Sleepover on Sapitwa, the highest peak on the tallest mountain in Malawi

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.

Sapitwa Sleepover Adventure. Ngamise Gumbo (top), Chinga Miteche (left) and myself (right).
Sapitwa Sleepover Adventure. Ngamise Gumbo (top), Chinga Miteche (left) and myself (right).

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.

Gordon Benbow, the Mountain Leader (middle). Myself (left) and Charles Nembele (right)
Gordon Benbow, the Mountain Leader (middle). Myself (left) and Charles Nembele (right)

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.

Sapitwa Peak

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.

Sunset on Sapitwa. Photo taken by Marc Henrion.
Sunset on Sapitwa. Photo taken by Marc Henrion.

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.

Nocturnal Events

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 clear night sky with the moon up, taken from inside my tent.
A clear night sky with the moon up, taken from inside my tent.

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.

Group photo on Sapitwa Peak after the Sleepover. Photo taken by Chinga.
Group photo on Sapitwa Peak after the Sleepover. Photo taken by Chinga.

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)

  1. Jan van der Velde

Sapitwa Day Excursionists

(Summiting Sapitwa but no sleepover)

  1. Rachael Mijiga
  2. Charles Nembele
  3. Humphreys Gerald

Sapitwa Sleepover Hiking Fiends

(Spending a sleepover on Sapitwa Peak)

  1. Gordon Benbow
  2. Gordon’s son
  3. Gordon’s son’s friend
  4. Barbara Swarthout-tenKate
  5. Marc Henrion
  6. Ngamise Gumbo
  7. Pilirani Chuma
  8. Donna
  9. Donna’s tent besties
  10. Donna’s female friend
  11. Donna’s male friend
  12. Chinga Miteche
  13. Kondaine Kaliwo
  14. Sarah
  15. Sarah’s friend
  16. Sarah’s friend
  17. Chris
  18. And the quiet guy

(The list will be updated once the names become available.)

 

 

A Weekend on Senga Hills Of Salima

The Hill Climbing Club Open Invitation

Two weeks ago, my bosom friend Chikondi Kachinjika or CK in short sent me an open invitation from the Hill Climbing Club for a weekend hike on the famous Senga Hills of Salima. The date for the event was 26 May 2018, the last Saturday of the month. Later on, another friend Alick Bwanali alias Onyamata AKB sent me the detailed program for the day.

I quickly marked the date on my calendar. This was not an opportunity to miss, for I had been trying for the last two years to find myself there. Senga Hills rise up from Senga Bay, a beautiful corner of Lake Malawi as it transverses the lakeshore district of Salima.

The program for the day promised some goodies. Admission was free. The rendezvous was the Parachute Battalion of the Malawi Defence Force. The main trail would be the same one that soldiers use for training.

Invitation from HCC to Senga Hills Hike
Invitation from HCC to Senga Hills Hike

My Preparations for the Day

I took two runs of about 7 km each in the week of the hike. I had plenty of rest, and were properly hydrated the day before the event. My supplies were simple – bottled water, one apple and some dried dates.

Unfortunately, I also picked a slight injury. What started as muscle cramps on the second run persisted for two days. I got advice from one of my trainers on how to speed track the recovery. It was very important for me not to miss the hike.

On Friday, just after lunch, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to stock up on calories the native way. I asked Cathy, my beloved wife, to prepare roasted local maize. It has never been my favourite but I thought I’d get a kick from it. Big mistake! The flinty grains destroyed my jaws and smashed my digestion. That evening was spent hunting for anti-acids in a few pharmacies in town. So much for beefing up on energy reserves the native way.

Idyllic Drive to Salima

For some reason, I could not go to bed and sustain a long sleep. I kept waking up due to excitement. At four in the morning, I got out of bed. I decided to skip my morning shower. I convinced myself that my evening bath was adequate. Ah! This was a weak line of reasoning. I gave up on it and took my hot bath – by the way, which I find relaxes the muscles much better than cold water.

I packed my essentials and started for Salima just after five in the morning. This is usually a one hour ride in a good car, but having destroyed the engine firing sequence with my recent adventure in Mangochi, I needed to take it easy. It was still dark when I left home, it was cold and as I was leaving the city boundary, it got foggy. I switched on my faulty air conditioning unit and settled in for the ride. The road was virtually empty except for very few cyclist and a lonely pedestrian here and there. At one point, a local dog, which was busy twisting its tail for the owner, lost focus and took the dance to the road. Fortunately, my speed was slow and it managed to get off the lane with a soft honk.

After a while, the fog cleared, and a soft light appeared towards the east. There was a single blueish-white star directly ahead of me. A few more stars were to my right, towards the south. Salima is a hilly district, and the road follows the contour of the area. Going up and down, curving to the left then right, the ride was getting sweet.

About half way from my destination, I could make out a flat line on the horizon. This is where the lake was located. A thin line of clouds had formed above it. It was flat at the bottom, with cotton puffs at the top. I could see a faint sky blue sipping around the clouds, with hints of light purple towards the far end on my right side.

Watching Sunrise on the way to Senga Hills
Watching Sunrise on the way to Senga Hills

Then as if on a cue, an infusion of orange started intensifying on my left side, and the cloud started getting bigger at the top. The bottom remained relatively flat. Then all at once a bright orange ball pierced through the clouds, and cast a diffused light into the morning atmosphere. I stopped the car to take it all in. This was beyond gorgeous. This was a special gift to those that were awake at that hour. It was so serene.

By the time I hit Salima Boma (the local district government centre) the rest of neighbourhood was awake. There was a concentration of bikes, people and cars. I asked for directions once or twice and finally found myself at the Parachute Battalion. I was the first to arrive, and not surprisingly, having left Lilongwe rather too early.

The long awaited hike on Senga Hills

Bit by bit, hikers arrived from all corners of the country. Some arrived from Nkhotakota, some from Lilongwe and others from within Salima. It was a good mix of seasoned hikers and rookies. We had both civilian and military officers.

We got a briefing from Captain Soko, who is second in command at the Battalion. The Chief Special Forces Instructor, Corporal Joseph Lipande, towering above everyone, and packing muscle everywhere on his super chiselled body, was introduced. Cpl Lipande gave us a detailed plan for the day. Senga hills is a collection of 12 to 15 hills. And the day’s hike would focus on the three main hills, culminating at the trig station on the highest hill. We would then descend down to the beach.

