Eric brought in some old bank notes yesterday. It was another short trip down memory lane as this is what money looked like when I was growing up.
I was was impressed at the quality of the paper after all these years, it is nice to see the depiction of The Lake and also the tea growing beneath Mulanje Mountain.. I think that you can see the years 1982 and 1983.
The new day began with Chambe’s East Face bathed in the morning sunlight. Soon however clouds were in evidence.
Matthew went to speak to some Malawians nearby who were working for the forestry department. Eerik set up his hammock to read. With Ruth I followed Matt and soon we agreed to pay someone to guide us to the pools.
Soon we were all (except Eerik) off to the pools. Eerik had by now returned to the inside of France’s Cottage and next to the fire as a kind of retreat in the face of the advancing clouds. He was reading my borrowed ‘Europe Since Napolean’. For some reason, despite the weather, I took my swimming stuff. Chambe’s current bleakness matched the weather and there was a certain mysterious, misty beauty to the place.
After about thirty or forty minutes of walking I took a photo at the turn off from the main track (from France’s Cottage and Chambe Cottage) where we head left for the pools. Straight on would take us to the edge of the plateau and down the Skyline or Chambe Path. The path to the left was actually the top of the Chapaluka Path, an alternative route down to Likhubula below.
Soon after our first crossing of the Chapaluka Stream we found the pools and waterfalls on our left and the guide departed.
Matthew was for swimming. I was thinking of it but uncommitted. All I’d decided was not to touch the water before going in as that might put me off. What I did do was get changed and scout around the pool for the best way out so that I could strategically place my emergency towel. For some reason nothing was going to stop me going in to this mountain pool on a cold ‘winter’s’ morning. Perhaps it was because it was Mulanje and Mulanje has that kind off effect.
Matthew and I jumped in and I immediately swam to the edge for my towel. However, on getting to the side I realised that the experience was not nearly as bad as I had expected and I was soon announcing my second swim. Actually, it felt great. No worse, I thought, than swimming in the sea off the Scottish coast. On the plus side it was physically exhilarating, an experience most probably enhanced by the walking on the previous days and that morning. David had said that he would consider swimming if the sun came out but I knew that swimming on a foggy and murky day actually feels better.
We returned to find Eerik next to the fire and still reading about the history of Europe.
Perhaps that day we could also have climbed on the Chambe bumps. But it was too cloudy and we did not bother. Our final full day on Mulanje Mountain was coming to a close.
Continuing with a current Mulanje theme…
I am not a rock climbing person. If you are and you are reading this post then please bear that in mind. Mulanje Mountain certainly looks, to the uninitiated, like a rock climbers paradise. I am sure that it is.
One of the pleasures of staying at France’s Cottage or Chambe Hut is the morning view of the sunshine on Chambe’s East Face. (The West Face on the opposite side has the longest rock climb in Africa). With Frank Eastwood’s Guide to the Mulanje Massif you can sit on a rock and examine clearly the eight rock climbs on the East Face that his guide book covers (the book is a general guide to the Mulanje Massif but has a rock-climbing section). I thought while sitting there that I would compare what I see in his book with the rock face and take photos of each of the climbs. Here is the result.
Of course you will need to get the book, available in all good Malawi bookshops, if you want the details of the climbs.
Left to right while facing the East face you first have South Monolith Route (SM). 1,000 ft (300m). Grade 5.
Secondly there is Gordon’s Gully (GG). 1,000 ft (300m). Grade 5.
Next across is Big Monolith (BM). 2,000 ft (600 m). Grade 4 sup. In the middle is Chambe Direct (CD). 2,000 ft (600 m). Grade 5 sup. Also in the middle is Chambe Direction (CDN). 2,000 ft (600 m). Grade 6 inf. Slightly to the right is Devil’s Staircase (DS). 2,000 ft (600 m). Grade 6 inf. Second last is Beacon Route (BR). 2,000 ft (600 m). Grade 6.
Finally, on the far right for those of you climbing with your granny is Easy Street. 900 ft (280m). Grade 4 inf. On the French scale that is only Difficile (yawn). I am sure you can do it with your eyes closed.
All of these routes were first climbed in the 1970’s. My guess is that they are not climbed very often these days. You can read a little bit more about this on another post I wrote about on an Introduction to Mulanje.
If you want to come to Malawi to do these and other climbs then get in touch. We may be able to help you to organise your trip.
I did hear the guys stirring in the next room at 4am. Although I considered getting up to wish them well on their great ascent I thought better of it and stayed in bed.
My sheet sleeping bag plus the big thick blankets from the Mountain Club of Malawi locked cupboard were keeping me very cosy on that cold night. [A long time ago on a visit to Malawi, and when not a member of the MCM, I had one of the coldest and most uncomfortable nights of my life at Thuchila Hut.]
