Conquering peaks: 5 days of hiking up Malawi’s Mount Mulanje.
By Chloe McCormack
Being Scottish, the idea of climbing a mountain isn’t a new one to me, in fact it’s something I quite enjoy! However, Lilongwe is rather flat and so I haven’t been able to practise my mountain bagging for a while. Having read up on Mulanje several times and been talked through it by Mike (who was now on his 5th time up the mountain and 2nd Sapitwa summit), I decided it was long overdue and gave it a chance myself on what would be a 5-day hike.
Not one to shy away from a challenge I convinced a friend to join me and upped my cardio at the gym. After all, Mike had done this several times and warned us what an athlete he was! The 3 of us spent the night at Game Haven before the climb. It may come as a surprise, but it does get cold really cold! Not Scottish cold but enough to warrant a jacket in the evening and a fire to be lit! We had a tasty hot meal, made the most of the hot showers, lit the fire in our room and retired for an early night.
The next day we headed to the mountain. Filled with a mixture of excitement and nervous energy we met up with our guide George, our team, and Comstar who co-owns Mulanje Outdoors, our partners on the ground. We went through a quick briefing and a historical summary and we were shown our routing on a 3D map in the gardens of the lodge!
Walking through a local village to the starting point, our guide and porters all showed us their houses, saying hi to various family members as we embarked. It is an incredible site for most of the mountain to see villagers carrying firewood, and lots of it. Although deforestation is a problem in these areas and it was sad to see the wood being used, when it comes to living day-to-day, you can see why the villagers use any resources available to them. It is also quite incredible to see the strength of the women much smaller than me, carrying massive loads of wood and certainly putting me to shame!
Mulanje and her huts
To put Mulanje in a little context, its highest peak is 3,002m above sea level, and rather than 1 mountain, it is more of a group of mountains together forming an old extinct volcano, where you can visibly see where the crater was. There are several peaks but Sapitwa is the highest and somewhat cruelly named as it translates to ‘don’t go there’; something I may have agreed with later on. Around the mountain there are 10 mountain huts you can sleep in, all of which have mattresses, cooking equipment, fire places and hut guards who can help you with collecting water, fire wood etc (it is necessary to bring up a bit of cash for tips).
Each hut has no electricity, with hole-in-the-floor-loos, so do not expect 5-star suites, but a bucket of hot water can be prepared and fresh water for cooking, cleaning and drinking is available.
To put it mildly, don’t expect to shower when you are up here! There are freshwater pools and waterfalls if you feel the need but depending on the time of year, these can be very chilly! The huts are perfectly comfortable and can be cosy when the fire is lit, but it is necessary to prepare properly and bring your own sleeping bag, snacks etc. which we have detailed later! This is exploration at its best, wild and free, and it’s camping with comfort!
“Mbuzis” and the “Kampa”
With no time to spare (we had started off a little later than anticipated), we set off towards the village at the base of the mountain ready to try and race up in 6 hours to catch the sunset at the first hut. A piece of advice I will give anyone is, much like a car, if there is no fuel it won’t travel far - eat up and carb load. There is no time here for diet cokes and salads!! When the cook offers to make you lunch or a snack – take it!
The first day for me was the hardest, the mountain is steep and there are a few false peaks, which can be a little disappointing when you think you have reached the end. However, it was a glorious day. The sun was shining, the flowers were abundant and just a few hours hiking gave us a stunning view of the villages below. We managed to race up in good time, sprinting a little to the first hut, CCAP, in order to go just beyond for sunset. Grabbing our classy boxed wine and a few mugs we ran around the corner into fields of golden grasses on the top, making good references to Gladiator and congratulated ourselves on a great first day. Well, 2 of us did!
Our nicknames along the trip were the ‘Mbuzis’ and the ‘Kampa’, which translates to the goats and the tortoise; we managed a few sundowners before our ambling photographer Mike, joined us! Burton, our chef extraordinaire had rustled up a spaghetti Bolognese for all 3 of us - Mike arriving just in time and we wolfed it down before heading to bed. CCAP is the largest of the huts and one of the oldest. In fact, it used to be a church.
