Sunday Morning~ Mulanje
September 18, 2016
Journal entry, September 17, 2016:
Thirty-seven years ago I climbed this mountain, pregnant with my first child. I was just barely pregnant, not even sure of it yet, and we had to walk eleven kilometers to get to the trail because we couldn’t find a ride. After that walk we started the climb, a grueling ascent, making it to a hut before dark. It was just a few days after my twenty-third birthday. I could never have imagined this is where I’d be to celebrate my sixtieth. What has transpired during that time could fill volumes, but here I am, in the midst of an incredible and majestic landscape (not a famous one, though it should be), sitting on the porch of a cedar hut watching the sun lower itself behind a peak.
That’s about as far as I got! I thought I’d write all the details of the three day hike while on the mountain, but didn’t get much further than that. So I’ll try to fill in the story, though we have no power and I’m not sure how long the battery will last on this laptop. It’s Sunday evening and I’m tired, sick with a cold, and a little tipsy from the gin and tonic we’re calling supper, but I’ll give it a go…
I hadn’t really planned ahead for a celebration for my sixtieth. I did for my fiftieth, but I was just pulling my life back together then and it seemed a monumental milestone. I wanted to mark this decade somehow, but figured just being back in Malawi was pretty special, so had low expectations for actually marking the day. But it turned out to be one of the best birthdays I’ve had. It has been spectacular. I’m so happy (but tired and sick)…
Climbing Mt. Mulanje takes some preparation. It is actually a mountain range, not one singular peak, with a massive plateau in the center. There are ten huts scattered around the plateau and many trails connecting them. None of these trails are marked. Neither are the ones that come up from the base; I have no idea how many there are. It is necessary to hire a guide and if you are smart, a porter. The huts all have a fireplace, a water source, and a caretaker, so carrying a stove and water isn’t necessary, but all your food must be brought in. If you belong to the mountain club (which we now do) you get a key to the storage room, which has mattresses and cooking supplies like pots, pans, plates and cups. We took Friday off and planned to climb up to the plateau on Friday, spend that night in one hut, then walk across the plateau Saturday and spend that night in another hut, then down Sunday and back to Blantyre. It’s much easier if you have a car to get to Mulanje but we don’t so public transportation just added to the adventure.
George had gotten the name of a guide from a friend, and he called him last week to book this trek. Sampson is his name, and he agreed to arrange for the porter and plan the route. We didn’t really care which route we took up, it’s all beautiful. We left home at dawn on Friday with our supplies and food in a big (heavy) backpack, and we each had a daypack as well. We took a minibus to Limbe, a city near Blantyre, where we got another bus to Mulanje. That all went very well and we made it there in good time, about two hours for a fifty mile journey. Not too bad! Sampson was there to meet us in the town of Mulanje, which is still several miles from the base of the mountain. He’d said he’d arrange for a car to bring us to the trail, but when we got there he told us that he talked to the caretaker at the hut we were supposed to stay at and there was going to be a big party of seventeen people staying there, so he was changing the route. That was fine with us, but that would require getting back on the minibus to go around the base of the mountain range to a different starting point and taking motorcycles in to the trail. We told him we aren’t allowed to ride on motorcycles. His face fell and he said, “Ok, one minute.” Then got on his phone and made a call. He told us he could get us a ride in a truck, but it would be twelve thousand kwacha each way. He asked if that was ok with us. We looked at each other and said, “We don’t really have a choice at this point, so sure”. We thought we had enough money between us for this unexpected expense and I had no desire to begin this hike with an eleven mile pre-test. Just the minibus was enough to start the day. So the three of us got back on the crowded minibus, which is a twelve-seater van with twenty people in it. Several miles later we were dropped onto a dirt road where a rusty pickup truck with a broken windshield was waiting for us. Sampson threw the big pack in the back and we hopped in. A few miles into the ride I thought the twelve thousand kwacha was a bargain. We stopped in a village to pick up the porter, Clement, who ran from his house and jumped in the back in what seemed like one motion. Then we continued for miles through an enormous tea plantation on a punishing dusty dirt road with the massive peaks in front of us, and jacaranda trees in full purple bloom dotting the foreground. It was gorgeous.
