September 29-30 and October 1, 2013: Mt Mulanje – From Scorching Heat, to Pouring Rain, to Hurricane-Force Winds

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When we arrived at the CCAP Linkhubula House the night before, a number of young men were there waiting for Mzungu to arrive and offer them their services as guide or porter. One of the young men named Harry was particularly persistent. It was totally dark because of the power outage so we couldn’t see very well who we were dealing with so we told Harry we would talk to him the next morning. The Lonely Planet book highly recommended taking a guide to help with the maze of paths and the lack of signs on the mountain. It also specified to hire guides only at the forest station where they keep a guide registration list, which works on a rotation system.

I was surprised when I got out of the room at 5:30am to go to the shared bathroom to find Harry siting close by waiting for us. I guess he hung out all night with the hope he could convince us to hire him. I barely was out of the toilet, still in my boxer shorts, when he approached me again and showed me his official guide registration card. I couldn’t help but admire his perseverance so I talked to Steve and we decided to give him the job. His English was decent enough, he seemed to know the mountain pretty well and he convinced us that there was no need to go to register at the forest station and that we could just pay the hut fee while on the mountain. In a way we felt bad to bypass the guide rotation system but at the same time you could tell that Harry was desperate for the job. He later told us that he normally is able to land a guiding job only once every 2 to 3 months. Since he didn’t have any money to buy the food he needed for our 3-day expedition, we gave him a third of his fees up front. While we ate breakfast at the lodge he went down the hill to pick up the little food he needed. To make sure he wasn’t going to run with the cash we gave him and not return, we asked to keep his official guide badge. I felt bad being untrusting but I had read about that such schemes were not uncommon.

Our whole experience at the CCAP Linkhubula House wasn’t great, and at first I just couldn’t understand why Lonely Planet talked so highly of the place. Then at breakfast it just dawn on me we were at the wrong place. We were supposed to stay at the Kinkhubula Forest Lodge and based on what I saw on the internet this place didn’t look anything like it. When we were stranded the day before waiting to be picked up after our car broke down, the gas attendant who helped us out gave us the cell number of the reverent that ran the lodge where he thought we were planning to stay at. When we called to have a driver pick us up before dark, we ended up following him to a different place than where we had planned to stay, which explains the “sucky” experience.

Harry got back from this “grocery run” at about 8am, his small backpack filled with Nshima, tomatoes and relish (that’s what they call a meat stew here). We got on our way shortly thereafter. With a 1,000+ meter climb in a relatively short distance in hot conditions, with a pack on my back nearly half my weight, I knew this would be a challenging day, but we were both ready for it … or so there I thought. The first hour or so was relatively easy. The gentler climb gave me a chance to get acclimated to walking with a heavy pack on my back. Although I tried to keep my bag as light as possible, between the sleeping bag, mattress, warm clothing for the summit, food for 3 days, it probably weighed close to 50 lbs. As we stared gaining some elevation, we crossed a number of women coming down the hill bare footed with a pile of fire wood on their heads that did probably weight more than they did. Harry told us that they typically sell each pile for about KW300 but have to pay a forest fee of KW50, leaving them with a KW250 (or 65 cents) profit for their hard work.

Then the fun began. That’s where the trail got really steep. When your heals can’t touch the ground and you have to stay on your toes the whole time, you’re dealing with close to 45 degree inclination (or a 1 to 1 slope for you civil engineers). Some sections consisted of pretty difficult rock scrambling made much more challenging by the heavy packs on our backs. Nonetheless I felt strong and had no problems following Harry. Steve on the on the other hand wasn’t feeling so well and started struggling about two hours into our hike. He felt very weak and winded. Knowing we had at least another four hours to go, I started to worry about his ability to make it. I asked if he had a history of heart issues, which he didn’t. He asked if it could be the altitude but I thought we were still too low for him to be impacted by a diminished oxygen supply. It got to a point where Steve had to stop every five minutes to catch his breath. Harry asked if he wanted him to take his pack but Steve felt that the extra weight on his back wasn’t the problem. We agreed that I would go ahead on my own so I could keep a rhythm going and would stop to wait for them at every fork in the path so I wouldn’t get lost. As with all mountain climbs, the vegetation changed quickly with altitude. At one point while I was way ahead of Steve and Harry, I ran into two guys coming out of the bushes with machetes. Needless to say is startled me a little but at the same time I wasn’t overly concerned because I knew they were doing – illegally cutting cedar trees. Earlier in the day Harry pointed out a guy using a machete to take apart the bark of a tree and sculpt a perfect 6×6 piece of lumber. He explained that authorities patrolled the mountain looking for thieves who could be thrown in jail if caught. As we hiked we kept running into piles of cedar pieces were a tree had illegally been decimated. The cedar trees on Mulanje are actually more aromatic than those back home so for a good part of our 3-day journey on the mountain, the smells filling the air around us were as enjoyable as the stunning sceneries. Following my close encounter with the two guys with machetes, I made the wise decision to stay closer to Steve and Harry.

