The Three Peaks and other extreme sports in Malawi

We may not have an ultra marathon yet but as far as extreme sports is concerned Malawi is not far behind. We have the Yacht Race on Lake Malawi, we have the Porters’ Race on Mulanje Mountain, we have the Be More Race in Lilongwe. And we also have the Three Peaks walk in Blantyre. These are all annual events.

I have been covering the Be More Race, and I’m planning on attempting the 21 km race. I expect nothing but fireworks and fun. I’m not so sure about the Porters’ Race. Perhaps that could be sampled next year. But I’m having an irresistible temptation to try the Three Peaks walk this year as well.

The Three Peaks walk covers 48 km in a day and that includes hiking three mountains in Blantyre and reaching each summit. The mountains involved are Michiru, Ndirande and finally Soche, in that order. To say this is very challenging would be making an understatement.

One family friend of ours gave it a try last year. Esnat Chilije completed all the three mountains. It’s no wonder that this year she attempted the City Race in Blantyre organized by Standard Bank as a runner up to the Be More Race. It took place on 14 April. We were inspired by her accomplishments and are planning to follow suit.

In the meantime, I’m reaching for the straws and trying desperately to assure myself I can do this. The only comfort is that I did several long walks in Cape Town back in 2012. I could take almost the whole day to walk 34 km from the end of the train line in Simon’s Town to Mowbray.

And in 2016 (I’m not so sure about 2015) in Lilongwe I walked several times from Bunda Hill to Area 47 covering a distance between 34 and 36 km. That included reaching the summit of Bunda Hill. Besides that I have also done Three Peaks in Lilongwe, but drove in-between instead of walking.

Not much compared to what is to come, but somehow that should count a little bit. No? Cathy my sweet wife is eager to participate in the Three Peaks walk and I can only reflect the enthusiasm. Ahem!

So keep June clear and start preparing for the Three Peaks in Blantyre and/or the Porters Race in Mulanje. The City Race for Lilongwe will be on 12 May at 6:00 am at Standard City Centre and the one for Mzuzu already took place on 21 April and the main Be More Race, again in Lilongwe, will be on 9th June.

I haven’t had time to research about the Yacht Race in Mangochi, but keep an eye on it too. (I only hope it hasn’t taken place yet! 🙈)

To all those that love outdoors, extreme sports and nature, now is the time to get active. Get started!

Book Review on Grit

Grit, the latest edition.
Grit, the latest edition.

First things first, I have an important disclaimer to share with the reader. I have been included in one chapter of the book to be reviewed, and I have also appeared in the acknowledgements. I had not make any prior arrangements with Daniel to review his book. However, upon reading it, I felt compelled to share my reaction and reflection on this motivational book. My review follows below.

I have just finished reading the book Grit by Daniel Dunga. Daniel is an accomplished Malawian author. He’s a Mandela Washington Fellow under President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). He is a competent professional speaker with Toastmasters International (TI). He is also a graduate of the Success Motivation International (SMI). Daniel is a regular motivational speaker at various conferences and events. He delivers trainings in a range of personal development areas.

Grit is the second motivational book by Daniel. It is a revised edition of the previous volume by the same name. The first edition came out in 2016. It was a great book on personal development that celebrated hard work as an approach to achieving one’s strategic goals. It was also the first book in Malawi that localised the information on self-improvement by citing cases that are well known to the readership in the country. For the first time, we could all relate to the examples that were shared in the book. However, Grit still retained an eye for the international audience by quoting well known authors from the West.

This balanced approach allowed it to earn immediate respect among the self-help practitioners. It has gone on to be distributed for free to various groups of students around the country. Such was the impact of delivery by the first edition.

The second edition therefore, had a big challenge to surmount. What would it offer that was already not covered by its predecessor? I have all the three versions of both publications: a paperback and ebook version of the first edition, and a paperback for the second edition. In fact, I made sure that I was the first one to get the second edition by winning the auction on social media on who would get the first signed copy.

The second edition has included a practical chapter about Grit in motion. Some books, in the quest to motivate others, become unbearably theoretical. One is given scenarios, which though sounding very impressive, have little if any practical significance. The readers feel highly motivated while reading the book, but find that once the narration is over, there’s little that could be gleaned from the lessons that were shared with them. This has led other quarters of society to question the relevance of motivational books. Do they really help?

Well, it depends. It depends on who is talking to you, and whether what is being shared is relevant to your situation. In this case, one would argue that the setting of the story matters. If it is a local story, and you are able to relate to it in a much more direct way, it is not hard to see that the possibility of learning some practical lessons becomes higher. Without any doubt, Grit achieves just that.

My only concern at the moment is that, though the volume has significantly increased in size, it could still accommodate more anecdotes. I feel the author has much more to offer than what is already shared in the book. For instance, his experience as a motivational speaker is absent in the book. His adventures when setting up Blantyre Pitch Night, the first platform for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, the Commercial City of Malawi, should have presented some interesting issues. This platform has a sister talk night in Lilongwe, the Capital City of Malawi. Surely, there could be something to learn that might help those that organize similar events.

Malawi needs to celebrate its local heroes, and Grit, I feel, should utilize that opportunity and become grittier in putting together the inspiring stories.