When we finally reached our starting point it was nearly ten-thirty and hot. We arranged all we were to carry and started off, a gradual ascent through sadly deforested acres of foothills. It was hot and seeing what used to be thick forest absolutely barren, made me heartsick. Stump upon stump poked out reminding us of what had been there before. Now the landscape was terraced maize and cassava fields. It is a heavily populated area and people need to eat.
It took us about an hour to get to the steep part and, boy, is it steep. It’s a hard ascent and having so few trees made it very hot. Sampson guided us to a spot where the river made a pool and we were able to cool off for a bit. George actually stripped down and went for a quick swim, but the temperature change nearly killed him! The water was cold! I just got my legs wet. Sampson went swimming as well, a gorgeous specimen of a human body. He told us we were the first clients he was taking up the mountain “in our age group”. He said, “You are old ones, but you are very fit.” I had him pegged for about fifty. He’s missing all of his front teeth. But he told us he was thirty-six, the age of my oldest child. He was born very near the mountain. His father had been a caretaker in one of the huts and he grew up learning every trail. It felt good to be in his presence. I felt safe with him. I felt kinda guilty watching Clement carrying our heavy pack, but remembered that hiring porters and guides promotes an ecotourism and if it could grow into an industry that supported people, there would be an alternative to this terrible deforestation. Plus, Clement actually looked like he was enjoying it. Smiling the whole way.
As we continued up we had to step aside every once in awhile for men carrying huge cedar beams on their heads. They looked superhuman, some barefoot, some in flip flops, some in torn sneakers held together with twine. It was stupefying to watch them glide down this steep path with grace, their sweat-covered bodies the only sign that it was a difficult feat. They greeted us as they passed. If one of those beams fell on me it would kill me.
We slowly made our way up and the air got cooler and the views got more magnificent. By four o’clock we were at Madzeka hut, a sweet cedar building with a tin roof and covered porch. The caretaker greeted us and showed us inside. There was a stone fireplace, wooden table and benches, and a storage room where we found a chest with blankets and all the cooking utensils we needed. Sampson showed us the river where there were pools to bathe in and further upstream a good place to collect drinking water. It was heaven. We were drenched in sweat, so went to bathe before it got too cool. The whole setting was tucked into a grove of trees and both George and I couldn’t stop saying how beautiful it was. What a perfect spot. We had the place to ourselves. Sampson did good!
After we were clean and changed we sat on the porch and watched the sunset with a cup of wine. The caretaker lit a fire for us and we heated up the goat stew I’d made and had a feast by candle light. I felt like I could have stayed there forever. Not a whole lot later we put the mattresses in front of the fireplace, pulled out our sheets and got the blankets out of the chest. And then I spent most of the night coughing as the cold that was brewing decided to strike. Oh well. It was a nearly perfect scene.
Saturday morning we made our breakfast and set off about eight for a five hour trek to the next hut. This was not a grueling day as we were traversing the plateau, but it was just as spectacular. The swaths that hadn’t been burned by hunters were covered in wildflowers and the massive plateau is surrounded by rounded peaks. I loved watching how Sampson knew the landscape so well. There is no way we could have ever done this ourselves. No way. At one point when we stopped for a rest, he said, “This is very enjoyable for me. You are very good clients. You don’t complain. You don’t say, ‘Sampson, when can we rest? Where is there more water? Can you get me more water?’ You just keep going and you are not too slow. Yes, you are the old ones, but you look very young. I say that this woman is old but looks young. She wears short pants and seems like she was born in the mountains.” Well. I kept laughing every time he referred to me as “the old one” but I must say, I thought this was a very nice birthday present. It is not insulting here to refer to someone’s age. Age is respected and honored. Their lives are so physically hard that their bodies are worn down early in life compared to ours. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be to celebrate this birthday. And the way Sampson talked, George may very well be the oldest person ever to climb that mountain. “Seventy-six!” Sampson would say, then shake his head in amazement. It felt pretty good.
We were heading to Chinzama hut where we would take lunch, then we were going to continue on to Minunu hut to spend the night, but when we got to a spot that had cell reception Clement called a friend who told him that Minunu hut had been robbed and there were no supplies there. That was terrible news. Not just because it messed up our plan, but it’s such a disappointment for their livelihood. Apparently the caretaker there had broken his leg and there was no one guarding the place. We decided to just stay the night at Chinzama hut and leave really early Sunday to finish the hike. After a five hour walk to get there it was a nice relaxing afternoon in another spectacular setting.
