Monday, December 21, 2009


Last weekend, I headed south to Mulanje—the tallest peak in Southern Africa. I managed to sign up for the mountaineering club, which ensured me spots in the huts on the mountain, and a mattress and cooking supplies. When I arrived Friday at the foot of the mountain, I booked a guide—but when he, Dixon showed up, I found that he was tiny and probably weighed less than me—and this is the guy that is meant to carry all my stuff 9000 feet! I sat down for some dinner, and my waiter put in front of me an article about a Brazilian man who recently insisted on climbing Mulanje without a guide, got lost, and whose body was found days later. Not exactly inspirational reading before my climb!

Sodden Susie

We set off the next morning. He refused to carry my (5 liter) bottle of water, but I was adamant—I told him that if I didn’t have water there would be a disaster. ‘A disaster?’ he said. Yes, a disaster, said I. I asked a few times if the bags were too heavy, but he said they were fine, so we set off. There was a recent armed robbery on the most commonly used ‘Elephant’ path, so we had to take a bit of a detour and headed to the nearby path beginning in the maize estates. An hour into the hike (in the pouring rain, no less) I look over at Dixon and he is dripping in sweat, huffing and puffing, readjusting the bags…too heavy? No, no…it is ok, madam. Well, it didn’t look ok!

My guide, Dixon

We hiked 3 hours to the first hut, Thuchila. There are watchmen at every hut, so ours built a fire and we warmed up, dried off and ate some lunch. The hut was filled with police officers who were there to detain all and any poachers caught cutting down the cedar trees—one of the police men had seen me driving through a road block the day before—he asked me ‘do you drive a green Toyota Rav?’ And I do! Not so many muzungus around! I actually saw him later; on my drive back and he had caught a poacher! You will remember from my animal count back in October, that poaching is a real problem in Malawi! There are beautiful little cedar boxes all over Malawi, which come from the cedar of Mulanje—they smell divine, but not so great for the forests of Mulanje! After a few hours, we were ready to continue, but this time I unloaded lots of baggage and we set off with a lighter load.

Thuchila Hut

Halfway to our destination, there was a gorgeous little stream. I stopped in the middle to take a photo, and suddenly felt ants biting my leg, my waist, my feet. I balanced myself and tried to slap one, only to drop my (brand new) camera directly into the stream. DOPE!!! It refuses to turn on now. Boo!

Another 3 hour hike brought us to Chisepo hut—near to our final peak, Sepetwa (which in Chichewa means threateningly ‘don’t go there’). The mountain is filled with cedar trees, and the hut was made entirely from them—it smelled so fresh inside! The watchman built us a fire, and I went to take a bath in the most freezing mountain spring. Refreshing! The view of the valley from the porch of the hut was breath taking. There were clouds below us, but every now and again, everything would clear and leave a gorgeous view. Inside the hut, a fire was blazing, and sometimes tendrils of mist would come curling into the hut.

View from Chisepo

The next day we set off for the summit. I cannot imagine how the Brazilian guy attempted to climb to this peak in one day without a guide. You can’t even see the path! Every now and again there is a little red mark that probably used to be an arrow, but it is not easy to see! Furthermore, my helpful little mountain guidebook calls this last summit to the peak a ‘scramble’ and that is what it is! Some times I was on all fours, or pulling myself up with my hands—like I was rock climbing! A lot of the peak was sheer rock, and was at a 75-degree angle in some bits. To add insult to injury, it then started raining. We scrambled and scratched our way to the top. It was beautiful. We were above the clouds, it felt surreal. Unfortunately, the clouds and rain were such that the view didn’t clear, even after waiting a long time, but it was an accomplishment to make it to the top, and was still very beautiful. Plus, after the unfortunate incident, its not like I could take pictures anyways!

We headed back to Thuchila hut for the night—which was the first hut to be built on the mountain. The mice had already settled in for the night, but as Dixon told me, it is no problem! Ha! The watchman heated me up water for a bucket shower, which after a long day of hiking, felt almost as good as a shower at the Ritz.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and headed the final route down the mountain. In. the. Pouring. Rain. And I do mean pouring. I fell so many times I stopped counting. We got to the bottom; back to the estates where I was overjoyed to see my car was still there! And even more overjoyed when it started up immediately. Which just made it that more of a bummer when after 10 minutes of driving, the car conked out completely. It has never done that. Dixon knew nothing about cars so we waited in the teeming rain for a miracle. Which finally came. The car revved to life again and we headed out. But then the car died again! We got him started after another little wait; I dropped Dixon at his house, and then put my front tires securely into a ditch that I could not back out of. But African’s are used to this and from nowhere appeared 5 guys to pull me out for the small fee of $3.

I drove into Mulanje town, and the view on the drive is absolutely stunning. The town is set with a backdrop of Mulanje, and thick, plush tea-estates on the outside of town. The mountain seems to go on forever, and has a big crater in between 2 huge peaks. I stopped for pizza, which may be the best pizza I have ever eaten (sorry Chicago—maybe it was the 12 months of rice and beans? Maybe it was the hike?) Where I met up with Peace Corp Sara. And then headed back to Liwonde. The drive back was so beautiful, and it had finally stopped raining. I stopped in Zomba to return the keys, catch up with friends, buy souvenirs (with bargain hunter Sarah’s help—that girl knows how to secure a good deal!), drink a beer and set off home.

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