We were then introduced to the team of medics. We had an ambulance on standby that would be following us on the road parallel to the hills. And the military hospital was on alert to handle any cases of injury and exhaustion. We were immediately put at ease that we were in good hands.

Major Chimbayo, who is the Commanding Officer for the Battalion, gave us a battle cry for the Airborne Division and led us into battle – a battle with the rolling hills.

We trekked out from the Senior Officers Mess, which was our hosting station, to the starting point. The little walk warmed up our muscles as anticipation grew in the air. When we got there, ladies were asked to join the leading guides and then men came next. The medics were spread across the group, and the rear was brought up with medics and those doing Admin. Whistles were blown and then we took off.

We took a roll call, and we were 63 strong. The military is unbelievably organised and efficient to the core. The medics at the rear broke into seedy military songs. We had frequent stops to allow people to catch a breath. Everyone was encouraged to be sipping water regularly but in small portions. Not that the instruction was heeded very well as some hikers who were by now feeling very hot wished they were carrying gallons of the cool, crystal stuff. The cruel twist however was that at this point, anything heavier than a shirt would feel like it was weighing a tonne.

When we took the first major break at the top of the first hill, and were told this was the easy part, admiration mixed with deep respect spread across the faces. These hills, though, not as tall as mountains, had a serious punch. The trail was somewhat steep and the military pace, though, slowed down a million times for us, was still significantly challenging. By the way, from the beginning of the trail, to the end, the best of the MDF officers are on record to have completed it under 30 minutes. On our part, we were planning to cover the same distance in 3 hours. As a result, the military officers with us hardly broke sweat.

We started the first hill, and got to the second major hill. The trail twisted up, went up rocks, threw in a cruel practical joke here and there. By the time we reached the top, it was clear this was an obstacle course. Our guides, made sure to mix and match the trail. We got some soft parts, with a few points that required all our strength. The group started breaking up into three parts. The super fit were upfront, the majority were in the middle, and some brought up the rear. But no one was left alone. Even the slowest among us, dictated the final pace of the group. Whenever we took a major stop, we would not start again until the last hiker had shown up, flanked by medics and other military officials.

The view at the top was amazing. On the first hill, we could see the lake on the southern part of Senga Bay. The waters were a calm blue, hardly disturbed on the surface. When we got to the second hill, we could see some parts of the farthest parts of the bay on the northern side. However, the front, in the eastern direction was still hidden by the hills we were yet to conquer. Being a forest reserve used for training military personnel, the hills were well covered in green canopy. The density of trees was impressive, and in some parts almost impassable.

The descent from the second hill was the steepest. This is called Khwekhwerere or Mchombo Lende in the vernacular, and loosely translates to slippery, sliding trail and topless (you are guaranteed to take off your shirt) respectively. The slope went all the way down almost to the same level as at the beginning of the trail. Brake pads on people’s legs were smoking, and a few here and there took a slide. We were told to be five metres apart so that a falling bundle of human flesh would not take down the entire team with it. Members were openly groaning, and the guides were busy whipping up morale, by running up and down the slope. I have never seen such a display of bravado!

When we got to the bottom, we were made to rest. We took our snacks, water and listened to some music. When we were all back together, we were told that this was the last way out point. Anyone going beyond this point would be expected to complete the hike. We lost 25 members, who opted to terminate the hike. I admired their tenacity. This was a difficult trail, and they had all done very well.

Towards the Trig Point, the highest of Senga Hills

The rest of us continued towards the third hill. But in between there was a small matter of dealing with the steepest incline in the hill collection. My heart popped into my mouth, and I felt like all my energy had been sucked out of me. And with my current no-sugar diet, the body was tested to the limit to dynamically generate sugars on request. The guides in the meantime were going up and down as if they were running on a plain ground.

I remember at one point, one of the soldiers offered to pull some of the ladies. How I wished I could be offered a hand too. But my male ego stood in the way, and I forced myself forward, inch by inch. Fortunately, the temperature was alright. It was just warm enough with a lot of cool breeze trying its best to prevent our bodies from overheating. The air was fresh, and we were surrounded by sounds of the wild. Of course, at this point the singing at the back had ebbed into a grinding silence, and the DJ had broken into Gospel tunes. The timing couldn’t have been better.

We had to take a major stop before reaching the summit of this small hill. This was perhaps the most difficult section of the entire trail. Water was dangerously running low. Fortunately, those that had carried theirs in camel bags generously offered the few drops they had. Coincidentally, it was only the military that still had water on them. The civilians had emptied theirs on the way up. I was a participating student on discipline and endurance here.

When we reached the top, there was a sense of accomplishment. Although, there was still one more hill to conquer, it was clear we had persevered a hard course, and the end was nigh. One military officer told me that a victory is not sweet unless the battle is long and hard. I got the meaning immediately. In order for us to enjoy conquering the Senga Hills, it was important for us to tackle the hard parts first. I couldn’t agree more, though I doubt if my feet saw the amusement in that small talk.

Soon it was time to aim for the trig point. When we got there, we were greeted by the best view in all of Salima. The entire Senga Bay below was in view. We could see where the islands were, a few kilometres from the sandy beaches. We could see where the rice paddies were. There was a beautiful tributary feeding into the lake. In contradiction, as always, we were told it had the highest number of crocodiles in that part of the lake. So it made sense to admire it from a safe distance up in the hills.

Our pains disappeared. All that effort to get here melted into folds of satisfaction, liberally mixed with waves of accomplishment. This was worth fighting for. This was worth the pushing, shoving, towing and everything in-between. This was a great moment. If there was a technology out there to freeze moments, this would be the one place to put it into action. We took photos. We smiled. We laughed. We cheered our guides. We thanked the medics, and the rest of the military officers. There was nothing to compare this moment with anything else.

Trig Point on Senga Hills
Trig Point on Senga Hills

But like all good things, it had to come to an end. We descended and finally connected to the road leading back to the base. Others immediately jumped into the cars that were following us. Some of us, hanged back a little bit, and squeezed in a little stroll before the next pick-up.

