Articles tagged with "malawi"

Respect to the Mulanje Massif

Respect to the Mulanje Massif

Progress was quite slow on the way down: it seemed much harder to see the red marks in many places. Whenever I had to stop and look around for the next mark I was startled by the absolute stillness and quiet all around. But I made it to the bottom with (I thought) plenty of time to get back to Chambe, and walked quickly to where I had left Stern. There was no sign of him or anyone else, and I shouted his name a couple of times, but heard no reply. I thought perhaps he’d moved down the path to somewhere with more shelter, and walked on, occasionally shouting, but never hearing any reply. After a while I decided he must have abandoned me, and I began walking as fast as I could for the hut.

For a while I thought I was making good progress, and though I sometimes didn’t know if I was on the right path or not, I kept coming to familiar places. I walked on, and I could see Chambe peak getting closer and closer. The sun set, but I thought I was near enough to make it back to the hut in the last of the daylight. As the stars were coming out I was still optimistic. In a fit of well-preparedness I had actually brought a torch along with me, though I had thought I couldn’t possible need it, so I picked my way on by torchlight.

Somewhere along the way I managed to take a wrong turn. It was amazingly difficult to follow the path by torchlight, and at one place where the path split I took the wrong branch. This became clear when the path stopped in the middle of the forest. It was pitch black now, and my mood changed instantly from optimistic to grave concern. I thought about the options, which really came down to blindly walking about in the dark in the hope that I’d find the hut, or stopping where I was for the night. In the end I decided it would be better to stay still than wander hopelessly, and I decided to see what kind of shelter I could rig up. I found two large rocks with a narrow gap between them, and decided to make something of that. For an hour or so I ripped branches and leaves off the nearby trees, to sleep on and under, and then I spent some time photographing the stunningly clear skies. If I was going to have to spend a night out in the middle of absolutely nowhere I could at least get some good night photographs out of it. I’d run out of water now, and all I had to eat was about eight small chunks of chocolate. I ate four of them now, and saved the rest until the morning. Then I spent a while blowing my whistle and flashing my torch in case anyone was looking for me, but to no avail. After an hour or so I decided to try and get some sleep. I tried not to think about the possibility of leopards and hyenas being around.

For a while I was not too uncomfortable, squeezed into that little space between the rocks. I had a jumper and a coat, and the leaves and branches seemed to have some kind of insulating effect. As the night wore on, though, it got colder and colder, and for who knows how long I was awake, shivering, and only occasionally sleeping for very short moments. Animal noises in the forest frequently made me jump up and look around. The stars slowly turned across the sky, and I watched their progress. When Mars set I knew the dawn could not be too far away, and sure enough the sky began to lighten. I’ve never been so relieved to see the dawn. By the time the sun actually rose I had packed up my stuff, tried to get all the undergrowth out of my clothes, and set off walking back up the path. It was my last day in Malawi, I was currently lost on a mountain and I needed to be in Lilongwe by the evening, so I didn’t want to hang around.

After about twenty minutes I came to a small stream, from which I tried to fill up my water bottle. It was a tiny stream and probably not the best drinking water, but I was very thirsty, and a couple of sips made me feel an awful lot better. I ate my last chocolate and walked on. Briefly I wondered what would happen if I didn’t find anyone or get found that day; I didn’t want to think about another night out in the open. But after only about another 10 minutes, I heard a shout from behind me and turned to see Stern coming over a small rise. He’d abandoned me on the mountain and not sent anyone else to meet me, and he clearly had not been out looking for me when I failed to make it back to the hut, and really I think I should have had a proper go at him. But I was so relieved to see someone that I shook his hand. He said he had waited where I left him for a long while, but left before the sun set, because he ‘didn’t want to be alone on the mountain at night’. Neither did I, pal, neither did I.

We were about an hour’s walk from the hut, and I saw now what a stupid mistake I’d made. I’d had to climb over quite a large fallen tree to take the wrong path, and in the darkness I’d not seen the right path leading off unobstructed to the left. My feet were aching terribly, I was extremely hungry and thirsty, and I was pretty cold as well, so to say I was pleased when I saw the hut again is an understatement. When I arrived I found that all the people staying at the hut that night had heard there was someone lost on the mountain, and had all been very worried. They all showered me with sympathy, and gave me fruit, soup, tea, coffee, porridge and bread. I was overwhelmed with it all and I really thought I might cry. I restored myself with all the hot food and drinks I was offered, and drank the most satisfying water I’ve ever tasted.