After a far more leisurely start to the day we decided to go for a walk. Breakfast and coffee in the kitchen / dining room / living room by the fire is a more relaxing way to start the day. I am sure the 4am guys were however inspired by the challenge ahead of them. In my mind were two possibilities for us 1/ a walk to the start of the Chambe Peak climb and perhaps up one of the ‘Chambe bumps’ or 2/ a walk to the edge of Chambe Basin to where Chambe is connected to the rest of the mountain by Knife Edge. Without porters we would have to carry the children and whatever we wanted to eat and drink.
In the end we decided to go for Knife Edge. The East Face of Chambe looks beautiful with the sun on it in the morning and our walk was up and in the opposite direction towards the imposing North Peak. As we walked up towards the edge of the basin we could see a better view of the bowl that is Chambe Basin. It is very different now compared with the days I remember when it was a pine forest. Old forest tracks spread across it like a little map below and some seem to head straight over the edge of the plateau next to the peak. I look forward to the day when, as is planned, a forest of indigenous Mulanje Cedar is covering the basin. Beyond and below the plateau we could see puffs of cloud pushing their way up.
I had a long conversation with Ruth, who was on my back, about what clouds do and why warm air pushes them up. Every time she says “Why?” I try to give her an accurate answer knowing that she cannot be expected to comprehend all the science and physics. However, she does seem to be satisfied with my words. Amelia said that she understands now why my brother Keith on Mulanje got frustrated with all my stops for photographs.
As we ascended the side of the basin and the view changed and the vegitation became more ‘Mulanje Mountain’ and less desolate I found myself wondering, and I discussed with Amelia, where exactly the guys would likely have been when the sun rose (they would have been on the same path a few hours before them. We could see their footprints including David’s trainers). If they had got a certain distance before light then they would look around them and almost feel as though they were on a different mountain.
As you reach the rim of the basin you can see over the steep valley towards the Lichenya Plateau. Ahead a narrow ‘Knife Edge’ will connect us to the main part of the mountain. However, by now cloud was coming up and around us and we could see the forested valley and the neighbouring plateau only through the breaks in the mist and the cloud. However, I do like these kinds of views, the sight of the unusual Mulanje plants in the mist and the mystery of what great walls of rock must be around and above us. The walk took a lot longer than I expected. At each point I thought – ‘well, let’s just go on a bit more, we cannot be far now before we get to Knife Edge and to new views of the mountain’. It is amazing how far a thought like that can get you.
Finally the path took us over Knife Edge and to a great crossroads in the path. Ahead was the way to Sapitwa and beyond that to Thuchila. To the right the path to Lichenya Plateau where the old wealthy tea estate owners would go to sit out the hottest months of the year. To the left was down the mountain to ‘Otto’s’ and behind us of course the way back to Chambe.
At this point I was very tempted by a small peak that sits on the edge of Knife Edge. I thought that it looked quite climbable and would probably have great views. Amelia was reluctant because we had small children on our backs and when we came to the first ‘steep bit’ we stopped and got back onto the main path.Our thoughts now turned to the others. We (Amelia) was due to prepare a meal for them on their return from Sapitwa. Having climbed Sapitwa myself from Chambe I estimated that they would be back at about 3pm. They only started at 4am because their guide wanted to get back down the mountain before nightfall. However, the time of their arrival is not perfectly predictable and our walk had gone on for several hours more than I had initially expected. I thought that we would be away for a couple of hours but it now looked more like six hours. We did however get back to France’s Cottage about an hour before they arrived. Amelia had boldly begun to prepare the meal before they arrived although I thought that their arrival time (estimated at 3pm) could be anything from 2pm (now passed) to 7pm. Fortunately they did arrive around about when i expected but we were surprised to find that they were not hungry…. In the end we ate about 5pm.
As leader of the party it was my duty to lead the discussions and advise on what we could do the next day. The great thing about Matthew was that he wanted to climb Chambe. I had already explained that Chambe is….and I hesitated and tried to choose my words carefully…potentially more scary. I had to explain that I had not climbed it because as a child my father had ruled against me joining the group climbing Chambe because it is too dangerous. I also knew someone who had been killed on Chambe. On the other hand I did not want to put them off if they wanted to climb it. I did want however to give a balanced view. One thing I was clear on however was that no one should go up alone and if there at any point was any doubt as to whether they were on the right route “you must stop and come back down.”
The chapter on the peaks in the MCM Golden Jubilee book says that Chambe is ‘not for tourists’. I could tell that David was a little bit put off by the description of the peak when he decided to describe himself as ‘a tourist’. Eerik said that he was not a tourist but a ‘traveller’. Unfortunately the guide does not give a view on that important distinction. Frank Eastwood in his ‘Guide to the Mulanje Massif’ says ‘A rope would be reassuring to parties which include inexperienced climbers.’ David was not reassured.
