Easy Friday on Nkhoma Hill with Cathy

In mid-June there was a public holiday in Malawi, and Cathy and I decided to take advantage of it. We were looking for an easy getaway, and two choices presented themselves. There was Bunda hill, small, bare, chewable. And there was Nkhoma, a bit bigger, with more vegetation and right on the fringes of Lilongwe, the Capital City. So after a quick open invitation failed to yield any positive response, my wife Cathy and I took off for Nkhoma Hill.

Nkhoma Hill is beautiful throughout the year. I have covered it before on this blog. In fact, it was the first hill which I hiked this year. The views are incredible, the air fresh and the interaction with nature, magnificent. However, Cathy has always hesitated to go there on the account of one misadventure that took place in 2016. That time, I was preparing to go to Kilimanjaro, and Nkhoma was one of the hills I was trying to explore for the first time. I wanted to gain experience by visiting different hills and mountains. It was an excellent strategy.

Cathy on top of Nkhoma Hill.
Cathy on top of Nkhoma Hill.

When I got to Nkhoma for the first or second time, some insect sprayed venom on my neck. It created a ring of burning torture, and peeled off the skin. I was in pain for over a week, and it took months before my skin could return to normal. That spooked my better half, and since that time she has always skirted around any invitation to the hill. So on this particular day, it was exciting to see that she had finally overcome her fear for the mysterious sprayer. She happily and bravely accompanyed me to this scenic hill.

Sugar and Salt for Mountain Hut Guards

Our initial pace was aggressive. We wanted to reduce the time on the trial and spend more time at the peak. On the way up we came across the mountain hut that belongs to Nkhoma Hospital. The guards that look after the camping facility have lovely stories to tell. My favorite guard is Mr. Viremu. And on this day we had brought him sugar and salt. Unfortunately, he had left a shift earlier. Instead we met Mr. Enos Kalichero, who turned 73 in July. He’s still energetic, and was able to recall our previous meeting. We left him with the sugar, but asked to keep one packet for Mr. Viremu.

Then we took time to inspect the facility. There are two rooms each fitted with two single beds. There’s also extra mattresses in case you have brought in a large group. The rooms are at each end of the hut, and the mid section contains an open lounge with a fireplace. A pantry sits at one of the corners, and it has enough utensils for a group of ten, and perhaps even more.

It has been on our radar to bring up the little ones here for a night of camping. It will be their treat and the first taste of cabin camping. Anytime outside the rainy or cold seasons will perfect.

The Peak and Its Obstacle Course

Nkhoma Hill is small in terms of altitude. What it misses in height it doesn’t lack in character. The trail has pleasant twists and turns. However, the section going towards the peak is something else. It packs a punch and guarantees a sweat. There are boulders that must be negotiated. Thick shrubs line up the trail and offer a shade of sorts.

This is the section that makes hiking the hill worthwhile. Variety is key in keeping return visits to a hill fresh and interesting. In the case of Nkhoma, the pieces of rock that stand in your way offer a fresh perspective on each new visit. I truly wish there were many places that could hold your attention like the way this section does.

On our way up, we met a pair of foreigners making their way down. And other than the pleasantries that we exchanged, the only other thing that was expressed by one of them was how difficult this part of the hill was. We certainly appreciated sharing mutual respect for the terrain.

And as usual the peak was a beautiful reward. Cathy was beaming like a little girl who has just been given a bar of exotic chocolate. She took it all in one sweeping glance, and settled in by the trig pillar to enjoy the incredible view. The air is always fresh regardless of the time of the year. And on this day, it was no different,

German Shoes vs African Thorns

One special attention on this hike was a set of hiking shoes we had just ordered from Germany. My foot companion that I have used since 2016 is now showing signs of aging. It has faithfully stood by my feet, but now effects of the African sun, wind, and dust have taken their toil. The same story was happening to Cathy’s hiking shoes.

The new pairs were rather pretty, light and came with a fantastic grip. My pair was everything I would look for in a hiking shoe. And I was happily gliding along the trail until a sharp pain from my foot woke me from my blissful state. I let out a shriek and limped to a halt. What could have possibly pierced through both skin and flesh with such intensity?

The Angry African Thorn
The Angry African Thorn

My eyes followed down my leg that was painfully suspended in the air only to find a troop of thorns hugging the sole of the new shoe. One member had managed to pierce through what I had assumed to be the rugged base of the shoe. Its menacing tip was now lodged deep in my foot. I could not believe it. For all the great praise we shower on German engineering, the African thorn had just proved itself untamable.

Being non-discriminatory, the thorn had easily defeated the first world engineering marvel and sent an alert to me at the same time. The message was loud and clear. Despite all the advances in science and technology, the wild still remains aloof above man’s achievements. At a moment’s notice, it is able to demonstrate, rather cruelly, just how much still needs to be done to guarantee man’s safety and comfort.

I pulled it out. I examined the damage and proceeded with the hike, a bit more cautiously of course. And after a while, the pain subsided, the beauty of surroundings took over, and soon I was back into my blissful state again.