Gradually everyone left for their hikes, and eventually I was the last one in the hut. I spent a while tending to my battered feet (when I took my boots off, they were actually steaming) before wearily setting off, still with a three hour hike to do to get down the mountain. I don’t really know how I made it but I did, and I felt another flood of relief when I got back to the Forestry Station. I got the best cold Coke I’ve ever tasted at a bottle shop, then started to make my way back to Blantyre. I got a truck to Chitakali, then a bus to Limbe, on which I fell absolutely fast asleep. I woke to find myself slumped embarrassingly against the woman next to me. Then it was just a quick minibus to Blantyre. Back at Doogle’s, where I was staying, I had a more refreshing hot shower than I’ve ever had before.

Then I walked into town to buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe and some food. I spent lavishly on the bus but when I saw it I couldn’t have been more pleased. I think it was the most comfortable bus I’ve been on anywhere in the world. In my wrecked state I took a taxi from Doogle’s to the bus depot, got on board and fell asleep. I slept right through until Lilongwe four hours later, and got a cab to a hostel, where in a hopelessly vague arrangement me and John had said we’d probably try and end up at. As I paid the taxi driver I heard a familiar voice behind me and remarkably enough it turned out we had both made it there. There was one bed spare at the hostel and once again greatly relieved I checked in.

And that was all the adventure over, really. I spent the evening explaining my wild and dishevelled appearance to John and Jessica, who I had met on Likoma Island and was now here, and raging at John because he’d flown here from Mzuzu, before passing out. In the morning we made our way to the airport for the weekly flight back to London. Ten hours later we arrived at Gatwick and headed off into the night.

The highest man in Central Africa

The highest man in Central Africa

The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. ‘My stomach has opened!’ he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I’d be able to find my way to the peak OK.

After about half an hour’s more walking, he said he’d stop here and wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn’t see the path ahead I shouldn’t try and go on. We agreed that he’d either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we’d been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.

For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I’d need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I’d reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who’d made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.

The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I’d find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.

Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I’d yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn’t given up that I ran the rest of the way.

Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.

The deep south

The deep south

The following morning I got up at 6.30am, intending to travel to Blantyre, some 500 miles away to the south. There were two ways to go about this – inland via Mzuzu along a fast road, or along the coast, slower but more scenic. I decided to go the coast way, and found a bus heading that way. There were just two problems. First was that this was a country bus, and therefore stopped about every two minutes to pick people up and drop them off, making the journey painfully slow. Second was that the coast road had been washed away some time before about two hours south of Nkhata Bay, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere by the remnants of a bridge. There was a makeshift footbridge over the river, and on the other side there were pick-ups waiting to ferry people to Dwanga, the nearest town on the other side, from where we could get onward buses.

From Dwangwa I got a bus to Salima, and from there I got straight on a bus for Balaka. This leg was right up there in the most absurdly overcrowded journeys I’ve ever made, and once I’d squeezed myself, my backpack and my day pack into my seat, I could only move my forearms. I spent the journey trying to eat fruit without dropping it and trying to manoevre my walkman into place so I could listen to some music. I managed it, and even had time to listen to a couple of tunes before we arrived in Balaka. Once more my luck held, and I waited in the layby at Balaka for no more than a couple of minutes before I found a minibus going to Blantyre. The driver said he’d drop me off right at the door of where I was going to stay, and at 8.30pm after eleven hours on the road, five journeys and a total cost of about 7 pounds, I arrived in Blantyre.

Sadly I’d chosen to stay in a place next to the bus station, and at about 5am the next morning, the insanely loud tannoy began blaring out the day’s arrivals and departures. My intention in this part of the country was to go hiking on Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest mountain, topping out at 3002m, so I set off into town to gather some information. Blantyre was really a very pleasant city, with all the facilities a traveller needs. I managed to catch up on my e-mail, did some food shopping in the well-stocked supermarkets, bought a guidebook to Mount Mulanje, bought and sent some postcards, spent a while drinking real, real coffee in a nice little cafe, and generally enjoyed the ambience. I spent the evening relaxing and reading about the mountain, in preparation for the three day hike I planned.

