The “Place Where No Man Goes” (Posted for September 15th)

This past weekend I had the chance to visit the incredible Mulanje Massif. Described as an “island in the sky”, Mulanje is the tallest mountain in south-central Africa. Our goal was to reach the highest peak at 3002 meters, named Sapitwa or “the place where no man goes.” Our plan was to spend three days there; hiring a porter to carry our food, sleeping bags, and some other supplies, and stay two nights in a hut on the mountain. However, due to some last minute issues, we weren’t able to leave early enough on Friday, and decided to cram the three days into two. Oh, and did I mention my friend was planning on bringing her puppy along? Of course this was going to be interesting!

We woke up early on Saturday and headed towards Mulanje – only about an hour and a half from Zomba through the many tea plantations and beautiful rolling hills. We got into town and immediately hired a porter and guide, and proceeded up to the Likhubula Forestry Station, which is the main base for climbing Mulanje. As we drove up to the base of the mountain, I was amazing at the size and beauty of the massif – immediately getting goose bumps as I thought “I’m going to be climbing to the top of THAT”.

Hiking up Skyline Path
Hiking up Skyline Path

We started our ascent up the famous Skyline path, which was very steep the whole way up. At points it seemed as though you were walking up a never ending set of stairs. It was extremely hot and we were all carrying our own backpacks/water in addition to what we gave the porter. Three hours later we made it up to the Chambe basin at the top of the plateau. I was so relived to get to that point, thinking it would be just an easy stroll to the cabin. Little did I know that there were plenty more elevation changes, both up and down, and an additional three hours before we made it to Chisepo Hut at the base of Sapitwa. However, it was amazing to see how the terrain changed as we climbed up in elevation and as we moved across the plateau. I was constantly taking pictures of the nature and scenery, trying to capture the incredible views we had.

Crossing the plateau
Crossing the plateau
Crossing the plateau
Crossing the plateau
On our way to Chisepo Hut
On our way to Chisepo Hut
View from the path
View from the path
Another view from the path
Another view from the path

By the time we got to the hut, I could already feel my legs start to stiffen up, reminding myself of what was in store for tomorrow. We planned to get up early to hike up to the top of Sapitwa, then climb back down to the cabin, and then hike all the way back down to the car. It was going to be a long day. We were able to bathe with a bucket of water that the hut serviceman warmed for us, and ate the food that we had prepared the previous day. We went to bed early because we were exhausted and knew that we would need plenty of rest before the next day’s climb.

Chisepo Hut at the base of Sapitwa (far right)
Chisepo Hut at the base of Sapitwa (far right)

We woke up and immediately started our journey. Luckily it was cooler this day because it was early and we were at a higher elevation. The terrain started to get really rocky and steep, and I was thankful for the hiking shoes I wore because they were able to grip quite well. The puppy struggled at times, so my roommate had to carry him around his neck for quite a bit of the journey. There were red arrows to show us the way, but I was thankful we had hired a guide. It was confusing at times and I’m sure we would have gotten lost. Towards the end there were large boulders that we had to scale and/or climb over and under. But three hours in we all made it to the top!

Day 2 Start – a view of our hut
Day 2 Start – a view of our hut
Hiking surface was steep
Hiking surface was steep
Cloud line
Cloud line
Sapitwa Selfie! (Elena w/ Chip, Me, Imanol, and our guide)
Sapitwa Selfie! (Elena w/ Chip, Me, Imanol, and our guide)

We rested for a bit, but didn’t waste much time because we knew that we had an extremely long trek to the car. As we descended, the clouds started to roll in, limiting our visibility. At one point our guide pointed out a rock hyrax, which basically looks like a mountain guinea pig. That was the only wildlife I remember seeing up there. Towards the end of the descent to the hut, my knees started to really bother me, and I questioned if I would be able to make it all the way down. However, I pressed on and made it to the bottom, immediately taking some ibuprofen before the next leg of the journey. As we crossed the plateau, I was able to spot Livingstone’s turaco, one of the birds I was hoping to see while in Malawi. I was glad that there were both uphill and downhill sections on the hike across the plateau because the downhill was starting to really bother me. I never would have thought that downhill would prove to be more difficult than uphill, but it was. I kept reminding myself of the all the training I had done at Zebulon, and that was able to push me through – thanks Rick!

Clouds on the descent
Clouds on the descent
Rock Hyrax
Rock Hyrax

Our guide suggested that we use the Chapaluka path for our route back down to the forestry station because it was less steep, although longer, than the Skyline Path. Plus, it would allow us to see another trail within Mulanje and included a trail to the waterfall. The whole time I was in a lot of pain, between my knees aching and the arches of my feet cramping up. But we all pressed on, including the puppy, who had to be carried most of the way down. The path had a lot more trees than the other route, and a lot of stunning views. Due to time restraints, we were unable to view the waterfall, so that will have to wait for a later date. We stopped at a stream for a rest and a snack, where I was bitten by the notorious black flies. Little did I know that they would itch unlike any mosquito bite I have ever had. I learned my lesson, always wear pants no matter how hot in Mulanje!

Descent down Chapaluka Path
Descent down Chapaluka Path
Crossing a stream
Crossing a stream

The sun was setting so we hurried back as fast as we could. The last half mile I had to wear my headlamp in order to see, but we made it back to the car safe and sound. We were exhausted and hungry – 11 hours hiking for that day. Cramming three days into two proved to be doable, but I would definitely like to spend three days if I ever did it again. We were always in a rush, so I was unable to spend a lot of time taking pictures and really enjoying my surroundings. However, it was an experience full of determination and success, and I will never forget it. Mulanje is amazingly beautiful and I hope to return one day.

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