Having said that, I’m happy that I made the right choice to purchase the second edition of Grit. Much importantly, reading the book has left me fired up to accomplish those difficult tasks that are likely going to influence a positive change in the fortunes of my life. I therefore, highly recommend that every teenager, every career person, every business person, every leader worth his/her salt, should purchase a personal copy of Grit. It will challenge you. It will motivate you. It will guide you and it will not disappoint.

The Forbidden Peak – Chambe

Magnificent Chambe Peak seen from Chambe Hut.
Magnificent Chambe Peak seen from Chambe Hut.

Titles attract readership, so I am told, yet I cannot help but notice that my title is a little bit dramatic today. This is one last story I wanted to share about the Mulanje Mountain expedition. You see, if you keep your eyes open and ears listening, you get to have countless tales from one tour. This occurred on the first day of the hike, which was a Saturday, 13 January 2018.

When I had been inquiring on the routes to take, and the status of the trails, it was clear that some parts of the mountain would be considered dangerous at this time of the year. And mostly, the peaks are no go zones during rainy season. This is largely because the exposed rocky areas will have a surface run-off, making the trails very slippery. Stories are told of many injuries that result from hikers slipping off rocks, boulders and edges of ravines.

So in this case, I was advised strongly not to go for Chambe Peak, which was overlooking the first hut on our journey. I was told Chambe Peak requires technical climbing, and that this is best done in summer. My guide had the same story. He discouraged any suggestions to sample out the peak. Finally, when we arrived at Likhubula Forestry Office, the tourism officer said the same thing. Keep away from Chambe, and do not attempt to go on Sapitwa Peak if it starts to rain.

As a good citizen, and principled hiker I agreed with the advice. It sounded reasonable.  But when I got to Chambe Hut and cast my eyes on the magnificent Chambe Peak, my heart sunk. Somehow, I felt I needed to interact with this hill on a mountain. Chambe Peak has three distinctive ridges, starting on one end with a steep incline, followed by a gentle slope on the second ridge. The first two ridges are separated by a small depression, more like a saddle. Then the third part sharply rises to the top of the peak, which flattens at the top.

If you close your eyes, you can see how your body will be engaged on each section. If the first ridge is difficult, then the third one is impossible. Even from a distance, it is clear that you will need to use both feet and hands. Now, isn’t that what every hiker wants to experience occasionally? You know such an approach makes reaching the peak a much more enjoyable experience.

First Ridge on Chambe Peak (to the right)
First Ridge on Chambe Peak (to the right)

Well, I asked my guide for a small tour up the peak. “No!” came the answer. “Why not?” I wanted to know. “It is very difficult, and this is not the best time to do it.”, came the reply. “Okay, what if you could just take me to the first ridge?” I tried to negotiate. “Maybe, but then let me eat first. I’m feeling kind of weak from the walk.” the guide gave in. “Thank you!” I said. It was clear I had not influenced him into making this decision. The guard of the hut looked concerned but I kindly ignored that look. I had come to climb the mountain and not to hold talk sessions.

Just to be safe, I suggested that my client and friend, Dan, should remain at the hut. I thought this would give him an opportunity to rest and get recharged for the hike to Sapitwa Peak on the following day. He could not take it. In the end, as a compromise, we suggested that John, the assistant guide, should take him for a day tour around the plateau. I had suggested a visit to a pool about a kilometre from the hut. Dan refused that suggestion. He had no intention of going down a slope, regardless that the descent would be negligible. John then suggested taking him up the trail where they could catch a telecom signal. This seemed to please Dan, who had settled into an easy chair on the hut’s veranda, and was using one of the dining chairs as a footstool.

On the way to Chambe Peak.
On the way to Chambe Peak.

 

Thirty minutes later, I started off for Chambe Peak with Rex, the guide. There was no sign of rains though the top of the peak was covered in low flying clouds, or high-hanging fog depending on one’s perspective. When we reached the base of the peak, it was clear that we had to negotiate our way to the start of the trail in a challenging manner. We yanked ourselves over a huge rock, and Rex turned to me with a smile on his face and asked, “Do we carry on?” “Sure! Let’s carry on.”, I shot back. Then the fun began. The trail is on the edge of the first ridge. If you were to fall here, you might end up next to the stream maybe some 6 meters below. Not bad, right? Maybe. But it was clear that if you left the trail due to gravity working sideways on you (Sir Newton, please, do not get upset, as we can resolve forces horizontally on an inclined surface, right?), a few things might break – ribs (the likely victims) or a leg.

Caution, caution was the name of the game. We proceeded slowly. As usual, the dark patches had to be avoided at all costs. Hands had to be next to rocks for emergency handholds. I loved this already. What looked like 300 meters from the start, the drama stopped. It was time to start ascending, having moved in parallel with the ridge from the onset. The slope looked intimidating. I signalled that we proceed with the climb. We got on all fours on some parts, and rested often. After what seemed like forever, we reached the top. With glee, I asked if we were on the second ridge. “No!” came the reply. We were still on the first ridge.

The clouds had lifted somewhat. The view from the first ridge was amazing. I could see Phalombe and other settlements visible from that part of the mountain. I could even see Lake Chilwa in the distance. Lake Chilwa is the biggest salt-water inland lake in Malawi, and home to tasty fish. It has no outlet, and it is also home to tsekwe (not sure of the English name, probably pelican duck or goose) and zipiyo (water ducks). The former is now protected species which is under threat from extinction. The latter is a delicacy among food aficionados across the country. It will probably be under protection soon, if not already.

