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Published: October 21st 2009
One thing I forget to ask at Infomulanje is how to acquire an (obligatory) guide, and I wonder if I've made a booboo when I start chatting with a guy, B, on the street and agree to use his services. I've read that porters (which I won't need) are allocated on a rotation basis so they get cheesed off if you arrive at the trailhead with one already, and I'm not sure if the same applies to guides. I mention this and B says he's registered so it's not a problem. That isn't quite the question I asked but rephrasing it doesn't seem to get me the conclusive answer I'm seeking.
We board a minibus to Likubula from where the ascent will start. B says the fare is MK150 but the conductor wants 200. Even 150 seems excessive for an 11km journey but I'm damned if I'm paying 200 when everyone else is clearly paying 150 - screw me, fine, but not when it's obvious what you're doing. B shows his loyalty by telling me that different people pay different prices, a statement entirely counter to my experiences in Malawi so far. The driver also gets involved, insisting I must
pay 200. I ask why, pointing out that no-one else is doing so. I enquire as to whether it's because I'm a mzungu
and am told no. So why is it then? Perhaps because I'm only carrying a nearly-empty backpack which fits neatly on my lap, rather than the sacks of meal, chickens, and crates of beer that the other passengers have clogged up the whole vehicle with? No answer is forthcoming. I'd have more respect for these guys if they just came out and said yes, it's because I'm a foreigner. I walk away having paid the "correct" price but wondering again why these incidents need to happen.
B and I first drop by B's house so he can pick up his provisions for the trip. It must be a strange existence for both him and his family, when any given day could result in him disappearing off up the mountain for possibly a week at a time. I register, pay for a couple of nights of hut accommodation, and then we're off.
I'm almost ashamed to say that this is the first time in my life that I've ever gone on a hike carrying any bedding
CCAP Cottage, Lichenya
or cooking equipment, not that what I'm carrying this time (a sleeping bag, a saucepan, a spoon, a fork, 200g of spaghetti, and 2 packets of minestrone soup) exactly constitutes a full-on load. So it's a new experience, and I'm looking forward to it.
I'm not in good physical shape, and the sun sears down from a completely cloudless sky. My T-shirt is soon glistening with sweat. To my surprise, the weight of my rucksack is barely a factor, which I attribute to making good use of the hip belt. However my pace is still slow.
Worryingly, B is no faster and it's not because he's keeping step with me. For a guide with 15 years' experience, I was expecting the agility of a mountain goat and stamina of a migrating humpback whale. It turns out he's carrying a leg injury, some kind of abscess that initially he requests sticky plasters for and later some painkillers. It seems remiss of him to have not told me about this, as well as not having any first aid kit of his own. We stop frequently for rest, which suits me fine. B's favourite topic of conversation, which comes up every
couple of hours, is the various foreigners who've helped him in the past. His main benefactor was an English woman who'd paid his way through school - he'd been emailing her to ask for further funding for an engineering course, but she wasn't responding to his mails. I feel like I'm being lined up as her replacement.
The path upwards is an unremitting ascent and I can feel myself accumulating a debt to be paid back in pain a couple of days hence. However I'm humbled by the many locals that pass us on the way down, barefoot on what is hardly an easily negotiable surface, carrying loads of pine on their heads. The government is trying to rid the massif of pine, an introduced, ecologically-damaging species, and plant indigenous strains such as Mulanje "cedar" instead. B tells me these guys are paid MK300 (~$2) per day to stagger up and down the mountain clearing it of pine.
When I take my eyes off the path immediately ahead, a habit I've fallen in to due to my atrocious sense of balance, the landscape is most appealing. The grey stone of the massif, lined and rippled, thrusts into the
broad blue sweep of the sky, the lower slopes forested in green with the odd dash of red and yellow. Flowers in purple and orange dust the ground, and I recall reading that Mulanje is home to more than 70 species of orchid. Animalwise it's less impressive - we see a monkey (B says it's a khaki monkey, but a subsequent Googling appears to indicate that a "Khaki Monkey" is a cocktail) and later a rat.