In total, we had covered approximately 10 km of rolling hills, in about 3 hours of active walking. The rest was spent on well-deserved breaks, and view watching.

Interview with the Commanding Officer Major Mabvuto Chimbayo

I later caught up with the Commanding Officer Major Mabvuto Chimbayo. He is the officer in charge of the Parachute Battalion and leader of the Airborne Division.  I wanted to get his view of the hiking expedition. Here is an excerpt of our chat:

Please, sir, tell me about your role in the hike today.

Well, today, I was your host and facilitator for the hike. We had to provide access to the training arena for our military officers, and provide health personnel and facilities for all the members that came to participate in the hike. We had to arrange for guides, medics, ambulances and put our military hospital on alert.

We also had to make sure you had a comfortable station to start from, that is why we opened the Senior Officers’ Mess to the HCC members. This was for your refreshments, braai and relaxation.

More importantly, I also had to coordinate on the request from the Hill Climbing Club to the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for permission to access our military base.

Lastly, for the hike to be successful, we had to provide a brief about the difficulty of the terrain, and take charge of the walks so that it would be enjoyable to the club members as you have seen for yourself.

That took a lot of arrangement and coordination. Thanks very much for that. Now tell me a bit about the trail we took today.

The trail we took today was a mixed route. Some parts were difficult, and some parts were easy. We have three main trails, and today, we sampled from each one of those. As you could see, there were moments where you had to challenge yourself. You had to push yourself. I believe this is better than going to the gym.

The most difficult routine is a hill run. We did not do this one today as it requires you to be very fit. Our officers are able to complete the trail we took today in about 25 minutes.

We also had to pick a trail that would allow you to enjoy the scenic view of Senga Bay. You can see islands to the south, and the rice paddies to the north. The trail allowed you to see the best of Salima.

What is your message to the public?

As you know, non-communicable diseases (NCD) are ravaging our communities. NCDs can be prevented or managed if one is to adopt an active lifestyle. Lack of exercises contributes to the development of these diseases like types of diabetes and blood hypertension. So we advise the public to adopt exercises. It can be fun as you saw today.

Our training facilities are open to the public upon making proper arrangements. And we are there to help support the nation to get fit, lead a healthy lifestyle and contribute to the wellness of all the citizens of our country, Malawi.

Thank you, sir.

Thank you.

A Bit About the Hill Climbing Club

Then I caught up with organising members of the Hill Climbing Club to learn more about its origin, the hike, and about planned events in the year. I had a chat with Mr M’theto Lungu and Major Lameck Kalenga.

Thanks for inviting me to participate in the hike today. It was awesome.

Thank you for coming to be with us today.

Tell me about the club. Who started it and when was it started?

Well, before we start with the history of the club, let me first of all thank the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for granting permission to our request to come today to the Parachute Battalion with members of the club for a hiking day on Senga Hills.

This is part of Civil Military Relations, which the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri is promoting to enhance the relationship between the military and the public. As you might be aware, Malawi Defence Force(MDF) has been promoting public health by encouraging the citizens of the Malawi nation to adopt an active lifestyle.

We cannot thank the General enough for such a great consideration. We are looking forward to building a special relationship with the military, and will continue to engage MDF for support in granting access to training facilities for our club members.

Now, to go back to your question, this started as a discussion between Captain Bright Chanika and I (M’theto Lungu). We wanted to encourage people to adopt an active lifestyle. This was back in December 2017. We arranged for people to take walks on weekends in Lilongwe between Kaunda Filling Station and Bunda Turn Off. We also encouraged people to share on social media details of any physical activities that they had undertaken.

The original plan was to attempt a hill monthly. Unfortunately, weather and other factors got in a way.

Do you have a club president?

No, not at the moment. We have an organising committee. At the moment the members for the commitee are as follows:

Organising/ Coordinating Team are:
1. Major Lameck Kalenga – Technical Coordinator/ Advisor
Vice: Francis Muwalo
2. Capt. Kelvin Ezron Soko – Strategic Coordinator/ Advisor
Vice: Mimi
3. Major Bright Chakanika – Fitness Advisor
Vice: Capt. Henry Tembwe
4. M’theto Lungu – PR Coordinator
Vice: Fatsani Menyani
4. Lipenga – Associate Coordinator (Salima Fitness Club)
Vice: Andrew
5. Lt. Tiya – Gender Affairs
6. Major Gilbert Mittawa – Legal Instructor

But in the future, we will need to elect members to various positions. Especially since we are planning on involving companies to sponsor our activities. As you heard, today’s hike was sponsored by various companies. We are thanking them profusely. Such sponsorship has to be accounted for in a transparent manner. Hence the need to have elected members to take up leadership positions in the club.

Tell me about the membership.

The club has an open membership. The current members come from Malawi Defence Force and also from the public. We have members across the world. The majority are in Malawi, but we have some members across Africa and beyond.

At the moment, membership is free. And anyone can join our group on WhatsApp and on Facebook. If a member has a question on fitness, others will come in and assist. It is a dynamic group meant at encouraging one another to adopt an active lifestyle and remain fit.

Sorry to ask an obvious question. What is the club about?

No problem.

As you might already be aware, NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are killing more people in Malawi than even AIDS. This is a shocking state of affairs for the country. We want to encourage people to adopt regular exercising as part of their lifestyle to help prevent conditions such as heart attacks, types of diabetes, fatigue, obesity and so on.

Living a healthy lifestyle allows one to live longer. And it involves three aspects: exercising, nutrition, good health habits. All these depend on personal choices. We are here to encourage people to make those good choices in order to allow them live long happy lives. We strongly recommend that people should start exercising before doctor’s orders. Do it while it is still your choice, that way it will be fun, and cost effective. When you have to do the same as remedial, you will have to deal with heavy medical bills.

We also want to promote bonding with family members. Our activities involve all family members including children. If people had brought children today, we would have kept them entertained outside the Senior Officers’ Mess.

Finally, we want to promote local tourism. Why should it take only foreigners to come from the end of the world to appreciate the beauty around us? It should start with us. When we take hiking to different parts of the country, it will allow members to appreciate the many beautiful sceneries and views. We are going to achieve this by partnering with various companies.

