9 Nov 2013

The Island in the Sky

Malawi: Mulanje Massif, Kondanani Village

President Joyce Banda’s election in 2011 was a beacon of hope for many waiting for a more transparent administration.  But people we have spoken to say that problems of corruption persist, with exports of tobacco, tea and coffee doing little to benefit the general population.  On the road south towards Mulanje, we saw where some of these misplaced coffers might have ended up.  While filling diesel we were suddenly told to move along by the attendant – a police escort with lights flashing was chaperoning a shiny new Hummer with blacked out glass.  We don’t know who was in it, but such an expensive car seemed incongruous in this poor rural setting.  This juxtaposition seemed even more pronounced as we turned the corner into the next street. Here a large crowd had gathered around an aid agency truck to receive hand-outs of fertiliser.  The large sacks were decanted into smaller bags which were then carried or wheeled away on the backs of bicycles.  The new Banda regime is undoubtedly more liberal and progressive than the previous, but the gap between the haves and have-nots seems as great as ever.

Our primary reason for visiting the Mulanje Massif was to scale the summit of its highest point, Mount Sapitwa - the highest mountain in Southern Africa.  Only subsequently did we learn that this name translates as “Don’t go there.”

We learnt that Mulanje in traditional folklore is home to ancestral spirits.  According to tradition, these spirits will be angered if you “eat pork or mice” before you hike up there – we were happy to comply with at least half of that!  If you disobey, you risk being covered by a white sheet by the spirits and disappearing forever in the mists that cling to the summit.  This seems highly improbable given that a white sheet is virtually impossible to find in Africa, let alone on the summit of a mountain…

Happy that we had complied with the rules, we set off on the Boma trail from our camp in *Kara O’Mula Lodge* at 5.30am.  We were setting off on a 4 day hike in the Mulanje Massif with our guide Simon.  The Mulanje Massif is currently applying for World Heritage Status and we were surprised when we heard that the cost of guiding, the hut, and the park fee was less than £10 per day for us both.  We had arranged the trip ourselves in the Info Mulanje Office by looking at a “model version” of the massif and picking the huts we would stay in.  It would turn out that the model was not quite to scale!

The first few hours were beautiful and as we passed tea plantations, streams and forests the extensive views of the valley below unfolded slowly and majestically.  We could see as far as Mozambique and Simon was good at pointing out different places on the horizon.  It was good to get the legs moving after such a long time travelling in Tonka.  But after a few hours Josi understood what the lady at the booking office had meant when she said “quite steep at the end” – it was a difficult scramble to the top but when it finally arrived it felt good and gave us a great view.  We had walked from 600m to 1,950m in just under 4 hours.  


We had a final couple of hours to the Lichenya Hut.  This was a welcome sight – and also a complete surprise up in the hills, miles from civilisation.  We had not been expecting such a lovely place complete with veranda, dining room, fireplace and a mattress (no beds though!)  Simon told us that we should head down to the natural pools so naturally we followed (for a further 20 steep minutes!) - every step was worth it – we bathed in the cold pool where two rivers met and sat in the sunshine to dry off.  It was idyllic.

When we returned from our refreshing dip, the hut caretaker and some of the guards of the area were tucking into their lunch and he beckoned us over to sit down.  We chatted for a while and the caretaker offered us to eat the nsima and marinated fish – the former is a white paste which you mush together into a small ball and then dip it into the sauce of the marinated fish - it tasted great.

Dawn arrived so early that we were setting off at 5.30 every morning.  It is hard to describe where we were hiking – it did feel like an “island in the sky” – it was a vast set of rolling hills and mountains that looked much like an untouched England of old.  It was a stunning landscape – and so different from the landscape just a thousand metres below us. 

We walked to the next hut (Chisepo hut) in 4 hours.  This was another tranquil place with a stream running just a few metres from the hut, from which John and Simon set out on the 3 hour hike to the summit of Sapitwa.  It was a steep and rocky climb which Simon had told John would take “at least 5/6 hours round trip” – it has to be said that Simon looked quite impressed when it only took them 3!  Josi took a rain check on the “extra” hike and spent the afternoon reading Shadow of the Sun – a great read.