Wrapping Up First Half in Style and Looking Ahead

Come to think of it, this was our last adventure in the first half of the year. It had started with a visit to Nkhoma Hill, and ended up with a return to the same hill. The third quarter of the year has been planned to be a resting period. And once the body has taken care of all aches, burns and tears, it will be time to resume a return to the wild.

Malawi, just like most parts of the world, has a lot to offer. And in the second half, we intend to explore the northern parts of the country. There is the Elephant Rock in Mzuzu, Hola mountain in Mzimba, Misuku Hills in Chitipa and the escarpment in Karonga.

There are also a few interesting places in Ntcheu in the Centre and Machinga in the South. So let’s see how many we will be able to visit in the coming three months.

In the meantime, I’m extremely proud of Cathy for overcoming her fears, and at the same time I have my respects to the thorn that cheapened the superior German engineering.

This is the tale of Nkhoma Hill, whose turns and twists will never cease to evolve as long at the Earth stands on its orbit, and the sun continues to give us light and warmth.

Cheers!

Next Weekend in Salima

Senga Hill Hike

I got an invitation from my brother CK on WhatsApp about the Senga hill hike. The hill is in Salima, the lakeshore district next to the Capital City of Malawi.

I’m trying to get more details, but in the meantime take out your hiking boots and get them ready.

According to the poster above, the hike will take place on Saturday, 26 May 2018.

Captivating!

Table Mountain And the Smart Taurs

Table Mountain is one of the most famous tourist attraction in Cape Town, South Africa. It has the signature flat tabletop when viewed from its profile, and when low flying clouds descend on its plateau, the resulting looks are called a table cloth. Table Mountain is not the tallest mountain in South Africa. That honour goes to the Drakensberg, which is among the top 10 tallest mountains in Africa. However, Table Mountain has both the looks and the location. It has earned a glamourous status.

Back in 2012, Mark Mlambala, a friend in Cape Town arranged a hike up Table Mountain as a birthday present to me. Mark, who is an outdoors enthusiast, quickly assembled a team of friends. There was Gerald Abraham, who I had grown up with in Nkolokosa, a high density neighbourhood in Blantyre, Malawi. He was now trying his luck in the vibrant film industry in Cape Town. Grecia Fulumame was also there. He too was once a resident of Blantyre City before he went to Cape Town and established a business in the transport industry. He had a private shuttle service offering luxury rides from the airport to areas of interest around the city.

Table Mountain has well developed trails with multiple access from different parts of the city. We opted for the route overlooking Cape Town’s Water Front, next to where the Cable Car starts its ascent to the top of the mountain. Being that this was my first time to climb any mountain outside Malawi, the excitement was through the roof. There was also some concern beneath the thin veneer of courage. My recent experience with a big mountain had been physically taxing and I expected nothing less. Nevertheless, it is not everyday that one has an opportunity to go up this world famous bastion right at the bottom of Africa.

Apart from the mountains of Lesotho, I don’t recall ever seeing so much exposed rocks and stones on a mountain as much as is on Table Mountain. It is basically made of Legos blocks sculptured from stones of all sizes. You get to see rows of craftily arranged cascading layers receding to the sky. The trail itself was cut in stone. And all this is then smoothed out with a carpet of low lying vegetation popularly called fynbos. The ecosystem is world famous for being only endemic to this region. One step on the path, and one is drawn into a fantastic world of swirling ruggedness and silky delicateness. The balance between the two worlds has perhaps not been achieved in many places around the globe.

At the turn of last century someone introduced a wild population of goats. They thrived and dominated the area, and soon started posing a threat to the fynbos species. A tough decision was then reached to remove the goats permanently. It looks like they were probably exterminated. Whatever method was used, the goats were completely removed from Table Mountain. It was therefore, a surprise for our party to spot a she-goat with her baby goat. They were very quiet and hardly made any movement.  So despite being not very far from the trail, they blended into the terrain and went unnoticed by the steady stream of hikers going up and down the mountain.

We quickly figured out that there must have been a third goat around as a daddy. We searched everywhere but we were not successful in locating it. I wanted to alert the officials about their presence, but the idea of the extermination team pouncing on the kid choked my throat. In the end, I foolishly rationed that a single goat won’t eat all the fynbos. There was still time before the population could explode again and become a threat. At that point – in the way future -something will need to be done.

What I found very fascinating was the fact that the goats had learnt to shush their mouths. Now I know goats love bleating, so how did they figure out to control the urge to melodiously express the glee of eating fresh grass in the morning? And importantly, how did the she-goat teach her kid to hold its peace? How I wished I spoke goat, and got to have a small chat with the mother. Anyway, there was a hike to have, so we proceeded with our adventure.

There was so much to learn on this particular hike. At one point we met an old man who had had a knee surgery but he still insisted on having his weekly hiking. And he had been doing it for aeons. And on our way up, we were overtaken by a group mountain runners speeding up the trail. Before we had reached the top, the group returned still running, and still energetic. And when we reached the summit, we found someone proposing to their beloved! He went down on one knee, held out his hand with a beautiful ring on it, and cameramen were busy doing their job. She said yes, and we all cheered.

