September 26, 2013: Mt. Mulanje – Do Not Go There or The Place You Cannot Reach

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All the data we collected in the field the past few weeks was stored on Android phones using a special application called FLOW that has been customized for the survey needs of WFP. The application includes a GPS feature that allows all facilities to be located and mapped. The data collected automatically gets sent to WFP’s servers in Denver. The concept of the application is brilliant but it is still a work in progress and there are problems with the technology. I used FLOW during my first trip to Rwanda three years ago where we experienced various difficulties with the technology while in the field. We didn’t run into a lot of the same field problems here in Malawi but we’ve had trouble extracting the data from the phones for analysis. Our plan was to map all the data collected, identify the data gaps for all 21 low-income areas and go back in the field late this week to collect any missing data.

Given our inability to map all the data collected, we haven’t been able to identify where the gaps are. Because of those technical difficulties, I’ve had to send my team home yesterday and started assisting Alyssa and the rest of the team on a tech memo that summarizes our observations and recommendations. Being able to stay behind in the office also allowed me to do some more planning for next week. Everyone on the team goes home tomorrow except for Steve and I. We’re staying an additional week to climb Mt. Mulanje and kayak on Lake Malawi.

Mid-day Rob and I walked to the Malawi Map and Survey Office. My Lonely Planet guidebook indicated that it’s the only place in the country where you can get a map of Mt Mulanje and highly recommended not trying to venture up the mountain without one. When we got there, the guy at the counter was sleeping but he immediately perked up when he realized someone was at the counter. I have a feeling he doesn’t get that many visitors. The map I got is actually pretty good. It shows clear topo lines and most of the hiking paths, mountain huts and Mulanje’s various peaks.

Mt Mulanje is only about 1.5-hour drive from Blantyre near the Mozambique border. Rising sharply from the surrounding plains of Chiradzulu and the tea-growing Mulanje district, it is the highest mountain in south-central Africa and one of the world’s largest granite inselbergs (rocky masses that have resisted erosion and stand isolated in an essentially leveled area). Mt. Mulanje has a well-organized system of trails and huts, leading through forests of large cedar trees and it is apparently recognized as one of the best granite climbing places in the world. After having a chance to more thoroughly study the various trails and huts available, I was able to put together a plan that will allow us to summit Sapitwa Peak, the mountain’s highest peak at 3,002 meters, while staying in 3 different huts on the mountain. Our hardest day will be the day we summit and I estimate that we’ll be walking between 8 and 9 hours that day. The mountain is not anywhere as high as Africa’s highest peak (Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania which Kathy and I climbed in 2004), but it is apparently very challenging because of the steepness of the climb. We met an English couple at the Kabula Lodge who looked like fairly experienced climbers and they said that they thought summiting Mt. Mulanje was more challenging than reaching Everest Base Camp in Nepal and reaching the top of Mt. Kenya, which are both much higher climbs. They warned us about very aggressive flies at the top and after seeing what the flies did to their ankles, I’ll make sure to have an adequate supply of insect repellant in my backpack.

Talking about backpack, Steve and I both want to carry our own bag (we won’t use the services of porters) but we’ll hire a guide so we don’t get lost on the mountain as some of the legends suggest may happen. Actually no other geographic landmark in Malawi is quite so shrouded in myth and legend as Mt. Mulanje. Many Malawians believe that the mountain still harbors a secretive population of “small people,” possibly Batwa hunter-gatherers who act as its spiritual protector. Another legend describes a humanlike one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed creature that floats slowly in the air, waiting to lure anybody who looks at it up the mountain to disappear forever. That may explain why the members of my team looked worried when I told them I was going to climb the mountain. Local beliefs about Mulanje are also reflected in the Chichewa name for its highest peak. Sapitwa is said to be derived from two words that translate as “do not go there” and “the place you cannot reach.” I of course find the appeal of summiting a peak that is named the place that can’t be reached too irresistible.

Now we still have to figure out our transportation logistics. Our Plan A failed through yesterday when Laxon (contract driver hired by WFP for our assignment the past few weeks) told us that he can’t take us because he has problems with his truck. So we’re now considering driving around by ourselves. Muthi (WFP-Malawi Grant Director) knows someone who apparently can rent us a vehicle. The only challenge will be to drive a manual transmission on the left side of unimproved dirt roads. Although Steve has never done that before, he thinks he can do it and I’m up for the adventure. The ride to Mt. Mulanje from Blantyre is pretty short (less than 100 km), but the journey from the mountain to Lake Malawi and back to Blantyre is much longer (adds up to about 600 km). We have to figure out all the details today since we need to leave for the mountain tomorrow. For those of you who have been following my blog on a more regular basis, please don’t worry (especially you Mom) about the lack of postings between Saturday and Wednesday. We’ll be totally out of touch with the rest of the world while on the mountain and I won’t have access to the internet until we get to Lake Malawi late in the day on Wednesday.

Before I go I wanted to share with you what will be another very special memory of Malawi. Since I didn’t have to be in the field yesterday, I went running late afternoon, which turned out to be pretty miserable given the heat (probably somewhere over 90 degrees). The good thing about going so late though is that kids were out of school. So I had a relay team of four small kids running with me for the full hour. At first they tried to keep up with me and I got concerned that it would kill them as I could hear them grasp for air. They then got smart and each started covering a different section of my loop. Towards the end of the run, they got so friendly that each wanted to hold my hands while we were running together. We couldn’t really communicate but just by their laughs I knew I had 4 new buddies who will be anxiously waiting for our next run together.

Description of a Few Photos:

– Road in front of Kabula Lodge … part of my morning run.
– Planning climb of Mulanje on Kabula Lodge upper patio.
– Exercising on Kabula Lodge lower patio in front of my room. Very spectacular when I exercised early in the morning at sunrise.
– Check out my fellow Cal alumni.
– Taking a break for an appetizing lunch on the street
– Woman carrying 40-L container of water on her head … that is 90 lbs!

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One Response to September 26, 2013: Mt. Mulanje – Do Not Go There or The Place You Cannot Reach

  1. Lea Ann says:

    Be safe good woman. LOVED the story of the ingenius relay partners….wonderful that you are taking time in this difficult work to also enjoy MORE adventures of this beautful land! xo
    –Lea Ann

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