Upon Mount Mulanje

Mulanje-5As we approach, Mount Mulanje looms before us like the Wall in Game of Thrones, simultaneously comforting and intimidating. It rises high above the smaller hills and mountains dotted around the area, and disappears enigmatically into white clouds. I am excited about the prospect of climbing into those clouds, but relieved that we will not be climbing the massif’s highest peak and the highest point in central Africa, Sapitwa, which in Chichewa means ‘don’t go there’. This is my first significant mountain climb and I am suddenly daunted by the size of Mulanje.

We will spend three days exploring the east side of the plateau that rests beneath the massif’s twenty peaks. On this plateau, leopards are rumoured to still live, though one has not been spotted in years. I wonder whether what William Atkinson saw when he climbed the mountain in 2011 to retrace the steps of Laurens van der Post was a leopard or an equally elusive serval cat, also said to inhabit the plateau. During van der Post’s 1949 Mulanje expedition, forester Fred France, who lived on the plateau with his wife and daughter, died tragically when he fell from a precipice. His cabin still stands and can be rented by visitors. Another fascinating story is that of the Batwa people (known locally as Akafula), pigmy-like hunter-gatherers who were the first inhabitants of Malawi and created some of the rock paintings at the Chongoni rock art site in Dedza. The Akafula were gradually exterminated by the Chewa people, but reportedly still lived in small numbers on the Mulanje plateau into the nineteenth century.

It is early May and bushes of huge yellow daisies spring out at us from the side of the road. The cassia trees are also in full bloom, their branches laden with upward-facing bunches of yellow flowers, like children holding ice cream cones. While northern hemisphere seasons are marked by the sharp changes in temperature and the cycle of life, death and rebirth, in Malawi, nature lets everything have its turn in a never-ending cycle of bloom. It seems that every season here is decorated with the colors of its flowering trees: purple jacaranda in September, red flamboyant in November, pink bougainvillea in January, and the explosion of yellow in April and May.

As usual, I am filled with mixed feelings as I sit in the car and watch the landscape slide past. Two years in this beautiful country and it hasn’t grown on me. I have not been able to get used to the array of colors, the heat, the sun I yearned for so much in Europe which I now find oppressive. Two years I have spent pining after what I call ‘real seasons’: the tangible transition from summer into autumn; winter relinquishing its chilly hold and yielding gently to spring’s warm nuzzle. I harbour a vague sense of unease and frustration, a feeling of distance, like there is an impermeable boundary between my soul and Malawi and I’m not quite sure why it’s there. Yet, another part of me is in awe of the unfamiliar beauty of this country. The way it works in a way that is completely different from what I am used to—which can be infuriating but ultimately commands respect. There is a reassuring serenity in rural Malawi, a feeling that everything functions because it has to, and although it is unfair and ignorant to say that there is happiness in the comparative simplicity of life, I wonder if we would be a little happier in the industrialized world if we weren’t burdened with materialism.

Our plan is to take the Skyline path up to Chambe Hut, spend the night there, then continue across the plateau to Lichenya Hut. We will begin our hike at Likhubula Forestry Station at the base of the mountain. Upon our arrival at Likhubula, we are accosted by porters looking for employment and vendors selling wooden walking sticks. ‘Do not buy them,’ my friend warns. ‘They’re made out of the endangered cedar wood and it’s illegal to sell them.’ At 1000 Kwacha apiece (£1.50), it’s hard to resist, especially when one considers how far 1000 Kwacha can go for a rural Malawian family. I can see why the walking sticks are an attractive souvenir. The clean, light brown wood is carved with beautiful designs and has a distinct, sweet, woody smell. The Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) can only be found on the Mulanje Massif but has been seriously depleted due to timber felling. The vendors are aggressive and argue that the wood was given to them by the government, but we are too indoctrinated with Western environmentalism to allow ourselves to support this controversial trade.

We spend the first night at the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian)-owned Likhubula House, where we bathe in the nearby rock pools, into which ice-cold water rushes over igneous boulders from high up on the mountain (‘If you think this is cold, wait till you get up there,’ our guide says, pointing up).

The next morning, we set off up the mountain at 7:30am and enter a forest of slender pine trees, which lifts my spirits. For some strange reason I have been dwelling on the fact that I have not been able to connect with Malawi’s trees. The Brachystegia woodlands of Malawi just don’t resonate with me the way coniferous forests do. I know this is silly, but being in such a drastically different environment has made me realize how deep my connection to the land of my childhood is. Among the pines are smooth eucalyptus trees, called ‘wax trees’ by the locals. We climb up a steep path of packed red dirt, with grass on either side of it so high and dense that you can only see the person in front of you for a few seconds before they are swallowed up. The path is scattered with pine cones, lichen-covered sticks and pieces of bark. Occasionally, a small cluster of yellow daisies greets us shyly—they are nowhere near as large and populous here as they were on the side of the road, probably due to the limited sunlight.