The view from the top is simply amazing. You get to see where the land meets the ocean, Robben Island and beyond. Of all the international destinations, it is safe to assume this is the one spot that has been visited by a lot of Malawians with a passion for mountains.

As I reminisce with fond memories the birthday present of 2012 from my brother Mark, I have a side thought with an incessant itch. How did the mountain goat figure out to teach its baby to remain quiet in the face of imminent extermination?

I can only conclude that the wonders of nature are indeed without end. Praise be to God.

Weekend at Fort Mangochi

Mangochi Forest Reserve
Mangochi Forest Reserve

Mountain Club of Malawi (MCM) recently sent out an invitation to its membership for a weekend of hiking in the Mangochi Forest Reserve and camping at Fort Mangochi. This is one area rich in colonial history about trade, migration, battles and slave routes.

So at midnight on Friday last week, I sneaked out of bed and headed out of town. Coming from Lilongwe I took the Salima Road, which would later join the road to Mangochi and then towards Namwera. My rendezvous was Skull Rock Estate in Majuni. I got there very early and found out that Maggie O’toole, the president of MCM, and Poly Boynton, another hardcore MCM member, had already arrived the night before having cycled all the way from Blantyre, covering a distance of 140 km.

Our guide was Jailos Sinto, who has local knowledge about this area. We were expecting over 20 members. We were all set by 10 on Saturday morning and ventured into the bush. Normally, by this time of the year the trail would have been maintained by a team of locals. But this year, the project got derailed somewhat. As such there was tall grass everywhere. Parts of the path was so overgrown the leading guide had to clear it with a slasher.

The traffic jam that would follow gave a chance to armies of red ants to have a go at us. I was the first victim and this continued for a good part of the day. Just when we were about to theorize that the ants preferred local flesh, the barrier was breached and everyone became a candidate of the merciless stinging bites.

These red ants were much bigger and more vicious than the ones I had encountered on Easter Monday on Dedza Mountain. These ones were after causing maximum damage and inflicting intense pain. I politely tried to disengage them but when it became obvious this was a war, a few heads rolled.

On the way to the fort, we skirted past the Skull Rock hill, a rocky affair with three huge boulders for a summit. One of these has a profile of a skull. Going round the hill reveals a much dramatic view. The skull boasts of two asymmetrical sockets fiercely staring down into the valley below. Professor Eric Borgstein, a prominent surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, joked that dinosaurs in the prehistoric era gorged out the sockets off the rocky face. Now, we know how this outstanding feature was formed. Brian Lewis, husband to Maggie, and a crusader for managing dairy cows for over 7000 smallholder farmers, suggested that the block of stone was probably soft, and got sculpted by forces of nature. I’m inclined to go for Eric’s theory, after all he’s the master of sculpting of the human body!

Some of us had been worried that it might rain on this day, given the trend of recent rainfall in the country. Instead, it was very hot and very humid. Others minded the heat and others the humidity. I belonged to the latter group. With an aerial assault from the skull’s stare, red ants on the ground and the humidity wrapping an invisible steaming blanket around our struggling bodies, the situation invoked a deep respect for nature from everyone. This was a challenge worth undertaking.

Mangochi Forest Reserve miraculously stands intact. It was refreshing to walk for miles on end in a thick forest, surrounded by nothing else but forest sounds, wild blossoms and supreme greenery. The rolling hills gave an illusion of an endless pleasure ground like one could be lost forever wandering from one spot to the next oblivious of the passage of time. The natural beauty far outweighed the challenges we were encountering on the way.

Fort Mangochi

We reached the ruins of Fort Mangochi just after midday. It was such a welcome sight after walking in the endless bush. The ruins still have an intact thick perimeter wall made from masonry stones and mortar. The wall is one meter thick and has rectangular openings from outside, which widen away as a recessing wedge in the inside of the wall. This was designed to allow two soldiers to man the hole and fire at the enemy with a much wider horizontal scope without being exposed to the opposing fire.

Inside the square compound are the remains of buildings made from burnt red bricks standing in neat rows. The ground, though covered in grass, is even and firm as if it is a modern construction site. The walls are perfectly aligned to the four cardinal points – with the main entrance facing East. Outside the perimeter wall were remnants of what are houses for officers. These were added to the fort much later in its evolution.

We camped inside the stone wall perimeter. Everyone was expected to find themselves a spot. Some opted to stay close to where the camp fire would be. Others went to the suburbs where the grass was receding. And others chose to be buried in thick grass. One adventurous member even found time to beat a path from his tent to the campfire.

A Walk to the Rainforest

We pitched our tents, ate our individual lunches, rested a while and then set off for the rainforest. I had forgotten to bring along a cup. So instead I took my midday tea in a breakfast bowl. No sweat there as that is exactly the spirit of camping. Anything can be turned into a versatile instrument. My lunch consisted of shredded tuna and a cookie. The creativity failed to make an impression on the team but it got the job done anyway.

