To reach Mount Mulanje, you must drive through the tea plantation fields of the Thyolo district. The landscape is shaped by little hills and mountains, some peaking out of the meandering horizons, others nearly completely covered in tea plants and trees.
You’ll also pass through the bubbling market towns of Bvumbwe and Thyolo. The memories shored up are bittersweet, taking me back to weekly grocery shopping trips. All of their produce comes from small local farmers and thanks to the climate in Thyolo district, the variety could compete with most urban vegetable markets not only in Africa but in Western countries too.
The difference, however, is that these little markets are as grass roots as it gets and you’re more likely to buy your tomatoes and aubergines from neat little stacks on carefully cleaned fabric on the ground than in air-conditioned aisles in supermarkets. Do make sure to buy some delicious roasted Macadamian nuts while passing through Thyolo market on your way to Mulanje – they’ll probably be offered to you through a minibus window.
Often referred to by locals as Mount Kilimanjaro’s little brother in Tanzania, at little over 3000m above sea level, Mulanje Mountain is the highest point in tropical southern Africa. As with many other natural wonders, it is shrouded in myth and legend. The name of its highest peak, Sapitwa, literally means “don’t go there” or “where no man goes”. This, of course could not be further from reality these days as many enjoy pleasant treks here.
I must confess that I have personally only hiked as far as Dziwe La Nkhalamba. Dziwe La Nkhalamba translates into “the swimming pool for the elderly” and I have my own personal theory on the appellation. I am now aware that the name has mythological roots, however, it may as well have been named so because the climb up to the pool and waterfall is so light even the elderly can handle it. It is really the perfect way to take the flora and fauna indigenous to the mountain and enjoy breathtaking views of both the mountain and Shire Highlands. If you’re lucky you might also get a oral history of Mang’anja spirituality and mythology
One of Malawi’s many charms is its size. It becomes particularly delightful when you opt to use local public transport. You can easily catch a minibus from Limbe, which itself is easily accessible from Blantyre. Trailheads start in Chitakale (Boma Path) and Likhabula (Skyline/Chambe Plateau Path, Lichenya Path or Chapaluka Path). You may go to the Forestry Office to get all the relevant information. If your trip is more of the spontaneous kind they will be able to provides you with a guide, porters as well as accommodation.
If you’re not much of a trekker or are short on time, a day trip will suffice to see the Dziwe La Nkhalamba pool and waterfall. For experienced hikers, Sapitwa peak can be reached within three days and this is what most visitors opt to do. The internet is flooded with people sharing their experience, wishing for longer stays – 4 to 5 days should give you enough of Mulanje to last you for a while!
Lucky for you, dear adventurer, the Mountain Club of Malawi manages and maintains a network of mountain huts for you to rest in during your hike named Chambe, Chinzama, France’s Cottage, Lichenya, Madzeka, Minunu, Sombani and Thuchila. A new hut, Chisepo, rests at the base of Sapitwa for those who are ascending to the peak. Make sure to book in advance!
As for me and my friends, we decided to spend the night in Likhubula Forest Lodge, a common pre-hike resting place even though we weren’t going for one. The excitement surrounding the mythical mountain was palpable and we were more than happy to explore the town of Mulanje, enjoy a picturesque view of the mountain and its waterfalls and of course take advantage of the affordable little bars and restaurants in the area.
Check out http://www.mcm.org.mw/ for extensive hiking tips and http://rovingplaces.com/2015/10/20/hiking-around-mount-mulanje/ for more breathtaking photos.