Thursday, May 14, 2015

FidEgan's Fastpacks - Episode 9 - Reaching the high point of Malawi

John and I are currently on a world trip where we plan to pursue our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world.  As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run that we did.  This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country.  It just means that it was our favorite that we did.  We are both using Ultraspire Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column.  On this trip John carried his larger backpack to carry more gear while I used my Fastpack.

Due to an unfortunate error while (attempting to) download our pictures they were accidently deleted. 

Where:  A traverse of the Mount Mulanje massif in southern Malawi right on the Mozambique border.
Mount Mulanje massif (Google images)
Facilities/Trailhead:  We started our hike from the Likhubula Forestry Office/Park Entrance.  We hiked out at Fort Listers Gap which was just a small farming village with no park facilities there.  It took a half day of mini-buses to get to the Likhubula Forestry Office from the city of Blantyre.  We were very lucky to have hitched a ride out of Fort Listers Gap.  This village is on a very rough dirt road and is a long way from any public transportation.  Once you reach the town of Phurumbu it is still a half day of mini-buses to get back to Blantyre.

Fees:  The park entrance fee is only 100 Kwacha (22 cents) per person.  A local guide is required in the park and the government set rate is 11,000 Kwacha (~$25) per day.  Porters hire out for 8000 Kwacha (~$18) per day.  There is a choice of using the huts or camping.  Even when camping you are free to use the hut to cook dinner in.  Camping was 500 Kwacha/person/night.  Our experience has been that huts tend to be crowded and noisy so we elected to bring our own tent.  We were glad we did as it provided both privacy and a better barrier against bugs at night. 

Terrain/Trials:  There is a network of trails that intersect between all the huts scattered around the massif with trails that come up from the various villages around the mountain.  A trip from one day to over a week could be arranged depending on how long you would want to hike there.  There are also a number of peaks on the top of the massif that can be climbed.  These range from walk ups to technical rock climbing to get to the top of. 

Distance:  We never saw a map with distances so are not sure about the actual number of kilometers covered.  We did hike 4 hours the first day, 8 hours the second day (5 of those were going up and down Sapitwa Peak), 8 hours the third day, and about 3 hours the last day (though without a ride it could have been many hours more).

Description:  The guide we had found in Blantyre was named Fanuel and he ended up being great.  He was born and grew up at the foot of the mountain and is now very active in the Blantyre Mountain Club.  He often climbs there just for fun and has been up most of the peaks including the technical ones.  He is an orphan and the eldest of all his brothers and sisters.  He is supporting his entire family along with 4 Mozambican orphans (one of which is blind) trying to get them through school.  We highly recommend him as a guide and we hired his brother Victor as a porter.  It is possible to contact him via phone (0999329808) or email (  Other guides can also be found in the town of Mulanje.
Our mountain goat guide Fanuel
     There are several trails from the Likhubula Forestry Station to the top of the escarpment.  As usual we chose the shortest but steepest way called the Skyline Trail.  At the base of the mountain are verdant green tea plantations and most of the mountain is steep rock cliffs that go up to the upper plateau.  The lower elevations tend to be hot and the clay soil makes it very slippery if there has been any recent rain.  A variety of birds and vervet monkeys could be seen in the trees.  There were leopard here at one point but none have been seen for many years.  Once on the upper plateau there is an entire new mountain range on the top.  A variety of mountain summits stick up with valleys and ridgelines in between them.  We spent the first night at Chambe Hut and this was the only night where there were other tourists around.  The amount of stars visible at night was stunning. 

Day 2 involved hiking 3 hours to Chisepo Hut.  We left our packs and Victor at the hut while the rest of us hiked to the top of Sapitwa Peak which is the high point of Malawi.  It is not technical to summit but it is steep in places and scrambling across rocks and ledges is required.  Starting early in the morning is recommended as in the afternoon the view is often obscured by clouds.  From the top there are extensive views over the plains into Mozambique.  Some people have been known to camp on this summit.

Day 3 was a long day and we were tired from the previous days effort.  We hiked to Sombani Hut but the nice thing was that there were 2 other huts along the way which provided good places to stop and take a break.  The day consisted of a series of climbing up and over a ridgeline and then across a valley with a river marking the low point of the valley.  Many of these rivers had inviting looking swimming holes in them.  On each day we had come across multiple villagers poaching cedar logs out of the forest but on this day we saw the most. 
One of the many swimming holes (Google images)
Day 4 was a short day of hiking back down the mountain to the plains to a village called Fort Lister Gap.  In 1893 the British built a fort there to try to end the slave trade caravans that were moving between Malawi and Mozambique.  It was a easy and scenic hike.  We were lucky once we hit the rough dirt road in Fort Lister we were able to find someone with a car that gave us a ride.  Without that it would have been a very long road hike or ride on a bike taxi to get to the town of Phurumbu where mini-bus transport can be found back to Blantyre. 

A wide variety of trails are on the mountain.  Day hikes or overnight trips are possible.  With a week or more pretty much the entire upper mountain could be explored.  There are also a number of different mountains that could be climbed of varying difficulty.  It was a beautiful place and the locals could use all the tourist money they can get.  The more tourists that visit places like this, the more likely those places will be protected by both the government and the local villagers.