On the northern side of the camp, there’s a next ridge with a rainforest. We were aiming to summit it before sunset and return in time for a communal dinner around the campfire. Once we cleared our top flat ridge we came across an overgrown path full of protruding roots, vines and nettles. I lost count of yelps, ows, and ouches from young and old, lady or gentleman. Red ants couldn’t resist joining in the torture spree. The guide tried his best to hack a passage through the thick grass as fast as he could but he couldn’t stop a jam from building up and grinding the team to a halt.

And when things couldn’t get any better, the terrain started rising up sharply. I tanked. I sat down to catch a breath, and someone joked that I looked like one of the ancient wise ones – a sage. I brought up the rear and matched on into the rainforest. This section looks dark and ominous. It just feels like its a place a leopard would be comfortable to wander around. But once inside the canopy that blocks out the sun, the ambience is totally different. It’s an air conditioned chamber with humid control. It was totally refreshing, and the air divine. I don’t recall being attacked by a single red ant inside this forest cove, if there’s ever such a thing.

Our next stop was where people camp within the rainforest, and we decided to end it there. We were not going to proceed to the summit in the interest of time. Well, mostly that. But there was also the small matter that most of us by this time were totally thrashed. So instead we branched off to this ledge that stands above the cover of the rainforest. And talk about view. We could see the eastern leg of Lake Malawi glistening in the sun like a precious piece of glass. And then Shire River, the only outlet of this magnificent water body, snaked across the land like a ribbon before emptying itself in Lake Malombe, before proceeding its journey to Zambezi River, and then eventually hitting Indian Ocean. Shire River, being the longest and biggest river in Malawi is around 402 meters long. From where we were standing, we only saw a small chunk as it came out of the lake.

We returned to our camp inside Fort Mangochi and started our campfire.

Sumptuous Dinner and A Rousing Talk by the Campfire

As the open flames crackled above the burning firewood, a group of self-made chefs gathered around the fire and started preparing dinner. Yaseen Mukadam, our treasurer and also a long time member of MCM, was the rice grandmaster. He was cooking up a big dish from our famous Kilombero rice, the most aromatic long grain rice in Malawi. Carl Bruessow, an avid hiker, author, historian and champion of the replanting effort for Mulanje Cedar, was preparing mushroom entree. Others were making an assorted dish, and a special platter for vegetarians. When it was time to serve, it was so difficult not to put a small hill on one’s plate. Vegetarians were served first. The rest come after them, and wiped out whatever was being served.

Afterwards, some washed down the meal with a glass of wine. Some of us, a glass of water did the trick. Then came a surprise. Brownies, served with whipped cream! Aahh! Such good times.

We had an AGM – Annual General Meeting, led by Maggie, the president. She kept it succinct and informative. We received two reports and then we elected new leaders. Maggie and the rest of the officers were unanimously re-elected into office without being opposed. This committee is truly dedicated and strives to bring out the best for the club. We wish them another successful tenure in office.

Then it was time to settle down and have a talk from Carl Bruessow, who also happens to be the current president of Malawi Society, the custodians of colonial history artifacts and knowledge, which happily assists in the preservation of this rich heritage. After being taunted for a power presentation, Carl held out slides of photos and maps in his hand and delivered a moving oration. He told us about how the Yaos migrated from the coastal regions of Mozambique to this very spot. The Yaos loved mountains, and were attracted by the rolling hills in the area, and its plenty sources of water. The Yaos were tradesmen who had been dealing with Arabs, trading in the precious commodity, salt, in exchange for honey and other goodies from the interior of Africa.

Unfortunately, the trade turned its ugly head and stooped as low as in the sale of human souls and ivory. Slavery, in this region, started as a way to get rid of unwanted characters in the society. But soon became a huge human trafficking undertaking. At its zenith, the trade route passing through this area could have more than 20,000 souls per month. Until authorities in Britain said enough was enough, and started a campaign to abolish slave trade.

This led to three major battles that took place in different campaigns, led by different British officers. It involved British soldiers, Indian Sikhs, irregulars from the Ngonis, regulars from Zanzibar and more Ngonis. Irregulars would be the equivalent of modern day mercenaries, who came from the Dedza area. If I heard the narration very well, I think there was also a presence of some Yaos from Zomba, especially during the last battle that flushed out the Yao chief together with most of his 25,000 subjects. The headquarters of the chieftaincy was then later turned into Fort Mangochi, comprising of the thick stone perimeter wall and the structures inside it.

We learnt a lot about the local tribes, their historical behaviour and influence. And personally, I have never seen such delivery, with flair and decorum. This will be a night to remember for a long, long time.

I collapsed into my tent for an early night and drifted into a peaceful sleep. I stopped feeling the clods from the collapsed grass, and after a while the tiny thin polythene sheet for a mattress got comfy. I woke up fresh the following morning. Lost interest in having a cereal, and took instead a bowl of hot soup and got ready for the hike back to Skull Rock Estate.