In the end we left it that we would decide ‘on the morrow’ depending on how we felt. From where we were the climb is only 2 or 3 hours so a morning that included one of the other options would allow us to make a late decision. The other options were 1/relaxing in a hammock and reading a book (Eerik), 2/ ‘pottering’ around the hut, 3/ climbing a Chambe ‘bump’ (some of the mini peaks around the basin or 4/ going to the pools for a swim.
It was not long before we were ‘sleeping on the decision.’
By the way – at night I always feel slightly nervous about going out to the toilet. I always imagine that there might be a leopard about. Actually, there is almost certainly almost no danger at all but I don’t mind admitting what happens sometimes when the ‘extremely unlikely’ comes into contact with my imagination.
2011 09 06 blog CLIMBING MULANJE – DAY 1
The first step, well the first step for me at least, is to find people to climb Mulanje with. One reason for that is the number one rule on Mulanje – don’t climb alone. Also, the point of climbing Mulanje is to enjoy it, best to share the fun.
If you don’t have anyone you know to climb Mulanje with and don’t have time to wait for the right person to come along, then climb with a porter and / or guide. Mike Petzold in ‘The Peaks of Mulanje Mountain’ lists 59 peaks and tops. He says that he has been on the top of all but three of them, some of them several times, ‘but NEVER alone.’ If one of the most experienced Mulanje people is NEVER alone up there – then neither should you be.
Upon arrival in Malawi I was a little bit disappointed to find some difficulty in finding people who wanted to climb Mulanje. For most people there is the Mountain Club of Malawi who often have people going up. You can join if a resident, or join in. Because we have young children I had in mind other families with young children or beginners who would be happy to climb slowly. I come from the point of view that going to Malawi and not climbing Mulanje is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. I was told of a tour group in Malawi that was neither going up Mulanje nor to the Lake. All I could do was stare at the person who told me this for a while – I did not know what to say. I think I am still adjusting to the way some western visitors think about Malawi compared with how we thought about and enjoyed Malawi when I was a child.
Someone I played football with at primary school told me that the kind of westerners who are in the country now are different to those around when we were children.
“There are far more short term people here and far fewer westerners living here for the long term.”
That affects things of course. One of my dreams on coming here was to enjoy Malawi the way we enjoyed Malawi a long time ago. That requires others to come to appreciate and share doing these things – another part of my dream. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of the new things and new ways of doing things in Malawi are fantastic. However, they don’t need to replace the ‘done thing’ of days gone by – they simply add to the already infinite appeal of Malawi. Can one add to the infinite appeal of Malawi? Of course. Is that a mathematical proof? Well, I find it quite convincing.Climbing Mulanje is one of those things that is best done with some knowledge of what you are doing and why. The mistake with Mulanje is to treat it as just another mountain and simply climb up to the top and climb back down.
On the Ilala ferry coming back from Likoma Island I was waxing lyrical to other passengers about the wonders of Mulanje Mountain. Usually when this sort of thing happens my listeners and friends roll their eyes and stiffen their resolve to avoid whatever good idea I may be suggesting. So I was quite surprised when Eerik from Finland seemed to be persuaded by my propaganda. I cautiously then suggested that perhaps we could climb the mountain together. Pessimistically I asked Amelia for her opinion and to my surprise she was agreeable and thought that it would make a good family outing. Given Eerik’s timetable we would have to go soon. After returning to dry land we stopped in Zomba to meet some Romanian people we had heard about. They had an lodger from Northern Ireland (David) and when he heard about our trip he decided to join us. Like us he had been looking for an opportunity. No sooner had we got to Blantyre than a friend mentioned that he knew someone who wanted to climb Mulanje. So Matthew from Australia became the final member of our small party.
The next steps involve contacting the Forestry Office and booking a hut, dealing with the Mountain Club if you are a member and buying all the food that you need for your time on the mountain. There is a good article in the Mountain Club of Malawi Golden Jubilee Journal by Sue Miller called ‘Dietary Deliberations’. I handed this to Amelia thinking that she might find it helpful.
On the day of the climb (Friday) David planned to join us from Zomba. He had an appointment the night before so said he would get the 5am bus to Blantyre. We did not have room in our Rav4 for Eerik (now in Blantyre) or Matthew so they were getting an early bus from Limbe to Mulanje town. I dropped them near a minibus and then headed back to collect the rest of the family and wait for David. Unfortunately poor David had to wait until well after six am for his minibus to depart – the joys of public transport. Rather than wait for his arrival in Blantyre we decided to intercept his minibus in Limbe which was an adventure in itself.
We stopped at infoMulanje in Mulanje town and found that Eerik and Matthew had already departed on the next leg of public transport to Likhubula and the forestry office. Three of the paths to the plateau originate at the Forestry Office so if you have some people in your group who are lacking private transport it can be easier to climb from here. This is the place where you finalise arrangements for huts, porters, a guide if necessary and payments. If you are in the Mountain Club of Malawi it is a little different as instead payments are made through them – including the forestry reserve entrance fee.
