Malawi: Climbing Mt. Mulanje

 Mt. Mulanje Malawi surrounded by tea fields 

In December of 2012 Justin and I headed to Africa to visit his family. At the time, they were working in Malawi, a small country that consistently ranks in the ten poorest nations in Africa. In wonderful juxtaposition to that is the fact that it is commonly known as the "Warm Heart of Africa" with regard to its welcoming atmosphere. When we arrived we learned that his parents had made arrangements for us to climb Mt. Mulanje, a massif east of Blantyre rising to nearly 10,000 ft from the tea field laden valley floor. Needless to say, we were thrilled. Not only was the climb bound to be challenging and exhilarating, it also held sentimental value. Justin was born in Malawi and his mother had climbed Mulanje while pregnant with him. A few days into our stay we headed out for the mountain. When we neared it we paid a visit to the office of the Mountain Club of Malawi (MCW) to pick up keys for the hut we planned to hike to. The MCW is a social organization for citizens and residents of Malawi who state their purpose as being, "To bring together like-minded people who enjoy mountaineering and introduce them to what Malawi has to offer". Around the time the organization was founded, ten huts were built at different locations on Mulanje for climbers, and to this day MCW maintains nine of them for use with a fee. At this point one is also required to pay an entry and forestry fee to continue to the mountain. There is one final requirement and that is to take a porter. The porters are kept on a rotating roster system by the Forestry Department so you are not allowed to bring or select your own porter. The fee is one third of the total amount of the trip payable immediately to the porter so they can go and get food for the journey.

  Starting our climb from the tea fields in the valley

Starting our climb from the tea fields in the valley

For our trip, Justin's parents had chosen the route to the Madzeka hut, which took us approximately six hours to complete. Five very sweaty hot hours. It was insanely hot in the valley. We were all so drenched in sweat that it looked like we'd been caught in a rainstorm. Fortunately, things really began to cool off as we gained elevation.

The trails up Mt. Mulanje are challenging in that there are few switchbacks. In fact, several times the trail came to a sheer wall rigged with rickety ladders that we had to scale. Not the trail for people who are afraid of heights! What I loved was that it seemed like water was everywhere - we got some amazing views of waterfalls and ended up doing several creek crossings. What wasn't so cool was near the top when the trail kind of became a boggy marsh. There was no option but to squelch along through the mud.

Needless to say, the porters passed us like we were hardly moving and were busy cooking their dinner when we arrived. You know you've been schooled when you get out hiked by someone carrying a cooler on their head! It was pretty shameful. Every year there is a legit race up and down the mountain called the Mt. Mulanje Porters Race. Although anyone can enter the race, as far as I know it's always been won by a porter - surprised? 

After being bathed in sweat for six hours, I swear you could see salty residue on our skin. There's no lack of water even at the top of Mulanje, so we all headed to various creeks to wash off (don't worry, no soap or shampoo involved). There were tons of water holes that looked perfect for swimming, but the water was so freaking cold it was hard to enjoy! Later in the day we spent some time exploring and came across the lovely waterfall shown below. 

The Madzeka hut is quite charming with two rooms and a fireplace which we put to use. Don't be fooled by how hot it is in the valley - it gets quite cold during the night at the summit. What was especially sweet about the Madzeka hut was that it was situated between two streams that joined into a waterfall just down the hill. That evening we got to enjoy an amazing fiery sunset over the valley. Sadly, our time was limited and we had to head back down the next morning, but if you're able to spend a couple days at one of the huts I'd highly recommend it. 

  Inside the Madzeka hut

Inside the Madzeka hut

If you would like detailed information on the coordinates of the huts, routes, rates, and arranging the porters, visit the Mountain Club of Malawi's website.