An Introduction to Mulanje
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.