Finally at Likhubula we met up again with Eerik and Matthew, neither of whom were hiring porters. Eerik explained that he was recently in the Finnish army so had no need of this kind of assistance. In total we hired five porters – two of whom would carry Ruth and baby David. Typically porters will deposit your food and heavy rucksacks at the mountain hut long before you reach the plateau but in this instance we asked the porters to stay with us – David often needs his mummy.
Matthew, Eerik and big David hired a guide as they planned to climb Sapitwa the next day. I am still trying to get used to the idea of guides as I have climbed Sapitwa three times myself without the thought of a guide even entering my head. However, I am told that these days the ‘red route’ up Sapitwa is faded and incomplete and a guide is now necessary. The red route was painted arrows on rocks on Sapitwa that guided climbers up Sapitwa. Sapitwa covers a big area and does not lend itself well to paths. The wilderness of boulder fields and other unusual features mean that getting lost on Sapitwa is a real possibility. Yassen from the mountain club warned us that the last person to attempt Sapitwa without a guide lost his life. If the red route is now faded then a guide is certainly necessary for Sapitwa.
I often find that the hardest parts of a climb are the first few steps – or restarting after a stop. The previous time I had climbed Mulanje the porters we had booked the previous day were no where to be seen at the agreed time and place. Therefore I and my brothers found ourselves carrying about two rucksacks each and by the time the porters caught us (two thirds of the way to the plateau). I was beginning to think that we would in fact make it.
This time around Amelia kept on asking if we were half-way yet. Each time she asked I scoffed but in fact we were on the plateau sooner than I had expected. Looking at my guide book later I realised that the climb we were more accustomed to (to Thuchila Hut) was to a part of the plateau several hundred feet higher than Chambe Basin – our current destination.
I was quietly satisfied to see how pleased porter-less Eerik was on reaching the plateau and to hear him admit that he had ‘under-estimated Mulanje’. Also, on the edge of the plateau I was happy to note that the guide informed us that the spectacular Chambe peak next to us is the ‘second highest peak on Mulanje’. It is not, it is the twentieth highest peak on Mulanje Mountain. I have nothing against guides. What does irritate me however is being lectured to by excitable Malawi ‘experts’ who have been in the country for five minutes about the absolute necessity of taking a guide. Of course I don’t put Yassen in this category. Yassen is quite right, if you don’t know Sapitwa very well and the red route is faded – then take a guide. Otherwise on Mulanje, and there is a lot more to Mulanje, why not take a map, a compass, friends, people who know the mountain a little, a sense of adventure and the ambition to explore and discover without having your hand held?
By the time we reached the plateau there were other thoughts on our minds. We had not seen Ruth or David for perhaps an hour or more? We had not timed it. Amelia said that it was the longest period of time that David had been away from his mother. Although we had asked the porters carrying the two little ones to stay with us they had not managed to keep strictly to this request for the whole trip. We speculated that they could be upset now in an unfamiliar setting, with unfamiliar people and no mummy or daddy in sight. On the plateau therefore we tried to up our pace as France’s Cottage is still a significant walk across the Chambe Basin. Finally we got there and they seemed perfectly happy. Ruth wanted to show us around.
[On the way down three days later we asked the down porters to stay with us and they did and they were also good conversation. They left us their details and did say that it would be OK to make private arrangements with them - they are of course registered porters. It is best to go with the Forestry Department's official porter rota and follow the Mountain Club guidelines so I may well ask the MCM about whether we can pick porters we know for carrying the children as it is better if we can have porters who when carrying the children do stay at our pace.]
After settling in we visited the neighbouring Chambe Hut where we had spotted some (older) children there for Ruth to play with. Sensibly that family had taken their children up the Potato Path to Zomba Plateau on a couple of occasions as training for their little ones (and to verify that they can actually climb a mountain). I thought it was a very good idea and from now on if I meet someone who is unsure of whether they are fit enough to climb Mulanje I will suggest that they climb the Potato Path on Zomba Plateau first.
Later we discussed the news that the guide wanted to set off at 4am with the three guys who were going to climb Sapitwa. I told them that as a child we set off to climb Sapitwa just before dawn and got back just after dusk. 4am sounded a bit excessive to me. There is a new hut called Chisepo which is located at the base of Sapitwa. Staying there makes the Sapitwa climb easy even as a morning only activity. The problem was that we had not set off early enough in the morning to reach Chisepo that day. Now settled in France’s Cottage some of us were against the idea of moving hut without the help of porters.
Soon we were all asleep.
We have just returned from a long weekend and three nights on Mulanje Mountain. Mulanje Mountain is the highest mountain in tropical southern Africa or the highest mountain in all of the band of countries running from Mozambique on the Indian Ocean over to Namibia and Angola on the Atlantic.
