|View from the plateau of Mulanje Massif over the surrounding landscape|
It is with this in mind that we gathered together to plan the trip of a lifetime to hike Mount Mulanje near Blantyre in Malawi. Despite the distance from the Mother City of more than 3,000 km, flights are notoriously expensive and were far beyond our shoestring budget. Twenty-four hours on a bus from Johannesburg was also not an appealing option. The solution was to drive up there in a friend's car, none other than a humble Ford Fiesta. Recently some writers from Getaway Magazine undertook the same journey in a Mini. If they could do it then what should stop us from taking on the challenge?
Our schedule was certainly punishing as we only had four days to get to Blantyre from Cape Town. The first leg of the journey took us across the Karoo Desert to Johannesburg: a journey of 1,400 km or 16 hours. We left Cape Town on a balmy January night at 2 am in the morning and begun the long drive north-eastwards. Dawn broke with the Mother City far behind us, with the warm early morning glow of the sun rising over the dusty plains of the Karoo Desert. Doggedly we plodded onwards and by nightfall that evening we arrived in the vast metropolis of Johannesburg. Mid summer brought intense thunder showers typical of Highveld weather, sometimes raining so hard it was impossible to see where we were driving. It was with great relief that we arrived at last at Mbizi Backpackers in Boksburg.
|Protea caffra ssp. nyasae|
Exhausted, with our nerves in shreds, a few interesting detours and too many near traffic accidents later we eventually arrived in Amby. We couldn't have recieved a warmer welcome and dinner went down in a daze of tiredness and it was with the greatest pleasure and relief that we fell into bed that night. The next morning after another early start we hit the road once more, but didn't get very far. After all the potholes the metal clip that held the clutch together had fallen off and we came to a halt on the road out of town. Luckily between us we had one working cellphone and so were kindly rescued once again and had an extra night in Harare before heading northwards once more. Luckily our friends were able to rescue us and a friendly local mechanic was able to 'make a plan' with Mazda parts to fix the car. Initially we were more than a little worried as Ford parts are hard to come by in Zimbabwe and had the whole clutch needed replacing we would have been in trouble.
Mount Mulanje is the highest massif in Malawi and is found in the south-eastern corner of the country. It covers an area of 650 square kilometres and is known as the 'Island in the Sky' by locals. Mulanje boasts over fifty peaks that attain an altitude greater than 2,000 m rising from the surrounding plateau including "Green Horror", "Slug", "Scorpion" and "The Turd". The highest peak in the massif is Sapitwa which in Chichewa means "the place where one must not go". It is also the highest peak in Central Africa reaching 3,002 m above sea level.
After defeating hordes of angry ants while repacking our bags ready for departure, we began the long and hot ascent up to our first overnight stop at the eponymous Chambe Hut, named after the peak over which it looks, home to the largest rock face on the African continent. It was the peak of the wet season with temperatures clocking in at more than 40C. The air was so humid it felt like breathing underwater as we struggled upwards along sticky and slippery orange clay paths that were almost vertical at times. A little relief came during the regular river crossings, one of which involved being lowered by the arms over a huge and slippery granite rock face into the water.
Exhaustion set in to the point of struggling to put one foot in front of the other and the intense heat made the climb feel impossible to achieve. But little by little the plains below grew more distant below us and the vegetation slowly changed as we climbed upwards. Eventually around five hours later we reached the top of the plateau and cooling mist swirled around us. Onwards we trudged getting wetter and colder by the moment. Suddenly the mist cleared as we rounded the next corner to reveal the face of Chambe Peak and our beds for the night.