We are asking companies to come forward and support us. Just like we have received the support from the companies that made the event today possible. We received support from Zambezia Health Drinks, McWise Prints, Skyline International, NaMEDIA and AutoBoiz of Kemstc Group of Companies.

We also partnered with different clubs including Salima Fitness Club, Nkhotakota Gym Centre, and Makawa Fitness Centre. Such is the partnership we are looking for, and are open to all fitness groups across the country.

What have been the activities so far this year and do you have any plans for the rest of the year?

This was the biggest event so far this year. We had over 60 hikers who participated today. Men and women. But this was our second trip to Senga Hills. The first one was in February.

We are planning to have quarterly events. The next big event will be a walk and run on the Khwekhwelere section of the Lakeshore Golomoti Road in Ntcheu. It will be in two categories – one will be 10 km and the other 20 km. We will start from the bottom of the road and climb up the famous Khwekhwerere escarpment. We will announce the dates, and we ask companies to come forward and support us.

In the meantime, we will continue having weekend walks and runs in Lilongwe, and members are asked to continue participating in physical activities wherever they may be in the world, and share the moments with fellow members on our social media groups.

Any last words?

Yes. We are a non-partisan group. We don’t have political or religious affiliations. We are inviting all members of the public to pick up an active health lifestyle regardless of age, profession or social status.

Not only will this be beneficial to individuals, but this will help the nation to reduce its national budget on health on remedial interventions and instead use the resources for national development.

Remember, exercise is difficult to start and exercise is difficult to stop. So get started. Lastly, once again, we are very grateful to the Commander of Malawi Defence Force General Griffin Supuni-Phiri for granting us the opportunity to have the hike today on Senga Hills. This was a very successful event.

Thank you.

Thanks. [End of interview]

So what do you think?

So dear reader, what do you think? Has your appetite for outdoors been whetted up? Nature is ours to enjoy, and when we undertake such an outing, we get to enjoy, relax and praise the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ for all the good things He has given us.

I thank the Hill Climbing Club for organising such a great event.

See you at the next HCC major event.

Rolling Senga Hills
Rolling Senga Hills

Let’s Keep The Environment Clean

Twisted Beauty

One day Cathy, my beloved wife and I were following behind my dream car. As I was in the midst of admiring the marvel of exquisite engineering, one of its windows lowered down and out flew a banana peel. Before we could recover from the shock, another peel followed, then another, then another! I have never felt so conflicted. Such a disregard to other road users and the environment coming from such a beautiful machine.

In 2016, I went to Blantyre to attempt the summit of one of the most beautiful mountains that form a ring around Malawi’s commercial city. A certain company had arranged a day out for its employees, which was an impressive gesture. On my way up, the amount of fresh litter was disappointing. Empty plastic bottles, plastic bags for snacks, wrappers for biscuits and so on. Instead of enjoying the view, I spent some time picking after our eager friends.

Mind the Environment

Whenever I lead a group of friends for a hike, apart from safety, I emphasize a lot about keeping the environment clean. As much as possible it is best to leave the wild the way we found it. One good way to manage the litter is to remember to bring along an empty plastic bag that can act as a litter bag.

Imagine if no one was picking after our litter, the nature trails would be an eyesore. I know of one little hill in Lilongwe that has small blue plastic bags all over the trail. Little boys from the local neighborhood sometimes help clean them up. Or the rains wash them down during the rainy season. Surely, we could do better than this.

Keep the Environment Clean
Keep the Environment Clean

Small Change Big Impact

If there’s one thing I would love to see adopted across the country, it would be this: let’s keep the environment clean. Not throwing empty beer bottles on the road on Friday night will help joggers on Saturday morning to enjoy their run instead of dodging broken glass. And keeping empty wrappers under wrap will help maintain pristine natural trails in forests, hills and mountains.

Such a small change could bring about a huge positive impact on our environment. Let’s keep our environment clean. It starts with me.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Birds of Childhood

Birds are probably the most fascinating group of animals outside fish. The colours, the sounds, the feeding habits, the locomotion all hold sway in our endless fascination with them.

When we were young we did not treat all birds equally. Some were good, some bad and others ugly. It had to take books, magazines, wildlife movies and talks to persuade us to regard them differently.

Here’s the list with an example from each category, not exhaustive for the sake of brevity:

THE GOOD

The good included the mighty fish eagle, the versatile kingfisher, the dashing falcon, the dainty sisisi, the feminine phingo, the ruthless mpheta, succulent pumbwa, the powerful tchete, the mysterious mwiyo.

If I’m not wrong, the biggest eagle in Malawi is nkhwazi the fish eagle. It adorns the official emblem for Malawi Police Service. It is majestic, has a sharp eye and its white plumage puts it in a class of its own. I first saw it at Blantyre Zoo then in the wild in Mangochi.

Urban legend raised its status even further. “It never misses a catch!” So we would often be told in our childhood circles. And when we learnt about refraction at school and realised that the eagle has to adjust the position of the prey on the account of bent light rays, it established itself as the ultimate predator of the skies.

THE BAD

Way before I could mention a dozen names, one bird had already stood out for being bad. Owls have very bad reputation among the locals in Malawi. They are connected to witchcraft and superstitions.

Its position of the eyes – in front instead of being on the sides – did not help its cause. And we were told it can twist the neck round and round, following your every movement. One time there was a big owl on the street light two houses away from ours. I shooed it, and it dove straight at me. I had to duck before it pulled back and flew away.

That fixed it as a bad bird. Only to be boarded by literature from the west that calls it wise. Old wise owl? I’m not so sure about that. Give me an eagle any time. Admittedly, owls have fascinating facts top of which is their ability to remain quiet while in flight. The feathers on their wings act as silencers.

THE UGLY

I hesitated coming up with this category least I may be misunderstood. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so the saying goes. It is indeed true. However, looks or habits might contribute to the beholder thinking otherwise. For example, bats may be interesting birds however the looks department is highly compromised. Their flight pattern makes it worse, and perching on a tree trunk upside down seals it.

