Sapitwa is the highest point of the Mulanje Massif, 3,002m. In the local language, Chichewa, Sapitwa translates to ‘unreachable’. Other sources state the translation to be ‘don’t go there’…
I took the opportunity to tackle Mt. Mulanje with a group of 9 Americans who are currently volunteering in Malawi until August. We faced two days of (on average) 8 hour a day hiking to reach the ‘unreachable’ summit. How did we fair against one of Central Africa’s toughest climbs… Scramble on and find out.
We met our Malawian Style & Zambia In Style guide, Boniface, and the group at the Limbe Country Club in Blantrye. Boarded the bus and set off to Mount Mulanje, once in Mulanje the journey to the mountain goes through a typical Malawian village but what isn’t so typical are the tea plantations you pass on the way. Lush green tea leaves set against the mountain backdrop makes for a tranquil landscape, the calm before the (physical) storm.
We arrived at the foot of the mountain it was time for an introductory briefing with Moses from Mulanje Outdoor Adventures. He spoke through the route and explained what the next three days would entail. Cue nervous, yet excited faces. Health and safety chat complete it was time to don our backpacks and head for Hope Cottage, privately owned by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), approximately a 6-hour hike.
Within minutes, we were crossing over a stream a very pleasant start to what would be a challenging first day. It wasn’t long before we started to ascent and the group began to filter. Everyone persevered, this was rewarded with a snack stop at a picturesque stream, unfortunately, we were not yet high enough to drink straight from the spring, thankfully, MOA supplied plenty of drinking water and snacks to fuel our engines. After a 15 minute break, it was time to put on our backpacks once again, onwards for another 2 hours through varying terrain and an ever-changing environment. Lunchtime provided our first opportunity to take in an open landscape and appreciate the distance we had already covered. Upon arrival, the chef had our lunch laid out and ready for us to enjoy. Each day, we devoured a selection of imported meats, cheese, biscuits, sauces, and crisps, as well as locally sourced fruits. Lunch consumed, the team was energised, unleashing a new enthusiasm to continue onwards to CCAP.
Bellies full and gusto high the team hiked for another three hours in search of CCAP cottage and a well-deserved warm ‘shower’. We hiked through flora which one would expect to see whilst trekking the rainforests of Borneo. As with Malawi, the landscape of Mt. Mulanje is ever changing and fascinating to the eye. After what felt like forever, we stopped ascending and enjoyed a stroll along the plateau, a chance to enjoy our surroundings and not concentrate on our next step. From the top of the hill we were told the elusive cottage was 15 minutes away. We triumphed to the top of the hill and could see the cottage in the distance, ‘it did exist’. As we descended towards our home for the night, the sun began to set. A fitting end to our first day of hiking.
As the sun had almost vanished we reached the CCAP cottage, greeted by a roaring fire and tea/coffee making facilities. It felt good to remove our bags knowing we would not have to put them on for at least 12 hours. Before dinner was served there was an opportunity to enjoy a hot ‘shower’. I jumped at the opportunity, some too tired to muster the energy, already warmed by the fire, decided against the mountain scrubbing experience. 7 hours of hiking and the knowledge that I may not get to enjoy a similar washing experience the next day was enough for me to embrace the solitude basin of hot water, found in an outside cabin, and revive my body, before settling down for dinner and an early night.
After a solid night sleep in bunk beds (only found at CCAP), I woke up to the smell of wood burning as the fire was lit to cook breakfast and boil water for tea. The group congregated on the decking of the hut, admiring the beautiful colours of the sky as the sun rose. Breakfast was served, a banquet of porridge, cereal, sausage, eggs, fruit, peanut butter and toast – we ate like kings, kings preparing for battle, our opponent, Sapitwa.
Let battle commence! To reach the summit and get to Chisepo hut before nightfall, a full day of hiking was required. We set off in the direction we came from the night before, climbing the steep, dew-moistened trail we had previously precariously descended. As we reached the top of the hill the sun had fully risen – shining strong, bodies well and truly warmed, jackets off, onwards we marched.
Our altitude was approximately 1,981m, Sapitwa stands at a massif 3,001m it was going to be a day of up, up, up and move up. When asked how long we would be hiking today, our guide, George, responded “all day”… We anticipated reaching the peak around 14:00 hours give or take an hour, depending on the pace of the group. Before we could even contemplate reaching Sapitwa, we had to get it in our sights and before that, we had to combat West peak.
The voyage to West peak involved varying terrain and action, from strolling through grasslands to jumping between boulders. And of course, it wasn’t just up; we had to go down, down, down and more down. When climbing a mountain what goes down must go up, a particular notable incline was tackling a very steep rock face amalgamated with what can only be described as miniature palm trees. This steep and demanding climb saw many of us using our hands to scramble to the top; the trees were welcomed and useful points of rest. As well as being top resting posts, the trees are used by locals to weave baskets and make brooms, amongst other things.
We continued towards West peak, the strong sunshine was no more, the clouds had gathered, scuppering our chances of capturing the Malawi landscape in its entirety. The cloud cover and increase in altitude resulted in a decrease in temperature, for many it was time to put their jackets back on and rock a beanie or makeshift a hat from a scarf. To reach West peak we climbed enormous boulders, snaked through crevices and slinked under stones. At West peak we were greeted by a large rock painted white, red and black – we made it. Alas, the cloud cover blocked our view so we didn’t hang around for long, a few customary selfies and onto Sapitwa, finally in our sights.
What comes after a peak? A descent, yes, we worked our way down and headed for Sapitwa. We tackled more boulders, some requiring a team effort, as the drop was too long and steep for some. Following this we met the porters and chef in a valley-like space where they had lunch ready for us – much like the day before, we were to gain much-needed energy before confronting the final furlong and reaching the unreachable summit.
Once everyone had finished eating it was time to make haste, there was no time to hang around, it was really quite cold, and people were tired we needed to move. As soon as we were moving spirits rose and excitement grew, we were closer than ever to Sapitwa. An hour more and we would be on top of central Africa. To get to the summit we scrambled some more, skulked through tighter crevices, and clambered over boulders, stooped under trees and even used a rope. This rope had been in our guide, Mckenzie’s bag for the entire two days, we intently waited for the moment it would be called upon. The final obstacle we encountered required the rope – could it have been done without the rope? Maybe – however, it added an air of romance to our quest. So, here we were faced with a riotous boulder, signal the rope. Mckenzie somehow overcame this mutinous boulder tied the rope around his waist and fed the rope to us mere mortals. One by one we scaled the boulder and came within touching distance of the summit.
With the summit of Sapitwa in our visions, the final few metres were met with a leap in our step, we hurdled over boulders with newfound vigour, stimulated by a secret desire to be first to touch the beacon and reach the summit… Irrespective of who touched the beacon first (it wasn’t me) WE DID IT!
There was a strong feeling of accomplishment among the group, for many, including myself, it was the first time we’d climbed a significant mountain, and boy it felt good. The sense of achievement was very high, our grit and determination had paid off. We were on top of the world (Malawi). Unluckily, the weather gods did not bless us with the travel magazine worthy view of Malawi, however, for most it was not about getting that #bestview Instagram shot, the purpose and joy came in the form of overcoming obstacles and reaching the summit, a victory which can forever be reflected on.