This was one wonderful weekend, and I hope to return one day. Next time, I will want to reach the summit of the ridge where the rainforest resides.

 

PARTICIPANTS’ DETAILS:

Maggie O’Toole

Brian Lewis

Yaseen Mukadam

Carl Bruessow

Gill Knox

Chinga Miteche

Ngamise Gumbo

Pedram Kaya

Polly Boynton

Lloyd Archer

Adrian Thomas

Eric Borgstein

Sophie Borgstein

Marc Henrion

Nisha Schumann

Stephanie Darling

Kate Gooding

Kristina Cuisinier

Olivia Butters

Olivia’s friend

Rob Stewart

Sarah (friend of Rob)

Kondaine Kaliwo (me)

 

Joined for the day:

Cameron Caswell

Stefan Witek-MacManus

Stella

 

Dedza Mountain, An Adventure for the Child In Me

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Bunda Hill, A Convenience Stop

Last Easter, the just ended one, was a near perfect break, what with the plans to scale a number of hills within Malawi. On one extreme end I was toying with a plan to hike at least five hills within four days, and on the other end of the pendulum, there was a modest ambition to attempt at least two hills within my home city. When all was said and done, I humbled myself and settled for a hill and a mountain.

I returned to Bunda Hill for the first time this year. This is a small hill on the south west of Lilongwe, the Capital City of Malawi. It is a dynamite in a small package, so to speak. With an elevation gain of a mere 284 metres, it does not boast of any worldly fame. However, this bare rock is not barren at all, and at the summit, it offers a smashing view of the city from a nature’s beauty point of view.

So on Saturday morning, equipped with just a bottle of water, two energy bars and a walking stick I started off to meet my small friend. The bottom of the hill was lush with greenery, mostly from the maize fields from the surrounding villages. Being on the outskirts of the city, the dwellings are informal and belong to the locals. Here and there, dotted across the land are the inroads of modern structures. As one approaches the hill, one is met with a dormant quarry mine. This should be an eye sore, especially with the mining hole that has not been refilled. But on this day, the water that has accumulated at the base of the gaping hole looked serene. Unfortunately, soon this will be a breeding ground, if not already, of the deadly mosquito, the vector that carries the malaria-causing parasite.

 

On the surface, the pool looked exotic, what with the jagged edges that flanked it on all sides. The hill, serving as a backdrop hinted a bit of color around the areas that are simply bare rock. It was not a bad sight. In fact, I could feel a deep beckoning to continue with my small adventure. The small village at the base of the hill was not active at this time of the day. Small children, who have developed skills as local guides, swarmed and offered to take me to the top. I recognized one or two familiar faces, and noted how the passage of time had transformed them into pre-teens. I politely declined their offers and proceeded to start my hike. Today, it was going to be a solitary effort.

Immediately, I could see I had made a good choice. The hill was in a blossom of a kind, but being economical with rich soil layers, the plants, shrubs and a bit of trees were all diminutive. The flowers were small in stature, but nevertheless, brilliantly displayed. The microscope has shown that beauty does exist even at a tiny scale too small for the naked eye to pick. These flowers were many magnitudes larger than other small natural structures. There was plenty of variations of yellow, and a tiny sprinkling of purple. White was rare except right at the summit. Red came in a rather dull form. The shine had been compromised by dust, and other negative factors. Considering how barren this rock dome is supposed to be, the ensemble of colour on this day was breathtaking.

 

The hill boasted a presence of little animals too. A curious lizard here, a multi-coloured one there. And one particularly obese lizard near the top caught my attention. At this height I would have expected a reduction in food, yet here was one guy happily imbibing more calories than his shiny body could spend. Abundance, it seems, is nature’s currency even in areas where conditions are expected to be harsh.

At the summit I was greeted by a chorus of people holding charismatic prayers. This is a haven for Christians from all walks of life. Others bring their families here, and it is not uncommon to see mothers with their little tots dotting the land. The temporary rock shelters speak of overnight vigils. Prayer camps for a day or two are a favorite to most dedicated pilgrims. Despite the presence of many people at the top, there was no interference in my quest. No one paid much attention to a grown up man trying to capture photos of a wild fly searching for nectar from a flower with tantalizing petals.

Beyond the summit, the dome recedes into some kind of a saddle, and a second peak emerges beyond that. This second section is less crowded, and it is my personal favorite spot on this hill. At this height the entire campus of LUANAR, the leading agricultural university in Malawi, is visible to the west. The woodlot with a centre full of indigenous trees surrounded by a brim of eucalyptus breaks the view between the campus and the hill. On the opposite end, there lies a grazing ground called dambo in the vernacular, composed mostly of thick clay soil, and short thick grass that stays green throughout the year. Small herds of cattle and donkeys could be seen sprawled across the land, hardly making any visible movement. Docility and tranquility rolled into a harmonious continuum.