Then there was this bird that loves to feed on tadpoles. It likes to stand in muddy or swampy waters. It has a dull brown for a coat. Its neck assumes a terrible posture. Then it decides to have the ugliest nest ever built by a bird. That is not helping the cause Mr Natchengwa. It’s called hamerkop in English.

Here is the thing, in life we cannot all be eagles soaring in the skies above storms and worries of life. Some may very well be the other birds. Don’t feel bad, just praise God for what you are. Don’t try to stick in feathers that don’t belong to you. If you are a hamerkop, build the best ugliest nest you can manage regardless of what one child who grew up in Blantyre thinks of you.

But more importantly, if you are an eagle don’t try to blend in. Reach out for the skies. Let out your scream and hunt for fresh food. Don’t try to please brother hamerkop by scooping out a few tadpoles – they will give you serious indigestion. Don’t dye your wonderful plumage dull brown to fit in.

Let’s remember to stay humble, for the mighty eagle might fly very high but he cannot twist his neck like an owl, or fly quietly.

Life, seen in the beauty of birds, is fascinating.

Childhood City Adventures: Nature Trails and Wild Fruit Harvesting

Part of Soche Hill
Part of Soche Hill

 

For a balance, it might be better to highlight a few adventures that were endorsed by the parents. This is in sharp contrast to the ones that have been covered by the last two articles. These articles are about fond memories of the yesteryears when as a child growing up in the Nkolokosa neighbourhood in Blantyre, I had plenty of pleasant afternoons with fellow boys spent exploring nature around us.

Nkolokosa has two parts – A and B, or 1 and 2. We were staying in Nkolokosa B also called Nkolokosa 2. Our house was House KS/302, and just across the street, it was facing Houses KS/2 and KS/3. Behind these houses was an open area with a perennial stream that separated the two parts of the neighbourhood. I was born across the river but moved to the other side as a 5 year old. This was our backyard, and a stage for many games, adventures, explorations and hunting sprees.

My favourite of all was taking a nature trail walk along the stream. This was 100% endorsed by the parents. We started with exploring part of the stream around the pedestrian bridge that connected the two areas of our location. This was a makeshift bridge that took all sorts of shapes. Sometimes it was just a couple of logs put next to each other. Sometimes it was a rickety wooden affair. And at other times, it was a row of huge rocks with ominous gaps in-between. Whatever the shape of the bridge, the waters below offered hours of fun. Sometimes the stream would be allowed to flow unabated. And at one time, it was partially blocked and a pool was created. I don’t recall the purpose of this exercise, only that it provided more surface area for us to explore.

I took interest in catching tadpoles and keeping them at home. There was no sign of any fish, so the tadpoles were just fine. Then this expanded to catching crabs, water skitters, and water scorpions. However, the best catch was nsambi-nsambi. These agile swimmers, also known as water boatman in English (or perhaps water beetle), were the most difficult to corner, as they could easily dive, turn and twist at a moment’s notice. The best way to catch them was to lower down both arms into the water with capped palms facing upward, and gently let them swim into the trap. Then once within range, you’d have to quickly excavate the water – the faster the better the chances of getting them. Using palms was much better than using a plastic bottle cut open on one side, which would then be lowered into the pool upside down.

Then slowly we started venturing out in both directions of the stream. Soon our curiosity got ahold of us, and prompted us to hunt for the source. Eventually, we found it outside our neighbourhood at some swampy bog. Having satisfied our curiosity, we turned in the other direction and followed it downstream. It turned out this part was more dangerous than the swampy source. What had started as gully erosion became a yawning chasm that could easily swallow a two story house. It took a couple of attempts to determine the best way forward. We could either walk above the trench – the most obvious choice. Or we could walk next to the stream or in the stream. The latter proved scary at some point. We reverted to the obvious choice.

All this was not a one day affair. It took several iterations, and each cycle had its pleasant surprises. The vines, large crabs, super high-jump frogs and other fascinations held our attention. There were also moments of fright. As a result, I had to change a few partners until one day the entire stream was traced to where it joined Naperi River as a tributary. Naperi River ran as a boundary on the other side of Nkolokosa. And when I tried to explore it with my cousin Richard, we came across a human skull that had been exhumed from an old cemetery by flush floods. We took off like startled gazelle and the scare managed to quench our curiosity for a while.

And then there was wild fruit harvesting. Despite having bananas and other fruits at home, the appeal for wild fruits held sway. I think it was a romantic idea that allowed us to escape the city life and let us imagine ourselves foraging like the ancient men. The best of the fruits were monkey sweets, which are also called masuku in the vernacular. These brown round fruits with a thick kernel have a tasty yellowish cream paste, sweet to the tongue and packed with a melancholic aroma. Monkeys and people alike enjoy having this seasonal fruit, and when in season it is found in many local markets across the country. In our case, we did not want the ones bought at the market, no, we wanted to venture out in the wild and harvest them ourselves.

The best spot for monkey sweets was Soche hill, the nearest high elevation to the south of our neighbourhood. At that time the hill was covered with beautiful indigenous trees. Alas, it is not the case anymore these days. Wanton illegal harvesting has cleared the hill bare. The few trees trying to come back hardly reach teenage years before meeting the cruel end of an axe or a machete.

The other wild fruits included mpinimbi, which looks like the poisonous fruit from Gmelina arborea or malaina in Chichewa. But these ones, when ripe are black inside, sweet and taste like violet (I imagine that’s the taste of the colour violet). After indulging, mpinimbi would leave your mouth, teeth and tongue pitch black. It was a sight of amusement, and endless laughter. Though it was easy to find wild custard apple at the village, it wasn’t an easy hunt in the forests around our neighbourhood. Then there was jakjak fruit, or matowo. This fruit with a thick grey hide, has to be chewed in order to release an oozy snail slime stuff. Once the fruit is inside the mouth, it is best not to take it out during mastication. Focusing on the sweetness, rather than the feel of the slime was and still remains the best approach to enjoy this local treat.

And the list is endless: katope, mkuyu (fig), maula (common in villages), malambe (baobab – found at the market, from lakeshore areas), bwemba (indigenous tamarind) and so on. Some were very elusive to find. Some ended up remaining on the shopping list from the local markets – disappointingly so. But the quest to hunt them nevertheless was as pleasant as having a buffet of wild fruits.