As we climb higher, the air becomes cool and crisp. The boulders are pleasantly cold to the touch, and covered with furry green moss. The ascent becomes steeper and rockier, at some points the rocks form steps which we have to scramble up. We hear the gurgling of water and drink from a tiny waterfall trickling down the rocks, half hidden by vegetation. The water is cold and refreshing, with no unpleasant taste, unlike the heavily chlorinated water in Lilongwe.

After a four-hour climb we reach the plateau, which lies approximately 1,830 m above sea level. Up here, purple, green and yellow make up the color palette. We wade through feathery purple grasses gently swaying in the wind. Among these grow clusters of yellow ‘everlasting sunflowers’ (Helichrysum asteraceae), which I have seen in abundance in Poland. Another pleasant surprise.

Near Chambe Hut, directly across from the renovated and quite charming France’s Cottage, is an abandoned village. Rows of white huts stand amid rusting machinery, their windows and doors agape. Our guide informs us that the village was built for Chinese (or Japanese, he isn’t sure) workers who were going to start mining for minerals in the area but the project was abandoned. We return to poke around the village before dusk and the atmosphere is eerier than it was in the early afternoon. The sun is going down and a cold wind rustles some dry maize stalks growing in a small patch next to one of the huts. Suddenly, we hear a loud clanging, as if someone is banging on one of the corrugated metal roofs. We look around but the place is deserted save for a few abnormally large crows tearing aggressively at some maize husks on the ground. More crows swoop in and land on a roof, their talons making the loud clanging noise we’ve been hearing. These crows have a menacing, territorial presence and they are not intimidated by us being there. We peer into some of the huts and see the remains of three-stone fires and rudimentary straw bedding. Someone had clearly been using them for shelter. Behind the village, a mysterious plastic greenhouse flaps in the wind. It is intact and the door is held shut by a small stone. We feel like Mulder and Scully as we push it aside and slowly open the door. Expecting to find what? Marijuana? A secret laboratory? Nothing as exciting, it turns out. We find rows of cedar seedlings, their little plastic pots huddled together. This is most likely part of the cedar reforestation effort by the Forestry Department. It’s good to see a conservation effort first-hand.

That night, we sleep outside on the deck of Chambe Hut. The temperature drops significantly, to only a few degrees above 0˚C. This is the first time I see so many stars in the night sky in Malawi, and although most of the constellations are unfamiliar, I can identify Orion’s Belt and that’s enough for me. As I lie in the darkness, I think about the nocturnal leopards and serval cats. Maybe if I stay awake and really quiet, one might wander close to the hut. Wishful thinking. Elusive leopards, like the elusive snow leopard in Peter Matthiessen’s book. I suddenly remember that he died not long ago and this makes me sad. I stopped reading The Snow Leopard halfway through and never returned to it. I wish I had it with me now. It would be the perfect companion for this trip.

On the hike to Lichenya Hut the next morning, there is plenty of time to reflect on the emotional journey that living in Malawi has been. Our stay is coming to an end, and for the first time I am starting to feel sad about leaving. I have spent all this time trying to adjust to new rhythms, a new climate and the stark inequality of Malawian society and the world, that maybe I haven’t taken the time to truly appreciate the privilege of being able to live here. That’s one way of seeing it, I guess, if I want to make myself feel guilty. But then, I am an imperfect human and this has been an intense journey of self-discovery. I have not always reacted with patience and poise to the challenges Malawi has thrown at me. I have spent a significant amount of time letting myself be unhappy. I have cried, a lot. Although these two years haven’t been perfect, I got most of the answers I was looking for when I set out on this journey. I am excited that in six months’ time I will be sitting in a heated flat wearing a thick sweater and staring through a rain-streaked window at a monochromatic world, because it will be familiar. But I will probably cry because I will miss the flamboyant, the jacaranda, the bougainvillea and the yellow, yellow cassia. New journeys, old journeys, new journeys… A season’s end is never truly an ending but a slow turn of the eternal cycle. What I see now that I didn’t see before is that the same cycle exists everywhere, it just reveals itself differently. I found flowers from my childhood on a Rift Valley mountain. Perhaps I will find a new color in an old place.

I already know that I will return here, with wiser eyes. Next time, also, I will climb Sapitwa.

Mulanjebw

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