By Innocent Kaliati
I first read about The Mount Mulanje Grand Traverse in the The Hiking Guide To Mount Mulanje by Drew Corbyn. It sounded like fun, but also a little terrifying. After giving it some thought, here I was planning the hike. I put word out to try and get more people for the hike, but only two signed up. Most people were unsure about the hike due to the political tension in the country – the hike was 6 days after the fresh presidential elections.
Drew Corbyn, in his book, describes the grand traverse as “an epic trek that crosses the full length of Mount Mulanje and touches Sapitwa, its highest point. The route takes you from Mulanje town on the south-west of the mountain to Phalombe on the north-east.” I decided I would make it more fun by adding 3 more peaks – crazy! By adding the peaks, I was trying to make the trip harder and more fun than the standard one described in the book. Yes we love things!
In preparation for the hike, I read up on others that have done the grand traverse before, and of course I found a couple of YouTube videos of the people that have completed this challenge before. I started my preparatory hikes around Blantyre. One of the friends that were coming on this hike with me; Lusungu talked me into joining the famous Blantyre Three Peaks Challenge which is a 45km annual walk that aims at bagging the Michiru, Ndirande and Soche peaks in one day, while walking in between the three Blantyre mountains. This was happening two days before our Mulanje challenge – insane! Well, you can read about this epic fail right here. For now, The Grand Traverse.
June is the coldest month in Malawi and Mulanje Massif is one of the coldest places in the country all year round, so I packed 2 hoodies, a beanie, scarf, sleeping bag, two sweat pants for the evenings, three t-shirts, 6 pairs of socks and a couple of shorts for the warm walks. I also got lots of snacks! The book recommend that the tour starts from Kara O Mula following the Boma path. I altered this so we could start from Nnesa village (bamboo path). I am not a huge fan of Boma path due to my experience there four years ago. I also thought it was best to take a path I have not used before and expand my knowledge of the mountain.
Mount Mulanje – The Biosphere Reserve
We set out so early from Blantyre. I picked up the team around 5:00am. Also picked up a colleague who was going to take the car while we were on the mountain and would also pick us up from Fort Lister gap on the final day. Day 1 was the hardest day of the week for us, because this was a really long hike, albeit offering some of the best views I have seen on Mount Mulanje. With us, we had three porters, a chef and a guide. Of course, we maintained the legendary ‘Hard Helmet’ as our guide! The bamboo path starts off from a village at Nnesa and then through pineapple fields, and continues steeply towards the Lichenya plateau. The first three hours were tough, climbing in the sun without any forest cover.
As soon as we were at the top, we picked up pace as it was no longer so steep and we had beautiful, dense forest cover. The forest was more of afro-montane type of forest, this must be one of the last remaining patches in the country. The rivers flowing here were so refreshing to see. The water is drinkable as well. The path then leads to an open grassland with beautiful flowers that dominate the Lichenya plateau. Our guide said this part of the mountain boasts more flowers than the rest. It came as no surprise when we almost stepped onto a snake just before we arrived at the hut. We arrived at Lichenya Hut around 4:30pm. A group of foresters were staying there too and explained to us about the interesting study they were doing on the mountain.
As a biosphere reserve, Mount Mulanje has 57 plant species that are endemic to the mountain. These are now under threat from other invasive species growing on the mountain. Foresters have tried to eradicate these in the past, but most of them grow back. This team was then on the mountain studying the invasive species in order to find better method to eradicate the invasive species completely.
At 3 Degrees Celsius, the night was not as cold as I expected it, but we hit the sack to rise again the next day.
One Snake Per Day
Day break arrived and brought with it, the cold that characterises the Mulanje Massif. Sticking to the plan, we had our breakfast and were on the road by 7am. We proceeded to Chilemba peak via the CCAP cottage. The path was gentle on this day, so was the hike to the peak. I was so glad this was our first peak, so we started easy. The round trip to this peak was 1.5hours. Although the peak stands at an altitude of 2,350m, it was not the hardest peaks I have conquered.
From Chilemba, we walked around the main ridge of peaks heading to Chisepo hut. This was a 6 hour trek. On the way, we maintained our record sighting of one snake per day. I did not see this one, but Lusungu screamed and jumped off the trail – ha ha! Wasn’t funny on the day, but hey, we were on a mountain, snakes live there! We proceeded to the watershed while passing beneath the north peak. One more steep climb posed a good challenge to the team. From here, we could view the intimidating Chambe peak and the beautiful Chambe basin around it.
We arrived at Chisepo Hut at 4pm. Normally I like to take a dip in the nearby streams, but it was too cold for that. We freshened up, enjoyed the lovely mountain tea as we waited for dinner. We were all wrapped up as we sat by the fire like dogs soaked in the rain, while we looked back at the day and discussed the next day. Presenting a good challenge, the next day was Sapitwa peak. After dinner, we agreed on a 5:30am start the following morning. We listened to the crickets and the dying fire as we slept. The wind was very strong and whistled through the openings on the planks that form the walls of the hut. Chisepo was 1 Degree Celsius that night – unbearable!
Glacial Sapitwa Peak
The floor boards of the hut screeched, followed by a knock. Of course, our guide was wondering why we were still sleeping when we promised to be awake at 5:30am ready for the hike. It was so cold that I could not imagine the hike on those Sapitwa rocks. Well, no choice on that, we got up and wrapped up, we started off for Sapitwa. After all, we picked the coldest month of the year.
