A Great Mountain Sleepover Invitation
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)
- Rachael Mijiga
- Charles Nembele
- Humphreys Gerald
Sapitwa Sleepover Hiking Fiends
(Spending a sleepover on Sapitwa Peak)
- Gordon Benbow
- Gordon’s son
- Gordon’s son’s friend
- Barbara Swarthout-tenKate
- Marc Henrion
- Ngamise Gumbo
- Pilirani Chuma
- Donna’s tent besties
- Donna’s female friend
- Donna’s male friend
- Chinga Miteche
- Kondaine Kaliwo
- Sarah’s friend
- Sarah’s friend
- And the quiet guy
(The list will be updated once the names become available.)