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Ups and Downs - Mulanje Massif


We had gotten up before 6am to try and catch one of the more reliable but crack-of-dawn-leaving 7am buses but our breakfast took too long to be prepared so we took our time instead and caught a series of minibuses, via one of the big cities Blantyre to buy food and cooking pots for the walk and change some cash. The market there was huuuge and crowded with no real structure, which leant it the feel of a slum especially by being cut through by sludgy water in places and by having a nearby free bus station toilet which is honestly the worst I have ever…. EVER seen and I’ve been let into the squat toilets in men-only coffee houses in Iran. But the market sold clothes and gardening implements and more than we’ve ever seen before or since so we had no trouble getting everything we needed.

We made it to the foot of the Mulanje Massif, a plateau which rises to the highest point in Malawi (which looked like someone had painted it in the sky it was so pretty) as the sun was starting to dip and were immediately met by some porters and guides offering their services and accompanied us all the way up to the hostel. We had a bit of an ethical dilemma however because we had a personal recommendation from someone we met in Cape Maclear and who had climbed the massif, but the guides up to the plateau are supposed to operate on a rotation basis to provide everyone with some income. However we were too late to go via the official office and still be able to leave the next day, but these guys who had just followed us for 2km were sitting outside waiting to see in which way we were going to break the rules – in their favour or not. However the lady in the church-run hostel (in a beautiful setting by the way at the foot of the massif) associated with the plateau management assured us that the rota system didn’t really work for a variety of reasons and so if we had a personal recommendation then we may as well go with that. So she sent for the guide, Nedi, in order to vouch for his character and then we spent the night planning together. Dave and I really wanted to cross the whole plateau which should normally take an easy 5 days because some days you would only walking 3 or 4 hours on the paths between the various official mountain huts in which you would stay, and so we thought we could do it in 3 days. But Nedi refused to budge, doubting our enjoyment potential, so because of logistal constraints we agreed to explore the south west corner.

So on our first day we rose early, had a welcome wholesome churchy breakfast of porridge, fruit and tea and set off up the steep earthy, bouldery path into the sky.

Right at the top of this path (thankfully) I started to feel exhausted and none-too-right but after a whole hour the previous night trying to argue that we were fit and fast walkers, well, pride made me go on. Until I had to sit down, and then couldn’t move, and then was sick. How embarrassing. Hoping it was just the heat (and it was very hot), and actually feling a bit better I carried on but after some lunch which I brought straight back up again it was starting to look a lot like I’d caught the cape maclear bug. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to continue the mostly uphill path for another hour and a half, in the heat of midday, with an empty stomach, on an empty energy tank, knowing that noone could help, stopping often to pant or be sick (thank you Dave for always standing in front of the sun and creating me some shade as I did). But I did it and I’ve never been so relieved to see a destination before.

The hut was basic but cosy and full of other walkers making dinner in the fireplace and bedding down on the floor (adventure points to dave for earlier browsing someone’s Lonely Plant guide which warned that there were no mattresses in this hut which meant we brought our rollmats and sleeping bags with us…some people were caught out and were literally sleeping on the floor). There were even a few beers and cokes being kept cold in the nearby stream.

Weirdly I didn’t *feel* ill, just unable to keep anything down, so after a mostly good night and a test breakfast of porridge I decided to continue. Fortunately we were mostly going downhill on day 2, over areas that looked just like the Peak District or Yorkshire Dales withgreen rolling hills with the odd huge grey rock patches and streams. Unfortunately with an hour or so till home again I started feeling unwell again and have never been so glad to see a toilet when we arrived :) After a bad evening of cramps and dashes to the outside loos I thought it best to have a proper recovery day.

I’m so glad we stopped another day because the hut was like an american woodcutters hut with a open porch that ran all round the outside where you could sit and take in the tree fringed plains of gentle grassy hills. Although we were over a thousand metres up you’d swear you were somewhere in the middle of England – even weatherwise because it’s noticeably cooler up there with a gentle breeze. And it was the height of cosiness inside with old dark wooden furniture and bare floorboards, a roaring fire in the communal living/dining area and candlelight after dark. We were the only ones here so we ignored the dorms and slept on the “overflow beds” next to the crackling fire and I felt like I could move in and raise chickens.

Next day I made house and chatted to the workers re-planting local cedars to replace the non-indigenous and invasive pine while Dave climbed a nearby peak. In the evening we went to explore some nearby stream-fed pools and look out from the edge of the plateau over the towns below. A candle lit game of scrabble was the height of excitement and we enjoyed watching our guides try and work out how to cook the spare packet noodles we’d donated them (we’d all only brought enough food for the trip but fortunately I’d skipped a meal).

The next day was Dave’s birthday and back in tip top health (almost sadly) we trickled down easy tree shaded bouldery paths, broken by further views out over the side of the massif, getting more and more tropical as we descended. For lunch we stopped at a waterfall straight out of some advert for shampoo. Dave dived into the icy cold clear and deep water while I slid in ooching and eeking but it was sooo refreshing after the tropical trees. We dried out in the sun and then made the last few km back to base.
As a special birthday treat we were passed by a local church gospel choir who were staying at the hostel and were going on a trip to the waterfall but singing as they went. It was great to pass them one by one in a line and hear the different harmonies.

We finished pretty early in the day and Dave requested dinner out and dancing in the big city so we didn’t even have a shower but gathered our bags (dashed off that last blog entry) and hopped on a bus to Blantyre – after being given a lift to the next town by an ambulance who was returning to base and picks up some passengers for cash when he does. T.I.A. This is Africa.

Posted by rachndave 03:55 Archived in Malawi Tagged hiking muontains illness

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