bunda Turn-off, the exit route from Lilongwe City heading towards Dedza.

We picked a few struggling members on the way and started for Dedza. The crowd was lively. One of the porters who had shown up in a three piece suit had to get a change of clothes along the way. This entertained the members without measure.

We took a roll call in the bus, confirmed the numbers and deposited it with our chief tracking officer. We checked again if anyone had any medical pre-conditions, and if clearance had been obtained from their physicians. And then settled for the ride.

Shadreck, a member of the Wellness Club, was our appointed photographer, and media guru. He was also the self-appointed DJ, packing a bluetooth speaker all the way to the summit and back.

 

City Centre Wellness Club Members on the way to Dedza. Constance (left) and Shadreck (front) taking a break from coordinating the event.
City Centre Wellness Club Members on the way to Dedza. Constance (left) and Shadreck (front) taking a break from coordinating the event.

 

DEDZA MOUNTAIN IN VIEW

Dedza, which is 86 km away from Lilongwe, is about an hour’s ride. Just before entrance into Dedza Town there is a great view of the mountain. Somehow the optical illusion makes the mountain seem small. This is the best place to build confidence of the hiking members. So when the mountain was introduced from this spot, spontaneously some members jokingly said they would run up the trail in a matter of minutes. This was good for morale.

We packed the bus at the Forestry Plantation Manager’s residence. Blessings Chingaipe, the manager, has been my gracious host each time I’m in Dedza for hiking.

We divided the load among the porters, gave a few instructions and started off. I would go in front to set the pace, Perry and Peter would bring the rear. We emphasized on cleanliness. Whatever we brought up the mountain we would have to bring back with us. Littering destroys the natural beauty of the mountain. Immediately others were not impressed with the pace. This is all too familiar territory. I knew they would get to appreciate this in about 30 minutes.

 

 

After 5 minutes walk, the trail starts sloping up. One feels engaging with the mountain. The members handled the transition very well. Soon the hiking session was in earnest. The mountain was covered in green. The members were greeted by chirruping insects. Birds added high notes here and there. Here was a walk into paradise.

We took frequent rests to allow members to sip their water. At designated places we would stop for an energy snack. Anything from groundnuts to chocolate helped restore sugar levels in the bloodstream. That, plus water make up the fuel to see us all the way through to the plateau.

 

On the way to the top
On the way to the top

 

Dedza has some gorgeous boulders, some as big as a multi story building. Most of these are hedged by exquisite greenery. The part of the trail we were on gave the team occasional glimpses of these natural beaus to whet its appetite for nature.

Sometimes this trail is transversed by army ants. These tiny soldiers have a nasty bite, swamping their prey. They wouldn’t kill a human but in worst cases they will force you to disrobe, a very embarrassing situation. This was often the case when we were young and had erroneously wandered into their territory. On this day we were fortunate enough not to have such an incident.

 

Taking a Water Break. Shad (front) doing his thing.
Taking a Water Break. Shad (front) doing his thing.

 

THE TOWERS

The first peak to reach was the Towers’ peak. It offers a fantastic view of Dedza Town below. From here one can trace the National Road that passes through the town connecting between Blantyre City in the Southern Region and Lilongwe City in the Central Region.

When were got to the Towers those that had challenged to run up the mountain avoided repeating the subject. Rather we all settled in for lunch. Normally, lunch on a hike is a simple affair. But on this occasion, lunch was a grand display of pleasure. Not too opulent, nevertheless it was sumptuous enough to make everyone forget about the two particularly challenging sections just before emerging on the plateau.

We dined and we wined. No. Not the actual wine. Maybe I should say we dined and we juiced. Aha! Now I’m making up words. In short, we had a lovely picnic. Some members wanted to return to the base afraid of the next stage of the hike. But after resting them for an hour, having fully digested the good provisions under the barrage of never ending jokes, they all declared ready to continue with the hike.

 

So far so good. From right to left, Perry, Peter and myself
So far so good. From right to left, Perry, Peter and myself

 

At that point I had already arranged with my technical team to split the team. We were glad that everyone would attempt to walk to the summit about an hour away. This next stage is not as difficult as the first segment.

We took off, with Peter ahead, and  with Perry and I bringing up the rear. I was comfortable that we could all go at a good pace. We sent back most of the porters to base and only retained the ones required to carry our water. We roped in a new porter who knew three places where one could find mountain water sources should ours ran out.

 

THE SUMMIT

The highest peak on Dedza is surrounded by a natural rockery. It is not treacherous but after walking for some hours it was enough to melt the heart of some bankers. My group, which came up last, declared it mission impossible. “How would you say it is impossible when it was your first time here? I asked.

After some motivational exchange and a little bit of encouragement, we went up the rockery and found ourselves on the peak. Some respected individuals broke down into tears of joy. Aha! I always knew bankers had a soft heart hidden in layers of banking decorum. With a proper business proposal, that big bank loan is yours to have.

As part of the outing package, I delivered a short motivational talk at the summit based on the hiking experience. Hiking has many benefits and offers many lessons in life.

Once rested, and after taking photos at the summit, we set off for the base camp. One small group ventured out on an alternative route and discovered the power of sticking together. We had two injuries, one with a minor dislocation of the knee, and the other with a skinned leg. Peter ably stabilized both conditions. Perry performed the last head count, and when all were accounted for, we returned back to Lilongwe.

This was a day to remember.

FREE ADVERTORIAL

National Bank of Malawi is the oldest, largest and leading commercial bank in Malawi, offering a wide range of products and services. It has the largest national presence. Visit its website on www.natbank.co.mw/.

 

OUR PHOTO ALBUM AT THE SUMMIT

 

 

 

THE ACTIVE MEMBERS THAT WENT TO DEDZA MOUNTAIN ON 4 JUNE 2017

Members of the National Bank of Malawi (NBM) City Centre Wellness Club that hiked Dedza Mountain on 4 June 2017 were as follows:

  1. Mark Phanga
  2. Thoko Malwich
  3. Constance Nkosi
  4. Bruno Lumbe
  5. Maggie Mtupanyama
  6. Komiha Gatoma
  7. Justin Kaisale
  8. Robert Mpalika
  9. Shadreck Msangaambe
  10. Lytton Kadzokoya
  11. Elton Chipeta
  12. Evance Kaundeni
  13. Phillip Gama
  14. Hanna Kanyenge
  15. Chifundo Coroa

What fun. Let’s do this again!