With a few rooms and some bunk beds it is the most equipped of the huts with mattresses and thick blankets. There are outside changing rooms/loos (as mentioned, are a hole in the floor), I am more a fan of a bush-wee myself so I can’t say I have much experience of these loos, preferring to mark my territory outdoors. We had been worried about the cold at night but with sufficient layers and the blankets we were absolutely fine, to the point where we actually felt quite hot!
There are a few ‘villages’ on the mountains. The fields of gold we saw were in fact harvested by a small group of people that live at CCAP. It used to be a church so life up the mountain is abundant and we managed a “Hello, how are you?” to several groups of people who lived up the mountain as we went about our adventure. Malawi is surprisingly fertile and Mulanje is no different, the cooler weather and fresh water steams mean farming up here is good and some have taken advantage of that. As well as those involved in looking after the huts who live up here permanently.
Day 2, we were promised, was a bit gentler and we would be stopping along the way to see another hut and have lunch. It filled me with a little dread to see us go downhill (the other side to the one we had come up) for approximately 40 minutes, knowing full well we would have to make the ascent again, however it was at a much steadier pace and was really pleasant to be able to not have to carefully watch where we put our feet and rather start to soak in the views.
We stopped to see Lichenya Hut, approximately 40 minutes from CCAP, which was much newer, smaller and just above some beautiful pools of water. For those in smaller groups and who set off in time, I think we would recommend this hut as the first stop as its nicer and quieter. It was along this path we learnt about the Mulanje Diamonds (at least that’s what we named them). The quartz in the rock had formed into small crystals and made for shiny paths through the mountains. I’m not sure how wise it was to tell 2 excitable women about the shiny rocks, as I’m pretty sure we increased the backpack by about 3kg in the first hour.
About half way, we stumbled upon the porters and the chef who had run on ahead (expert klipspringers and advanced level, who we aimed to catch up with) who had set up a picnic lunch at a waterfall site. Some tasty sandwiches and fruit and a few leg-stretches and we set off to find our hut for the night. We were told the final section would be a steep uphill so myself and Nicolle left Mike to take the photos and set upon our next hut. About 90 minutes in we worried we may have missed a turning point and so waited for the guide and Kamba to catch up. Worrying about the silence, we reminded ourselves that Mike was on a photographic mission and so would be a bit slower and thought we may as well take a rest in the tall grasses behind a rock and wait for the group. Unfortunately for the boys there is nothing more dangerous than 2 ladies on a mountain looking for wine and I think we gave them quite a fright as we shouted at them as they stumbled upon us! Onward and upward we sprang up the last part to find the most beautiful sunset and prime real estate.
Chisepo is the hut nearest the base of Sapitwa and the only hut to stay at if you intend to summit it. With a mountain range to our left and views down the hill in front of us it really is a beautiful place for a sundowner as well as a great spot to rest before the summit. It too has some crystal-clear pools surrounding it for those that need a good wash in the hotter months after the climb. Just one large room as it’s an open plan kitchen, lounge and bedroom!
An early alarm got us up at 01.30am, ready to prepare for our night-time hike up Sapitwa. Promised by Mike that the sunrise would be worth it, we layered up and got ready to go! Sadly, Kampa said he predicted bad weather and would be safe guarding the hut and mattresses for us rather than joining! No worry as we were eager to hop up the mountain and he had done it twice before! We grabbed our guide and porter and set off just after 2am. The climb is strenuous, the first 90 minutes really is a steep rocky scramble, not difficult but will require your hands and feet so try and obtain a head torch rather than holding it in your teeth! In the dark we clung to branches and climbed what we thought were sheer cliff faces, although we had an almost full moon and good light. In the morning we realised we were not quite as daring as we’d thought and many of the rock faces we traversed along had a drop of about a meter and not off the mountain!
Once over the ‘hard bit’ we were able to klipspringer it through the rocks. There are 2 false peaks to Sapitwa and you really can’t see the Sapitwa peak until much closer to the end of the hike. Scrambling under rocks, through caves and tunnels through little isolated woodlands that made us think we were in Fern Gully and then finally with the aid of a rope (just for me, Nicolle is expert Mbuzi) we got past the final hurdle and onto the top. It’s hard to take in just how high you are. Perhaps that’s because we made excellent time and it was still dark or that it’s so cold you go a bit insane! However, the view is endless and on a clear day you can see straight over to Mozambique and the tiny twinkling lights of the cities below - just breath-taking.
