Last year, I wanted to see if a one-week trip to Africa was worthwhile. After visiting the Republic of the Congo, I determined that the answer is yes and was determined to return to the continent.
Conveniently, my friend Simone was living in Malawi for one year as part of a research fellowship. Seeing that I had a friend in a remote corner of the globe, I set my sights on Malawi.
Simone suggested we climb the country’s highest peak, Mt. Mulanje. As a lover of mountains, I said sure!
Mulanje is about 100km outside of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital and second-largest city. It was easily accessible both by international flights and domestic flights (which are actually second stops of larger international routes). I flew via Virgin Atlantic via London and Johannesberg and then on Malawi Airlines to Blantyre.
While you can legally hike Mulanje without a guide, everyone hires one. There are 85 registered guides on the mountain and far fewer than 85 people hiking at once. The easiest way to hire a guide is via TripAdvisor. Guides will post their WhatsApp number on TripAdvisor reviews. You then contact the guide directly. We hired Patrick Ndawala (+265 882 27 06 55). Guides generally can be hired for $20-40/day.
While you can hire a cook to hike with you, it is far cheaper to bring your own food. I took a number of food items from the US that I typically bring on backpacking trips: trail mix, PB&J, mac & cheese, and tortillas. Other travelers buy food in the local markets. Water sources are plentiful and purification was not necessary on the upper reaches of the mountain. We camped in huts that had cooking equipment and fireplaces. I did not bring a headlamp and regret that decision. With no light pollution, it gets very dark at night.
Overall, planning for this trip was very straightforward and it could easily be done on the fly at the base of the mountain if desired.
March 11, 2019: Welcome to Malawi
At 6am in Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, I received a nervous message from Simone. She said that Malawi was recently hit by an insane amount of rain and over 100,000 people were displaced by the flooding. She asked if we should cancel the trip. After a discussion, Simone called the lodge at the base of the mountain. They said that the flooding did not hit Mulanje, but we may have trouble on the roads getting there. We decided to take our chances and go ahead with the climb.
At 1pm, I boarded my two hour flight to Blantyre. Flying over Southern Malawi, I could see rolling green hills and a lot of water. This was the flooding everyone was talking about and it was serious! But as we neared Blantyre, the flooding stopped.
Something else on everybody’s mind was Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed a few hours earlier. Interestingly, an Ethiopian plane landed at the same time as me in Blantyre. Those passengers had no knowledge of the crash. Ethiopian Flight 302 took off from Addis just 20 minutes before their flight so these people probably encountered the doomed passengers in the Addis Ababa airport only a few hours ago.
Anyways, I got this trip’s first taste of silly African bureaucracy in the Malawian immigration line. Visitors from all but 33 countries (mostly in southern Africa) must purchase visas on arrival at the airport. This includes citizens of the US, Europe, China, Australia and the Middle East- approximately approximately half the plane. However, the airport only had a single line to purchase visas, which must be done in the form of 75 crisp US dollars. I was somewhere in the middle of the madness and only had to wait an hour to have the one man write my name and passport number on a sticker and stick it in my passport. I reckon some people waited almost 3 hours. If that wasn’t enough, I then had to wait in the normal immigration line. Nobody seemed in a rush or hurry- this was business as usual. When clearing immigration, the agent told me “we have major problems here”. Welcome to Malawi!
Knowing Malawi is a cash economy, I exchanged $300 USD for Malawian kwacha. The exchange rate was approximately 1 dollar for 775 kwacha. Interestingly and somewhat hilariously, the largest bill in Malawi is only 2000 kwacha or about $2.70. My new stack of money made me look like I just completed a drug deal.
Phonix, the cab driver Simone arranged for me, greeted me in the parking lot. We cruised the 30 minutes into Blantyre to pick her up from a hotel where we arranged to meet. We then drove for 90 more minutes towards Mulanje.
Despite rumors of terrible Malawian roads, this one was very nice and we were able to cruise at speeds of 120 km/hr (75 mph). The flooding has zero effect on this road. The scenery was beautiful too!
About an hour into the drive, we caught our first glimpse of Mulanje. The massive mountain towers 9,000 feet above the surrounding plains. With multiple peaks and alpine valleys, it is a behemoth.
Once in the town of Mulanje, things got interesting. Our lodge was approximately 6 miles away on an improved dirt road. The first five miles were fine, but then we had a final mile on a very poor quality dirt road. Phonix’s cab bottomed out in the divots and eventually could go no further. The sun had set and it was pitch black out. Out of nowhere, we were greeted by locals who volunteered to take us to our hotel. Phonix assured us that we would be fine. With no better options, we walked with them. The lodge was about a 5 minute walk from the spot where the car bottomed out. Along the way, the men asked if we needed a guide or porter which we both politely declined since we already made arrangements. The men were so kind and I felt terrible saying no.