Lake Chilwa in the distance. (Below the clouds, to the left of the blackened tree)
Lake Chilwa in the distance. (Below the clouds, to the left of the blackened tree)

Zomba Mountain faded into the horizon, but its plateau still looked beautiful. On the other side, I could see Chambe hut as a little dot among the greenery. Rex claimed to have seen the pair of Dan and John making their way to the base of another peak within the vicinity. My eyesight is not that good, so I took it with a pinch of salt. And just to stroke my ego, Rex told me that I was likely the first person on Chambe Peak in 2018. That felt good I must say. And looking at the registered traffic of hikers on this mountain, it was probably true.

Treacherous Trail on Chambe Peak.
Treacherous Trail on Chambe Peak.

Then experience kicked in. I told Rex, the guide, that wherever 16:00 found us, we would turn back. This was not a place to be at after sunset especially that we had not carried torches with us. I had had the taste of the peak, and my curiosity was somewhat abated. It was time to return, and the return trip proved even more difficult than the ascent. Soon it was over. I returned to Chambe Hut a very happy man. That night I dreamt of butterflies and flowers. Okay, now I am being dramatic. No butterflies and flowers in my dreams. No butterflies!

I thank the Good Lord for having designed such beautiful places, and having placed in us the hunger to explore and discover such beauty. Until next time, I say take care.

 

Lessons on Grit From Mulanje Mountain

Mulanje Mountain is the most famous massif in Malawi. It is a national pride and is a source of tales taller than Mount Everest. Most of these originate from folklore. These yarns were composed way before Google Maps and at the time when people were not aware of the wonders of nature in the other parts of the world.

However, in today’s world, Mulanje still holds its own among the giants of the world. Though, its highest peak stands at a modest 3,002 m it offers some unique facts. For instance, Mulanje has a species of cedar which is only naturally naturally and nowhere else in the world. I believe the word for it is endemic. And the western face of one of its peaks called Chambe has the longest rock surface in the world. The peak itself (Chambe) requires a technical climb, and will not disappoint even to a professional hiker.

Mulanje Mountain, an exciting hiking destination.
Mulanje Mountain, an exciting hiking destination.

Mulanje therefore, without having to stretch its significance is a perfect place to reflect about life. In particular, I thought I could use it to highlight lessons that my recent hike provided. I was in the company of Daniel Dunga or Dan in short, the Managing Director of Continental Asset Management Limited. He is also an author of the most famous book on motivation in Malawi. He called the book Grit. Here are some three lessons learnt:

1. When you set your mind to achieve something, just go ahead and do it. Our Mulanje hike was in off season, being time for rainfall in Malawi. If we had waited for dry season, who knows whether this window of opportunity would still be there.

2. Tough is good. I’m told that all good things in life require a lot of effort to take off. One must therefore be prepared to push through the hard part. Mulanje is beautiful, but some parts of the trails we took were really hard. In order for us to progress with the hike we had to keep on going forward. Grit says you must be tough in order to tackle difficult challenges.

3. Persistence is the name of the game. This closely follows the previous point. In order to reach your goal, you have to keep pushing. Be there till the end. In our case, the goal was to reach the peak. And that is just what we did. We pushed till we reached Sapitwa Peak, the highest point on Mulanje mountain.

To this list, I would also add the following:

4. Be able to adapt. On the second day of our hike, we had planned to start off from Chambe Hut, and rest at Chisepo Hut. Then we would proceed to Sapitwa Peak, and return to Chisepo for a brief rest. Thereafter, we would walk back to Chambe hut. In our planning, all this was going to be achieved while there was daylight.

The hike on second day took longer than expected.
The hike on second day took longer than expected.

As the events were unfolding on that day, we only started off from Chisepo Hut going to Chambe at around 6 pm. We enjoyed sunlight for another hour then darkness came. We still had about two more hours to cover. At this point, everyone was tired, and only two members of the team had light. Rex, had a torch light from his mobile phone. Fortunately, I had an overhead light which I had bought in Tanzania in 2016.

So at first, Rex was at the head of the pack, followed by Dan then me, and John came last. After about a kilometer it was clear that this arrangement was not working. So I shifted to the back, and tried to provide light for the rest of the team. The challenge was now how to keep my head steady. Because of the rough terrain, it was necessary for me to look down on the path. But by doing that, the light would move in the direction of my head and leave the team ahead of me in darkness.

Eventually, we split into two groups. Dan went ahead with Rex, whose pencil light was all that was used for navigation. My light, which had been full for sometime started to dim, as the rechargeable batteries started running out of juice. This set of light, at the time it was purchased could stay on full beam for over six hours. This was barely one hour and some minutes. The last 3 kilometers would then have been covered in darkness. So I switched to the light on my phone. The challenge with this new source of light was that my hands were now not free to balance my body when negotiating slippery surfaces.

The last 3 hours from Chisepo to Chambe were not scripted at all. We had to adjust and adapt as we went along. What’s more, Dan had a strong pocket torch which he had left at Chambe hut thinking it could not be useful on this day. We had started some twenty minutes after six in the morning, and looking back, perhaps we should have started off a bit earlier. Most importantly, we should have spent the night at Chisepo hut instead of trekking in the dark. All in all, we made it back safely to Chambe Hut.