Again we headed off early on our longest day yet.  It was not planned to be the longest but after a “shortcut” which took us up to 2,500m Simon looked slightly baffled at not being able to find the path back down and as we attempted various descents we had to retrace our route as there was always a cliff drop off.  After an already gruelling 5 hour hike our legs were very tired and the descent we ended up taking was challenging – including bum sliding, walking on all fours, rock jumping and walking along a rocks edge with a few metres drop down.  Needless to say this was not Josi’s cup of tea and when we finally arrived at our final hut (Minunu hut) it was a welcome break…and this time we had beds!

The next morning the idea of “just going downhill” (as Simon said) was welcoming but after a few hours of steep descent into the valley, our knees were feeling the strain.  But it was still beautiful.

Simon kept reassuring us saying it was just a few more hours to the Hydro-station – this was the goal.  After 4 hours of walking we arrived at the hydro-station.  The lady in the booking office had said we would take bicycle taxis from there to the main road where we would take a boda-boda (mini-bus) to Mulanje.  But when we arrived the bicycles had no seats on the back and were vastly overpriced compared to what Simon said they should be…we declined thinking of the relative cost compared to the trip itself and started the walk through pineapple, banana and tea fields.  It was beautiful but stifling.  

It had been such a cool and comfortable climate on the mountain and after an hour of walking through the paths of the tea plantations in direct sunshine we came across a house and saw a car…we decided to ask if we could have a lift.  Amazingly the owner was just on his way to the main road and gave us a lift.  We were relieved to sit down, even if it was in the back of the pickup!  After 30 minutes of driving (which we were pleased to sit out), we arrived at the main road and the stop for the boda-boda.  

The boda-boda arrived in no time and as we piled in with 25 others plus luggage, plus a bicycle (definitely, more than recommended), we hurtled up the road and through the small villages at 125km/hr (also, more than recommended!)

Feeling as though we had cheated death, we invited Simon to pizza at Mulanje Pepper – fantastic thin pizzas with a hefty price tag, but it was our reward for a gruelling 4 days.  Simon conceded that this was the longest and hardest trip he had been on and that tourists didn’t usually go away for so many days.  It had been a great experience but we were pleased to see Tonka again and get back on the road.

We stayed a night at the *Game Haven Lodge* which was underwhelming on the approach but quite a place otherwise.  We were spoilt with a lovely room (with a fan, TV and a bath tub – imagine that!) and also great food – a return to the West – which was what we needed!  The chef had introduced himself when we arrived and we pushed the boat out for lunch and dinner…so we left very satisfied!

In Mulanje, we met the founder of Kondanani (meaning “Love One Another”).  It is an orphanage that was founded and run by the inspiring Annie Chikhwaza..  Amazingly the village was on the same road as the lodge we were staying in, so we decided to pop in.  And we were so glad we did.  This orphanage has received the accolade of being Malawi’s best orphanage and has been visited a number of times by the president of Malawi.  Such an inspirational place where they are managing to care for over 180 children (one 2 month old had arrived just the day before).  We were given a tour of the village and spoke with Annie about her incredible story – through faith in Jesus she has managed to overcome all the (many) obstacles in her life and runs Kondanani solely on contributions and prayer.  Kondanani is famous for being the place where Madonna adopted Mercy – but this kind of celebrity link hasn’t had any impact on Annie and her team and they are firmly grounded in the realities of caring for the children, giving them a very high standard of education and ensuring they have opportunities to try extra-curricular activities – we were also amazed at the level of the children’s English.  If you want to read more, please see www.kondanani.org

From here we headed north, hoping to pick up the pace.  Strangely 6 months seemed to be going very fast indeed!

Days in Africa: 64
Km driven: 444km

Km total:  7,841km

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