At the Likhibula Forest Lodge, we checked in and got dinner. Then we were also met by our guide Patrick. He explained logistics before we passed out from exhaustion around 9pm.
March 12, 2019: Up, Up, and Up.
We woke up the next morning around 6am. This was going to be a very tough day of hiking and we needed to get an early start.
The men from last night were hanging outside the barbed wire fence surrounding the lodge. They asked me if I wanted to purchase a walking stick. The stick was beautifully engraved with symbols and the words Mulanje Mountain Malawi 2019. The stick was also made from fragrant cedar wood. At just 5,000 kwacha ($7) I couldn’t say no and was very happy to make their day. “Thank you for supporting us,” the men said with a big smile.
We started hiking at 7:30 am. The weather was sunny and it was warm. I was struck by the area’s beauty! 30 minutes in we reached a powerful waterfall. We went swimming. A nearby wooden bridge got wiped out by floods last week.
Above the waterfall, the path steepened and we started to climb in earnest. Soon after, we spotted our first wildlife spotting: a chameleon. It changed colors from green to brown in front of our eyes!
An hour into the brutal uphill, we reached a raging river. In most circumstances, this might have been too intense to cross. Luckily, there was a conveniently placed log that allowed us to gingerly sidestep across.
We followed the river up a steep canyon for another hour. Then, we had a second gnarly river crossing.
On the far side, we encountered the first people of the day. The two men were illegally cutting down the cedar trees to make…walking sticks just like the one I was carrying. Apparently the trees are critically endangered. Whoops. On the bright side, we learned that it was the loggers who created the log river crossings. So without their actions, we would have had a major problem.
Finally, around noon- after 4 hours of climbing, the trail flattened and we reached a plateau.
On the banks of a river, we sat down for lunch. Patrick told us how the recent storms caused major tragedy in his family: his cousin was killed and his sister broke her arm when the wooden shack they live in collapsed. As the only member of his extended family who has a job (he has 3 sisters but women generally do not work in Malawi), he is the one responsible for feeding his family and rebuilding their home. He thanked us for giving him work for the three days.
We continued uphill through the plateau. The scenery here was a stunning green savannah with Lorax-like trees.
Simone and Patrick started talking about a movie called Gabriel and the Mountain, which was released in 2017 and is based off a true story. In the movie, a Brazilian man named Gabriel travels solo around Southern and Eastern Africa before heading to college in America. While climbing Mount Mulanje, he dies after ignoring the recommendations of his guide and losing his way. Simone recognized many of the places on our hike because they were in the movie. Patrick knew Gabriel’s guide and claimed to have carried gear for the film.
Further along, we ran into some other travelers who had summited the mountain today. They included a Dutch couple on an 8-month Africa trip and 3 American of a 3 ½ month Africa trip. It appears that the only people who visit Malawi are either volunteering at an NGO or on an epic multi-month expedition.
Both groups said they were blessed with good weather. While most of the weather applications said the peak was going to be covered in clouds, Mountain Forecast correctly predicted it would be clear. Fortunately, Mountain Forecast was also predicting clear weather tomorrow on our summit day.
After climbing up a final huge hill, we cruised downhill for 30 minutes and eventually reached a wooden hut around 4pm. This would be our home for the night. From here we would launch our summit attempt tomorrow morning.
This hut had a fireplace, mattresses, blankets and cooking equipment! The caretaker named Simon also made fire for us and ensured that we had fresh water. He even heated up water in case we wanted to take bucket shower. Definitely nicer than I was expecting.
30 minutes after settling down, an American guy named Caleb from Colorado showed up. He is on a 2 year trip around the world, but he has been in Africa for 5 months. He told some war stories including most recently when he spent 4 days on a minibus across Mozambique. After Africa, Caleb plans to ride a bicycle across Europe until he runs out of money.
Something interesting he brought up was his guide. He booked his guide on the fly when he was approached at the bus stop. They negotiated a price of $20/day, which is considerably less than what I paid. He also wanted to climb the mountain in 2 days rather than the typical 3. Maybe as punishment, the guide took him up a much longer and more difficult route.
Caleb’s guide fell asleep at 6pm, which left him with a lot of extra food. He proposed we combine forces for dinner. He contributed pasta, tomato sauce and some vegetables. We contributed mac & cheese. The meal ended up being two delicious courses of pasta.
