Mt. Mulanje

18 September 2016

Samson met our minibus at the boma (“center of town”) in Mulanje. He was short, dark, slim, stylishly (guidelike) attired, and instantly said, “George, I’m Samson”.  He jumped on and we roared off to Lujeri, the village adjacent to the Lujeri Tea Estate, Bloomfield Hills. We exchanged the minibus for a hired, ancient, Mitsubishi diesel pickup with a bad battery and drove across the Lujeri holdings, an immense undulating moss-green tea plantation, exquisitely cultivated and dotted with huge, ancient purple-blooming jackaranda trees, with Mt. Mulanje in the background.

We’d arisen at 5AM, gotten a minibus to the Limbe terminal, and boarded another minibus to get to Mulanje (1 1/2hours away). Of course, you wait until the bus is full before it leaves. For us it took an hour. “Full” going was 15. “Full” coming back was up to 21 at times. These are Toyota vans, mostly beaten to death, with 5 rows of seats, some broken. At one time there were 6 people squeezed into the seat in front of us. Plus, amazing quantities of inanimate cargo, like bundles of firewood and foam mattresses.  It’s all part of the experience and, as such, OK except if only ½ of your butt is on the seat and the other is hanging off in the air it isn’t too comfy. But the round trip cost us MK6600 (about $9) vs. MK46,000 (about $62). Since we are on volunteer salaries and trying to live on them alone, it makes a difference.

The minibus terminal was fabulous, reminiscent of Jemmaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh. Hundreds of minibuses: parked, coming in, going out. Constant theatre with everyone, exclusively men, hawking everything from little, ingenious travelling displays. A man selling wash cloths, tooth paste and tooth brushes in case you left home in a hurry. Little radios, vegetable peelers, pots, pans, colanders, mandaze (fried dough balls), soft drinks, chitenjes (lengths of brightly and beautifully printed cotton cloth), cigarettes, and on and on. My favorite was the bartender near our minibus. He put a 30×20” rectangle of cardboard in the dust (the bar) and placed a 2 gallon jug of brown liquid (the mixer) and the same of a clear liquid (the alcohol) on it.  His pants pockets were stuffed with old ½ pint whiskey bottles. A customer would come by, he’d carefully pour a 50:50 mix into a bottle, and money would change hands. At 7AM! Everyone trying to eke out a living and survive. The men all looked rather dusty, harried, and ragged, whereas each woman passing by walked gracefully through the scene, baby strapped to her back with a chitenje, wearing another clean, brightly colored one as a skirt, carrying a tub of water or fruit or tomatoes or onions on her head, no hands.

I’ll digress to language and signage, some of which we saw on the ride to and from Mulanje. Malawian’s use of English is creative and their many signs express it. Like “The Lord is my Savior Pork Butchery” or “Everyone’s Got Problems Goat Butchery”. The “No Black-out Barber Shop”, referring to the frequent electrical outages—-ours went out at 6PM last night, went on in the middle of the night, awakening us to lights on everywhere, and has been off from 5AM (it is now 7:30PM). Carlsberg beer, which has been the only beer allowed in Malawi for 50 years, has a puzzling motto: “Probably the best beer in the world.” However, “Difficult to Understand Investments” is a new favorite. Many stores in every town have a name, often the proprietor’s, followed by “Investment”. Initially I wondered how such a tiny country could support so many stock brokers.  I think it means the owner would like some capital investment to increase his stock. With the idea you’d share in the profits. Which would seem to be few and far between.

Mount Mulanje is like a huge granite plug pushed upwards from below, towering at the highest of its 50+ peaks over 3000m, the highest in southern Africa north of the Drakensbad. It’s kind of the inverse of Yosemite, with similar granite shelves on which to walk. It is a massif, rather than a mountain, with incredibly steep sides leading up to the plateau, which is crisscrossed with ridges and valleys and dotted with cedar and fern forests and granite peaks, all within 600 sq. kilometers. It is a lawless place, although not of danger to us. There is illegal logging and as we struggled up the long, steep climb, punctuated with many and extensive ladders (of the flimsy variety), down would come buff, glistening, half-naked young men either barefoot or wearing flip-flops and carrying 60kg cedar beams on their heads or shoulders. There are extensive burned areas, where hunters set fires to flush out game and turn their dogs loose on the poor critters, completing their gristly task with a large panga knife (machete). But it is also wild and beautiful, with rivers and pools and glens. The Dept. of Forestry maintains a number of huts on top.  As newly minted members of the Malawi Mountain Club we have a key allowing access to pots, pans, dishes, mattresses, blankets, etc. The first hut, Madzeka, was one room, tin roofed, with a balcony and a fireplace for cooking. With a stream for water and a clear pool in which to bathe, it had intimate views and a very cozy feel. Each hut has, or is supposed to have, a hut keeper who lives at a little distance, supplies wood and water, washes the dishes, and keeps things spiffy.

We were supposed to spend the second night at Minunu Hut, but Samson learned that it had been emptied two weeks prior. The hut keepers are at each hut for two weeks, when they go down to their villages and their opposite ascends to care for things. Unfortunately, the second hut keeper has a broken leg so no one was minding the store and lawless elements intervened. So we stayed at Chinzima, part-way to Minunu. It had two rooms and a panoramic view of ridges and peaks, quite spectacular. It, too, was missing blankets so we improvised and with the help of a fire were quite comfortable. We passed by Minunu on our way out and it was incredibly lovely, perched above a long crystalline pool, with an apple tree in full bloom, a peach tree, and “Irish” potatoes in a garden. It turns out only the mattresses and most of the blankets had been taken. It is certainly worth a trip back. Excepting the exotic flora, plus a strange eagle and a white collared raven, we could have been in the Rockies or the Sierras.

As for the hiking, I struggled mightily on the way up. I felt bad partly because we ate breakfast at 5:30AM, partly because it was hot and I got behind on hydration, partly because I take a small dose of an antihypertensive medication, and partly because I haven’t been exercising much for 3 months. I got dizzy and faint and really struggled. Oh, and partly because it was a very long, very vertical walk. I felt much better after some food, water, and a brief, cold plunge in a lovely pool. The next day walking on the plateau was wonderful and I felt strong. On the last day we descended on a long and incredibly steep “trail” which is inaccessible during the rainy season. I was fine until the bottom when my legs became rubber. I felt no discomfort, just like I had muscular dystrophy. The legs refused to do what I wanted. I fell to my knees only once and wasn’t at all hurt. It was mostly strange. Seeing the occasional monkey leaping in a nearby tree was helpfully distracting. I occasionally felt similar as a teen, at the end of the day after skiing hard. When we ascend again, I’ll eat, drink, skip my antihypertensive, and be in better shape. It is amazing to me how much time I’ve wasted worrying I’d die young of a coronary, since both my father and grandfather did.  My heart keeps pumping. With full disclosure, honorable mention goes to Clement, our sweet porter, who carried our (heavy) pack.

It was a glorious 3 days and an excellent antidote to the bustle and dust and heat of Blantyre and the grim circumstances of Room 6 at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. I am so stiff today it is a miracle I can pump my bicycle to work. Seeing how simple, cheap, and entertaining riding a minibus can be, we’ll take more out-of-town excursions to places of natural beauty, including Mt. Mulanje again, of which there are many in Malawi.

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