I have heard several people say that Mulanje is the third highest mountain in Africa. That is not true – it is far from that. Instead it is better to point out that it is one of the largest inselbergs (literally ‘island mountains’) in the world and the highest mountain in ‘this part of Africa’. According to my Mountain Club of Malawi T-shirt it is ‘Probably the Best Mountain in the World’. How this in particular can be measured I am not certain – but I may have a go. What I would say is that many of those who have got to know it over years might feel as though it seems as though it is almost self evident. If such a boast irritates Mulanje sceptics, then…is that a problem?
The plateau of that great island in the sky is speculated to be a place that inspired an early visitor, JRR Tolkien, in his writing of The Lord of The Rings. Mulanje and Nyika Mountains were immortalised in Laurens van der Post’s 1950’s bestseller, ‘Venture to the Interior’.
Mulanje Mountain rises abruptly from the plains towards the southern end of the Great Rift Valley. It has no foothills and on approach can look unclimbable for all but endurance rock climbers. In fact Mulanje Mountain does have the longest rock-climb in Africa. The weather produced by this great island in the sky often results in a sea of cloud cover below the plateau edge. From the plateau or on one of the many peaks your surroundings then can resemble a great mountain island with numerous rocky peaks surrounded by a sea of cloud. No wonder writers are inspired to write of another, higher, world.
Above the great plateau rise numerous peaks. The highest of these is Sapitwa, meaning, ‘the place that is not gone to’. You will often read less accurate translations of Sapitwa but that one is from my father, expert in Chichewa. The area of the mountain is about 250 square miles or about 650 square kilometres. To visualise it simply think of a castle that size and then turn the walls into great white and grey rock, the moat into a sea of clouds stretching to the horizon and the towers within to rocky mountain peaks. To visualise the plateau below the peaks consider simply a world of streams and forests and unique species where people, instead of sniffing the flowers, smell the unique and unmistakeable scent of the trees (more on this in another post).
It seems strange to me that it has taken over five months since arriving in Malawi for me to find myself back up on my favourite destination in Malawi. Part of the reason why it has taken this long is because David is so young. However, now that Ruth and David have both been up on the plateau (carried by porters) I am pleased that three generations of Taylor’s have ascended this mountain. My father tells the story of how he nearly died on Mulanje in 1965. Despite that it is the place in Malawi that my parents loved the most and I am no different.
A couple of months ago we purchased rucksack like carriers for babies / small children so that we could take Ruth and David with us. We were told that the baby should be able to sit upright on his own in order for the baby backpack to be used. Since hearing that I have been training David by sitting him upright at every opportunity. His progress has been as rapid as it has been sedate (is that word related to ‘sit’?).
After months of training David is finally ready to climb Mulanje Mountain. Although I said that it can look unclimable there are several hiking paths to the plateau. They are however steep and some of them are dangerous or impassable at certain times of the year (I would like to write a post on ‘The Chimney’, surely the most deadly path to the plateau). Of course we did not go up the chimney (you can’t, it’s a ‘down only’ path) but stuck to the more traditional Chambe Path, better known now by it’s modern ‘Skyline’ name. In the past our favourite path was the Nkungudza (cedar) or Kambenje path up onto the ‘Elephant’s Head’ and on to Thuchila Hut.
This time due to certain constraints (some of our party were using public transport to get to the base) we climbed up to the Chambe Basin and stayed at France’s Cottage (France was a forester who died when attempting to help van der Post to cross the Ruo river on the mountain some time in the 1940’s I think).
France’s Cottage and Chambe Cottage sit beneath Chambe Peak which looks impressive enough from where we were up on the plateau. On the other side however Chambe Peak drops all the way to the plains below and it is there, on the West Face, that we have the longest rock climb in Africa. On the plateau and facing the East Face we can see eight challenging rock climbs that rank, in rock-climbing terms from ‘Difficile’ on the French scale to ‘Very Severe’ or ‘Hard Very Severe’ or ‘Extremely Severe’ on the English scale (4 – 6 on the Alpine Numerical). Several of these rock climbs are 2,000 ft. On the other side of Chambe is a 5,500 ft (or 1,700 m) rock climb.
The guide told us (inaccurately) that Chambe is the second highest peak on Mulanje Mountain. It is in fact the 20th highest peak on the Mulanje Massif. Instead it is probably the second most famous peak on the mountain.
Unfortunately Chambe Basin itself does not look quite as pretty as it used to. In my childhood I remembered it as a kind of Hansel and Gretal land of pine forests. Now the pine has been cut down to make way for the original Mulanje Cedar (not get grown). Still I remember the shape of the stream and the bridge in from of Chambe Hut, but the basin itself now looks very different. In fact, we did not like it at first. Amelia did say however that it grew on her as our time up there progressed. Regardless, Chambe Basin is only a small part of the Mulanje Plateau, there are many other forests, streams, pools, plateau edges and grasslands if Chambe does not satisfy.