Sapitwa is the highest peak on Mulanje Mountain, towering at 3,002m above sea level. The tough part was the first 90 minutes, scaling up a rock face that was really steep. We literally were scarmbling. With us, was one porter and the guide. Looking back to admire the views, Chisepo hut was looking smaller and smaller. We used our hands to scale up this rock face. We got off the rock face and made our way through boulders and ‘biting’ grass to make it to Sapitwa.
Very strong and cold wind welcomed us to the peak. The water that normally collects on Sapitwa was literally frozen that we picked up ice plates. I was so happy to see this – how many times do you see ice in Malawi? Never! Unless you are on Sapitwa in winter, of course. This only confirmed how cold this day was. After enjoying the panoramic views from the peak, it was too cold to stay longer, so we decided to descend.
The hike down to Chisepo was relatively faster. We were back at the hut by 12:30pm. Quickly we had lunch at Chisepo Hut and proceeded to our next hut; Thuchila. The trek to this hut follows a very well cleared, undulating firebreak for about 3 hours. Before the hut, we stopped at the famous elephant’s head for a very rewarding and beautiful sunset.
The evening was short, we arrived after sundown, so it was pretty much about taking a bath, dinner then bed. 2 peaks down, and 2 to go.
Mtengo Wa Manyazi (The Shy Tree)
Clad in the morning mist, Nandalanda peak was not visible from the hut on Day 4. Rain drizzles threatened our next challenge. Plan was to hike Nandalanda peak (2,592m), which rises behind Thuchila hut, before making the trip to Chinzama hut later in the afternoon. On the advice of our guide, we decided to cancel this peak, after 6 hours of waiting for the weather to change. General rule is that ‘do not attempt to climb any peak in wet conditions’.
After lunch, we decided to make a run for Chinzama Hut despite the weather not 100% good. The fog persisted and what seemed like drizzles could have actually been snow – my best friend (Don) says that, ha ha! The route passes the north side of Nandalanda peak and gently climbs to the north west of the Ruo basin where Chinzama Hut is. Seeing the Nandalanda peak towering to our right, we thought the weather was a blessing in disguise because the peak did not look like the easiest.
On the way, our guide showed us the shy tree. Apparently if used as firewood, people around the fire get sore eyes and keep tearing down like a child that just got some spanking! These trees are left standing as they have little to no use to the locals. 2 hours later, we arrived at Chinzama hut. I immediately fell in love with this little hut. It has become my favourite on the mountain. I actually think I will go back and stay here for 3 nights with my wife later this year. The hut had two rooms; we used one for cooking generally and the other as our bedroom. Both rooms had a fire place so we kept the fire going for as long as we were awake, deep into the night.
Mulanje Cedar – Our threatened Gold
On day 5 as we trekked away from the Ruo basin to Sombani Hut, we met at least 10 locals carrying the Mulanje cedar down to the Phalombe side of the mountain. These are illegal loggers depleting our national tree; Mulanje Cedar. This tree is native to Malawi and endemic to Mulanje Massif. So sad to see. It must also be said that a number of stakeholders are putting so much effort to regrow the cedar. These include the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust (MMCT). The route was mostly flat that morning, mostly following fire beaks and crossing a river at one point.
We arrived at Sombani hut after following the firebreaks that climb out of the Ruo basin. My first ever hike to Mulanje took me to Sombani hut in 2013, and this felt, to me, like home coming! Sombani is a small hut with two rooms. One room has bunk beds and a store room while the other has a fireplace, tables and chairs. Probably the smallest hut on the mountain in my view. We rested here for a bit, prepped to go up our final peak of the week; Namisile (2,687m).
Mid morning, we set off. We were not prepared enough, mentally for this one last one. We had no idea how hard a climb this was going to be. I felt this was harder than anything we encountered during the week. We were climbing up from start to finish. We again used our hands to hold on and pull ourselves up a number of times. Of course the views were so sumptuous that when we got there, we completely forgot how hard it was to get there. On a clear day, the majority of Mulanje peaks are very visible from Namisile. Final peak was in the bag!
We got back to Sombani hut around 1:30pm for lunch, nicely crafted by our chef; Gani. We packed our bags and decided we would descend on this day. The hut was small and we knew that the group of foresters were coming there too. Seemed logical to do so to avoid having to squeeze in the night. By 2:30pm, we started off, descending to Fort Lister gap. It’s a 3-hour trek down, really steep but offering great views of the Massif and Mchese mountains.
As we walked away from Sombani, to our right, the imposing Matambale peak looked impossible to do. Challenge accepted, I thought. I would plan to come back here for this peak. On this day, we saw a mamba (at least we thought it was a mamba) lying on the fire break. We saw it and it run into the grass. 3 snakes we saw in the week!
We were off the mountain and in Fort Lister by 5:15pm. I looked back and felt so proud to have completed such a challenge. My body was aching and all I wanted was to get home, get a good HOT bath and go to bed. Our pick up vehicle was not there and we were unable to check in with him and there was no cell coverage, so we started walking. We had walked a further 10km when we finally spoke to to him and he was on his way.
I feel like I will do this hike again for the sake of the missed third peak at Thuchila. In total, we did 3 peaks, 58km and 5 days. I am already planning to return to Mulanje in a couple of months. This time I want to camp on Sapitwa to watch the sunset and sunrise.
I have put together a very informative documentary of this hike. You can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBXdqSimhO8&t=1404s