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.