Our group consisted of me, Amelia, Ruth, David and three guys who we recently met. Eerik is from Finland, he was inspired to come to Malawi by a photo of Lake Malawi that he saw on a Finnish TV programme. While talking to him on the Ilala ferry he was persuaded to climb Mulanje. With a group now formed two others joined in – David from Northern Ireland and Matthew from Australia.
I see that this post has taken too long to write so I will stop here and describe this as an introduction. I hope to write about our adventures in following posts.
Most people who climb Mulanje Mountain, that great island in the sky, will hire porters. Everything you need for your stay (I am thinking mainly of food) you will need to take with you. Mulanje Mountain is the sort of place that you will want to stay for days. It is not one of these simple, and common (frankly) mountains that you simply climb to the top of and then come down. No. Mulanje Mountain is a playground of endless possibilities for those who have some sense of adventure. It is no wonder that those few who know regard the Mulanje Massif as, probably, the best mountain, in the world.
Mulanje is great for a range of people from those who wish to tackle the longest rock climb in Africa to families with youngish children who want to get away to a different and more rustic world among the peaks on top of this great plateau. The plateau is large, the peaks on top are many and the mountain huts are the place to stay. The ‘sense of adventure’ spectrum is a wide spectrum. Whether you have a modest or an extreme or some where in between sense of adventure – the Mulanje Massif is the place for you.
Because many will want to stay up for days it makes sense to hire porters to carry your provisions up to one of the huts or cottages on the plateau. These porters are tough and they are fit. They are not the only exceptionally strong people who work on this mountain. As a child (perhaps about 10) I once thought I would test how heavy these planks of Mulanje Cedar (that men carry down the mountain) are. I was amazed at the weight – I could hardly budge one of these long pieces of wood that would be carried down balanced on someone’s head.
Someone, since the time when we left Malawi, came up with the idea of a Mulanje Mountain Porters Race. This, along with a couple of other excuses gave us reason to head over to Likhubula.
On Friday evening we met an English couple at Likhubula House CCAP. He was a Sky Sports TV football reporter and was considering joining the race. His girlfriend, like me, an contract accountant.
Registration for the race was at 6am on Saturday morning so I rose before dawn to get down there for photos and to soak up the atmosphere. Ruth woke also and as is often the case when she realises that I am going out – insists on joining me.
We met our friends from the previous evening, Johnny (John Phillips) and Michelle Richmond. John had decided not to go for it. I told him that I thought that was wise as it would give him a very good reason for coming back next year. Most contestants were Malawian and probably Mulanje locals I would think. There were several foreigners, mainly resident Azungu in Malawi (a few medical people as it turned out) and I recognised several people from the Mountain Club of Malawi.
After the speeches (and my break for breakfast) the runners finally headed off at 7.30am. You could tell that it was a big carnival event by the number of joke and pretend contestants heading off with their handbags and knee length leather boots. I think that these people just ran past the cameras, round the corner and then….
The route of the race was up the Skyline Path to Chambe Basin and then along the plateau towards the Lichenya Path and then back down to the bottom of the mountain, over the Likhubula Pools and then another approximately four hundred yards to the waiting crowds and glory.
By the time that they were off Amelia and David had joined us and we headed for Likhubula Pools to await the race leaders. Whoever was first down and over the pools would probably win the race. Winning times were around two hours and ten minutes (when i described the route to my mum over the phone and asked for an estimated winning time she estimated four hours). Long before 9.30 we were ready and waiting. I was worried. It had been very wet overnight and the rocks around the pools were very slippery. The competitors would be flying down that mountain and then have to cross these rocks, pools and waterfalls at high speed. One slip and you could get very wet, or injured, or fall down a waterfall.
While I thought that we still had five or ten minutes to wait we suddenly could hear a great commotion from just above us on the mountain. Spectators positioned themselves up the down path so that they could see and join the first athlete down. I grabbed my camera. The race leader however was going to head straight over the pools (clearly the recognised route) rather than follow the arrows on the rocks. It was obvious that there was some confusion. I and several others were yelling at him to take the longer route – the last thing you want is for someone to not win on a technicality.
He really hesitated as he clearly believed that the correct route was slightly different to the marked route. Finally he gave way to our insistent pointing and shouting and I implemented my plan to run down with him (and others) to the finishing line. Fortunately his hesitation did not cost him the race as he was far enough ahead of second place. I heard from Amelia later that 2nd and 3rd place took the same route as him.
I really did not expect the conclusion of the race to be as exciting as it was. It was true that it was no photo finish but these people were obviously achieving greatness. First and second place hugged each other with great emotion, clearly either great friends or bonded by sharing this extraordinary experience and moment.
Evans Nyazuri was the winner. He was photographed prominently on the promotional literature for the race although he was not a previous winner. The second placed competitor was a previous winner. I thought that the third placed finisher looked very young, a teenager.
After seeing the first handful arrive I headed back to the pools to wait for the first female competitor and the first of the Azungu (westerners).