 

My eyes then got drawn to a pair falcons precariously rising in strong winds that had suddenly come from the south. They gingerly balanced themselves, as if being borne by thermal currents coming from the bottom of the hill, oblivious to the pounding forces that were buffeting against their aerodynamic bodies. Then just as they had shown up unexpectedly they darted out of sight, accelerating against the wind like rockets. I knew it was time to take leave of the goodies. Few minutes later I was down at the bottom and just avoided getting drenched by a heavy downpour.

Bunda Hill and I got on the right footing this year. And I will be returning soon, especially when I’m searching for convenience, a quick bite of adventure and a place to say a short prayer within a stone throw distance from home.

Busy or Not, a Mountain Has to Move

The Mountains Are Calling
The Mountains Are Calling

 

Movement is relative. If I’m moving towards an object, it could very well be that the object is moving towards me. I need to get to a mountain or a mountain should come to me. Hehehe! A little bit of reflection here in a bid to justify the title. I’m yearning to reach some mountain top. But alas, the first quarter has really been very busy for me. Not that I’m complaining, but now the absence of the summit – any summit, is grinding me to powder.

Now that Easter break is coming, I’m thinking this could be the perfect time to escape city life and experience once again the exhilaration of country mountain air, buoyant on wild greenery. In a way, I should admire those that take time to plan to hike. You know, everything has to be right. They need to feel prepared. Every muscle must shake and quake at the right frequency. All the bones must be perfectly attenuated in grade A tendons. All pistons must fire in the right sequence. You get the drift.

While this is true for epic hikes, it is not necessary for a weekend getaway at your local hill, unless, if it has an active volcano at the top, or is known to be infested with venomous snakes that chase visitors on sight. In that case, then yes, perhaps take time to prepare your will, arrange your finances, say goodbye to your family, and then give it a go. Otherwise, it doesn’t take much to prepare for a hike. And guess what? What would work for a typical long walk, or a gym session, would also normally work for your hike.

So take for example, carrying water. You need to be hydrated at all times. Finding yourself in the wild, without any knowledge of local watering holes can cause a lot of discomfort on your part. In the extreme case, it could lead to injury, short term or long term, perhaps even permanent injury. But again, if this is just a weekend outing, it shouldn’t get to this point. So, forget about death or long term injury. Nevertheless, carry enough water with you. My style is to carry some with me, and keep a backup in the car. Should I lose my water bottle, and then have to trek back mile after mile to the base camp, at least, I should be able to get a swig once I reach the starting point.

Another point, is getting an energy snack. Now, you know it doesn’t always have to be something fancy like bars of chocolate or a packet of exotic sweets manufactured in a confectionary factory that happens to provide royal bites to national leaders around the world. No. A packet of groundnuts will do. Or a banana, if you don’t mind the possibility of fighting it out with monkeys once they see the yellow oblong treat in your hands. An energy snack can be anything you fancy that has carbs, or sugar in it. I’ve ever heard of someone carrying glucose powder to get a quick energy boost. Whatever your take, an energy snack must be somewhere near you.

Now what about a guide? If you know your terrain very well, and don’t intend to wander away from the beaten path, then possibly you just need to let someone know you will be wandering alone on your favourite hill. Otherwise, get a guide. And putting a time limit before someone gets concerned is also a prudent addition. So say, you tell your loved one that call the police, military, ministers of tourism and health if I don’t show up by 16:00 is not an exaggeration on your part. This is called taking an initiative, and must be pursued diligently each time you venture out into the wild. Oh! Put on the alert list your local mayor too. Mayors love speeches, and you need someone who can make a moving speech before deploying a searching party for you. Hopefully, they will not find you asleep on your favourite rock having eaten a whole bunch of bananas, leading to moments of tranquility, deep reflection, and subsequently and consequently the inevitable siesta.

What does this all mean to you? I think it says you don’t need much to prepare for a hike. You don’t need to walk for half a year in preparation. No. You don’t need to prepare to prepare – I’m speaking from experience, rather, observation. Just get your hiking clothes ready and venture out. And you are at liberty in interpreting what constitutes hiking clothes. Anything loose, comfortable on a pair of your favourite pair of sports shoes will do. And if you are living in this part of the world, you need something that would protect you from rains, sunshine, wind and dust. Okay. This shouldn’t put you in your deep preparation mood. Get into your walking gear, put on your hat, and get going.

With that in mind, you can see why I’m yearning for a weekend getaway. I have a choice of beautiful hills and mountains among Bunda, Ngala or Nkhoma in Lilongwe. Or Chongoni or Dedza in the adjoining Dedza district. There’s also another Ngala mountain in Dowa. These are surrounding areas from the Capital City of Malawi. Some mountain has to come to me. The only burning question is how many bananas am I taking with me?

 

Mr Shark, you really don’t go to sleep? Like ever?

Nature is calling
Nature is calling

As a young mind, nature provides a pavilion from which the insatiable curiosity can be quenched by facts, bizarre, queer, funny, shocking, grizzly, lovely and beautiful, all observed from the world around us. But one that has stood the test of time in my mind is that sharks never go to sleep. Could that be true? Like never taking a wink, or say a power nap in between a snack? So do sharks dream at all? Perhaps that is all done while swimming round the globe, terrorizing pockets of seals and other shark delicacies from different areas in the vast expanse of the oceans.