This one time, Fred Lisimba, one of the leaders of our group chanced upon a scarlet fruit loosely shaped like a pear. It looked menacing, and though we were all curious to identify it, we kept it at a distance. And then Fred just grabbed it, and munched it with gusto, white seeds like those from a gourd flying out of his mouth. Shocked, we asked after its name. Between a mouthful he said it was a “mchuchuchu”! I had never heard of this name. And after pestering him about it, later in the day, he admitted that it was a made-up name. He had never seen this fruit before, just like the rest of us. In a single act of bravado, he proceeded to devour it. Fortunately, it didn’t lead to his last breath. And luckily too, I don’t like using the word silly on old friends.

Nature trails along the stream in Nkolokosa, and foraging of wild fruits in the forests surrounding our neighbourhood gave us many a pleasant afternoon under the harsh African sun. I wonder if future generations will have the same privilege to interact with nature just like we did in our childhood? Let’s hope so.

Spankable Adventures Continue: Blantyre City Dams

My childhood years were never boring. Treasured moments abound. Having grown up in Nkolokosa Township in Blantyre, adventures were at every turn. As shared in the previous article, parents understood the need for us to explore our world. But they were also aware of the dangers that some places or events posed on our little souls. Despite being strongly discouraged to go to the so-called forbidden land, our incessant itch to discover was too much to ignore. In the end, the curiosity prevailed over the possibility of getting a reprimand, being grounded or occasionally getting a lash. In our little minds, it was worth taking the risk.

One such forbidden land were the city dams. Blantyre City, being hilly, has many rivers and over the years, the city council constructed dams for various purposes. The closest to us was Chimwankhunda down located at the bottom of Soche Hill. As a matter of fact, the dam stood between us and the hill. The second dam was much further away. Chiwembe Dam (it has another English name, which I can’t recall at the moment) was towards the east of Soche Hill, and was at the boundary of the Chiwembe neighbourhood. The last dam of interest was Mudi Dam, the official reservoir for Blantyre Water Board. It was located in Ndirande, probably the most popular township in the city.

No one was allowed access to these dams, and security patrolled them day and night. The older boys, from time to time, would dare a breach and venture into the restricted areas. On one occasion, we witnessed some boys going merry-go-round with the guards. They made sure they were constantly moving, and kept the guards on the other side of the dam as much as possible. It was silly but it was fun. We could only watch the proceedings from a safe distance away.

Then for whatever reason, the guarding services at two of the dams became erratic. This was a lifetime opportunity to visit the aquatic paradise. As usual, the older boys – Kondwani and Fred Lisimba, who happened to be my next door neighbours – went for an exploratory trip. They came back with stories of fishing, swimming and water games at Chimwankhunda Dam. What’s more, they managed to convince my mom that there was a shallow side, where little ones like myself could partake somewhat of the goodness of the dam. Reluctantly, my mum let go with strict instructions to Kondwani.

Chimwankhunda was indeed a paradise. Partly covered at the inlet by a type of reeds that gave off a sweet powdery fruit, it boasted of clear waters and had plenty of fish. Others ate the fruit as a snack, but the one I sampled was not sweet at all. The fruit was shaped like a double lollipop. Apparently, the sweet one was the one at the top of the stalk, but then boys from other neighbourhoods had an early entrance to the party and had wiped out the sweet ones before we showed up.

We went there several times, and I gave a try at fishing. When I accidentally dropped my line near where I was standing in the shallow waters, a little fish caught my hook. I yanked it up, and it was a tiny silver shimmering tube at the end of the fishing line. Being so lucky early in the day, I awaited for a bigger catch. The catch never came. And when we got chased by a guard, I became a little reluctant to return the following day. I think the tiny, little detail of guards chasing us as trespassers was left out when Kondwani was getting permission from my mum.

One Saturday morning the weather was perfect for a fishing trip. I wanted to join the older boys for another day of fun at the dam. Unfortunately, there was a day trip to the village, and that opportunity could not be missed. Thondwe, my dad’s home village in Zomba, was a house of plenty. There was a dambo (valley) full of sweet, sweet sugarcane, and grandmother always let me eat to my fill. There was bananas, guavas, mangoes, pomegranates, pawpaws, avocado pears, and nthema (wild round fruit). And then there were stories from my one late uncle, Uncle Gerald, and lots of cousins (led by George) of hunting mice and birds, and the occasional illegal traps for village chickens – told in secret with glee like someone returning from a trip from Mars.

On my return from the village, I was met with shocking news. Someone from our neighbourhood had drowned at Chimwankhunda Dam. Permissions were stripped off, and once again, it became a forbidden land.

After some time, our quest turned from fishing to keeping fish in makeshift, outdoor, local aquaria. We could also keep the live fish in bottles made from empty plastic juice bottles. Those with little talent would use used cooking oil bottles, but these were difficult to clean in the first place and usually small. That changed when Kukoma cooking oil started coming in 5 litre bottles. Then those with super talent learnt how to thoroughly clean the bottles, and made sure there was no layer of oil floating in the water. We had already figured out that the layer of oil was killing the fish. Actually, before Chimwankhunda Dam became briefly “accessible”, keeping live fish was much preferable to fishing. So this was basically returning to our roots.

In comes Chiwembe Dam into the picture. Again, the elder boys, led by the versatile team of brothers, Kondwani and Fred, opened the grail and found their way to the mouth of the outlet of Chiwembe Dam. By all accounts, this was a much more dangerous place to visit even by our standards. The dam was covered in namasipuni. This species of water hyacinth had commandeered the entire surface of the dam, and made it difficult to gauge the depth of the waters. And others added to the perceived threat by claiming that the weeds would trap its victim by engulfing you, sucking you under and suffocating you to death.

However, the outlet had terraced steps with mostly concrete surface. The few places where the water had dug through, were usually visible, and generally not very deep. There was plenty of fingerlings. So when the first party of the scouts came with the tales of the new adventure, and backed by solid evidence, there was only one thing to do. I jumped into the bandwagon the followed day and started off on the longish journey to Chiwembe. This time we didn’t even bother try to seek for permission. We knew what the answer would be. For some reason I took off my shoes, and later on stepped on a fallen branch of vicious thorns locally called chiwomba muluzi. These guys turn white when fully grown, and will easily pierce through even a tough cloth. Given an exposed skin, they did a mighty job and forced me to sit down with my foot hanging in the air and tears in my eyes. Kondwani or Fred did the honours of taking off the army of thorns, and after a while I wiped off the tears on my face, and happily resumed our quest.

