The Bite-size Maldeco Hill

Is there such a thing as a micro-hill?

About a month ago, I was in Mangochi attending this year’s conference of engineers under MIE – Malawi Institution of Engineers, at the amazing Nkopola Lodge on the western shores of our resplendently beautiful Lake Malawi.

Just next to the conference facility, there is a small beautiful hill that sits like an inviting hot roll when one is in the mood for good sumptuous breakfast. Maldeco Hill or Nkopola Forest Reserve is a nice little heap of rocks and soil, covered in indigenous vegetation that is only interrupted by an access road and a flight of stairs to a set of telecommunication towers standing tall at the top. And after stealing a few glances in its direction, I thought why not? Why not explore it and see what it has to offer?

When people are at the lake, the focus is the fresh water body, supported by walks on the clean white sands.The lake is by all means, the most beautiful collection of liquid ash in the country and perhaps beyond. But my non-webbed feet are more inclined towards shuffling around dusty stones on grassy slopes rather than navigating aquatic pathways that unfortunately intersect with crocodile nests and hippo dens. The latter abodes, though not in abundance, are still significantly statistically present as a deterrent to the uninitiated like myself. Anyway, that’s a story for another day.

Whether big or small, when planning to tackle a mountain, I prefer the company of the locals. I am a local only in the national sense, but in places like these, I’m no different than a visiting tourist. For that reason, I always look for people that stay within the neighborhood. That’s where you catch all the juicy tales of hills and mountains, usually spiced with folklore. So as usual, I arranged with a guard at the lodge I was staying at to serve as my guide. The plan was to wake up early and be ready by 5:00 am. The idea was to target the sun rise over the lake of stars, as it is popularly known.

The Trail

We started off late due to a power cut that made preparing for the hike in the dark rather challenging. So instead of walking up to the base of the mountain, as originally planned, we drove there instead. We passed through a sleeping village that looked peaceful and oblivious to our intentions.

I was not happy to see thin plastics littering the sides of the road that separated the hill from the surrounding village. I could see why it was important for government to ban the use of thin plastics that also happen not to be bio-gradable.

Anyway, we quickly came to the start of the trail. We had about 10 minutes or so to get to the top if we wanted to catch the sun rise. We opted for the stairs rather than the access road, mainly because of the extra challenge going through the steep sections.

The hill was still covered in the shroud of dawn, which spread a blanket of mystery and an overcast feel around it. We almost made it, but got distracted by a video retake. Steve Jimu, my local guide, thought it was important to show on video how I was easily tackling the stairs with the nimbleness and agility of a gazelle that had slept on a full stomach of sweet lakeshore grass. We missed the beginning of the sun rise by about three minutes. Bah! So much for nimbleness and agility.

The Sun Rise

When we got to the top of the hill, I felt like I was late to a music concert, and had missed the beginning of a moving part where the virtuoso transports you to a world of wonder and pure bliss. However, not all was lost. The sun, at this point, a big red ball, was not in a hurry to turn on its full power yet. It hung low like a friendly ornamental hot-air ballon, allowing full direct gaze and casting soft light across the lake.

And then, as if on cue, it went from soft orange red to a powerful yellowish white just in blink of an eye. The surface of the lake was very calm, and the light glossed over it like a huge expensive sheet of silky curtains. My heart simply melted inside me at the sight. At that moment, I simply forgot my surroundings and got transported to a different world. A world of immense beauty and awe.

Then the light show changed as a slight breeze brushed the surface of the lake, creating soft ripples that made the light dance and the surface shimmer. I took it all in, then started hunting for a perfect spot to watch the next sunrise. After a few minutes exploring the hill, we came across a boulder that would allow one to perch like an eagle on the edge of a cliff. And speaking of eagles, the mountain was dotted with fish eagles locally called nkhwazi. These beautiful creatures have a distinctive call as they gracefully survey the waters below for a catch.

Local Trees And the Look Towards the West

Having made the most of the sun rise, I changed my attention to the surroundings. I tried to identify some of the indigenous trees. We found one tree popularly called mtelera nyani, which simply means “slippery even for a monkey”. And another was mfuma, which looked like mahogany but was very soft instead. And finally, there was one with funny looking pods, and is locally called mgoza. Apparently, the pods can be burnt into ashes, distilled and the solution is added to dishes like bicarbonate soda. A typical meal would then be okra, which once in contact with an agent like soda, becomes slimy with viscid strings that lift off the plate as you combine it with pieces of nsima, the staple food of Malawi made from maize. And naturally, being at the lake, the whole dish would then be complimented by a grilled chambo, our fabled tilapia, roasted on open fire, salted to taste.

Towards the west, I could make out another beautiful hill in the distance. I was told it’s called Katema. In between, the land was flat and virtually empty, with one big farm situated a stone throw away from the only tarmac road connecting Mangochi to the rest of the country. Surprisingly, everyone else seemed concentrated in the villages surrounding the Maldeco hill. The attraction being possibly proximity to fishing and tourist spots.

Done and Dusted

Well, before you know it, the adventure was over. We had to come down quickly to let me proceed preparing for that day’s conference session. I was surprised how easy it was to get to the summit in such a short time. However, beyond my expectations, I didn’t anticipate that the sun rise would be so magical from the top of the small hill overlooking the lake. But there it was, a moment of pleasure offered by a micro-hill, if there’s such a thing. Or perhaps, I’m making a hill out of mole.

Who knows? Get to try it yourself next time you find yourself in this part of the world.

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