The first woman was down in about two and a half hours and several went passed. I think that just over half of the competitors took the shorter (unmarked) route over the pools – probably the recognised route, but a significant minority went the slightly longer route following the arrows. Watching closely I don’t think that any of the top 10 lost a position due to inconsistency over this. The most notable of the early finishers who I thought may have lost a place because of this was the third placed woman (she did not lose 2nd place among the women but could have been caught by a male competitor as she took the slightly longer route).
One interesting thing about some of the women, achieving exceptional times, was their dress. Many people are too poor to buy any form of athletic gear. One of the very fast women was wearing a long skirt and several were dressed exactly as you would expect to see them in the village. Many did the race barefoot of course.
It was a relief that no major injustices came about as a result of the confusion at this stage as it would have felt very unfair to those of us watching – never mind the competitors. I do think that the race authorities will have to place an official at the necessary point if there is going to be the same route in the future.
We waited for the first Mzungu…
Then all of a sudden he appeared. The winning Malawian’s time was just over two hours and the first white guy was just outside three hours. But what’s this?! The South African (as it turned out) stopped at the pools to wash his face… Talking to him later I formed the impression that he also stopped on the plateau to admire the view…
Only a few moments later Mzungu 2 was there. This one I recognised as Chris – the man who gave the Fell Running ‘Rant’ at the Mountain Club Social recently. Other MCM members shouted with excitement at the sight of Chris. They commented that they did not even know who the first of the Azungu was – round here sometimes you have the impression that Azungu expect to know who the other Azungu are.
At the realisation that the time of these first westerners was just outside three hours someone said “That’s very good for an Azungu.”
I did actually speak to the South African after the race. He does this sort of thing back home and was astonished at the winning times of the Malawian porters. He thought maybe he’d sponsor one to go to South Africa to win a much bigger sum of money in a race there. He said that he does marathons in under three hours, this race took him over three hours (he also does mountain / hill races) and the winning Malawian took just over two hours.
I managed also to speak to Chris and tell him that I had blogged about his speech (rant) on Fell Running. I told him I’d send him the link. I told him that his rant had persuaded me of his point of view. Fell runners certainly are unfairly underestimated in the world of sport. He thought that some people really didn’t like his mangling of certain Scottish names, but I disagreed, it is all part of the fun when listening to someone with a good English accent.
Prior to the race I did not even consider the idea of entering myself. Having watched the start and finish and met several competitors arriving after 2, 3, 4 hours and seeing others still arriving hours later I now want to enter next year. It is worth being there as a spectator, but a competitor sounds good too. We spoke to a doctor who had arrived in Malawi about four or five months ago and started training. He’d managed to lose two stone and was very happy to achieve his target of under four hours. The lesson from that – normal people are entering this race so it’s worth a go. While there is prize money this race really does carry with it the spirit of the enthusiastic amateur.
For those friends of mine who are still mourning the passing of the great age of the amateur, you know – those of you still living in the 1920s, this is the race to enter.
Sadly, I won’t be breaking the two hour barrier. So, see you there next year John. Come for two months so that you can do the Sapitwa Sleepover and the Majete Crossover.
In Malawi people often gather into groups of believers. There tends to be a spectrum of beliefs within such groups but the group will have some sort of belief system centre of gravity. Yesterday I joined with my fellow believers who are united, more or less, I believe, around the self evident truth that Mulanje Mountain is, probably, the best mountain in the world.
[The word 'probably' appears quite a lot in Malawi because Carlsberg have a factory here in Blantyre.]
[I was prompted to start this blog post in that way because of a brief conversation I had with someone at the social who expressed an opinion about Mulanje which was very much along the lines of my own thinking (best mountain in the world). It felt good to be in the company of someone like-minded who seemed to understand what a great place the Mulanje Massif is. I then merely used my imagination to suppose that everyone in the mountain club thinks along similar lines - they probably do.]
This grouping used to be known as the Mulanje Mountain Club but due to liberalising trends and a more or less accepted interest in other mountains, has become known now as the Mountain Club of Malawi. Even though Malawi’s second highest mountain, Nyika, is an extraordinary and globally unique phenomenon from a montane flora and fauna point of view, it is so overshadowed by the lure of Mulanje that the Mountain Club of Malawi is still dominated by the great island in the sky. Each of Nyika, Zomba and Dedza mountains are reason enough to visit Malawi but Mulanje reigns supreme. (Why this is the case I hope to explain and demonstrate in future blog posts).
The meeting took the format of a series of presentations surrounding a buffet meal. T-shirts were on sale with the MCM logo and a statement of belief. The presentations were all very good and varied, but with an international theme.