Chiwembe Dam was everything I had dreamed of.  I had never caught so much fish before, and even since. We packed them in as many bottles as we could carry. We returned home triumphant. We dug a communal pool at my neighbours’ house and deposited all the fish in it. Later on I sneaked, and helped myself to a few fingerlings for my private collection. Being successful at it, I went for it again and again, until Chikondi, one of the sisters, caught me in the act. I talked out of it, but no one was convinced with the alibi. This is one of the very few cases where I stole something from anyone. Such was the allure for keeping fish in an aquarium. This perhaps was the most successful adventure we ever took in our neighbourhood. It gave us many days of pleasure, and the fish looked gorgeous in the makeshift pool that the Lisimba boys had made in the ground.

Mudi Dam was much further away, heavily guarded and only available to those who were looking for fishing big fish. This was above our punching weight. Without parents speaking against it, we had already declared it a forbidden land. I suppose anyone caught going there would have earned himself a thousand lashes – so I think.

 

Spankable Adventures: Abandoned Mining Holes and a Dumping Site

When you are young not every adventure is endorsed by parents. Some places are clearly labeled “out of bounds” and a visit to such a site will earn you a spank. Hence the title of this article. But how can you stop a curious fresh mind from exploring the wonders of this world? It’s like setting a keg of gun powder on fire and expecting it not to explode. It will go kaboom, for that is its nature. The world, with its marvels, is meant to be explored, and that should be encouraged from a young age.

However, though our parents understood the need to explore the land, they also knew of the dangers posed by some of the physical features in our neighborhood. Take for instance the pool in Njamba, behind the Malawi Housing Corporation Headquarters. This is a scenic view set behind the Njamba Freedom Park, the largest park in Blantyre City, and perhaps in the country. Anyone worth their salt in swimming skills would want to prove their prowess at this pool. It was cast in rock, with jagged edges and famed to be deep. It was said there were pieces of broken glasses at the bottom. You therefore had to keep afloat and never sink to the bottom.

The sight of scrawny legs flashing in the air as young boys jumped in, not unlike frogs, caused a splash of glee in our hearts. The noisy paddling as the more older boys bravely swam across the pool were great moments of achievement unmatched by anything else in the world. Since I have properties of lead when it comes to aquatic activities, I stayed out of the water, and frankly only visited the pool once. It was an exciting adventure that could have earned me a whip if it was disclosed at home.

Later on in life, we learnt that this site was an abandoned mining site that left a gaping hole in the ground. This was filled with the surface runoff and was basically a giant puddle with stagnant water. This however, did not stop us from turning it in our little minds into an Olympic Swimming Pool with a great depth.

Another site was the official dumping site in Blantyre called Ntaya or ku Ntaya. This is where all the waste collected across the city was dumped. The people that stayed and worked there were rumored to be capable of torturing little boys, or even smothering out their little lives. We were told to never go there. However, when the appeal for locally assembled toys reached critical levels, the lure to this haven for broken engineering parts could not be resisted anymore. Once again, the older boys made a maiden voyage of discovery. We held back our breaths as we expected them not to return from the grand quest.

As the sun was setting, our heroes returned with a treasure trove of limitless worth – pieces of malleable wire, empty tins that could be turned into wheels for our cars made from the wire, and so on. Their brave stories of courage were even more captivating. It was enough to prompt me to follow them one day and see it for myself. I got a chance to meet the men who were scavenging for loot. I was told not to stare or look them in the face. Their faces were covered in soot, with bloodshot eyes. It was a menacing sight, but they looked like they were more absorbed in their world, and were totally unaware of our presence.

There was a sheer wall on one side of the dump, and at the bottom of it there was a ditch that stretched across the entire perimeter of the wall. It had green waters that looked devilish like an oblong pool of toxic chemicals.  We were told that this was the deepest trench in town, and that if you slipped into it, it would take weeks before anyone could locate your corpse. Now, I wonder where the older boys googled that information from.

The maize that was growing around the dump had the greenest leaf I had ever seen. The stench though was very overpowering. However, we were warned not to be seen pinching our noses as that would attract the wrath of the scavengers. As I was new to the fine art of scavenging, I only managed to pull out an old piece of wire suffering from rust and decay. The empty tins were no better than the ones we could find home. The fabled piles of machaka (mechanical bearings) were nowhere to be seen. Apparently, we had come on the wrong day. Again, this was my last visit to the supermarket of broken toy pieces.

Later on it transpired that this was an abandoned mining site that the Blantyre City Council later adopted and turned into a dumping site. Waste Management was still a crude science, and dangerous chemicals were allowed to seep into the ground. And though the maize around the site looked deep green, I pity the souls that were eating from its harvest.

A third visit was near an active mining site on Soche Hill. A bomb would be triggered at 4 O’clock every afternoon, and we were reliably informed that the shrapnel that would be released by the explosion would fly high in the air and come raining down like a shower of miniature missiles. And if you were caught up in the shower, your body would be terribly pierced like you were a victim of a thousand bullets! There would be no chance for survival.

Our quest for catching birds, or seeking for adventure in peri-urban areas drew us to the mining site one day. Since no one was wearing a watch, we could only estimate the time. One of the older boys, having observed the setting of the sun, declared that we were dangerously close to the setting off of the mighty bomb. We took off as quickly as our little legs would carry us. Soon enough the bomb set off with a mighty boom. With nearly tears in our eyes – for the small boys – we scrambled away from the danger expecting to be engulfed with a shower of sharp life-ending missiles at any moment.

Nervous laughter later broke out once we knew we had narrowly escaped with our lives. Of course, in reality we were far away from danger, and the fabled meteor spray could not travel far from the demolition site. Though this was not an abandoned mining site, its presence fueled up our imagination and fertilized our sense for adventure – endorsed by parents or not.

