I am not inspired to write very much just now. Instead I will post some photos from Mango Drift on Likoma Island. These pictures were taken on the first couple of days that we were there.
I did write other posts, with no photos, on our time there and I will provide the links.
There is a series leading up to our trip to Likoma Island. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnight stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.
The First Likoma Island post is about reaching the island itself on the Ilala. This contains useful information for anyone wanting to know about disembarking from the Ilala.
The next set of posts were written on the island itself and uploaded from the island. Because I was doing this on my iPhone I decided to leave out photos.
The main post that i wrote on and published from the island was about learning to scuba dive on Likoma Island. It is my propaganda piece on why Likoma Island is the best place in the world for learning to scuba dive. I did have a conversation with someone very recently who fully agreed with my view that it is better to learn to dive in freshwater. There were many other reasons, as I recall, for my view that Likoma Island provides the best value for learner divers. I hope you are convinced. If you want to do this yourself then please get in touch. I may be able to help.
Another piece was on the birds on Likoma Island.
The comings and goings of people at Mango Drift are dominated by the arrivals and the departures of the Ilala. The secondary influence on who is at Mango Drift and when are the flights to the islands. However, it is not the passengers who are seen at Mango Drift so much as the pilots. Small planes bring customers to the upmarket Kaya Mawa, the pilots come to Mango Drift. There is probably no better place in Malawi for meeting pilots than Mango Drift on Likoma Island.
The Ilala runs up and down the Lake each week. We were on the northbound journey and some of our fellow passengers were simply waiting for the return of the southbound Ilala. This gave them a couple of days at Mango Drift.
Others there were a very nice Israeli couple, Dan and Gabriela, who were traveling on to Mozambique and the coast. He is a brave man as he is Israel’s answer to Richard Dawkins. In Israel seemingly there would be a lot of opposition to his book launch despite my perception of a large secular community within Israel. It was unfortunate that time was too short for a wide debate as there was a full range of views on offer among the guests. From the tranquil of Likoma Island he would be heading to the storm of his book launch in Israel. I hope that it generates a good debate and light as well as heat…
Here is a musical composition by Dan accompanied by some pictures that Dan and Gabriela put together from a previous trip in Mozambique. Here is his music website. Dan also told us about a tribute to Japan, The Tsunami Song he co-wrote with words by Gabriela.
There was also a family from the UK mentioned in a previous blog post. Several of them, like me, were visiting Malawi after many years away.
On Saturday morning we decided to check out some tourist spots that we have somehow not seen so far.
First stop was Game Haven. This place is advertised as offering top end accommodation in the Blantyre area (actually it is just over the border in Thyolo District). We had been intrigued to hear that it is the nearest place to Blantyre offering ‘game drives’ to see a reasonable selection of animals within a large fenced off area. The animals were no where to be seen near the lodge – we did not actually make an effort to look to be honest. We were told however that with all the work going on to build a golf course, a swimming pool and more chalets and rooms the animals had retreated to the farther reaches of the large fenced off area.
I hope that all the building work goes well and that when it is finished Game Haven will provide great five star accommodation with zebras and nyalas grazing on the golf course. I wish them all the best and hope that their vision turns into reality. I certainly would not fault them on ambition.
We did not stay long and headed off to the other end of the upmarket spectrum to experience some old colonial style life in a tea estate.
Satemwa Tea Estate is a family run and owned tea estate and the family of the Scotsman who started it all in the 1920s are still living there.
Huntington House is the original family home and the rooms are named in accordance with who used to sleep where. We thought that it was a great place to stop and relax and I would recommend this place as well as Fisherman’s Rest as good locations for a relaxing day away from Blantyre.
In addition to eating and drinking other activities on offer are tea tasting, coffee tours, bird walks, walking, picnicking, mountain biking and croquet. The nearby Thyolo mountain has unique sub species of birds.
We did plan to go on to Mulanje but by the time we had checked out the bungalow it was time for lunch and Amelia suggested that we stay. By the time that we had returned from viewing the bungalo the managers had returned from watching the rugby. They are a couple that we had met briefly at Majete. At last we had fulfilled our promise to visit their establishment. The good news is that Marc is very keen to climb Mulanje with us. On the way out we met another couple keen to climb Mulanje. It seems there is no shortage of people looking for someone to organise Mulanje trips for them.
The car engine was making a loud deep revving kind of sound as I turned it on and when I pressed hard on the accelerator. Not being a petrol head I did not understand what might be causing this. This problem seemed to start while driving on some of the rough steep roads within the tea estate. As it was getting late we abandoned our Mulanje ambitions and headed back to Blantyre.