We reached the Lichenya Hut about six hours after we stared following Harry up the mountain, which actually turned out to be the exact time specified on the Mountain Club of Malawi website. The hut, which is all built of cedar wood, had three rooms and two fire places. There were no platforms to sleep on so we had to sleep directly on the wood floor. Although the hut can sleep up to 20, we were the only two guests that night so we each had our own separate room. The setting was majestic with multiple peaks towering the Lichenya Plateau in all directions. Shortly after we arrived, the hut keeper asked if I wanted him to “make me a shower.” Even though I didn’t’ really know what that met, I agreed since the thought of cleaning up was very appealing given that I had mud all over my legs and had sweated profusely all day. The shower turned out to be a large metal bucket of warm water in a nice little cedar room with amazing views.

Early evening the hut keeper came back (he and the guide stayed in a separate, much less “luxurious” structure) to light a fire so we could boil water for our dry-freeze instant dinner mixes. I was ready for bed when Steve came to get me to check out a “strange astronomical phenomenon” he called it. I guess our guides and the hut keeper had come running asking Steve if he knew what it was. They both seemed pretty freaked out and I don’t blame them because I had never seen anything like that before. Right above our hut was what looked like a large perfectly round puffy white cloud. It was so striking against the pitch dark sky sprinkled with bright stars. With time it slowly faded away. We think it may have been an eclipse, which we’ll try to confirm when we have internet access. Whatever it was, it was pretty incredible to experience such a rare occurrence from the middle of nowhere on a mountain top in Africa. Once all the excitement was over, we went to bed at 7pm.

When I woke up 10 hours later (which by the way is more sleep than I normally get in two nights) it was raining pretty hard. We took our time getting ready, with the hope the sky would clear up by the time we were ready to go. Breakfast for me consisted of dried apples, a protein bar and tea. Steve, who brought way to little food, ate the leftover pasta he had set aside from dinner the previous night. When we left at 7:30am, it was only drizzling a little. It however started raining about an hour into our trek and for about two hours it totally poured on us, making going up and down wet and slippery granite rocks with a heavy load on our back very challenging and dangerous. When we got over the last pass on our way to the Chisepo Hut (hut closest to the Sapitwa Peak), the rain subsided but the wind was brutal and I quickly got chilled being all wet. When we got to the nut, Nicholas and Anne were still there. Nicholas had just come back from summiting Sapitwa (highest peak on Mulanje) and seemed relieved to have made it back without getting hurt given how dangerous the conditions became when it started raining while he as at the top. He warned us not to attempt the summit in rainy conditions.

I spent the entire afternoon trying to get warm by first hanging in my down sleeping bag, which didn’t work too well because my clothes were still wet. I then sat inches away from the worse designed fireplace, which generated very little heat. I dried one piece of clothing at a time by holding it over the fire and putting it on as soon as it was dry. By early evening I had every single piece of clothing I brought on my body – two pairs of socks, long underwear (top and bottom), a pair of pants, two t-shirts, a fleece top and a rain jacket. The conditions outside kept getting worse as the day progressed. It didn’t help that the Chisepo Hut was a major step down from our previous hut. The few very small windows provided very little light so we had to wear our headlamp the entire day. The roof had a number of leaks so we had to be strategic as to where on the damp wood floor to place our mattresses and sleeping bags. The latrines were also very far from the hut, which was a problem given the pouring rain and violent wind. Once I finally got dry and felt warmer, there was no way I would get wet again trying to reach to distant latrines.

Just when we thought that it couldn’t get worse, the storm intensity escalated significantly. About the time we tried to go to sleep (again about 7pm), the wind must have been hurricane-force wind, with the noise amplified by the rain falling on the hut’s perforated metal roof. We both didn’t sleep all night thinking the roof would come off the hut. My multiple layers of clothing and 25-degree sleeping bag were barely keeping me warm enough. The worst part is that I had to pee three times that night. I improvised by own latrine on the hut’s deck in an area where a plank was missing. Every time I went out to pee, I had to point my naked ass into the wind and rain coming down the mountain in a furry but it was definitely a better alternative than going to the distant latrines.