We reach the lip of the Chambe Basin early afternoon, marked by the engine building of a cable car used for transporting timber but currently not operational. The basin contains pine trees in various stages - some still standing, some burned, and others cut down in regular swathes that bring to mind photos I've seen of the aftermath of the Tunguska Event.
It's not long before we reach the Chambe accommodation. B had said that the watchman's stint was usually two weeks at a time, which I had commented must be a lonely existence, but there are at least six people sitting around at the watchman's hut when we arrive. I don't know any Chichewa but I do pick out 150 and
200 from the ensuing conversation, noting the amused looks in my direction from those present, and assume that the minibus incident is being recounted. I suspect this topic wouldn't be discussed in my presence if they were speaking in a language that I know. Does that mean it's not rude just because I don't understand Chichewa?
There are no guests in either of the Chambe huts so I get a bunk in the better of the two - France's Cottage, named after a guide who tragically died on the visit by Laurens van der Post that produced "Voyage into the Interior". The kitchen contains a wood fire, a kettle, and a dining table and chairs. There are no cooking utensils though both Coke and Carlsberg are for sale. The watchman brings me a foam mattress and a blanket and points out a toilet hut as well as a tap supposedly producing potable water. This is looking like an unexpectedly pleasant piece of accommodation.
The setting of the hut is also verging on the spectacular. Chambe's southeast face, a big wall apparently inspired by Yosemite, lours over the site. It solidifies to a silhouette as the sun drops near
I'm glad that no-one is around to witness my sad excuse for a dinner. With Chitikale having provided no pasta sauce, I had made the ill-informed decision that a packet of minestrone soup, when thrown into simmering spaghetti, would produce an acceptable meal. Word to the wise - it doesn't. Secondly, having never cooked on an open fire before, the logistics of temperature control in such circumstances are a closed book to me, meaning it takes me about 30 minutes to get the water to boil, after which I fail to achieve the rolling simmer I'm looking for. The resulting concoction is not one I care to taste again any time soon. The silver linings are that its carb content has replenished some energy, plus I've ditched a bit of weight from my pack.
I can't finish my "meal", and the subsequent washing-up session reveals the perils of purchasing a MK20 (~$0.15) spoon. As I try to scrape the uneaten spaghetti from the pan, the spoon bends and creases as though under the influence of a particularly angry Uri Geller.
B says that only about ten independent travellers go up Mulanje each week, which makes the
extensive hut network seem excessive. I will see only one other group of foreigners in the three days.
Before a self-imposed lights-out at 8PM, I clean my teeth at the outside tap. The silence is total - no wind, no animals, no unnatural noise of civilisation. If the Man in the Moon was muttering to himself, I would hear it. The stars have pricked multiple holes in the fabric of the night and I can't imagine there's anyone within a million miles of here - one of those moments when the universe's vitality just courses through you.
I rise at 6AM, three minutes before the sun. Chambe's southeast face, a monstrous coal hulking on the horizon, gradually turns into a glowing ember before finally flaming under the onslaught of dawn. My night in the hut has been snug but a niggling breeze makes the morning bitter.
B appears shortly after 8AM and we hit the trail. Now that we are on the plateau, the hiking is generally level with manageable undulations. The altitude makes itself known in the ambient temperature and, despite the strong sun, our rest breaks leave us both chilly in minutes. B's leg wound
has apparently filled with pus and I suggest we lance it with my penknife, but he correctly intuits that I'm no surgeon and demurs. However it's clearly affecting him, and at our rest breaks he seems to be genuinely falling asleep. He doesn't seem to have any food either, so my (admittedly vast) biscuit stash goes from being something I offer to something he requests.
The scenery is again mountainous and vast, but this time it's the interior peaks we see, including Sapitwa, the highest on the massif. I won't be climbing any of these, but wending between them is as much of a thrill as I need. We see several sunbirds, impossibly colourful creatures trilling to no-one in particular.
