May 3 , 2006: Mulanje
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After two hours in traffic on Saturday, we finally get out of the city. There is not usually traffic in Blantyre – after all, there are few cars in the city. However, Robert Mugabe, the diminished but still formidable Zimbabwean president, was coming to town to open a road the following week. Because the road wasn’t finished being tarred, we be ready for Friday. As a result, we end up in a traffic jam and directed around in circles for about an hour.
We are going to Mulanje Mountains for the first time this holiday weekend with Maggie and Brian, the hiking gurus of the Mulanje Mountain Club. Maggie is a Brit who works for international NGO Concern Universal; Brian, her husband, is from New Zealand and works with a Malawian dairy farmers’ coop. They pick us up at our house and, once we make it out of town, we head southeast from Blantyre to Mulanje. Mulanje district is the most crowded district in the country, which is interesting because, looming over it, the mountains are one of the most isolated places in Malawi.
After passing through Malawi, we turn into the Lujeri Tea Estate and drive along red-clay dirt roads. Rows of tea shimmer in the sun; the air is cooler here, and Malawi tea grows well and plentifully. People with baskets on their backs pick leaves in the fields, and just past the fields small houses sit in communities that have grown up around the river.
After 20 minutes through the tea fields, Maggie pulls the car into the car park at the hydro electric plant. We pile out and grab our packs. Jimmy’s backpack is 25 years old; mine is 17. I am still carrying my first backpack – the one my parents bought me at REI before I went to Costa Rica for the summer after my sophomore year in college. I remember that shopping trip well. We were all anxious (me excited, my parents probably nervous and skeptical) about my first trip out of the country alone. In any case, they bought me the super high-tech backpack that I wanted.
Now it is a piece of crap – no waist strap, not waterproof, thinning at the seams, and designed so that the weight sits on the shoulders, not the hips. I know this, but I don’t really care. I hoist the pack up and we follow Maggie and Brian up the trail. It is steep, but beautiful, and I tell myself that my raspy breathing is just the initial altitude gain and I’ll be better when things level out.
“Things” don’t level out, and Jimmy and I fall behind. The scenery is stunning; we cross creeks and streams, clamber over boulders, straddle trees in the middle of the trail. This is the end of the rainy season. Ferns and mosses are bright green and dripping with water.
And I am bright red and dripping with sweat.
Luckily, Maggie and Brian decide to stop at one of the river crossings for a snack. We have only been hiking for an hour, but I am exhausted. I check their faces for signs of tiredness, but they look healthy and cheerful.
“It’s tough,” I venture.
“Yeah,” Maggie agrees, in a chipper tone. “And now the trail gets steep.”
She laughs. I cringe and hope she is exaggerating.
She isn’t. For the next 3 hours, we climb straight – and I do mean straight – up a mountain. On hands and knees, grabbing roots and gasping. Digging feet into dirt to pull up with vines and grasses and whatever.
I have every problem. New boots. Wet feet. Blisters. Too many extra things in the pack – whose bright idea was it to pack a toothbrush, anyway? I haven’t truly been hiking in a long time. I also realize that I am out of shape and woefully unprepared. It feels like the story of my life.
Before too long, my legs are shaking and my shoulders hurt. I keep falling over my own feet. A few times I think that if I could just stop and cry, I would feel better. But it is 5pm and the forest is getting dark. Maggie and Brian don’t seem to think that it is a big deal to walk at night, but I imagine getting lost behind them and Jimmy. Smiling still, they offer to take stuff from my bag and I let them. I feel a little embarrassed, but mostly relieved.
Finally, we come to the top of a rise. “Just 200 meters ahead,” Brian says. I am flooded with relief, and sure enough, as we come down a small hill a wooden hut waits on the edge of a mountain overlook. The peaks spread out into the distance, and just to the left, a waterfall plunges down the side of a cliff.
That night we have a fire and Maggie cooks chicken and rice. We drink red wine and fall fast asleep in our sleeping bags.
The next morning, we eat oatmeal and leave our bags for a trip up a “nearby” peak (this is just a preamble, of course, to the real hike of the day). What I am slowly learning is that Maggie and Brian are not stymied by lack of access – by that I mean trails, or anything resembling such. We head down a long slope, and then up the rocky peak – straight through grasses, bushes, thorny ferns and over boulders. There is not a track in sight, but they don’t slow down. We scramble for half an hour to the top, where the view is stunning. Heading down is almost as hard as going up, but I only sustain flesh wounds and a slightly turned ankle. Later we learn that the peak is called “Heartbreak Hill.” The notation in Brian’s book reads simply, “A bush whack. Harder than it looks.”
Heartbreak Hill is Maggie and Brian’s 36th peak in the Mulanje Mountain range. For me and Jimmy, it’s a first. 60 peaks exist in Mulanje, and Maggie and Brian are determined to ascend them all. Jimmy calls them “peak baggers,” but I can tell – and fear – that he is getting the bug himself.
Luckily for me, once we collect our bags from the hut and start hiking again, we stay off the peaks for the rest of the day. The trail goes up and down (mostly up, as you would imagine), for about 3 ½ hours to our second hut. We get in around 3pm and have time to enjoy the view and hike down to the pools. The water is cold but not freezing, and you can see straight to the bottom. We spend a few hours drinking hot tea, watching the mist rise towards the peaks as the sunset, and reading ratty old Scientific American magazines left by hikers from 1997. I read Dr. Suess’ “You’re Only Old Once,” which I have never read before and find quite funny.
Monday is the long hike down the mountain; it’s Labor Day, which is appropriate, because I haven’t worked that hard in a long long time, perhaps since the Houston Marathon. Our route was a 9-hour hike straight down the mountain, complete with slippery hand-built ladders from which you had to lower yourself backwards, hair-raising moss-covered traverses, and quad busting rock descents. After about the 10th time of falling down while simply standing on slippery black clay, I fulfilled my wish from Saturday and sat down and cried.
After that, things got better, if no less physically painful. The tea estates grew closer and closer, and the forests rose up to meet us as we hurtled down towards them. Waterfalls crashed around us, and the forest smelled sweet like cedar.
And by the time we made it back to Mulanje and were seated at an Italian restaurant for pizza and beer, my brain wheels were already calculating, scheming, trying to figure – When would be the soonest I could come back again?