So early the next morning I headed for Mount Mulanje. A quick bus journey to Limbe got me in the right places for buses to Mulanje town, and before too long I was on my way. I slept for a while along the way, and when I woke I had my first view of the mountain, rising dramatically, blue in the distance, from the endless flat tea-growing fields. I slept for a while more, then woke again to find us right next to the mountain. It’s more of a plateau than a mountain, and it rises almost sheer from the flat surroundings to about 2000m. Much of the top is gently rolling hills, but there are about 20 peaks, the highest of which, Sapitwa, was my target. From Mulanje town I got a truck to Likhubula, the starting point for the climb. At the forestry station I found a guide, called Stern, and at 11am we set off for Chambe hut, on the plateau.

It was quite a hike. For two hours it was relentlessly steep, and very hot. The views on the way kept me going, though, and we made a good pace. With just a couple of short breaks, we made it to the edge of the plateau in just under two hours. From there it was a gentle walk to Chambe hut, about an hour away. The hut was in a beautiful place, facing the dramatic Chambe peak, surrounded by woodland, and with a stream running in front of it. There was a fire inside, very welcome because it was much cooler up here than it had been at ground level. When I arrived I was the only person there, but as the day wore on more hikers arrived, and we socialised as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a magnificently clear night, and we were all looking forward to the hikes we had planned for the next day. After a fantastic instant pasta meal (these things are always more tasty in the wilderness) I turned in, ready to climb the next day

In the middle of the lake

In the middle of the lake

But we had made it to shore, and we spent a little while standing around and chatting before we set off to look for accommodation, and we found ourselves as so often the source of amusement for the local kids. We left the beach for what proved to be a long walk to where we stayed, and soon discovered an endearing Likoma habit: the kids, on seeing white people, would shout ‘HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!’ repeatedly and at the top of their voice, even if they were standing only inches away from us. Then as soon as we had passed them they’d shout ‘GOODBYE! GOODBYE! GOODBYE!’ with undimmed enthusiasm until we had disappeared over the horizon. We had many of these enjoyable encounters along the way.

We walked to the main settlement on the island, which contains a huge stone cathedral. It looked wildly incongruous among the thatched huts and baobab trees, and really quite impressive. It was built by Scottish missionaries, whose presence was really the reason these islands just off the coast of Mozambique ended up in Malawi’s hands. We wandered around it for a little while before setting off on our trek once more.

This final leg was most impressive. Baobab trees are an instantly recognisable symbol of Southern Africa, with their massive trunk and tiny branches. Especially now in the middle of winter, they were an arresting sight. These islands are known for their large numbers of baobab, and I’d seen a few on Chizumulu, but here there were lots, with almost no other vegetation around except for grass. Under the deep blue skies it was a remarkable sight. We crossed this field and found on the other side the steep walk down to the beach where we were going to stay.

Here, more relaxation was the order of the day. There really was nothing to do except make occasional forays up the steep hill to look around the island. I had to spend two days here before the steamer arrived for the return leg to the mainland, and saw quite a lot of Likoma island. I took possibly too many photos of the remarkable field of baobab trees. I plucked up enough courage to brave the crocodiles and go for a swim in the lake. I saw stunning sunsets every night. After three days I was ready to move on, and on the morning the boat was supposed to be coming I (and almost everyone else there) packed up my bags and hiked up the hill to head for the dock.

The boat was supposed to be leaving at 10am, but was seen still crossing the straits at 9.30am. I knew that the unloading and loading was going to be a protracted procedure: when we arrived at Chizumulu at 3am four days previously, the boat had not left for Likoma until 9am. So I visited the market near the dock, bought some deep-fried doughballs and peanut butter, and settled in for a long wait. I slept for a while, then had a drink at the fantastic ‘Hot Coconut Bar’, then had a long conversation with a beggar, who left me an address and a demand for size 9 shoes.

The boat is in dock for a long time mainly because there’s no proper harbour on either of the islands. The boat has to wait out in the deep water while its lifeboat is used to ferry people, livestock, sacks of maize and everything else between boat and shore. It took about 10 return journeys just to get the people on board, which made me wonder how useful the lifeboat would actually be in an emergency. Eventually everything was on board except the last boatful of people, so we got in the lifeboat and motored across to the MV Nkhwazi.

