Titles attract readership, so I am told, yet I cannot help but notice that my title is a little bit dramatic today. This is one last story I wanted to share about the Mulanje Mountain expedition. You see, if you keep your eyes open and ears listening, you get to have countless tales from one tour. This occurred on the first day of the hike, which was a Saturday, 13 January 2018.
When I had been inquiring on the routes to take, and the status of the trails, it was clear that some parts of the mountain would be considered dangerous at this time of the year. And mostly, the peaks are no go zones during rainy season. This is largely because the exposed rocky areas will have a surface run-off, making the trails very slippery. Stories are told of many injuries that result from hikers slipping off rocks, boulders and edges of ravines.
So in this case, I was advised strongly not to go for Chambe Peak, which was overlooking the first hut on our journey. I was told Chambe Peak requires technical climbing, and that this is best done in summer. My guide had the same story. He discouraged any suggestions to sample out the peak. Finally, when we arrived at Likhubula Forestry Office, the tourism officer said the same thing. Keep away from Chambe, and do not attempt to go on Sapitwa Peak if it starts to rain.
As a good citizen, and principled hiker I agreed with the advice. It sounded reasonable. But when I got to Chambe Hut and cast my eyes on the magnificent Chambe Peak, my heart sunk. Somehow, I felt I needed to interact with this hill on a mountain. Chambe Peak has three distinctive ridges, starting on one end with a steep incline, followed by a gentle slope on the second ridge. The first two ridges are separated by a small depression, more like a saddle. Then the third part sharply rises to the top of the peak, which flattens at the top.
If you close your eyes, you can see how your body will be engaged on each section. If the first ridge is difficult, then the third one is impossible. Even from a distance, it is clear that you will need to use both feet and hands. Now, isn’t that what every hiker wants to experience occasionally? You know such an approach makes reaching the peak a much more enjoyable experience.
Well, I asked my guide for a small tour up the peak. “No!” came the answer. “Why not?” I wanted to know. “It is very difficult, and this is not the best time to do it.”, came the reply. “Okay, what if you could just take me to the first ridge?” I tried to negotiate. “Maybe, but then let me eat first. I’m feeling kind of weak from the walk.” the guide gave in. “Thank you!” I said. It was clear I had not influenced him into making this decision. The guard of the hut looked concerned but I kindly ignored that look. I had come to climb the mountain and not to hold talk sessions.
Just to be safe, I suggested that my client and friend, Dan, should remain at the hut. I thought this would give him an opportunity to rest and get recharged for the hike to Sapitwa Peak on the following day. He could not take it. In the end, as a compromise, we suggested that John, the assistant guide, should take him for a day tour around the plateau. I had suggested a visit to a pool about a kilometre from the hut. Dan refused that suggestion. He had no intention of going down a slope, regardless that the descent would be negligible. John then suggested taking him up the trail where they could catch a telecom signal. This seemed to please Dan, who had settled into an easy chair on the hut’s veranda, and was using one of the dining chairs as a footstool.
Thirty minutes later, I started off for Chambe Peak with Rex, the guide. There was no sign of rains though the top of the peak was covered in low flying clouds, or high-hanging fog depending on one’s perspective. When we reached the base of the peak, it was clear that we had to negotiate our way to the start of the trail in a challenging manner. We yanked ourselves over a huge rock, and Rex turned to me with a smile on his face and asked, “Do we carry on?” “Sure! Let’s carry on.”, I shot back. Then the fun began. The trail is on the edge of the first ridge. If you were to fall here, you might end up next to the stream maybe some 6 meters below. Not bad, right? Maybe. But it was clear that if you left the trail due to gravity working sideways on you (Sir Newton, please, do not get upset, as we can resolve forces horizontally on an inclined surface, right?), a few things might break – ribs (the likely victims) or a leg.
Caution, caution was the name of the game. We proceeded slowly. As usual, the dark patches had to be avoided at all costs. Hands had to be next to rocks for emergency handholds. I loved this already. What looked like 300 meters from the start, the drama stopped. It was time to start ascending, having moved in parallel with the ridge from the onset. The slope looked intimidating. I signalled that we proceed with the climb. We got on all fours on some parts, and rested often. After what seemed like forever, we reached the top. With glee, I asked if we were on the second ridge. “No!” came the reply. We were still on the first ridge.
The clouds had lifted somewhat. The view from the first ridge was amazing. I could see Phalombe and other settlements visible from that part of the mountain. I could even see Lake Chilwa in the distance. Lake Chilwa is the biggest salt-water inland lake in Malawi, and home to tasty fish. It has no outlet, and it is also home to tsekwe (not sure of the English name, probably pelican duck or goose) and zipiyo (water ducks). The former is now protected species which is under threat from extinction. The latter is a delicacy among food aficionados across the country. It will probably be under protection soon, if not already.
Zomba Mountain faded into the horizon, but its plateau still looked beautiful. On the other side, I could see Chambe hut as a little dot among the greenery. Rex claimed to have seen the pair of Dan and John making their way to the base of another peak within the vicinity. My eyesight is not that good, so I took it with a pinch of salt. And just to stroke my ego, Rex told me that I was likely the first person on Chambe Peak in 2018. That felt good I must say. And looking at the registered traffic of hikers on this mountain, it was probably true.
Then experience kicked in. I told Rex, the guide, that wherever 16:00 found us, we would turn back. This was not a place to be at after sunset especially that we had not carried torches with us. I had had the taste of the peak, and my curiosity was somewhat abated. It was time to return, and the return trip proved even more difficult than the ascent. Soon it was over. I returned to Chambe Hut a very happy man. That night I dreamt of butterflies and flowers. Okay, now I am being dramatic. No butterflies and flowers in my dreams. No butterflies!
I thank the Good Lord for having designed such beautiful places, and having placed in us the hunger to explore and discover such beauty. Until next time, I say take care.