Little known fact: Tea and coffee arrived in Malawi via the original Scottish mission in Blantyre. Now they are two important export crops.
I have a series of posts on our trip on the Ilala to Likoma Island. A trip that includes stops at Liwonde National Park and Monkey Bay on the way.
Now, the next part of the trip is the arrival at Likoma Island. I have done a post on that already but it had no photos – because I uploaded the post from Likoma Island itself on my phone and I was not confident about having enough bandwidth for uploading photos.
Previously on this series, which can be thought of as a guide to a trip on the Ilala I have the following posts. Firstly, a stop to buy fruit and vegetables at the side of the road. Secondly, our overnight stop and adventures at Bushman’s Baobabs at the southern end of Liwonde National Park, followed by our next overnights stop and wait at Mufasa in Monkey Bay. After that were a couple of posts on departing on the Ilala and then life on board the Ilala.
Logically, the next post should be about disembarking the Ilala on Likoma Island. The following is what I wrote the day after we arrived….
We arrived last night on Likoma Island. Not long before nightfall we could see Likoma Island from the deck of the Ilala.
The last few hours of the journey were very interesting as we were closer to the shoreline than at any point apart from the very beginning of the journey when we proceeded up the eastern shore of the Cape Maclear peninsula from Monkey Bay.
Now we were close to the Mozambique shore and the start of that wild and forgotten area of north eastern Mozambique. It stretches from Lake Malawi or the Malawi border all the way to the Indian Ocean. I heard that on this part of the journey you could quite easily see elephants coming down to the Lake to drink (we were not adjacent to a National Park or a Game Reserve – just wild Africa as it had been for centuries).
As we approached Likoma Island, that island of Malawian territory within Mozambique waters, we started to think about the life-boat right next to our cabin.
At each stop when there is no harbour, the life-boat is lowered into the water before people from a lower deck pile onto it. We asked if we could get into it before it is lowered as we have a lot of luggage as well as a three year old and a baby to carry.
It was a difficult conversation because we knew that if we put our luggage in and could not get on ourselves except from the lower deck, then we could get separated from our bags.
The reason we had a lot of luggage was because we are carrying a large tent, blankets, sleeping bags, food…and a pushchair. We have a four wheel drive, high sided, off road style of push-chair (Americans call them strollers I think). Amelia likes to take these on holiday as they can carry a lot more than babies. One advantage of carrying blankets is that they were loaned out to very grateful (non-cabin) 1st class fellow passengers on the top deck of the Ilala. They were also loaned out at Mufasa Lodge the previous night when some had to sleep on the beach.
I can make further excuses for why we are carrying a lot of luggage but that will do for now.
Our luggage was accepted on the life-boat and we went down to the lower deck and pushed our way to the front of the queue. We had after all paid to go cabin class (one step above 1st class) so surely we were entitled to some sort of favourable treatment… Amelia was better at pushing her way through the throng carrying David than I was carrying Ruth.
Soon we were first on board the life-boat and on top of all our luggage and many more poured on. We looked up to the upper decks in the dark to the first class and other cabin class customers peering over the side and watching the show.
Suddenly with large numbers of people, bags of rice, food and miscellaneous other forms of luggage we were off to the shore. We got to within about five yards of the very crowded shoreline and stopped. My main concern was of course the possibility of my iPhone, my macbook, my camera, my wallet and numerous other important electrical items getting wet. There was no way that I was moving until I was as sure as I could be that they were not going into the water. Amelia jumped in as I transferred my iPhone from my pocket to my small rucksack. She shouted at me to take off my shoes….which was the least of my concerns. I completely ignored that bit of advice and regarded it as simply an example of her sense of humour. One of the crew members held Ruth as I organised the important stuff between handing the large heavy suitcases to Amelia to carry to the shore.
Although only a small distance to the beach it was difficult to see either her or the luggage (or David) due to the darkness and the dense crowds of people. The arrival of the Ilala is the main event of the week here and a lot of people are involved one way or another.
By the time I was ready to risk a jump into the dark waters below, 75% of the passengers had got off, so it was now time for others to jump on board. This meant that I had to fight with some difficulty to get over the side of the life-boat while at the same time remaining in enough control to be able to prevent my rucksack and it’s precious cargo getting at all wet. Fortunately this part worked out fine but I did notice that my trouser pockets ended up being a bit wet and so congratulated myself on my decision to move the iPhone.
I then was able to turn round and collect Ruth from the life-boat and make my way to shore. She of course was perfectly calm and I was relieved that the crew member who was holding her did not in any way seem to expect a tip. It was not a perfect environment for looking through my wallet for an appropriate sum. Actually no one seemed to be looking for a tip in order to help us.