I would suggest that you do three things from these lessons:

  1. Buy yourself a copy of Grit (ebook version is also available). Get in touch with Dan on Whatsapp on this mobile number: +265 88 876 6766.
  2. Get up Mulanje Mountain, and see how many lessons about personal development you can come up with.
  3. Share with friends your experience.
Dan, the author of Grit (right) and I (left), having survived the previous night's walk.
Dan, the author of Grit (right) and I (left), having survived the previous night’s walk.

This article is a stand-alone after doing the series on our Mulanje Mountain expedition between 13 and 15 January 2018. This was done to satiate Dan on his request to cover a little bit more about the return journey after reaching Sapitwa Peak. Usually once I reach the peak, my story ends there. So the return journey has been covered as a lesson on personal development. I hope you have enjoyed this piece as much as the rest of them on Mulanje Mountain.

See you next time. God bless you.

 

Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 5

This is the last article in the series about the adventure on Mulanje Mountain. My friend Dan, the author of Grit, and I took a three day, two nights trip to Mulanje, to attempt to reach Sapitwa Peak. We managed to reach the highest point on the mountain in style. Nevertheless, what do you do when you reach the peak? Every bit of your focus was about getting to the summit, and once there then what? Very big mountains frown on you attempting to stay on the summit forever, yet that is all that fills your mind. You have reached your goal, and there is nowhere else to turn. There is no more going up. This is it. Thank God, hitting the highest point is euphoric, and the moment gets to last in your mind. However, in reality, you have to go back. It makes the return journey harder in a way than when you were seeking the top point.

Time to go down from Sapitwa Peak.
Time to go down from Sapitwa Peak.

That was the case with me after reaching the peak. I looked and searched for meaning.  First, I called Cathy, my wife, from the peak to take advantage of the romantic connotation. Calling your loved one from the highest point suggests the height of your love to her. It was a subtle hint, which I am sure did not escape her. Then I turned my attention to small details that could have easily escaped my attention during my ascent. I took time to look around and enjoy the scenery. Therefore, I dropped the pace, which allowed Dan and Rex, the guide, to proceed to Chisepo hut ahead of us – the assistant guide and I. In order to test my navigation skills,  I tried to go ahead of my assistant guide, and despite numerous arrows painted on the rocks in red to indicate the direction to the hut, I got lost more often than I could care to count. This was supposed to be a familiar path, but it just showed how important it was to have the company of the local guides when getting to and from the summit.

When we reached Chisepo Hut, we found that the two groups that had gone to Sapitwa ahead of us had returned and settled for the night. The first group consisted of five medical students from Michigan, USA. It was their first time on the mountain, and four of them managed to reach Sapitwa. One of them was called Soolee, I believe. The second group was a family from within Malawi. It was a dad and his two teenage daughters. It was a second visit to Sapitwa for the elder daughter. Whilst the father was returning to Mulanje Mountain after a hiatus of 20 years, and it was his first time on Sapitwa. Mr Aila Delemans is a very brave man. And the mountain was glad to welcome him in its might. We could have stayed on Chisepo Hut as planned, but we had left all our stuff at Chambe hut. So after a brief break, on my part, and much longer stay for Dan, having arrived much earlier at the hut than me, we said our goodbyes to the fellow hikers and proceeded to walk towards Chambe hut.

Mr. Delemans with his two daughters on their way back from Sapitwa Peak.
Mr. Delemans with his two daughters on their way back from Sapitwa Peak.

An hour later, we were engulfed in darkness, yet the path remained treacherous in several sections. This posed a fresh challenge as night navigation is in a league of its own. Two hours later we were at Chambe hut with nothing broken expect our hiking pants. Actually, there were not broken rather torn. The sliding down from the peak had taken a toil on the poor clothes, and a repeat of the same during the night cover, completed the damage. When we reached the hut we found three visitors sleeping on the veranda. Out of respect, we did not wake them up, but proceeded to prepare for the night inside the hut. In the morning, we discovered that it was two students from Australia, and their local guide. Apparently, they slept outside to watch stars at night. When we started the morning fire, we were introduced to Cecilia Cameron and Mallory Dobner from Australia, and Fanuel Jarson their guide, who works at St Andrews in Blantyre as a mountain club guide. Out of the two, I believe it is Cecilia who had managed to reach Sapitwa Peak, around Christmas last year. We had a light conversation as each team prepared for the descent. Such is a strange and interesting life of sharing huts, utensils and in this case, hut veranda.

Fellow hikers from Australia, Cecilia (left) and Mallory (2nd right), and Fanuel, their guide (middle). Dan in blue cap, and myself (right).
Fellow hikers from Australia, Cecilia (left) and Mallory (2nd right), and Fanuel, their guide (middle). Dan in blue cap, and myself (right).

After our breakfast, we packed, took inventory of the hut, then left for Dziwe la Nkhalamba, the most famous natural pool on Mulanje Mountain. It is near the bottom and boasts of a waterfall on one side, and a secondary, shallower pool on the other hand. The main pool is very deep, and unfortunately, continues to claim lives. If you happen to be there, please, do not take a dive if you do not know how to swim. However, if you are a cousin to fish, then indulge. On the way to the pool we met the two groups from Chisepo hut also going down. We took the Chapaluka trail which has a gorgeous river that runs alongside it. At the pool we took our last main photos and headed out to the Forestry Office at Likhubula.