As I look back, this could only have been done at this tender age, and I hope that modern management methods strongly discourage leaving behind gaping holes in the ground after a mining project, or having a dumping site without a proper waste management system. As for the sense of adventure, it has not diminished with time. My heart yearns to seek for the most amazing physical features, creatures and natural activities across the world. I hope you do too.

The Three Peaks and other extreme sports in Malawi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Summer Break at Lake Malawi National Park

Lately, sweet memories from the past have been engulfing my mind. Vivid moments spent in the wild are making a strong recall. Whatever may be happening to me, I’m enjoying the recollections with silent pleasure.

The year is 1992 or maybe 1993. I’m inclined to think it is the former. A young supple mind is at its zenith absorbing everything wildlife. There’s so much to learn; there’s even much more to do. Whales, sharks, bears, lions, elephants, antelopes, giraffes, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, crocodiles, birds, snakes, fish, worms, beetles, ants and much, much more.

The Wildlife Club at our school – Mulunguzi Secondary School in Zomba district – has been invited to join other clubs from across the country for a holiday trip at the world famous Lake Malawi National Park. It’s one of the few places in the world where a conservation site is established over a fresh water body.

Lake Malawi National Park is one of the five national parks in Malawi, after Nyika in the North, Kasungu in the Central Region, Liwonde and Lengwe in the South. It is home to mbuna, cichlids endemic to Lake Malawi. These colorful guys are one of the most gorgeous ornamental fish from a fresh water body. They come in red, yellow, blue brown and other fantastic colours. The shapes are equally incredible.

Our young minds were swept away by carefully choreographed presentations that were fun, informative and interactive. I wanted to catch all the poachers and destroyers of nature and cast them into the Lake of Fire. Every story of extinction or critical threat on a species left me teary. Nothing has changed much since then.

In fact, I’m only able to handle the story of extinction with dignity, though very painful, simply because I believe in the afterlife. The knowledge that the world will one day be restored to its former glory is a balm to the heart. So I’m comforted that one glorious day in the future I will see the dodo, the mammoth and other ancient animals that disappeared on the face of the earth long time ago.

Then came snorkeling sessions. We spent hours in the water staring down into the magical world of the mbuna. The fish were friendly and were not scared of our presence. We were told that they are territorial and will spend their entire life around an underground rock or reef. No visiting cousins, no time to play an aquatic tourist.

We had a boat ride and went to Bird Island off the coast of Monkey Bay. This is where the waters are crystal clear, and the stars sparkle on the gentle lake. The calming effect was beyond what words could describe.

It was during this trip that I made a life long friendship with Tikhala Njolomole. She’s like a big sister to me. I can remember a few more names though I have not met any of them since that time. I doubt very much if they could even remember our meeting. Today Tikhala is a Bwana (boss) at one of the energy companies in Malawi. I last saw her last year and next time we meet I’ll ask her if she remembers of this summer trip.

Lake Malawi National Park offers aquatic beauty unparalleled anywhere else in Malawi, and it is world famous for its cichlids and crystal clear waters. Pay it a visit one day and you will fall in love with it, just like I did.

The Breathtaking Lake Chilwa Basin

Did you know that Malawi has a salt water lake? It is situated in Zomba and it is called Lake Chilwa. That’s a strange name and I’m clueless of its origin. The lake is part of a basin that goes as far as Phalombe, a district that is adjacent to Zomba towards the rising of the sun. As a basin, there’s a marshland that is home to wild ducks and many more species of birds, some of which have become protected by the country’s laws.

I first visited the lake when I was very young. I could have been 12 years old or younger. There was one dirty road that led straight to the only jetty. The rest of the area was covered in reeds. It was very hot and the air tasted salty. Or that could have been my imagination playing tricks on me. I was told the water was not suitable for drinking, but added a special flavour to the fish caught from the lake.

The fishermen were still using primitive fishing methods. I found it colorful. One would take a circular net and flash it in the air before it landed in the water. Or so I think. (This fragment of flashback has to be checked with facts on the ground – and there’s your trip to this circular shaped lake.) The lake was not deep, as a result people were using canoes to cross it to the biggest island some kilometers away. The canoes had two large holes on their side. One was near the front, and the other near the rear. Instead of paddles, they were using long bamboos for propelling the canoes forward.

The boatman would sink the bamboo until it touched the seabed and then heave it backwards. Then he would proceed to pull it out of the water and cast it in front of him and repeat the process. The canoes would move forward very slowly. Everything was in a slow motion. Then someone would take a bucket and empty the water that was sipping into the canoe through the two holes.

No one could explain the function of the two holes. And no one seemed particularly concerned that the water was deliberately let into the canoe in the first place. This was a game of neither efficiency nor speed. Fortunately, it looked idyllic and artistic. There was no need to rush – the lake was not going anywhere. Incidentally, this is the only lake in Malawi without an outlet, so truly it was not going anywhere.

We bought bags of sun dried fish and headed back to Blantyre where my mum cut it open in the middle, opened it up, cleaned it, dipped it in a dough and fried it in cooking oil. This was a favorite snack, a fish finger of sorts, for those with melancholic attachment to village life. I ate my fill especially the one that was spiced with the hot peri-peri pepper powder. That was my romantic connection to the lake of salty waters.

But like many good things that must come to an end, the bags slowly disappeared and with it my crunchy snack. By the way, this was the only time my mum let me near this snack. Buying it elsewhere was a no, no! “Dirty, dingy kitchens and unhygienic preparation process”, she’d constantly warn me. My great uncle Mr Gwembere, an adventurer with fishing boats on Lake Malawi, who taught me fly fishing from our front lawn, broke the rules once and bought me a massive local fish finger under strict instructions not to share the secret with mum. I ate it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, waiting at any moment to break into sweat, my tummy churning into a storm. It’s a good thing it never happened, and after some time the secret bubbled into a confession to mum.

I never returned to Lake Chilwa until after college. I was with a friend looking for rice paddies where an aromatic rice variety is grown in the rice schemes dotted around the lake. But that is a story for another day.

The Lake Chilwa basin is now under threat from low rainfall, invensive farming methods, siltation and effects of climate change. With a history of drying up during acute drought spells, one only prays that conservation efforts from various players will be able to mitigate against the destructive forces bent on decimating this precious ecosystem.