Once we were on board we had a little bit more waiting around before finally, at 4.30pm, some six and a half hours late, we set off for Nkhata Bay. For the first hour and a half we were in the choppy seas between Likoma and Chizumulu, and even in the relative comfort of ‘first class’ at the back of the boat things were quite lively. I dreaded to think what it was like for those at the front. At 6pm we docked at Chizumulu, but because the boat had only come from there that morning there was not a lot of stuff to transfer between boat and shore. We were there for a couple of hours, during which time the sun set and the stars came out, and then we were off to Nkhata Bay.

The lake was calm away from the islands and the run back to the mainland was again a good one. I slept for much of the way, waking to find the strings of fishing boat lights approaching, and shortly after we arrived at Nkhata Bay. It was 1.30am but thankfully I found a place to stay that was open.

Between the islands

Between the islands

It was a half hour walk to the bay the boat was going from. When we arrived we found a ramshackle looking vessel, from which copious amounts of water were being bailed. Huge buckets were filled with water and poured over the side. But it was the only means of getting between the islands so along with three other travellers and two locals I jumped in. The boat was not a huge thing and once we were out of the sheltered cove the swell moved us up and down a quite unpleasant amount. Rapidly I began to feel that it was just a matter of time before I threw up, and for half an hour I concentrated intently on the mast and breathed deeply. Then suddenly proceedings were livened up when the sail ripped. The skipper gave it a weary glance and decided it didn’t look to bad, so we carried on. All the way buckets and buckets of water were being bailed out, and if I hadn’t felt so ill I think I’d have been quite worried.

But the next hour passed uneventfully – the boat stayed intact and I held on to my stomach contents. I was very glad to be approaching a beach on Likoma Island, firstly because I thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and secondly because the mast at this point snapped in two. We were close enough to coast the rest of the way onto the beach, but as I got off I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of us if that had happened out at sea.

From highlands to islands

From highlands to islands

The next day I decided to go across the lake to Chizumulu and Likoma Islands, close to the Mozambican shore and actually an enclave of Malawi surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters. Tom was heading to Mzuzu, the main town in the north of Malawi, from where I could travel on to Nkhata Bay, the port for the lake ferry. The drive to Mzuzu was pretty incredible, up and down dramatic hillsides with the deep blue lake on the left and forested mountains to the right. After a couple of hours hanging around in Mzuzu I got a minibus down to Nkhata Bay.

Everything I’d heard before I arrived in southern Africa suggested that bus journeys would invariably involve considerable terror and fear for one’s life. Up until now, I’d really not found that, perhaps partly because the roads were often so bad that speeds above about 40mph were impossible. But here the road was smooth tarmac, downhill and had lots of sharp bends, and I did indeed think it was all over several times as we careered around the corners at speeds that just weren’t sensible. All the while a very friendly guy called John was chatting to me about various things, smiling and laughing, apparently oblivious to the fearsome danger we were in. Between gasps and whimpers I tried to chat back.

We made it alive to Nkhata Bay. I didn’t have any idea when the boat was actually leaving for Chizumulu Island, but it turned out to be going in just an hour’s time. Having just put my bags down at a hotel I grabbed them and set off for the dock. I bought my ticket and some fruit from some dockside vendors and got on board. To my amazement the boat left exactly on time, and the run across the lake was one of the most memorable journeys I’ve made. The lake was as smooth as glass and the air was warm for the duration of the five hour crossing. I lay flat out on the upper deck, under an inky black sky split from horizon to horizon with the Milky Way. The lights of fishing boats were strung out in a line extending many miles from Nkhata Bay, but once we were clear of them the only man made things in sight were the boat and the occasional light on the distant shore. It was sad to have to disembark when we arrived at Chizumulu Island at three in the morning.

On Chizumulu island I sat back and relaxed; there really wasn’t any other choice. The island is small enough that you can walk around it in about three hours, and once you’ve done that you’ve seen it all. Because of the steamer schedule I had five days to kill between here and Likoma Island, and I killed them very slowly. This first day on Chizumulu I got up at 11am to find the day cloudy. For some hours I sat around and read, in the hope that things would look better later on, but nothing changed. In the mid-afternoon I roused myself from my hammock and set off to walk around the island, which was very pleasant. There were no roads, no cars and no electricity on the island, just a beautifully made footpath around the edge, which I followed until I was on roughly the other side of the island from where I started.

From there I decided to make a detour inland over the two low hills which dominate the island. It looked like a simple job to walk up to the top, but actually I was soon picking my way slowly and carefully through cassava plantations, taking a surprisingly long time to make any headway. And at the top there was dense woodland, so I actually didn’t get any good views at all. Disappointed, I walked down the other side back to my tent, and once again took up my position in the hammock. After it got dark the insect nightlife got going in a big way, so at 8pm I went to bed.