On shore a few yards away I wondered how Amelia could be sure that we had everything. I could see no way of us moving without others helping us to carry some stuff so I reached for my iPhone to call Josh or Kevin from Mango Drift – “Sorry, he’s five minutes late – can you make your way up the slope towards where there will be a couple of lights.”
Before I could say “No” the call was cut off and I hoped that somehow we would be found within this crowd. Amelia had no such hesitation and said that we should start moving the stuff. I was against this idea on the basis that we would have to leave some bags and come back for others and something could go missing. I am not wishing to say anything against the character of the people of Likoma Island but for all I knew, this was a possibility.
Ruth thought that this was all a great adventure and was rushing around playing with children round about – much to the amusement of everybody.
I insisted that we only move the luggage in very small steps but I could see that Amelia was ignoring this as she headed up the beach and back with one item after another. In the end, despite the complication of watching Ruth and the luggage at the same time, in the dark, and in a crowd of people, we made a great deal of progress. The two vehicles from Mango Drift soon arrived.
Finally we were on board, much to my surprise, a game viewing vehicle. Ruth and I sat at the back with a couple from England. An Israeli-English couple sat in the middle and David and Amelia sat in the front with the driver (Josh I think).
Unfortunately the other vehicle seemed to be broken down and the English-Scottish family were eventually abandoned (for now) as we headed off to the other side of the island. It seemed a much longer journey through baobab country than I had expected. At one point those of us at the back were hit by low hanging mango tree branches and at another I counted a total of seven laughing children hanging off the back of the vehicle.
Ruth entertained us all by singing “Twinkle twinkle little star”. However, she point blank refused to sing “The Wheels On The Bus” as that is a daytime song…apparently.
Eventually we arrived at a point which we were informed was as close as the road gets, and we all got out. Our excess baggage was distributed between Mango Drift employees and other guests and all I was carrying was my rucksack and David. It was a complicated journey even for our four wheel drive pushchair and we were all very glad of the bright moon over the baobabs.
Finally we reached the beach and Mango Drift. It was dark but still looked a little bit, I thought, like paradise.
The vehicle then returned for the others.
Eventually at the bar we all assembled and relived our different but related stories of how we somehow got ashore. Some people were appalled at the “lack of organisation” and the fact that people were jumping onto their lifeboat before they had got off. This situation was compared unfavourably with tube etiquette on the London Underground. The whole thing was described as almost the experience of a lifetime. I personally thought that the whole thing showed how honest Likoma Island people in particular and Malawians in general are. There were ample opportunities for people to take advantage of us – or worse, steal – and it certainly did not seem as though anything like that was even imagined by the locals.
It then emerged in conversation that Amelia had carried all our heavy luggage from the lifeboat to the shore and people started looking at and also…talking about my shoes (they were all wearing sandals).
I mentioned that I had other priorities and the idea of taking off my shoes seemed trivial in comparison. “I was thinking about my iPhone.”
Someone said “Your shoes look dry?!”
Realising how surprised people were that Amelia had done all the heavy lifting I decided to press home my advantage and claimed that “Amelia carried me to the shore.”
Today, the day after and our first day in paradise the events of last night seem to be a very long time in the past.
I was writing something else for the next blog post but it was too ‘serious’ – despite my little jokes – and too long (I had no idea that there was so much content in my head).
So, instead I am attempting to write a blog post about our first night and the second day on the Ilala. The earlier parts on this series are a shopping stop, a canoe safari, Mufasa and then departing Monkey Bay on the Ilala.
As mentioned in the previous entry it was sunset before we arrived at Nkhotakota. We went to bed early and could hear a lot of the noise that went on outside our cabin. The first thing that happens is that the lifeboat engine gets ‘fired up’ or whatever the correct terminology is. It makes a lot of noise and there is a motor. After half sleeping through the loading and offloading at Nkhotakota we were off and heading directly across the lake to Metangula in Mozambique.
It was a rough crossing. Not for nothing is this known as the great and mysterious inland sea so long rumoured of in the early 19th century and before. Ruth was seasick. Amelia asked me to check that we had life-jackets in the cabin….groan. Queue me rolling my eyes as I was trying to settle down to sleep. It was not only my eyes that were rolling. I wondered how it felt up on deck.
Of course there was no need for life-jackets. This boat has a 60 year track record of charting these waters. What’s more it was made in Glasgow, Scotland in the great old days of Scottish shipbuilding. It was not the Titanic, built in Belfast, Northern Ireland…. (hello to my Northern Ireland friends).