Since the shark, in this case I’m thinking of the great white, is not exactly a partner with which to engage an academic discussion. I’ve seen a shark in an oceanarium once, the savage stare says it all. You cannot tame this beast, let alone have a conversation with. And since I’m also not a specialist in marine biology, I have let this problem go unresolved. It is an itch I can’t reach to scratch – oh, the torture. That is until yesterday. It occurred to me that there are other areas in life that must be repeated constantly, without taking a break, for the rest of one’s life. Just like the shark that has to be constantly on the move, without having a shut-eye.

I connected this to hiking. These last two months have seen me focus on my career and other areas that required my attention, bound to a desk. I haven’t been able to visit any hill in the months of February and March. I can feel something is wrong. Something is not in its place. I feel like a huge yawning hole has suddenly appeared in my life. It’s like shark has taken a nap, has stopped moving, starving itself of the essential oxygen and is now spiraling down to the bottom of the ocean. Yes, I’m told the shark has no waving gills, and therefore has to remain in motion to force the water past its body, in the process harvesting the molecule that keeps fish and mammals alive. I need to return to the hills otherwise, I feel like I will suffocate down in the valley.

This is a blessing. To know that it is not enough to do one good act once. We must do it again, and again. It’s true for food. We have to eat constantly. It’s true for our spiritual lives. We have to engage God daily. It’s true for our career. We have to work everyday. It’s true for adventure. We have to go back to nature and engage it constantly. We are not far removed from what is essential, what is lovely and what is good. It’s a beautiful mechanism.

And all it took for me to realize that is the tale about sharks never going to sleep. I’ll return to the mountains and breathe that fresh air once again. And I know, this is something I will do to the last day on earth. I’m looking forward to that.

By the way, I will never feel sorry for sharks anymore. If you are an apex predator, on top of your game, then constancy will be the currency. Others call it keeping the momentum.

What’s your game? What do you need to keep on doing in order to have a fulfilled life? Do it well. Do it all the time. Don’t stop. Just like Mr Shark on the move, all the time!

Read It Again: The Tree of Life

Amazing views from nature.
Amazing views from nature.

 

One of the joys of hiking is getting to see all the amazing trees nature has to offer. For instance, on Mulanje Mountain you get to see Mulanje Cedar, a coniferous species endemic to this massif. When fully grown, the cedar has a wide girth it would take two teenagers to encircle it by holding hands to each other. And while being still on Mulanje, the tallest mountain in Malawi, you also get to see protea, a supple tree with brilliant blossom. It has a bulbous flower, with silky tendrils that wrap around the petals when the flower is closed. And when the bulb opens, it exposes beautifully arranged petals in white, or mixed colors of white and pink or soft red. And I think I have seen some with traces of yellow. Whatever the color combo, the exquisite flower is a beauty. A species called King protea is the national flower of South Africa.

 

Around many rivers and at the bottom of several mountains in Malawi, you get to see the mighty m’bawa tree also known as mahogany in English. It is a towering giant with strong roots that have been known to upheave foundations of structures that are built near it. Most people still mistakenly plant it near schools, hospitals and churches. M’bawa will weigh the foundation of these buildings and will find them wanting. In other words, it will destroy anything it will catch its in radial root architecture. Other than its underground adventures, mighty m’bawa offers plenty of shade in summer, and unfortunately, it is also susceptible to illegal harvesting due to its sought-after hardwood. M’bawa gets to live for hundreds of years, and when fully grown, it will take several grown up men to ring it by holding each other’s hands.

 

On Kilimanjaro, you get to see another towering giant at the bottom of the mountain, and a strange looking tree towards the top. The latter has a jacket of old leaves, which it uses to cover itself when the temperatures drop low.

 

Jacket-wearing trees on Kilimanjaro
Jacket-wearing trees on Kilimanjaro

 

Another wonder that comes to mind is the baobab tree. A giant of immense proportions, this fruit tree is a darling to many children due to its sweet and sour summer treats. The fruit is covered in a hard shell, decorated by a thin layer of short velvet hair. Once you break the shell with a help of stone, you are treated to rows of white, compact powder wrapped around a black seed. The rows are separated by coils of fibre that protect the seeds. You eat the fruit by letting it dissolve in your mouth, or if you are impatient, by sucking it just like sweets. To the more aggressive souls, you can break the seed by biting hard into its black shell to reveal a soft white paste, more like the meat of groundnuts. The baobab tree prefers hot weather and it is found in abundance in districts along the lakeshore, Nkhotakota, Salima and Mangochi. You can also find it in Mwanza, a district in the Southern Region. The tree is also found beyond the borders seeking refuge in many parts of Southern Africa.