Chinzama hut is situated dramatically different from the first hut. This was up on a bluff, open and exposed, but with a huge vista. It was the kind of landscape that makes you feel very small. It was a little larger than Madzeka, with two rooms each with their own fireplace, and a bigger storeroom. All the blankets had been stolen though, so we had to make do with what we’d brought for warmth. We spent the afternoon reading and writing and dozing. Around 4 p.m. the caretaker brought water he’d heated to the bathing area and we had warm bucket baths. Heaven. It was much cooler there and I had little desire to bathe in the river. Then it was a gorgeous sunset while sipping wine and talking about how lucky we were to be able to do this. We talked about how simple life would be to live like that where all our energy would be put into just surviving. There would be so much less to argue about. The simpler life is, the less to disagree about, yet we thought we’d miss the life we left. It was just lazy conversation in a beautiful place, alone except for the guide, porter, and caretaker who kept to themselves in their own cabin. I did remark that living like that was really nice when you have three servants working for you. When it was dark we cooked on the fire, savored our meal like you do when you feel like you’ve earned it. Then we made up the bed in front of the fire and I made hot chocolate and added a generous shot of “Best Whiskey” which I’d found at the local market. For the equivalent of $1.50 it wasn’t too bad! In fact, mixed in my concoction of cocoa, powdered milk, sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne, it was downright delicious. I’ll have to go back to Aunt Dot’s Bottle Store for more.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help me sleep much; I was up coughing and sneezing and blowing my nose. I can’t believe I caught a cold like this. I never get sick and I have no patience with it. We needed to be on the trail by six this morning in order to get down off the mountain and back to Blantyre by dark, so we ate some rice and eggs, drank some tea, and started off across the plateau much of which had been burned by hunters looking for game. The vegetation will grow back, but it did seem tragic to see so many acres charred. After passing that, the trail went through what seemed like square miles of grass and wildflowers. We stopped to check on the hut that had been robbed and took inventory of all that was missing. I’m not sure if the forestry department or the mountain club replaces it, but what a sweet setting that was! There is a peach and apple tree nearby and a cultivated garden with Irish potatoes. Hopefully we’ll get back up and be able to stay there. I’d like to go sometime during the rainy season when all the orchids (170 varieties!) are in bloom.The trail from there took us down through thick rainforest and was shady most of the way. Good thing, too, because it got hotter and hotter as we descended and it was steep. Our legs were shaking. There were monkeys above us in the trees and all kinds of birdsong. We passed hidden waterfalls and it felt exotic and wild and I loved it. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my birthday.
We ended the hike at the hydroelectric plant that fuels the tea estate. It’s not operating now as it’s toward the end of the dry season and there isn’t enough water in the river. The plan is for operation to start in November when the rains come. We sat under a frangipani tree and waited for the pickup truck to come and collect us there. When it did we had the same long ride through the tea plantation and we were deposited on the side of the main road. Sampson stayed with us until we flagged down a minibus and he negotiated a good price for us for the ride back to Blantyre. Great hike.
The ride back was good theater as George put it. At one of the roadblocks the police asked us for passports, which was the first time that’s happened. I had a copy of mine, but George hadn’t brought his. When the policeman saw the Peace Corps passport he said, “Oh, ok. No problem.” George said, “I’m with her.” and that was the end of it. Maybe he thought we were coming in from Mozambique.
So we made it home just before dark, tired and grubby, but happy. Just as I started writing this the power went out and hasn’t come back on yet and it’s Monday evening! It was making me so anxious last night to not be able to post this. It’s the first one I’ve missed in a long time. Hated to break the streak. Oh well. We are without power more than with it now.
I’m not going to be able to wait up much longer to see if it comes back on. This cold is knocking me out. I may have to get up in the middle of the night to do it if it comes back on. That seems to be the only time we get power these days.
I have a long story that happened last Monday but I don’t have the energy to put it down here so will save that for next week.
Thanks for all the birthday wishes! I feel loved.
Love to all,