By dawn we were at Metangula on the Mozambique side. What does Mozambique look like? Does the Lake on the Mozambique side look strangely different or surprisingly similar?
We were not too long at Metangula before we starting heading up the far eastern and Mozambican shore line. Surely this was why I came on the Ilala, to see some of the other stranger and less familiar shores on the vast and long lake of stars. What was fascinating about this shore is the knowledge that it is the front-line to the vast and utterly wild north and north-eastern Mozambique.
[I have heard stories of long flights over this wild land where only a single track was seen in hundreds of miles (and it led straight up to a house and stopped). I have heard of wild animals that are tame and come close – because they don’t have experience of humans. On the human side I have heard of ‘go-nakeds’. On the far side are scarcely touched Indian Ocean beaches, archipelagoes and turquoise waters with some of the best diving in the world.]
Sadly I could not see much evidence of all this except the relative sparseness of signs of human life. (Tiny villages on the shoreline of Lake Malawi here are probably the local equivalents of London, New York and Paris – am I getting carried away?).
Anyway, I did look out for the sight of elephants on other wild animals coming down to the Lake to drink. Sadly I did not see any despite being told by some that you can see this “all the time”.
Most of the first class passengers were however on the far side of the boat looking out to ‘sea’. Some were fascinated by how much like a sea this lake looks as on this side there was no chance of being able to see any land.
The main activities indulged in by first class passengers were reading, sun-bathing, listening to music, having a beer with someone you have just met, having a long conversation about the meaning of life and telling everyone about your particular NGO project. (I was a bit rude and did not listen to the people who wanted to talk about how their NGO was something you could believe in but someone’s else’s was counter-productive).
There were various groups of people in first class – almost all of them foreigners. Some foreigners were in second class but not many. Not all the foreigners were the backpacker types that you are probably imagining…and there is nothing wrong with backpackers. Some people were on holiday. Like me some were re-visiting Malawi after many years away and showing the new members of their families their old country. I wrote about that family on a previous post (and hope to write about them some more as our adventures were destined to continue together). Others were going on holiday to Nkwichi Lodge (a self sustaining ‘off-grid’ five star establishment on the Mozambique shore just south of Likoma Island). They were fortunate in that they knew the owners from when they lived “back een Lundin” (London). Others were a couple with a little girl Ruth’s age who were traveling all over the world (or Africa), I can’t remember which, for two years. We thought that they were brave traveling with such a young child. He is from Belgium and she is from the Philippines. They have rented out their house in New York to spend the time on the road. Others were something like backpackers or overland travelers. One interesting person was the owner of Dedza Pottery who was on his way (with cargo) to Likoma Island to build a new ‘mid-range’ lodge. I told him that I knew the geologist who discovered in the 1970s that the Dedza area in Malawi would be very good for pottery.
There were some interesting characters on the return journey – more about them in a future exciting installment!
Eventually, as the light was fading, we were within sight of Likoma Island. Now, I have already written a post about our arrival on Likoma Island. I wrote that while on Likoma Island and uploaded it with my iPhone. For that reason I did not upload photos – but believe me, it is a post that could do with photos. It was a post that appealed to my mother’s sense of humour as I remember her laughing about it when we spoke on the phone. Perhaps I will improve on that post and add some photos.
So, a day and a half after leaving Monkey Bay, one the one day delayed Ilala (that is very unusual I should add) we were arriving on Likoma Island.
Before I leave the Ilala story for now and until I cover the return journey let me offer some advice for future Ilala travelers in first class
1. bring the following
⁃ blankets (we loaned ours out) or a good sleeping bag
⁃ a mattress (or some sort of equivalent)
⁃ a good book
⁃ games to play with your new friends
⁃ your favourite music
⁃ supplies of kinds of food from the market or supermarket that you might fancy when considering a change from the ships restaurant Or just some feel good chocolates or ‘crisips’.
⁃ a sun hat or equivalent
2. time your trip
⁃ according to the moon if you want to stare up at the vast array of stars in the great southern sky unobscured by a bright full moon
⁃ according to the season
⁃ without a strict end deadline just in cast the Ilala is a little late
⁃ to enjoy yourself at Mufasa (or elsewhere if Monkey Bay is not your departure point) just in case it leaves late.
⁃ you are boarding or offloading somewhere other than one of the ports then consider the possibility of a rough small boat voyage to the shore and especially if you are carrying expensive electronic equipment which you don’t want to get wet
5. Chill out man
⁃ this is not a trip for people who get hot under the collar if their transport is five minutes late. You are not going to an interview – you are supposed to be enjoying the traveling more than the arriving.