We reach Lichenya mid-afternoon. There are two huts in the area, one government-owned and one the property of CCAP, a mission organisation. I've been advised that the CCAP hut is the best one on the mountain, indeed B has described it as a veritable hotel, so that's where we head. B clearly has a delusional mind as the hut is some way short of being a hotel. It's bigger than France's Cottage but the only other difference is
that it has cooking utensils. The setting is nothing like Chambe and the toilet hut doesn't even have the veneer of luxury afforded by a toilet seat. Still, it's quiet, it's remote, and the presence of other pots and pans means my attempted meld of the worlds of spaghetti and six-minute soup stands a fighting chance of success. The only way this could be spoiled would be by, say, the arrival of fourteen English teenagers.
Shortly after, fourteen English teenagers arrive. A creeping sense of disbelief melts across me as I recognise a few faces. It's the group from Doogles, the illicit drinkers and smokers. They troop into the hut, taking all the remaining beds and bunks. The group leaders pitch tents outside. My own bed is in the kitchen/dining room/lounge and that's where the group congregates. How did this happen?
I swallow my antisocial nature and make small talk. They're from a school in Staines and are spending a month in Malawi as part of some program called World Challenge. I'd like to leave it at that but, showing good manners, they ask what I'm doing there. I stupidly reveal that I'm doing the Cairo-Cape route. Though
this would initiate coma in anyone even vaguely acquainted with Africa, it sounds like the Apollo moonshot to these youngsters and I face a barrage of questions that reveals a level of awe I'm embarrassed by.
Fortunately the more mundane duty of the group dinner comes to the fore and interest in me wanes. Unfortunately this means teenage chit-chat takes over, and the garrulousness of members of the group seems inversely proportional to the number of brain cells they have (e.g. "That salami looks like a penis - I want to do it") I'm acutely aware of my own weaknesses as a human being and know I have to vacate the hut in order to avoid headlines as the first ever attempted mass murderer equipped with a Swiss army knife and a 20 kwacha spoon. I claim I'm an avid astronomer and move outside to the verandah, taking my saucepan, soup sachet, and spoon with me.
It's sheltered in the depression where the hut sits, so I'm not going to die of exposure by being in the great outdoors for a few hours, but my bigger worry is where I'm going to cook dinner. The hut's fire is
clearly going to be tied up for a while and the porters'/guides' fires are also in use. Assistance comes in the form of the watchman, who has seemingly mistaken me for someone worth showing respect to as he has regularly been overhelpful, from the pot of hot water he produced on arrival, to periodic statements that all the facilities and utensils in the hut are at my disposal. I say that I'm waiting for an available fire and he springs into action. I could be mistaken but it seems as though he kicks some of the porters off their own fire, which is unlikely to make me any friends. I quickly boil my soup, not even bothering to attempt to find the optimal simmering temperature, then relinquish the fire.
I regularly peer into the hut's lounge in the hope that the teenagers will have an early night, pacing the nearby moonlit field in between shuftis, but it's not until 9PM that the group appears to have thinned out. I reenter the hut to find a small cluster of the leaders and kids playing a heated game of Jacks, 2s, and 8s. On seeing me enter, one of the kids
is despatched to each of the dorms to tell the inhabitants to keep the noise down because "The fella's come back". I quickly state that I'm in no way tired and will go to bed when everyone else does, but the damage is done. Once again in Africa, I'm unable to be the bystander ignored by all.
The hut fire has been stoked to inferno proportions so I don't need all my layers to stay warm. I'm loth to take my boots off, knowing how grim my socks will smell, but decide that if a lighted match can rid a toilet of unpleasant whiffs then a roaring fire should be able to conquer anything coming off my feet.
Once the flames have died near midnight it cools appreciably. But more worrying is the chronic case of diarrhoea that has been visited upon me. It's the stealth variety, where hours can pass with no trouble then all of a sudden my sphincter will make a concerted effort to soil my underwear, trousers, and anything else within a metre radius. I drift into a troubled sleep, hoping I won't wake in a pool of excrement. My supply of bog roll
has already been exhausted by some debilitating toilet sessions and I'm praying I can get off the mountain without another.
