The Páramo of Malawi

A view of Mt Mulanje from the edge of a tea field.

Women from a village 7km away from the small town of Likubula leave their huts at 3 a.m. and trek up the tallest mountain of Malawi in order to get firewood for cooking. One thin piece of chitenji around their waist, a worn-out shirt and another chitenji wrapped around them to shield from the sub-zero morning temperature. No shoes. They trek up steep paths of rock through waterfalls and thick vegetation. After an 800-meter hike, they begin to work. Thin branches of about two meters long is what they’re after. Once they chop and collect a bundle of about 20 branches, they tie up the bundle, put it over their heads, and begin the way down home.

We were about 20 minutes from the Likubula Forestry Office when we ran into the first woman coming down; it was not even 9 a.m. I stopped on the side of the trail, wiped my sweat-dripping face, and watched her go down with the ease of a child walking through a prairie. Mt Mulanje, on the southeastern edge of Malawi, is a 600 square-kilometer area of mountainous terrain, the Malawian version of páramo. It stands as the most difficult of my hiking experiences. Perhaps it has something to do with the 20-pound bag on back; I’ve never hiked up a mountain carrying five days’ worth of clothes and food. Most muzungus hire porters to carry their bags, but we thought it would feel strangely colonial to have servants carrying our things.

The more women passed us by, the more it became clear that certain women are magnificent at climbing Mulanje, even when barefoot, and other women, who burst blisters in their $300 shoes are, well, pansies.

It took about five hours to get to the plain of the massif (which, is in no way plain) of what Malawians call the “Island in the Sky”, according to Lonely Planet, and another hour to get to Lichenya, the first of many huts set to shelter hikers across the mountain.

In a few weeks the annual Mulanje Porter’s Race will take place. The yearly race started in the mid 90s for men who carry muzungu’s bags, but now it’s open to anyone who wants to take the challenge up and down the mountain, a total of 27 steep kilometers. Last year’s record was two hours and 11 minutes.

Kingsley came in 28th out of over 200 people last year. It’s not hard to imagine; he has long legs and throughout the five days he guided us through trails he never once seemed to be making any effort at all. Between him and Mr Wild, who is a small beard away from being a mountain goat, all my efforts put together seemed mediocre, at  best.

I barely made it to the hut. In fact, Kingsley, I hate to admit, had to carry my bag the last hour and a half. When we got there, I had blisters the size of quarters on each heel, a knee that ached just from going to the outhouse, and a rich cascade of complaints that I showered Mr Wild with.

He pulled patience from the depths of the Earth, and one by one gave me instructions on how to correct all of my hiking errors and ailments. Then, when I was just about to pour another cup of sorrows over him, he sat next to me, looked deep into my eyes, and said with a firm, yet loving tone: “Honey, man up.”

***

So I did. The next day we had a four-and-a-half-hour hike to Chisepo Hut. I carefully followed all of Mr Wild’s advice and then resolved to stop being a pansy. I couldn’t help walking slower than Kingsley and Mr Wild, but I could have a better attitude about it, I could try to keep a constant pace, and I could certainly not flatten out on the rocks in ‘dead’ pose every time we took a break.

That was the best hike of the whole five days. Time flew by, the scenery was inspiring, the mood light, the weather pleasant. Little did I know the horrifying effects these jolly walks would have on my feet. On the third hiking day, which consisted of six hours of walking at a 70-degree inclination either up or down, I finally took my boots off at the magnificent Chinzama Hut to discover my toe nails were being pushed out of place by bloated, white blisters. I won’t go into details, I would just like to thank Ibu-Profen, official sponsor of this trip, for being there mornings, afternoons, and evenings. I could not have done it without out you. Really.

***

Kingsley, 21, is an official Mulanje guide. He had to work four years as a porter and pass a written exam given by the Ministry of Tourism to have the privilege to guide clumsy muzungus through the back of his hand. At just over $10 per day (he provides his own nsima and dried fish), this is a decent wage for people in the area, and the job description is such an easy request that there are enough registered guides to keep each of them busy for barely three to four trip per year, despite thousands of annual visitors.

Nowadays Kingsley keeps the guiding gigs limited to university breaks and holidays. Unfortunately for the Computer Engineering freshman, the University of Malawi and the government are in the middle of a major political battle, and until (or if) it’s resolved, the university will remain closed.

Sometimes, when I was about to cry from the pain on my feet and knees, when I could not look at Mr Wild because one look would be enough to tell him I was screaming inside my head, Kingsley would turn and look at me, and his serenity would remind me where I was, and I would picture him as a baby, swinging from side to side on his mother’s back, like the babies we saw go by on the backs of the women carrying wood. Serenity is a worthy goal.

***

In hiking I’ve learned that I am one of those people (if there is such a kind) who, as soon as they have exhaled the victory of a summit, get stricken by the panic of being somewhere very high and dangerous, and cannot believe they are expected to walk down all that way. The fifth day of hiking was our last. I woke up at 5 a.m. and reluctantly dragged my feet through frozen morning dew to the little outhouse of Madzeka Hut. Had I known that was going to be my only bathroom break until 10 p.m., I wouldn’t have rushed.

View from the edge of Mt Mulanje, above Lujeri.

After an hour of walking we came to the edge of the world we had been living in. This breathtaking view, I thought, would be complete with a small helicopter parked right here. I mean, seriously, what this place needs is a cable car. I wish I had a parachute. Maybe I could use my windbreaker as a parachute…

Down we went. Approximately 1,000 meters in three hours; that’s faster than an average elevator! OK, I might have made that up. You know, they should put an elevator here; the closest thing they have now is a series of ladders nailed to rock on the side of the cliff.

The village of Lujeri sits at the foot of Mulanje, in the middle of a huge tea estate (Mulanje, the town, is the center of tea country, and Malawi, the country, is the second biggest producer of tea in Africa). Two dirty azungus and one very tall guide briefly disrupted the morning routine of the villagers who live amongst fields of intense-green bushes all exactly the same height. As a tea enthusiast (to say the least), it took an immeasurable amount of self-control to not drop my bag and wander through the rows of tea bushes. I did, however, shove a couple of leaves in my mouth when no one was looking, just to see what they were like. I do not recommend it.

A half-hour bicycle adventure, a two-hour minibus ride, and a five-hour bus fiasco, it was finally time for a shower.

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