On Saturday we finally boarded the Ilala. Although I had booked weeks earlier I had still not purchased my ticket from the ticket office. As Amelia and I had booked to go Cabin Class we were high status travelers. Others discussed what class they would travel and David (the Scottish guy who had been sceptical of my crocodile tales) confirmed that they would be “slumming it in 1st class”.
A first class ticket was approximately half the price of a Cabin Class ticket. We booked a cabin because we have two small children. First class passengers sleep on the top deck. If they time in right they can lie there with a great view of the southern sky. Second (and third?) class passengers sleep below with the cargo. At the ticket office I regret missing a great photo of about fifteen or twenty baboons jumping from a nearby tree onto the office roof. It would have been the ultimate ‘Monkey Bay’ photograph.
We saw the historic Chauncy Maples ‘parked’ next to the Ilala and soon we were off. Amelia and I were carrying an UNBELIEVABLE amount of luggage. Truly this was the Lampoon Taylor Family Holidays. I had figured however that people would help us carry out stuff at the critical moments. However the blankets that we brought were life savers for some of our fellow passengers – we brought them for our planned camping at Mango Drift. For a beach trip I usually would want to pack at least two boats in my suitcases plus all the camping gear I could think of.
First we passed along the western side of the great Cape Maclear peninsula. We were only a few days short of one hundred and fifty years from the day David Livingstone first saw and named Cape Maclear.
Soon we could see the gap between the mainland and Domwe Island where the second ever group of westerners ever to set sight on Cape Maclear sailed a few years later (they were a government expedition sent to investigate the, as it turned out, false stories of David Livingstone’s death). Locals now say that a lone leopard lives on Domwe. Soon we could see ‘White Rock’ which is reputed to have underwater caves with one of the top ten fresh-water dives in the world. Next is ‘Elephant Island’ otherwise known as Mumbo Island. The first Scottish missionaries to settle at Cape Maclear (the third lot of Europeans therefore) found an elephant on this island. It seemed incredible as the island is so far from the mainland so the elephant would have had to swim.
Then the Ilala heads out into open water and over to the first stop which is Chipoka. Chipoka is, I think, one of only three proper ports for the Ilala, the others being Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay. The other stops make use of life-boats and small local boats to ferry the cargo and the passengers.
Before reaching Nkhotakota it was sunset. The evening stop at Nkhotakota would be followed by the night crossing to the far side and to Mozambique.
Our big August holiday was to the Lake and Likoma Island. We took the Ilala boat from Monkey Bay to Likoma Island and returned just over a week later. It was a beach and scuba diving holiday.
Between Blantyre and Monkey Bay a good place to stop is Liwonde National Park. It is half way. Early European explorers in this place reported seeing an extraordinary variety and concentration of wildlife here. The first missionaries, from David Livingstone onwards, en route from the Indian Ocean to the Lake took their steamer along the Shire River through what is now Liwonde National Park.
We wanted to stay at Bushman’s Baobabs, a new place run by Darren, the previous owner of Chinguni Hills Lodge, towards the southern edge of the National Park.
We took a ‘canoe safari’ from the Shire river tributary next to Bushman’s Baobabs into a large lagoon adjoining the Shire River itself. Assured that it was safe because the experienced local boatman sticks to shallow waters (too shallow for crocodiles to get any upward trajectory) and knows what distance to keep from the hippos, we got on board.
It is an ideal way of getting among the animals and birds in their natural environment. Over 400 species of birds have been spotted in Liwonde National Park and even for a non bird lover for me it was clear that there was an extraordinary variety of birds round every corner. Unfortunately we did not see any elephants drinking but we did see many other species of wild mammals.
The next day we were ready for Monkey Bay.
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.
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.
Further to my previous post Kevin has mentioned another point in favour of learning to dive in Lake Malawi…a lack of seasickness on the part of the students here.
I know that Lake Malawi produces big waves and great storms but I have seen none of that on Likoma Island in the last nine days. While in other places you could lose two or three diving days a month that does not seem to be true here.
In a previous posting Kevin worked at Tofu in Mozambique where there was a constant conflict between diving and alcohol. They may have the greatest diving there on the ocean coast of Mozambique but being a kind of Ibiza for South Africans, the distractions are too much for many student divers (I am sure it’s a bit more cultured than that).
Of course the views I have expressed are subjective. If you want to learn to scuba dive in the most famous ocean resorts, drink and party in the evening, and learn to cope with a hangover and seasickness when underwater…then Likoma Island may not be for you.
Still, a beer is less than a £1 here.