The next morning dawned wet and misty and it was with more than a little trepidation that we packed up and headed out into the murk, feeling rather as though we were on a summer holiday in Scotland rather than between the tropics. But the weather gods were luckily on our side and the white-out subsided to reveal some of the most spectacular scenery of the hike. The vegetation of the "Island in the Sky" is tremendously diverse and home to numerous endemic plants with 70 of the 1,330 species of vascular plants only occurring on the massif. This is owing to a complex mosaic of habitats created by high variation in levels of rainfall due to the influence of the Mozambican trade winds. Rainfall varies from 2,859 mm/yr on the south-eastern plateau around Lichenya to 2,001 mm/yr on Esperanza Tea Estate at the base of the mountain.
The majority of endemic species on Mount Mulanje are herbs, grasses or small woody plants which occur in high altitude grassland, shrubland or rocky terrain (<1,750 m asl). We were warned that this wasn't the best time of year to hike the massif owing to the often inclement weather but our efforts were rewarded by seeing some stunning species at their peak flowering times, including the endemic Streptocarpus nimbicola which only flowers from December to February, growing on wet moss-covered rock faces, in crevices and at the base of tufted sedges. Other endemics we spotted along the way included Cleome densifolia, Senecio whyteanus and Cyperus spissiflorus. The latter could be easily identified by the inflorescences of light brown congested spikelets that typify the species.
|Protea caffra ssp. nyasae growing in habitat context |
(Chambe Peak in the background)
Unfortunately flash flooding is common on the Mulanje Massif during the rainy season. Reaching Sombani Hut safely depended on crossing three large rivers, none of which had any form of bridge. We crossed the first and second river without incident, but taking note at the second river of the huge boulders brought down by floodwaters past giving clues as to how intense the flow could become. Just after we crossed the second river cloud started to swirl around Sapitwa high above us and huge rain drops started to fall from the heavens.
We realised that we were going to be in serious trouble if we didn't take action fast. We were still to far from the third river to reach it and cross safely and we were in very real danger of being trapped overnight on the mountain between two raging torrents if we proceeded forwards. If we retraced our steps immediately we were still in with a chance of getting back across the other two rivers before they became too swollen to cross. So far so good with the first return crossing, which passed with ease and without incident.
Unfortunately our proximity to the last river before Chisepo Hut was heralded by a deafening roar of water. As the white rushing torrent came into sight we realised we needed to move quickly if we were going to stand any chance of crossing safely. A branch pushed into the water revealed that we could still just about cross safely with care, being called by the warm cosy hut waiting just a few metres from the other side. I took a step into the water and immediately felt the current pulling my legs from underneath me. Falling was not an option as the crossing point was immediately above a large waterfall.
With no time to think I was grabbed by several of the stronger guys and we clung to each other and slowly edged across through the torrent. It was about thigh deep but the current was extremely strong and the river bed too rocky to easily find a grip. I remember screaming most of the way across as my rucksack and I were pulled like a ragdoll by strong climbers through the water. It was with the deepest relief that we safely reached the other side. The warm fire in the hut that night was beyond cosy and welcoming as we lay huddled like penguins around the fire listening to the rain hammering against the tin roof.
|After the storm: View over Lake Chilwa with Mozambique beyond|
|View of Namasile Peak from Sombani Hut|
The next morning we headed up to the Lake for a couple of days of relaxation before we begun the journey down southwards. After our experience of Beitbridge Border crossing we decided to avoid it by travelling down through Botswana and crossing back into South Africa at Mafeking. This was a pleasant and easy journey after the greater challenges we encountered heading northwards. After being stamped quickly and easily back into South Africa we headed westwards across North-West Province and into the Kalahari Desert.
We had heard rumours during our travels that Augrabies Falls on the Gariep River was currently experiencing the biggest floods since the 1980s and consequently it was on our route so we decided to make this our final night's stop. We weren't disappointed. The spray from the falls was visible from more than thirty kilometres away and the flow was at 4,416 cumecs (cubic metres per second). We stood quietly overlooking the falls, cold beer in hand, cowering underneath our waterproofs in a futile attempt to remain dry. This was Southern Africa's nature at her most spectacular. Never will I forget it.
|Augrabies Falls on the Gariep River during the biggest flood |
since the 1980s