Penguins in the sunshine
Finding a little cove in the rock we made a little shelter huddled like penguins until the sun started to come up. It is fair to say the temperatures at the top are icy at best. Poor Nicolle, a Zimbabwean by heart does NOT like the cold and suggested the sun wouldn’t rise and we should leave!! Sadly for her, 2 minutes later that amber fiery ball started to rise, we took our pictures, ran around a little and started to descend. The decent took a little longer, the steep rock we traversed like crabs on hands, feet and bum!! Safety first, as we like to say, and we were now happy to stop to soak in the views, the sun’s warm rays and some snacks taking it Kamba style down.
We were back for 8am and a celebratory drink! Or rather 3, breakfast to follow and a short hike to our next spot! Somewhat fuelled by adrenaline, fatigue and wine we raced the porters up and down the valleys to Tuchila on Elephant’s head, an aptly named mountain peak. Leaving Kamba and George to take pictures we ran ahead and managed to successfully keep up with our porters and challenge them a little on their pace. We came to Tuchila around 3pm and decided to have a rest as we had been climbing since 2am! We bumped into some Lilongwe friends, which was a real unplanned treat and made sure we shared some food and drinks whilst watching the most beautiful sunset we had seen all trip! An early dinner and an early bedtime, Nicolle was asleep before her head hit the pillow at 8pm. The mountain had finally tired us out!
Our final full day on the mountain was lovely, we went into what I think must have been the volcano crater - a few up and downs! However, the scenery is well worth it and the views were spectacular! Our final lunch was in Chinzama, a hut on the way. Burton is a pasta expert and whipped up another winner, which was welcome as it was slightly overcast, and it wasn’t the warmest. Snuggled up on the veranda of that hut with some music playing and a warm plate of pasta, may just be my new happy place!
Beats on full force and on much flatter terrain we headed to our final hut for the night in what can only be described as a mountain madness conga line. We drank the last of our red wine with a sunset over the mountain, colourful sunbirds flittering outside the hut and the last of our batteries charging before our final night in front of the fire! As we reflected on our time, it’s safe to say both myself and Nicolle understood why Mike has been up a few times, despite normally avoiding this level of activity!
Why visit Mulanje?
The escapism of not having signal, the views, the mental and physical challenge of climbing the peaks and the joy at completing it is unparalleled. The fresh air and mountain springs, the amazing mountains of food we were served each day, colourful flowers, beautiful birds, the promise of a serval around each corner from signs of the night before! The conversations, the songs, the dances, laughs and the stars!! The beautiful lit up skies devoid of any light pollution, the cosy fires and campsite coffees, the abundance of space! It’s safe to say we were full converts and we were a little sad to head down and back to normality. Thankfully we didn’t see ALL of the huts, nor climb all of the peaks so there is a good excuse to come back and challenge ourselves once again. Although I may try a warmer month for research purposes!
For those who are very adventurous one of the final huts Madzeka is only a 4-hour walk onward but has a much steeper 4-5-hour climb down so is definitely for those looking to extend the challenge. You can also start at Chambe, which is one of the bigger huts and the only one to have 2 toilets! It’s about a 3-hour hike from the base and 3 hours from Chisepo so an alternative starting point to CCAP or Lichenya.
If you’re wondering where to stay on Mulanje, there are many routes and places to stay, challenges and decisions to be made. So drop us a message so we can plan your perfect routing for you, tell you the tips and tricks to hike Mulanje, get you the best mountain guide, best chef and most entertaining porters and pick the best pre and post spots for those aching feet and necessary hot showers! Mulanje should be on everyone’s bucket list and definitely a must do for anyone living in Malawi but don’t take our word for it, let us show you!
About the contributor:
Chloe McCormack has lived and worked in Malawi for a ground operator for the last 3 years. Having worked in the safari industry for almost 10 years and initially trained as a safari guide, her love of nature led her to Malawi to explore the area for clients. Falling in love with the up and coming destination, she packed her bags and moved across in order to sell Malawi to the rest of the world. The huge range of activities suited her endless enthusiasm and she now happily calls Lilongwe home.