Being on Top

Trip Start Apr 19, 2009
Trip End Dec 20, 2009

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CCAP Missonary Station

Flag of Malawi  , Mulanje,
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

So much had been said about Malawi, 'the warm heart of Africa', ‘Africa for beginners’, ‘the friendliest people in Africa’ etc., etc…

With excitement we cross the border from Chipata, Zambia, into Malawi and make our way south into the Mulanje Mountains. Tea plantations, literally glowing in their green foliage, cover the foot of the mountain, welcoming us to this region. We want to conquer the highest peak, Sapitwa, at 3000m over the next three days. Hiking in these parts is pretty organised and upon strong recommendation we hire a local guide but decide against the luxury of a porter and shoulder our backpacks. Harry, our guide, leads us through the dense forest. The lovely smell of the local cedar tree is thick in the air and before us a waterfall plunges down into a crystal clear, 60m deep pool. Breathtaking! After a long day’s walking (and already a couple of blisters) we arrive at the Chambe mountain hut for the night. Blissfully leaving our heavy packs at the door we enter into the wooden hut – escaping the icy wind that has come up. What we see nearly makes me want to cry of joy….a fire is roaring in the small fireplace, the black kettle already bubbling over with boiling water for our much needed wash in one of the old-school zinc basins and the rough wooden table and chairs invite to the evening meal we have lugged up the mountain. Heaven!

The next day is even tougher as we approach Sapitwa peak and start the climb to the 3000m summit. Quite a bit of rock-scrambling is involved and at times you need to walk up granite sheets at about 45 - I desperately try to forget that I suffer from vertigo. Finally, after five hours we reach the summit and are awarded with a great sense of accomplishment. Then we carefully descend down to another mountain hut where again a welcoming fire is roaring. The hut is cosy and full with the arrival of some other hikers. One of them, a Brazilian, Gabriel, has been walking/hitching through Africa for a year and is about to head home in three days to start his studies in LA as a Bio-Mathematician. As a final adventure he plans to climb the peak the next day. We wish him all the best and warn of the tricky bits in the ascent and how glad we were to have the sure guidance of Harry with us….

Two weeks later we are standing around at the local mechanic’s in Rumphi watching Bertha being serviced….part of this involves tools such as hammer and chisel (Marvin goes pale) and numerous vital Land Rover parts vanishing into the Malawian dust…..anyway, I am digressing (urban mechanics and their wondrous talents are a chapter on its own…). So we are chatting to the locals killing time, when an elderly man mentions how someone has gone missing in the Mulanje mountains. Helicopters and search troops have been combing the mountain for a week but no signs of the young man. We go pale as we enquire about the nationality and hear that he was Brazilian……

The shock of having spent the last evening with Gabriel still sits deep in our bones and we feel deeply for the family and friends that were about to welcome him back home. For us it has been another lesson of not taking things too lightly – we’re in foreign territory, on unfamiliar ground and need to heed local advice and, if in doubt, play a conservative hand. For the past months we have been blessed, sheltered and protected – we are very thankful for this.

After the hike we proceeded up towards Lake Malawi hoping for some ‘beach’ time along the lake shore. Unfortunately the weather was not with us and the ‘warmness’ of the people had equally chilled. I hate to be negative (but this is also part of a trip and has to be included to give credibility to other amazing experiences) but all in all we were somewhat disappointed in Malawi. Sure, they are blessed with diverse and stunning landscapes but the tourism scene has had its heyday….many, many days ago… and since then nothing has been done in terms of maintenance. Everything in Malawi gives you a sense of needing not just a fresh coat of paint but a major life-injection. Equally, I am sure that many people are honestly very friendly, but the ones we interacted with seem to have been in too much contact with UNAID and similar organisations. So many times we were asked (very warmly) to finance college for somebody, as if the obvious sensibility of this request would ensure a steady stream of financing. Incredulously the young man would look up at me for not gladly paying for his three years tuition, insisting that we Mzungus have enough money to save Malawi. I know that our impressions of this country are not reflected by many other travellers and we in no way want to generalise that all experiences are likes ours –  but this has been our impression.

…and now off to Dar es Salaam…..
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