Dziwe La Nkhalamba, a natural pool on Mulanje Mountain.
Dziwe La Nkhalamba, a natural pool on Mulanje Mountain.

Soon it was time to part ways with our guide and his porters, John Ben and Daniel Mtunduwatha. Rex Chikwita, the guide, gave each one of us a parting gift and we said our goodbyes. Until we meet again, this was an interesting adventure at the time when it seemed impossible at the beginning but ended up being great. I returned to Lilongwe, my home, a land of plains and small hills. Dan remained in Blantyre, surrounded by beautiful mountains in all the corners of the city. If you find time, please, make it a point to go up Mulanje Mountain. You will be glad you did.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 3

Chambe Peak In the Morning.
Chambe Peak In the Morning.

This is the third article about my recent adventure on Mulanje Mountain. Dan, my friend, brother and client, and I had set to reach Sapitwa Peak which is the highest point on Mulanje, the highest and most famous mountain in Malawi. At 3,002 metres above sea level, it offers rich views and is a noticeable feature for kilometres in all directions. (Actually, I wanted to say it is a notable feature for miles in all directions, but then I am not sure if that will gel with the metres I have already mentioned about the height of the mountain.)

Anyway, I should start the narration of the morning of the second day but allow me to rewind the clock and go back to the previous night. When we had settled in for the night, instead of having the expected pasta and mince meat, Dan had proposed a twist to the menu. Instead we had chicken stew and nsima, the staple meal in most districts of Malawi. The idea was great, but instead what we had looked like a local chicken that had spent its life going up the mountain every morning. It was tough, chewy and probably needed an extra gallon of pure acid to help digest it. So much for trying to go local with our mountain menu. Despite this botch, the hot tea from the metal cups soothed our tired jaws, with its infusion filling up the room. We had a fire going on the hearth, and candles completed the scene of medieval era. What remained was some early explorer showing up to join us for the night, narrating blood-curdling tales of his travels.

Outside, the stars came out in earnest. Being very high on the mountain, the air has little pollutants. And being far away from the glare of Blantyre City, the night sky becomes a deep black canvas on which the stars lodge. Each star grows in prominence both in terms of brightness and size. Faint stars that can never been seen from the confines of the city get a chance to come out and join in the starlight affair. This would be a paradise for any star gazer. At this time of the year, Orion was almost above us, and Scorpion took a position towards the south. In the north, the Dipper was visible, hiding only the North Star, which gets pointed at by the Dipper’s handle (or is it the Dipper’s tail?) with amazing precision.

We woke up in the morning, cold. We had breakfast and got ready for a long trek ahead of us. The plan was to walk to Chisepo hut, rest a little bit and then proceed to Sapitwa Peak. Upon our return, we would rest again at Chisepo hut and then walk back to Chambe hut. This ended up being an extreme 15 hour outing. Dan was feeling great and Rex, the guide, was ready for us. We took one porter to come along, who acted as an assistant guide. Dan and Rex took off at an upbeat pace. John, the assistant guide and I brought up the rear. We did not catch up with them till at Chisepo. From time to time, we could catch a glimpse of this determined pair in a distance negotiating a steep slope, or a treacherous section. I was willing to let things free-wheel for a while having confidence in Rex. But I knew that the path between Chisepo hut and Sapitwa Peak would require close supervision in many sections. So it would be great to let the client gain lots of confidence ahead of the greatest challenge that was waiting for him.

 

The trail from Chambe hut to Chisepo hut connects with the route that is used for Porters Race. This is an annual race that attracts runners from across the world to compete in this tough 21 km stretch up and across the mountain, and back to the bottom again. It has several categories allowing runners with different experience to participate. It takes place in June and just about now is the best time to start preparing for the event.

Hiking is not wandering aimlessly in the jungle. Often one is looking to get to a specific place, or one is searching for some remarkable feature. In this case, we were heading towards Sapitwa Peak, and we took a well established trail. What was interesting was the variety of obstacles along the way. Some places were steep, in ascending and descending, and others were slippery. Others had vegetation close to the path, poking at you whenever we got too close to it. And others were bare, allowing the sun to fry our skin. As I am writing this article, my hands have different hues of black and brown. I do not know if that makes me brock (mostly brown mixed with black) or blawn (mostly black mixed with brown). Okay, I’m black with different shades. Now, back to the story.

The view to Chisepo Hut, when approaching it from the direction of Chambe Hut is very striking. You approach the path from a high elevation, and can see the land dropping into some sort of a valley. There is a stream running across the valley, and just beyond that the hut sits comfortably among gorgeous flora. It took me a while to recognize the structure in front of me, and when I did, I could not resist but wonder at the architectural prowess that went into identifying the place for construction. This ideal location shows you the tail end of Sapitwa, just enough to whet your appetite without revealing too much. Chisepo deserves to be called a base camp. A base camp is the last point of rest before embarking for the summit.