 

By the way, despite its immense size, the baobab is hollow inside acting like a giant reservoir. It will absorb the scarce rainfall whenever the patched grounds it prefers to grow on receive any rains. And sometimes, when it has drunk more than it can handle, it gets compromised and will fall down to its side due to its relatively weak root system. It is not uncommon to see the octopus like roots sticking in the air, next to the fallen hero after drinking one to many a raindrop. Such is the beauty and diversity of trees one gets to see in the wild.

 

But then the Bible introduces another type of a tree. It is called The Tree of Life, and it is first mentioned in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. We are told it was in the midst of the Garden of Eden, next to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The latter had a fruit that was pleasant to look at, and would make one wise. Now, that’s some tree.

 

But before going for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Let’s look at the Tree of Life. It appears in the last book of the Bible, at the end of the New Testament. In the book of Revelation, it is mentioned three times. Access to the tree had a special clause in Genesis. It could only be taken if and only if man would not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And in the Book of Revelation, its fruit will only be eaten to him that overcomes (Rev 2:7). This special tree will only grow along the pure river of life, clear as a crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb in New Jerusalem, that will rest upon a great and high mountain (Revelation 21 & 22).

 

It does not stop there. It says the Tree of Life will bear twelve manner of fruits, and will yield her fruit every month. And its leaves will be for the healing of the nations.

 

So read the passages again. Of all the trees that are in the world, of all the wonders that they offer in terms of fruit, flower and other potent uses, none can compare to the Tree of Life. This is the only tree that was protected by the flaming fire of a cherub. And in the new world to come, it will only be found in one location, and enjoyed by one group of people – those that overcome. Now, that sounds to me like a motivation to face life’s challenges not as cowards but those that are determined to rise above the limitations of fallen humanity to celestial beauty of a saved life. All thanks to the precious works of our only Redeemer and Provider, Lord Jesus Christ.

 

I want to see the Tree of Life, enjoy its joys perched high above the world on the greatest and highest mountain in the world while sipping the cool waters of Life flowing from the Throne of God and of the Lamb. This is not just another good story. It is the Good Story for mankind.

See you at the top.

Read It Again: Mount Transfiguration

A view from a mountain
A view from a mountain

 

This natural world is amazing. When you see the photos of the natural wonders of the world, and if you are privileged to go and visit them, you get to know earth is an incredibly beautiful part of the universe. Yet despite all these splendid displays, there’s a yearning for something more. Something better.

The Bible provides for another avenue of awe – an introduction into the spiritual world. And for our story today, Jesus invites three of his trusted disciples to ascend a high mountain. What a great outing! I cannot imagine a better day to spend with our Lord than to go out in the wild and hike. I would be watching how He would be placing His feet, how He would breathe. We would discuss the flowers, trees, insects, birds and anything of interest.

He would know where the best brooks would be. And if the water was not as fresh, I would know a water transforming miracle would be within reach. And on a day like this, there would be no pesky flies getting in our way. Snakes, spiders, centipedes would keep their distance. There would be no fear of injury or death, seeing that the One with the keys to hell and death is in our midst. This would be a hike with the Holy One who said He was Resurrection Himself.

What a special hike it must have been for Peter, James and John. Peter was later to refer to it (2 Peter 1: 16 – 18). This is one hike you would not want to come to an end. But it did. They reached the top and settled in for a private praise and worship session. Our Lord, in His tradition, must have shared great insights from the Scriptures. He must have taught them about prophets, God and His death. The first two topics must have been very thrilling to the disciples, but the last one must have been a horrible subject. Peter, in particular, did not want to hear about Jesus facing death, and hanging on the Cross. Humans, up until this day, do not see victory through suffering. But then, how can you have victory without a fight? How do you become a victor without facing your challenges?

Then something better than a natural hike takes place. As Jesus begins to pray, He transforms before them into one exceedingly beautiful celestial form. They break into the Heavenly dimension and witnessed the Father grant authority to Jesus. This was the first time for mankind to witness a heavenly occasion. Jesus was being made the mouthpiece of God. Mankind would now have to listen to Jesus, and understand Him. And the disciples were privileged to see people that had crossed the river of death. There was Moses and Elijah, speaking to Jesus about His decease.  And a heavenly cloud shrouded them all.

But read it again. The face of Jesus did shine as the sun, his raiment was white as the light. That is power, endless power of Life. That is divine. That’s the same description like the Burning Bush that Moses saw, only that this time the same Glory was on a human face. That’s the same Light that struck Paul down on the way to Damascus. The same Light that said was Jesus, when Paul asked for Its Name. To witness this, to behold such beauty was, is and will always be better than the plumage of the most exotic bird, or the sight of cascading water falling into a picture-perfect pool of the most crystal clear waters. This is better than any adventure ever devised by mankind.

Peter, James and John, as earthly witnesses had a single experience, and it lasted them a lifetime. Moses and Elijah, as heavenly witnesses had prior experience with the Pillar of Fire, but never anything like this.

Now, that’s what we are all yearning for. Just to behold the Lord’s beauty, in its celestial form, is better than anything life can give. I’m searching for my Mount Transfiguration hike, and I hope to witness it in its strength one of these days.