It was now about 7:30pm and completely dark. We chatted for a bit before falling asleep as there was nothing else to do.
March 13, 2019: Sapitwa
I woke up around 5:30 am. Over the night, it drizzled a bit, but the weather was now clear. This meant that the summit attempt was a go!
We set off at 6:30 as a group of five: me, Simone, Patrick, Caleb, and his guide. We were moving fast, but soon slowed down. Caleb had to summit and get down the entire mountain today, which we did not.
The terrain was much more difficult than yesterday. This is solid Class III climbing. That means that some moves could be aided by a rope, although it was not necessary. The initial rock slope was about 2,000 ft tall and took us about an hour to climb. We weaved through rock faces and even walked on sheer rock faces. We were very lucky that the rock was dry.
Eventually we reached a notch and the trail finally flattened out. Now we were maneuvering between and around gigantic boulders with big 20 foot drops everywhere. The terrain was maze-like and I definitely could see how Gabriel got lost. Luckily, Patrick knew the way.
Now a series of false summits covered in giant granite boulders stood in our way. We continued to weave through the boulders. Sometimes, we had to crawl through caves. There were a few difficult moves. This part of the climb was really fun despite the slow pace.
Finally the real summit came into view. We knew it was the real thing because it was topped with a large pillar. This final quarter-mile would take us 30 minutes due to the difficult terrain.
As we approached the final obstacle – a small rock canyon- we were greeted by Caleb who was on his way down. From there, it was just 30 seconds to the summit.
Sapitwa (3002 meters/9,849 ft) is the name of the highest point on Mulanje and means Unreachable Place. It is also the highest point in the country of Malawi. Patrick claimed that this is the highest point in Southern and Central Africa, but that is untrue as there are higher mountains in South Africa and Lesotho. A small plaque commemorated Gabriel’s ill-fated 2008 expedition.
The 360 degree views from the mountain were nothing short of incredible. It truly felt like an island in the sky!
We moved much quicker on the downhill and did not need the use of ropes. I really wanted to zone out but couldn’t because the hiking was still very dangerous and hard on the knees.
We arrived back at the hut around noon- a full five and a half hours after leaving this morning. Caleb was there too! He left at 12:15, but we rested for another 45 minutes and ate lunch.
Unfortunately our day was not quite over. We had to start our trek down the mountain. Hiking with the pack was not fun. Additionally, I was tired and my foot placements were sloppy. My strides shortened. Occasionally, I would slip.
We hiked for 3 hours before reaching another hut. This one had a dining room with table and bedroom with bunk beds.
About 300 yards from our hut was a village. This was not a normal village. Here, 100 people from the bottom of the mountain lived here part time stints to replant pine trees on the mountain. In exchange, the government allowed the villagers to take water from the mountain.
I took a nap and woke up at 6pm. The sun had just set. We quickly made mac and cheese before it got too dark. Then with no light sources of any kind, we sat around for an hour or two before falling asleep.
March 14, 2019: Three Hours of Downhill
Woke up early and made breakfast. At 7, we started to walk down. The trail stared out gentle and we cruised by the people planting pine trees.
After crossing two bridges, we saw the spot where we ate lunch on the first day.
Then the fun began. Instead of hiking down the river canyon, we took the Skyline Trail which follows a defunct cable car system. This trail was intensely steep and had considerable exposure.
In short, we were walking down the edge of cliffs on steep and muddy terrain. After three hours of walking, we finally reached our starting point, the Likhibula Forest Lodge.
It felt bittersweet to be back in civilization. The mountain was so incredibly beautiful, but I suppose it is time to see somewhere else!
Mulanje felt like a shorter but better Kilimanjaro. While it lacked the elevation and the achievement of reaching Africa’s highest point, Mulanje offered near-solitude, a more interesting trail, and exciting challenges. Simone, who had climbed Kilimanjaro just a week before, called this a bigger adventure.
Additionally, Mulanje costs just 5% that of Kilimanjaro (not a typo). The money that you spend on the mountain goes to the local community instead of the government. I felt good spending my dollars on this hike because I knew it would help the community.
Malawi does not have the tourism infrastructure that other African countries such as Tanzania have. This is both good and bad. It is good because there are less scams, it is easier to have authentic connections with locals, and you are seeing the real unfiltered thing without other tourists around. It is bad because there are less options available and certain tasks/desires/creature comforts are considerably more difficult if not impossible to find.
With simple logistics, a cheap price, incredible scenery and huge thrills, I would wholeheartedly recommend Mount Mulanje.