 

When we reached Chisepo Hut around 9:39 am, Dan was already well rested. But the guide needed a bit of time to ingest some carbs. That was a hint in itself of what lay ahead. We took the cue and forced energy snacks down our throats. We also made sure we were well hydrated. Then I was ready for it. So was Dan.

The next article will take us from Chisepo Hut to Sapitwa Peak, a very unique experience in my hiking career. See you at the top.

Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 2

The Hiking Team at Likhubula. From Left to Right: Daniel, chickens, John, myself, Rex, Dan, and Henry.
The Hiking Team at Likhubula. From Left to Right: Daniel, chickens, John, myself, Rex, Dan, and Henry.

This is the second article about my adventure on Mulanje mountain with my friend and brother in Christ, Daniel Dunga. We just call him Dan. During this trip he was my client having sponsored the entire trip. Our plan was to spend the first night on Chambe hut, and proceed to Chisepo hut the following day. Depending on the weather, we would then make an attempt to reach Sapitwa Peak and return to Chisepo hut for the second night. Then we would descend to the bottom of the mountain on the third day, on Chilembwe’s Day, a public holiday in Malawi.

So on Saturday we drove to Chitakale to confirm our presence with Info Mulanje and to pick up our guide and his team. Our guide was Rex, who has taken me up the mountain twice before. His principal porter was John, who has been with me only once before. A young man, coincidentally also called Daniel, made a second porter. We hired a day porter as an advance team and then we were ready to go. We packed Dan’s car at the Forestry Office and shared our hiking plan with the tourism officer there. We picked up the latest intel, and got cautioned not to try to go up Chambe peak, being a technical climb in good conditions and down right treacherous in wet weather.

We started off at 08:31 from the Forestry Office in Likhubula and hit the well paved trail. We were aiming to reach Chembe hut in the next four hours, and we had two choices. Either take a more direct but steep climb using Skyline trail or take a more convoluted but easier climb using Chapaluka trail. Being that we were looking for a slow rush, if there is such a thing, we opted for the Skyline trail. And Rex, the guide, with the porters took off in earnest and I immediately stepped in to intervene. I recalled how I had suffered on my first trip going to Thuchila hut. That time I was not fit, yes, but the pace was way above my pay grade. And then I also recalled what I had learned hiking up Kilimanjaro, where the porters tell you, “Pole,pole!”. This is a Swahili phrase asking you to take it easy, by slowing down.

Before long the guide went ahead of us. In the meantime, we immersed ourselves with the beautiful mountain sounds coming from the Miombo woodland with its gorgeous trees. These are mostly charcoal grey trunks not interested in polite posture, assuming all sorts of twisted upright positions. But each tree having a wonderful canopy, silently showed in off well choreographed leaves that have learned to dance with grace in the mountain breeze. The breeze itself was barely perceptible, sweeping down fresh mountain air, even this early in our hike. This was truly a captivating opening which got us immediately hooked.

With “Pole, pole!” on my mind, Dan barely broke sweat and we soon came across the monkey sweets trees. Being late in the season for masuku, as they are commonly called in Malawi, we could only imagine the feast that might have been at the onset of the rainy season both to monkeys and humans alike. Beyond that, the tranquility of the forest was broken by the sound of an axe chopping a tree trunk. Something inside me shattered as I remembered seeing a few tree stumps that I had already seen on the way. I held my peace. But soon I heard Dan complain at the disturbing noise, knowing that another beautiful natural tree had fallen victim to the energy needs of the surrounding communities. This cacophony, not in rhythm but in meaning, was a terrible coda rather to a perfect symphony we had been enjoying all along.

After an hour, we overtook the guide and his team refilling their canteens. Instead of taking frequent rests, we only had two breaks. The go-slow, go-steady technique was working. Before long our team was out of sight. We soon caught up with the advance team of porters that are sent ahead of everyone to set up camp and get the guard at the hut ready for our arrival. Again, after quenching the thirst of these young men, and having shared our energy snacks, we took off and gently disappeared before their bewildered eyes. Now, mountains can be a treacherous place and it is very easy to get lost even when one has experience and has modern navigation equipment. So we soon came to a junction on the trail. Fortunately, a lone porter showed up at the same time and showed us the direction to take.

The steep climb was behind us at this point, and the hike became a walk in the park. The trees had receded and grass covered the rolling grassland. On our right, a mountain river running down in a deep ravine greeted us with cascading falls on what looked like half-metre natural stairs. The water ran over a thick slab of rock, creating a thin sheet of transparent liquid crystal, only frothing at the next step a few metres down the river. We could clearly hear the ripples of the river from the trail and the effect was truly hypnotic. Nature was doing what it knows best – wooing us with its beauty and asking us to put down the cares of city life below. We were being welcomed to serenity that can best be experienced rather than described.

We then came across a beautiful cottage, which we were told is Francis Cottage. It once belonged to the Forestry department but is now part of the mountain huts. At least that is what was claimed by the guard there. We inspected the place and found it to be clean and very inviting. Just across the cottage was Chambe hut, a wooden affair that held its appeal elsewhere. And in front of both huts, stood the imposing Chambe peak. It rises above the top of Mulanje, like a hill on top of a mountain. Its rocky face threw in a cave here and there, decorated itself with cracks and other forms of rock deformation. The effect left us wild-eyed. This is a peak that wanted us to forget that we had come up here to summit Sapitwa Peak.

