I tried running all of once in Lilongwe. About a hundred metres in, I started attracting attention and picking up running companions. It was a Sunday so I guess they thought –why not chase the mzungu around the neighbourhood. For a while it was fun, I felt like I was leading a marathon, but I’ve never been a strong enough runner to be a pacer, and in the heat I knew I wasn’t going to do well for long, even if most of the group was in flip flops and averaging ten years younger than me. So I bowed out gracefully to a cheering crowd, who escorted my all the way back to my house gate.
After that, I bought a skipping rope at Game (which is owned by Wal-mart because you can’t escape big box anywhere). Now I hop up and down in the paved section of my house compound in front of a bemused Tanya. She’s two, and has taken to yelling BYE at me every time my feet connect with the concrete, despite my promises that I am not going anywhere. It’s just her new favourite word, and we’re both getting used to how it sounds.
All this to say, I’ve fallen off on exercising since I’ve been here, but I still thought I would be perfectly fine to take the Malawian Independence Day long weekend to summit Mount Mulanje. It’s the highest mountain in central Africa (Kili is in the East) at 10, 000ft (3002m). Since that’s not enough to put me at risk for altitude sickness, my biggest concern was balancing how heavy my pack would be versus how close to freezing to death I was willing to be when we stopped for the night.
I ditched my shower supplies and all footwear but my hiking boots, so everything would fit in a school backpack. And felt satisfied with my compromises. But whoever I told of my weekend plans pro-offered words of warning.
My landlady clucked and suggested several smaller hills surrounding the city. If I wanted to waste my weekend walking around with no purpose there were plenty of more convenient places I could achieve this. And then I wouldn’t have to deal with the volatile Mulanje spirits. My coworkers supported this advice.
People just disappear on Mulanje. The spirits take them away. Or –and this is where they get capricious—they spread out a picnic for you in a clearing. If this happens to me, I am not supposed to tell my fellow hikers, I am just supposed to head over and eat. No one explained what would happen if I tried to be polite and share, but the conspiratorial whispers implied that I was not to try.
Everyone echoed the same evidence for spirits, two unnamed British girls, who went up and never came back. And as far as my research shows they never appeared in the local papers either. Though online press supports the stories that our porter told us on the mountain about a Dutch girl whose body was never found and a Brazilian adventurer, Gabriel Bushman, who took off without a guide, and was found dead weeks later by locals foraging for materials to make brooms.
The fog is legendary in Mulanje and in the southern region of Malawi fog is known as chifunga. It’s pronounced chee-FOOUN-gah in a low tone, which I think gives it the perfect vibe for a mist supposedly imbued with spirits. (If you’re curious, Northerners refer to fog as nkhungu)
Mulanje is not so much a mountain, as it is several packed together into a massif. It encompasses 20 peaks over 2500m and almost every natural habitat found in Malawi. The forests are dense and juggle-like at the base and as you pull yourself up the ravines they change to deciduous and the air takes on the fresh smell of cedar.
The highest peak is Sapitwa, which Malawians will tell you is short for the Chichewa word “Musapite” meaning “you should not go.” However, the mountain club, that is prone to throwing water on the fun you can have mountain’s legends suggests slightly different phrase, the name is probably an abbreviation of ‘sapitidwa’, which translates as “a place one cannot reach.”
But I have to admit there were more than a few moments on the grueling six-hour climb up on our first day that I thought I wasn’t going to reach the top. The trail was low grade rock climbing the whole day and the only thing that kept me going is the thought that it would be one uncomfortable tumble down.
I set out hiking with three girls who are volunteering in the area. Clara is an athlete from Hong Kong who spent the whole climb bouncing ahead of the rest of us. However as these things go, she was nearly the slowest on the downhills because she was picking her way on her hands and feet so she wouldn’t risk her ankles. Fair enough, since as a volleyball player her ankles are worth more than ours. It did a number on her hands though, which were so caked with dirt by the time we stopped for lunch, that hand sanitizer didn’t make a dent. As a result, we ended up feeding her, her peanut butter sandwich.
We’d started off a bit later than we’d wanted in the day, so headlamps lit our last half hour. There were a few tumbles but we made it to the hut. We’d picked this one because it supplied blankets and cutlery. CCAP hut was built in 1899 and is the only privately-owned accommodation on the mountain.
Celebrating our accomplishment was cut short though, when a three-year-old toddled out to greet us. Before I entered the hut I couldn’t decide whether it worse that he made it up here on his own two feet or if a brave parent carried him the whole way. Either way, making it up the mountain as a twenty-something suddenly seemed very insignificant, so I got right down to cooking dinner over the fire in the centre of the cabin.
We sat down to heaping plates of pasta and salty tomato sauce and got to know our guide. Next weekend he’s running in the porters’ race. It’s a 25 km course through the mountains that last year’s winner finished in two hours and five minutes. George took eleventh place and has been running the course three times a week for the past year as training (…and I am back to feel small again.)
That day he had been a great help supporting one of the girls we’re hiking with. He held her hand for the hard parts and carried her water bottle for her. When we stopped for a rest he always had a reason she should keep going. We were a little skeptical when he convinced her that flip flops were the superior footwear for this terrain, but when she said her feet hurt less, we promised not to question him again.
The vistas were spectacular, but prone to disappearing behind clouds. Colloquially referred to as the misty mountain, the fog would come in so fast and thick I could no longer see my feet. Apparently this is where the spirit stories come from. Some hikers don’t sit down and stay put when the fog rolls in and have been known to walk off the edge because they can’t see it.
Legend has it that this misty mountain also inspired the fictional Misty Mountains in J.R.R. Tokien’s The Hobbit. Born in South Africa, Tolkien visited Malawi in the 1930s and supposedly Mulanje. The geography definitely feels very Tolkien-esque, and I found myself scouting for stone-giants in the rock faces and thinking that I’ve always wanted to meet an Ent. Maybe he would carry me up the mountain. I would like that.
At twilight when we reached the plateau and were wading through knee-deep mist I could imagine Gollum setting up camp over the next ridge and roasting rodents. Little people are supposed to have lived on the mountain as well, though they were probably ancient Batwa or Twa people and not early hobbits.
However, the area has more in common with Middle Earth than the mountain, because on a clear day you can see the Shire river from a good vantage point on Mulanje. Though if Tolkien was building his world from stolen Malawian topography, readers have been pronouncing the river wrong, here they say: Shi-RAY.