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.
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.
The first change that an old timer to Zomba Plateau notices is the road up. The road up to the plateau is NOT the Up Road. Instead, after the sawmill and a barrier you take a right and head up the Down Road. The Up Road is now closed to all but walkers (I am going to have to walk it and Kelvin said that hearing that you are not allowed to drive up it now for him is like a red rag to a bull).The second change an old timer notices (unless they are more observant) is that Mulunguzi Dam is very different. [The very observant will say “Where is Hyrax Corner?” as they head up the Down Road – Hyrax Corner was the place you would always stop or slow down on Down Road to see all the Hyraxes scurrying about or popping their heads up among the rocks. I remain mystified by this – I have not managed to get to the bottom of where Hyrax Corner has gone.] However, that was not the second thing I noticed as the ‘new’ Mulunguzi Dam stands out quite starkly when you first reach the plateau. The Mulunguzi Dam is now much bigger, and the old narrow barrier (dam) that you would precariously walk across with your hand being held by an adult – presuming that you are a child, has been replaced by a much wider larger dam.
The view down to the stream below and through the gap towards Lake Chilwa in the plain below is familiar. The views up and around to the hills are similar but there are clearly fewer trees. All around is forested still but a lot have been chopped down and replaced with new trees not yet anywhere near maturity.On our one full day on the plateau (we stayed two nights) Amelia was feeling a bit sick and the others were content to relax at the cottage so I decided to go for a walk / explore by myself.
Several things were already confusing me and I decided that the best way to get to the bottom of it was to systematically explore the plateau walks – starting with the most popular routes closest to the Mulunguzi stream and not far from Ku Chawe Inn and most of the cottages.
The first thing to do I reasoned was to circumnavigate the new Mulunguzi Dam, on foot in an anti-clockwise direction and then walk up the stream. The first part was a breeze as you walk down from the CCAP cottage, past the stables (which I had forgotten about until I recognised the fences) and then over the new dam (paying 100 MK to the Malawi Water Authorities on the way).
Aside – I had a conversation with one of the stable hands about hiring horses for a trot around the plateau. The conversation ended with me saying
“And do you have Shetland Ponies for the children to ride?”
“Yes”I nodded approvingly with a serious look on my face and grinned inwardly. Of course there are no Shetland Ponies here – what a ridiculous question.
The far side of the dam has a pleasant grassy area and is clearly set up for picnics and BBQs. I walked on towards the top end of the dam and the inflowing Mulunguzi stream. Most of the journey was easy and followed a well worn path – but it felt unfamiliar, which was strange. From that side of the dam the only clearly recognisable thing was the side of the plateau that rises steeply up from where Ku Chawe Inn is (above the top of the Up Road). I concluded that the water level must be much higher than the old dam. Eventually the path turned right and up the hill into thick undergrowth. I checked out the waterside and concluded that it made no sense to do anything other than head uphill.
The faintness of the path, the thickness of the undergrowth and the diversion from the planned route caused me to stop and for the first time consider a retreat. However, I pressed on and before too long reached a forestry road and turned left.
I can’t now remember exactly what happened next but somewhere on the road I turned left back towards my original target which were the waterfalls at the top of the dam.Soon I was remembering the words of one of my dear cousins-in-law who had asked me what it was like in the ‘jungle’. There is no jungle in Malawi I thought but this was as close as I’d got so far.
I could not see the ground at all through the thick bush growing everywhere. At times I could sense from how far between my waist and over my head the ‘plants’ were growing whether I was about to stumble into a deep hole or clamber over an invisible rock.
My thoughts turned briefly to snakes and leopards. Snakes would be no problem I concluded. At this altitude in Malawi the only snakes, as far as knew, were either pretty harmless or totally harmless to humans. It was just as well. I had prepared for the ‘expedition’ to Zomba Plateau with the seriousness that one gives to the ‘challenge’ of a Zomba Plateau stroll – I had forgotten to pack shoes.All I had was a pair of sandals. We had had a discussion the previous day over whether wearing socks with sandals is ‘British’ but I authoritatively asserted that it was ‘English’. One day later I didn’t care and was slashing my way through the ‘jungle’ wearing soaked socks and…plastic sandals.
There are, or should be (always have been and no reason for a change) leopards on Zomba Plateau. As a child on Zomba Plateau the rule of thumb was not to go for walks on your own on the grounds that leopards will not attack a group. Actually, it is highly unlikely that they will attack an individual so I unanimously changed the rule to ‘don’t let a child go for a long walk on his or her own around dusk or at night…in a remote area.’ Actually, I think the risk is almost zero as I only know one leopard scare story (Silas Ncozana on Mulanje Mountain in the 1970s). I was too close to a area of the plateau associated with humans and I was sure that no mammal would be so daft as to try to work their way through this kind of bush. There was certainly no sign of animals paths here.Given the undergrowth and forest I would have got worried about getting lost if I was not guided by the sound of the waterfalls ahead. I was sure that once I got to the stream, or crossed it, I would find a path.
Eventually, and progress was slow, I reached the stream. All I needed was a shallow enough part to walk across – my main concern would be to slip and jeopardise my wallet and local mobile phone. If I had taken my iPhone then I would certainly have crossed the stream in great fear.
On the far side I was surprised to not find a path and was sure that it can’t be far so continued on. I had already long passed the last of several decision points over ‘proceed or retreat’ and had always gone for ‘proceed.’After a while I reached the road… So I turned right in an upstream sort of direction to find the start of the path. At last I found myself on a familiar path but it looked very overgrown and hardly used. Instead of the path going all the way up to the trout farm it emerged again on the forest track / road and I decided that the road bridge ahead was a good point to turn around. The others would probably be wondering what had become of me and I could at least feel confident that I was the first person to complete a tight ‘circumnavigation’ of Mulunguzi Dam for a number of years.
(A couple of days later when I consulted with my mum on the phone she felt sure – as I did – that walking round Mulunguzi Dam was something quite normal).
Back on the forestry road it looked as though I had suddenly been transported to the Home Counties in Merry Olde England as a ground of horsey people disappeared round a corner on horseback. I soon caught up with them and found that they were in fact Americans.
People still explore Zomba Plateau and although there ‘always were’ stables I think it is done differently now.
The next day would bring about the next stage of my re-exporation of Zomba Plateau as I took the group up the old nature trail upstream from my finishing point.