We were greeted at Chambe hut by Mr Thauson, a gentle old guard, who smiles with his eyes. It felt like we had arrived at our village, only this time, the village was high on the mountain, and only had one main hut. Around the hut, there were a series of small wooden structures. These served as bathrooms and toilets. Behind the hut, there was a small hut that is used to keep the guard and offer shelter to the guides and porters that come with visitors to this magical spot on the mountain. Inside the main hut, there was fire place in what should be a lounge, and there was an adjoining room which I believe, would be a bedroom. This room has a store room with blankets, mattresses and essential utensils. These are always under lock, and are managed by the Mountain Club. So remember to arrange for the keys before setting foot on the mountain, otherwise you might end up making an egg omelette using the back of your palm over the open fire.

The guide finally caught up with us, and then the porters. He was looking anxious yet with open admiration which he could not hide over how we had effectively outpaced his team without breaking sweat. Dan is a driven executive who is result-oriented. His face beamed with a sense of achievement that filled my heart with pride. So far so good. The Lord had heard our prayers and the first leg had ended up on a great note. We got an icing on the cake by taking a walk around the hut, and returned to the hut to settle for the night.

The adventure will continue in the next article that will take us to the next hut called Chisepo.

Adventures on Mulanje Mountain – A Quest for Sapitwa Peak Part 1

On the Road to Mulanje Mountain
On the Road to Mulanje Mountain

The season was wrong, the dates were tight and the plan, flimsy. Still Daniel Dunga and I decided to brave the rainy season and head to Mulanje for an attempt on Sapitwa Peak. Mulanje, as the tallest mountain in Malawi receives a lot of rainfall throughout the year. It is the first barricade against the winds coming from Indian Ocean, passing through the eastern province in the neighboring Mozambique. These winds bring with them the moisture collected above the ocean, which then precipitates into unpredictable rainfall or fog.

It took a bold decision to choose to go to this mountain when Malawi is experiencing heavy rainfall. And Daniel excels in that aspect. He is the author of the most impactful book on motivation in Malawi. He appropriately called it Grit, and its opening lines claim one can ride a bike up the mountain – that in itself not a small feat by any measure. But here was the rationale for going up the massif. I have been on this mountain twice before, and each climb was in December, right in the middle of the rainy season. And each time I was there, it rained. It rained icy cold rain. But that did not dampen our hiking spirits. So I reasoned that if it could rain, we could just aim to reach Chambe and then Chisepo huts situated at the top of the mountain, and forego the attempt on Sapitwa.

Another good reason was that we were going to have an extended holiday, Monday being a public holiday in Malawi. On 15th of January is Chilembwe’s Day which commemorates the efforts of the earliest and most celebrated Freedom Fighter in Nyasaland. Nyasaland was later to become Malawi after gaining independence in 1964. Rev. Chilembwe was a local minister at the turn of last century, who after being trained in USA, returned home and led the campaign to liberate his people from colonialism. It is believed that he was assassinated sometime in 1915 somewhere in Mulanje as he was attempting to flee to Mozambique after his campaign had gone south.

If we could reach the summit a day before Chilembwe’s Day, the significance would be great. Not just in the political sense, but in the more grand and richer meaning. To face the challenge of reaching the summit would symbolise one’s quest to be free from defeat. Freedom to enjoy all that God has bestowed upon humanity. Freedom, as I understand it, is often if not always, forged in the pains of effort and persistence. And this would be just that. Besides, the pain of endurance for going up the mountain dissipates as soon as the summit has been attained. This would be a great moment indeed.

Sapitwa Peak is the most famous peak on Mulanje Mountain, and probably the most visited by international tourists. Its name loosely means No One Goes There, or Don’t Go There. The locals believed that mere mortals could not manage to go there and survive the attempt. And to discourage the curious from trying it out, there were a lot of stories created about people getting lost on the mountain, having been abducted by spirits. These legends are still believed by many locals and persist to this day through folklore and urban legends. And speaking of folklore, some of the stories about the mountain were not bad at all.

My favorite one which would be repeated to us by workers when we were young was that in the deep jungles on the mountain, one would find a bunch of ripe bananas or plates of nsima – our staple food made from maize flour, and delicious relish. If I recall very well, one would have then to stop the hike, and accept the generous offer from the spirits. But there was a catch. Whatever one gets to eat, it must be consumed completely. Failure to do that, then the spirits would abduct one into their world, never to return home again. This, in part, was told to us to encourage little ones to eat their food, and more importantly get to finish one’s portion.

So on Friday, I travelled from Lilongwe to join Daniel in Blantyre. Susan, Daniel’s wife had already coordinated with Cathy my wife, and bought us provisions enough to last us a week. We were going to hold a feast on each of the three days and two nights on the mountain. Daniel added another great idea. What if we could prepare local meals on the mountain instead of the usual pasta and mince meat, which is a favorite for hikers? Pasta and mince meat is a light meal, and easy to carry and prepare. So I suggested we could do what I had observed the guide do during the last trip up the mountain. We could go up there with live local chickens and prepare fresh meals. Talk about an a la carte meal plan.

On Saturday morning we started off for Mulanje and met our guide in Chitakale. We proceeded to Likhubula, the beginning of our trail.

