Last weekend Hailey and I set out with two of our friends to tame the beast that is Mulanje Mountain. Weeks prior to our trip, when I told locals of our plans, they laughed and when they realized I was serious just starred and said, “no, why?” Most of them had never bothered with the tallest peak in Malawi; there was no reason to. And stories like this kept them away.
I didn’t think we had anything to worry about. Many had conquered Mulanje (which is more of a range than a single mountain), why couldn’t we?
Our friends, Ariel and Nathanial, picked us up on Thursday after our regular scheduled classes at Nkhoma (no one bothered to tell us that the school had been closed for a holiday—most of my students still came to class, Hailey’s didn’t). The plan was to drive as far south as we could, find a place to camp and then continue on our adventure. We stopped at a campground in Liwonde, set up our tents and ate dinner. Hoping to get lots of sleep we went to bed early, but were woken frequently by the grunting of hungry hungry hippos. There is nothing quite as unnerving as a one ton giant searching for food in a bush five feet from your head. I don’t care if they are herbivores.
On the way to Mulanje we stopped at Domasi CCAP. Nathanial is in Malawi working with the government on food fortification (adding nutritional supplements to staples) and wanted to visit a center that has been working with villages. The factory we stopped at was a former World Vision Canada (eh!) development project called the Micah Project and it happened to be on the grounds of a CCAP church. World Vision had started it in 2001 and stepped away in 2008; it has been running on its own for the last three years. I had seen plenty of World Vision projects, but this was my first experience with a completed self-sustained development program. Twenty-eight of the original thirty-one villages are still involved in the program.
On to Mulanje.
We got to the base of our hike around 1:30. Our plan was to meet our porters and be up to the first stopping point by sunset. The shortest way up was supposed to be 3-4 hours. We couldn’t find our porters, and before we did, it was 2:30. The sun sets around 5:30. Perfect.
I knew Hailey and I weren’t in the best shape, we hadn’t trained at all and weren’t exactly world-class hikers. But that is why we hired pros to carry some of our stuff. How bad could it really be?
We started walking and within minutes, Dixon—our one-eyed guide, had taken us off a wide path into a thick jungle of tall grass. We had no idea how he knew where he was going. There were no signs or trail markings at all. And we were definitely the only ones on the trail. But Dixon said he had been up this “trail” 200+ times, so we followed.
Eventually we started ascending. I knew we would be climbing a mountain, but I guess I figured (1) we would be on a trail and (2) it would be a gradual incline. Neither was true. The truth is, we really only hiked about seven kilometers. Four and a half miles isn’t far at all. But climbing 5000+ feet in that distance is brutal, especially when you are carrying packs, climbing up and over boulders and racing against a setting sun. Oh and did I mention I am way out of shape? Less than half way up I had to hand my pack to Ariel. Any points I had left on my man-card I quickly (and gladly) handed to her.
We lost our race against the sun. The last hour of our climb was done in the moonlight. Dixon wasn’t phased by the lack of light. I couldn’t see a thing and was soaking. He didn’t seem to break a sweat the entire time and neither he nor Morris (our other porter) drank a drop of water the entire hike.
As we arrived at our hut Ariel got altitude sickness. Later that night Hailey got sick too. As we started our hike to the next hut on the second day, we soon realized it would be smart to head back to the first hut and rest instead. Nathaniel went on a hike with Dixon. Like the true mountain men they are, they raced to the top of one of the peaks in two hours; I stayed back with Hailey. “Husband duties” called.
The decision was easy—we would hike out on Sunday instead of continuing till Monday. Saturday night I actually dreamt that one of us fell down the mountain. We woke up and Dixon directed us down a different, more scenic, trail. We crossed over streams and saw a couple of monkeys. But nothing could make up for my screaming calves and crying quads.
Tired and sore we got in the car and drove four hours to Lake Malawi, which considering the state of our legs probably wasn’t the smartest idea. But it was well worth it. No steep climbs. No hippos. A quick cold swim at sunset was just what my body needed.
Now, if only my legs would wake up and realize that they are only thirty years old…