We had actually agreed with Harry the night before that we would leave at 5:30am to attempt the summit. Given the lack of visibility, the pouring rain, the howling wind, it would have been suicidal to attempt going up there. Two people actually lost their lives in recent years in separate expeditions while attempting to summit in bad conditions. We were told that the body of a Dutch woman who gave it a go in the rain a year ago was never found. We already made one stupid decision earlier in the week (undertaking a drive across the country with an unreliable car), we were not about to make another one, and one that could have much more severe consequences. So for the first time I got a taste of what it’s like to get so close to a mountain peak one plans to summit and has to turn around without achieving one’s goal. I guess that’s why Sapitwa means “the place you cannot reach.” It was probably a good thing that the conditions were so extreme. Given my goal-oriented personality, I may have made a different decision in less severe by yet dangerous conditions. I promised myself that when I come back to Malawi, I’ll make another attempt at the summit.

So at 5:30am our goal had shifted to let’s try to get the hell out of there and while we’re at it, let’s try to make it all the way down the mountain so we don’t have to spend another night in a hut. Steve went to share our new plan with Harry and we agree to leave by 7am. Our first challenge of the day was to cross a stream which now looked more like a small river with rapids. To avoid getting our boots wet at the start of the day, when we arrived at the water crossing, we switched into our flip-flop sandals and pulled our pants over our knees. I didn’t feel all that comfortable with what I was about to do – crossing a rapid about 50 feet wide in about a foot of fast flowing water on slippery granite rocks in flip-flops with a heavy pack on my back and my hiking boots hanging on both sides of my neck. On top of that it was still pouring rain sideways because of the powerful wind. The recent tragic incident at Hetch Hetchy where two guys died while moving through similar moving water crossed my mind. Harry stood in the middle of the rapids barefooted with his arm extended towards me. All I had to do was reach his hand, which I did without slipping, and we made it the other half of the way holding hands. I was so relieved to reach the other side still standing. We quickly dried our feet the best we could using Steve’s towel and immediately started walking as fast as we could to get warm.

The conditions were totally miserable until we reached the first pass. Thereafter it got much better, with the rain eventually stopping and the wind subsiding significantly. The problem though is that we had to come down about 1,400 meters (4,600 ft) on wet granite rock stacked on very steep terrain. I sure could have used the hiking poles I left back at home. We reached the Chambe Hut in about 3.5 hours. There we hooked up again with Nicholas, Anne and Jason. They were having breakfast around the fire place and made room for us to huddle around with them so we could get warm. We decided to wait for them to go all the way down. They had two guides and a porter (Jason went up to Chambe separately and hired his own guide and porter). So it was nice to be able to make the remaining 1,000 meter decent in a group of nine. By the time we made it down four hours later, our quads were totally burning. At the bottom I gave my hiking shoes to harry, thinking he or one of his siblings needed them more than I do. Based on the big smile on his face, I think he appreciated the gift more than the additional cash we gave him as a tip. Steve also gave him a pretty nice present – his rain jacket, which he’ll be able to use in future expeditions … can’t believe all he had the whole time we were on the mountain was the same shorts and t-shirt.

Steve and I were determined to stay at the Kikhubula Forest Lodge this time. Realizing that having a man and a woman share a room without being together seemed to make the previous lodge owner uncomfortable, we came up with the story that we were brother and sister. We continue to stick to that story and it seems to be working well for us. What a different experience the new lodge was. They had clean rooms and showers and despite the fact that there was no electricity the whole time we were there, they cooked the two best meals I had in Malawi. The vegetable curry they served for dinner was to die for and I had my first true enjoyable salad in 2+ weeks. Breakfast the next morning was as amazing with cereals, a cheese and veggie omelet and a fruit salad with papaya and bananas freshly picked on the lodge property.

Description of a Few Photos:
1) Steve and I, with Harry, at the start of our expedition
2) Starting to get a little steeper
3) Women carrying down fire wood
4, 5, and 6) Our first day of ascent … over 1,000 meters to climb
7) Lichenya Hut – 1st night on the mountain
8) My room inside Lichenya Hut
9) Soaking wet after the rain of the 2nd day
10) Chisepo Hut at the bottom of the hill
11) Trying to get warm at the Chisepo Hut after hiking in the rain
12) Running away from the storm on the 3rd day
13 and 14) Group of 9 for last 1,000 meter descent
15) Getting close to the end
16) Kikhubula Forest Lodge (the one recommended by Lonely Planet)

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