The adventure will continue in the subsequent articles. Please, come along with us as we explore Mulanje Mountain together.

A Slow Cooking Dream That Was Mulanje Mountain

Mulanje Mountain is a very famous massif in Malawi, towering above the rest of the mountains in the country with fables that are even taller and grander. It is supposed to be a giant even beyond the borders and boasts of the largest escarpment in Africa. Standing majestically at 3000 meter above sea level, or 3000 masl as those in the know would put it, it stands guard between Mozambique and Malawi. Its highest peak is called Sapitwa by the locals, which means not-accessible. The mountain has its own weather system and has rainfall regularly. As a result, it has a rich flora and fauna ecosystem. It is also famous for Mulanje cedar, which does not grow anywhere else in the world as an ingenious tree.

So you can understand my excitement when a former boss and friend, Mazunzo, invited me for a weekend up Mulanje Mountain. His brother, Dr Masautso aka Mas, who was based in the UK at the time, was organizing a tour with his family members that were in diaspora. This was back in 2011 and it was right in the rainy season. Undaunted, I unconditionally accepted the invitation and set to prepare for the hike. I borrowed hiking pants from a friend, and fixed a pair of old sports shoes that would serve for hiking.  I was told that we would spend one night on top of the mountain at the Thuchila Hut, one of the handful huts dotted across the plateau.

Mulanje Mountain
Mulanje Mountain

On Christmas box, we set off from the base of the mountain taking the Thuchila trail. This is a four to six hour trail with a gentle meandering ascent. It cuts across several streams with clear waters. During rainy season, most rivers swell from the rains but with it comes silt and mud. As a result, most rivers will be dirty brown, carrying away essentials top soil from surrounding fields. But not the streams coming from the mountain. These, in contrast, are not susceptible to water pollution. In fact, the water from the streams is safe to drink, which we ended up doing later on during the hike.

At that time, I was fighting a losing battle against obesity, which seemed to thrive each time I thought of food. At the slightest touch of an innocent chocolate bar, or a teeny-weeny scoop of sugar, the gastronomical engine within me would amplify and optimize the storage of fats, liberally keeping all the saccharides and their derivatives around my face, tummy and any empty slot around the body. A desk-bound career and a settled married life complimented the efforts to keep me in tune with our ever-expanding universe. In the end, the effects of less than an active lifestyle came to a head on this trip. I remember at one particular moment, I bonked and just slumped to the ground without an ounce of strength left in me. I was subsequently surrounded by calls of encouragement and it worked the magic. I pressed on, and step by step, inch by inch, the trail took us to the plateau.

A Great View from Mulanje Mountain
A Great View from Mulanje Mountain

Despite the gigantic effort to hike, the apparent beauty surrounding us did not escape my attention. Halfway into the hike, our group was immersed in a forest of green. The chirping of the birds was everywhere, and the air was so very fresh. Each lungful was like a massage at the hands of a professional masseur. Being a range, the little hills spanning away from the main mountain jump into the charming-of-souls game. They looked like green bubbles pulsating with tranquility. This was reflected throughout the mountain. At one point, we came upon a brook with singing cascades. It sounded like a trained opera outfit happily going about with a celestial song. Oh! This just so resonated with my heart. I wanted to be there forever, moving from one wonder to the next.

We had our first taste of the mountain rain. It was icy cold. And it became immediately clear to me that if one was caught in these rains, alone without a source of heat, hypothermic conditions would quickly set in with disastrous consequences. Fortunately, when we got to Thuchila hut at the top of the mountain, we were greeted with a fire on a hearth, and a hot bath. Ah! This was good life, far removed from the tremendous physical effort just few hours before. We quickly settled in and prepared our supper by the fire. Mas is a great storyteller, and filled the night with juicy anecdotes about the mountain.

At some point, I ventured outside and looked up to the sky. I am a big fan of stars, and have a few favourite constellations, thanks to my friend and mentor Dr Tilera, or Bro T as I fondly call him, who instilled the love for astronomy back in college and decoded the stars for me. My all-time celestial friend is Orion, a group of stars with outstanding attributes. Being in the southern hemisphere, Orion would pass by directly over our house in Blantyre. So this time around, I wanted to see if I could trace it from the top of the mountain. What I saw instead shocked me to the core. The sky was filled with over-grown, jumbo-sized stars! They were so bright and so sparkly. They seemed to pulsate with a life of their own. So many of them filled up the black canvass. I had never seen anything like that before, and never since. I could not even manage to make out the familiar constellations. Of all the wonderful things I have seen in my life, this remains one of the most outstanding moments.

One of the streams on Mulanje Mountain
One of the streams on Mulanje Mountain

The following day we woke up to a fresh dawn from the top of the mountain. The spirit was refreshed and the soul sang a silent serenade to God my maker. I thought of the beauty of life, and the endless splendor nature has to offer. After breakfast, we had to pack and go. It was a great experience.

It had taken many years from the first time I had longed to go up Mulanje Mountain to the day of the invitation. It was a slow cooking dream and it was delivered as a five-star, seven-course gourmet meal to my body and soul. I returned to Mulanje Mountain in 2015 with the same group of friends, but using a different trail this time around. And I hope I will go back to the mountain, again and again, as long as there is breath left in me to appreciate once more the sheer beauty God has given mankind.