The next morning, appalled by my sloth-like activity the day before, I got up at 5am, and set off anticlockwise around the main path. The sky was clear and blue and the sun was about to rise. I set a blistering pace and got to the easternmost point of the island just in time for the sunrise, which was glorious. Then as the red morning light turned into yellow daytime light I circuited the island completely, stopping to sit and watch the sea at deserted beaches, chatting to local people and enjoying the scenery. When I got back to where I was staying I found a couple of other travellers about to set off to get a boat to Likoma Island, and feeling that I’d seen all there was to see on Chizumulu, I decided to go with them.

Return to the Rift Valley

Return to the Rift Valley

So early the next morning we were outside by the motor, working out how the jack worked and pulling spare tyres around. It had rained in the night, although this was the dry season, and the car was parked on grass, so there was a slight problem with the jack sinking into the ground. But between us and a local man and his son who came out to help, we got the tyre back on. We jumped in the car, Tom said ‘OK, let’s go!’, turned the ignition key and nothing happened. With a smile frozen on his face he tried again, and still nothing happened. Not even a splutter. We rolled the motor down to Tukuyu’s main street and found a mechanic, who said an engine part or two needed replacing. He said it would take twenty minutes, and about an hour and a half later the work was all done and we were off.

It was a pretty short drive down to the Malawian border at Songwe. I was pleased to see that the scenery across the border looked much the same as the scenery on the Tanzanian side. The border crossing was uneventful and we drove on the other side to Chitimba, on the northern shores of Lake Malawi, and stopped at a campsite. There was a bar here, and a pool table, but in contrast to the perfect flat green baize we had found in Zambezi, this was the worst pool table in the southern hemisphere if not the world, so lumpy that slow shots would meander hopelessly and almost never hit the target, while fast shots would simply fly off the table. We challenged some other travellers to a game and after several hours when we finally finished, we vowed never to go near that table again.

The following day was my 23rd birthday. A year previously, after a terrible mishap, I’d found myself in hospital with a fractured skull, so this time I was overjoyed to emerge from my tent and find myself by the beautiful Lake Malawi, safe and well. Tom and I decided that morning to climb up the Rift Valley escarpment to the town of Khondowe up on the top, famous for the Livingstonia Mission. I’d climbed up the escarpment four days earlier by Lake Tanganyika, but this time it was a longer, tougher climb. We could have walked up a switchback road which had fairly gentle gradients, but we decided to take the short cuts, which basically meant scrambling up a 45 degree slope for three hours. We hired a local guide and set off. There were some stunning views on the way, and the climb ended at Manchewe Falls, 45m high. From the lip of the falls, the view down to the lake was marvellous.

There was a small shop just up the road from Manchewe which sold warm coke and biscuits and got a lot of business from people hiking up. We bought some food and drink and walked another hour to get to Livingstonia.

Livingstonia was a strange place. It was much cooler up here, and overcast. There were not many people about, and it felt like a different country compared to the valley far below. We looked around and had a chat to someone who turned out to be someone important at the mission, before trying to get some food at the Stone House, one of the original buildings of the mission. We asked what they had, and they told us they had chicken, rice and beans. We said we’d have a plate of that each, and off they went. We sat and drank some cold Fanta, looking forward to a meal after the climb. After about 10 minutes, someone came out and said that unfortunately they actually didn’t have any chicken. We said never mind, we’d just have rice and beans. We waited for about another ten minutes, and someone came out again and said that actually there were no beans either. Needing sustenance, we requested the rice, but after another few minutes word came through that in fact there wasn’t any rice either.

Now the situation was urgent. The campsite served food, but only until 4pm, and it was already 3.15pm. So we set off down the hill at a blistering pace, running and leaping down precarious slopes in a way that wasn’t good for the knees. Our bare-footed guide was much the fastest mover of the three of us, and I occasionally looked forlornly at the hiking boots I’d spent lavishly on. Our best efforts were not enough and we arrived at Chitimba, tired and ravenous, at 4.15pm, facing a long wait until we could get dinner at 7pm. Luck was on our side, though, because the barman took pity on us and rustled us up a big fat cheeseburger each, for which I am still profoundly grateful.