Perhaps I was not the only one who wondered why the talk on Fell Running (running around on hills) included the word ‘rant’ in the title. We soon found out that it was an appropriate word and I was convinced that the much misunderstood and ignored Fell Runners in fact contain some of the greatest and most unknown athletes in sporting history. It is an injustice that they are only known and ridiculed for their style of shorts. Although I was won over by the arguments (or facts presented) the rant was not without it’s lighter moments. I was proud to hear of the amount of Scottish-ness involved in the history of Fell Running. However, the mangled pronunciation of Scottish names and places, as can only be achieved by a true Englishman, was a source of amusement. I was stunned (into silence) by the pronunciation of a hill in Scotland (fortunately someone else at the back corrected him). By the time Dalzell (ironically from Keswick) was pronounced ‘Dal-zell’ (!) I had recovered and realised that the speaker was fair game for some heckling. I even corrected his ‘Glahhh-sgo’ towards the end of his speech. However, as I say, I was entirely won over by the case he made for fell running and the extraordinary achievements of some of the greats of that sport. A great report.
Mulanje Mountain has the porters race coming up next month – it was therefore entirely appropriate for us to hear about the history of Fell Running.
Another good presentation (they were all good) was on an international trip to Mozambique. The scenery was clearly fantastic and everyone was curious to see the views of Mulanje Mountain from the Mozambique side on the border. It was explained that ‘Mozambique is different’ which to a Malawi person is a polite way of saying something else. Fortunately there are more and more reports now of a lot of good and great things in Mozambique and as I have been thinking now that the war is over, Malawi is a great launch-pad to some of the more remote and wild parts of north-eastern Mozambique. The group in Mozambique climbed a remote mountain in two days when the trip should take a minimum of three days. It was clear from reading between the lines that the trip was characterised by endurance, determination and pain. The scenery was fantastic and the explorers should be commended. There was another international report on a trip to Uganda which added to the theme of ‘there are very interesting and impressive mountains outside of Malawi’ (inferior of course, but never-the-less worthwhile).
I bought the book celebrating 50 years of the Mountain Club (reprinted again after another nine years). Sadly, one of the first things I noticed on leafing through it was an article on a fatality that I remember. He was a sixteen year old American who we knew and whose younger brother I was at school with. He had gone on ahead from the rest of the group with one other teenager. Mulanje can be dangerous, but danger can be avoided as it is such a large mountain that there are endless possibilities for exploring, walking, experiencing the best scenery in the world, swimming, fishing, looking out over a sea of clouds from the great island and enjoying evenings by paraffin lamp (or candles now I understand) without going to the more dangerous parts. Obeying the rules of the mountain shuts out a significant chance of serious problems. My father and Silas Ncozana were both outside of the bounds of the first rule when they each nearly came to an early end. My father was on his own because, injured, he was left behind on the top of Matambale peak and Silas Ncozana was on his own (when he met a leopard) because he had gone to search for some missing students. The first rule of Mulanje Mountain is to not be on your own.
I should probably start to stop this blog post now. I have had a complaint about the length of some of my blogs. This one has taken a bit longer than it should because I have been leafing through the book – ‘Mountain Club of Malawi 1952 – 2002′. I just read that the club was founded by a Scot, Pat Hall, who worked for the CCAP for 10 years. These pesky Scottish presbyterians – you keep on finding them in the most unexpected places around here. However, he can’t have been too holy as I read in another report that he he led a group up Sapitwa on a Sunday… and they finished the trip with tea and whisky and one of them nearly passed out after a stiff rum.
I went out at lunchtime today with Ruth to try to find the guidebook for walks on Zomba Plateau by Prof Martyn Cundy. Martyn Cundy was a colleague of my dad’s in the 1960’s and 70’s in Malawi and played a significant role in the development of the teaching of Mathematics in the UK and Africa. He studied at Trinity College in Cambridge and was awarded a PhD in quantum theory in 1932. I think I remember that my dad regarded him as a genius.
The owner of the Africana Bookshop told me that he thought that this book is out of print and he did not know anywhere that was still selling it.
Instead I looked around at old manuscripts, books and maps and eventually decided on ‘Guide to the Mulanje Massif’ by Frank Eastwood and ‘Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi’ by Andrew Ross. There were other books and maps that I wanted to buy but I decided to space out these purchases so that it does not look as though I am spending a lot of money.
I dipped into the ‘Making of Malawi’ book and read that Ross and Rev Sangaya visited the 1,000 leading political prisoners in 1959 and they discovered that about 700 of these people were presbyterians. Ross set out to find out why the presbyterians were so involved in the dawn of the new nation and traced the history of the relationship between the early Scottish missionaries and the local people. The Scots played a central role in getting Britain to protect the land from the Portuguese and the Arab slavers. Later the Scots remained on the side of the local people as the condescending colonial powers blotted their copybooks. Throughout the whole story of this land is the story of education – the colonial authorities seemed to feel quite threatened by the idea of educated natives. I think that is probably one of the books to read if you want to find out why African-western relations are better here than in some other places.
Rev Chimesya dropped by and I showed him my purchases. He spoke approvingly of the Ross book.