B has suggested we leave the hut at 5:30AM in order to ensure I can make it back to Blantyre in good time. Subsequent events lead me to believe he has his own reasons for wanting to be back early in Likubula but I'm not too fussed. I rise at 5AM and carefully drag my gear outside to pack it. Though I've survived the night without any anal mishaps, I know that a loo visit is necessary before we commence hiking down, and the toilet hut reverberates to the squittery sounds of one unhappy Englishman. At least my travels have taught me how to deal with the absence of bog roll.
The journey down represents our fastest progress of the three days. The path isn't in great condition and is steep in parts, meaning my knees and calves organise a mass protest, but I'm spurred on by the thoughts of a proper toilet and shower awaiting me in Blantyre.
Unlike the previous mornings, it's overcast and cool, which I'm grateful for. Near Likubula we pass a procession
of women and children dancing and banging drums. B says they are celebrating the coming of age of pubescent girls in the village, who've just completed a couple of weeks of initiation in the bush.
In Likubula, I pay B and we part ways. Though he fulfilled his duties as a guide in the sense that he made sure I didn't get lost, he provided little information, clearly wasn't fully equipped or fully fit, and didn't seem to be aware of his impact on the environment, e.g. when throwing stones at birds, or leaving litter on the mountain. Though B's physical fitness wasn't an issue in the context of my own poor state of health, the Brazilian guy who had died on the mountain had ditched his guide near the beginning of the hike because the guide couldn't keep up.
I head to where the minibuses leave for Chitikale and am slightly dismayed to find a gaggle of young mzungus
- more than enough to fill an empty minibus, and there's no way an empty minibus will be what comes along. Fortunately most of them are going up the mountain and only a handful are headed in my
direction. My neighbour on the bus is carrying a goat, which bleats softly the entire way. After the money shenanigans on the way here, I'm confused to find that the cost going back is only MK100, no questions asked. The goat-bearer confirms that this is the correct price.
Infomulanje is closed, despite the woman's previous assertions that they would be open. I pay a guy to top up his mobile phone credit to call her at home, and she arrives soon after.
My neighbours on the minibus back to Blantyre are a couple of agriculture students from Lilongwe who've been attending some seminars in the region. The minibus price is MK300 (versus the MK450 I'd paid the other way) so I ask them about these differences that I've been encountering. They say that the prices are based on market forces - there are many minibuses going from Chitikale to Limbe but only a few going the other way. Plus if you are in a group you can usually get a discount. I still have so much to learn.
In Limbe, it turns out I'm not the only one who can't figure out which minibuses go where. The
students need to get to the bus station next to Doogles (my own destination) but we somehow end up at the station about 1km away in the city centre. On my previous wanderings in Blantyre, I'd often seen people trudging along with bags, suitcases, and assorted other items going from one station to the other, and I now find I'm one of them, carrying my own luggage plus the students' rolled-up mattress.
I may not have left Doogles with a particularly high opinion of it, but now it represents a hot shower, a toilet on which I can happily sit all day if necessary, and the chance for recuperation. It's good to be back. Dull but possibly useful info
i. It costs MK150 (!) to get from Chitikale to Likubula by minibus.
ii. As I later discovered, guides and porters should be allocated by rotation at the park office in Likubula. Sure you can turn up with your own, but the system is fairer if you wait until you get to the park office. Of course, any guides who accost you in Chitikale (or before) will say that this is not the case.
iii. It costs MK100 to
enter the park (a one-off payment).
iv. It costs MK1300 per day for a guide.
v. You should tip the hut watchmen for bringing wood/water. I tipped MK200.
vi. A bed in a government hut costs MK700 per night, payable in advance.
vii. The CCAP hut is MK885 per night, payable in advance at the CCAP office near the park office.
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