Friday, August 29. It was a little after six when the trek up the Mulanje Mountain started at Likhubula, the foot of the mountain.
It promised to be a hike with a difference. It had that unique feel. What else would you expect, for on trek was Minister of Tourism, Culture and Wildlife Michael Usi and musician Lawi, who signed a pact with the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) as ambassador of the mountain.
The billing was the Voice of the Mountain Hike. About 80 hikers were on board. Some had been at Sapitwa several times, while many more had never been to the summit before.
The unique thing about the hike that day was that history was to be made. Usi would become the first serving minister of tourism to step on Sapitwa. Ken Lipenga, one time minister of tourism, was the first minister to sky dive on the mountain.
It was even unique, for never before has it been recorded of a music performance at Sapitwa. Lawi broke that record. And, he was joined by acoustic guitar maestro Agorosso.
So, the trek began, a few minutes after six after exercises led by soldiers of the Malawi Defence Force (MDF).
It is about four hours from Likhubula to Chambe Basin, where the hikers would have a snack. This is the Skyline Path. It gets its name from the skyline, which used to transport equipment and tree logs between Chambe and Likhubula.
“I wish the skyline could be used by a cable car. I remember the time we went up the Table Mountain in South Africa, we used a cable car,” remarked MBC journalist Simeon Boyce.
A debate then raged, as the nature enthusiasts weighed the pros and cons of a cable car to ease mobility. It would make more and more people visit the mountain, some argued. No, it would kill the pleasure that comes with hiking, others said.
Mulanje Mountain has 10 huts, where hikers can spend nights. There is one at Chambe. That afternoon, the hikers, however did not go as far as that hut, as they were heading for Chisepo Hut. They only had a snacks near the basin, before getting back on the trek.
From the foot of the mountain to Chambe, you can see you are on your way up. But the route from Chambe to Chisepo is characterised by going up and down slopes. It is on this leg that you can’t miss the grandeur of the mountain. It is also here that you will note the environmental degradation on the mountain.
You will find sooty stumps of Malawi’s national tree, the Mulanje cedar after plunder. You will see stumps of cyprus trees by the wayside. All that time, you will be going up, then down, up and down again. At times, muscle cramps grip you. You sit on a rock to rest, get lost in the breath-taking view or cogitate on the distance left before you reach the hut.
If you dare ask a porter or a tour guide, all they will tell you is: We are about to be get to Chisepo.
There is one particularly hard climb, which the locals call Kamfiti. This is the last hurdle to Chisepo. Coming about seven hours after leaving the foot of the mountain, Kamfiti tears you apart, but once done you see Chisepo Hut in the expansive rocky wilderness before you.
After a few exercises, you can choose to go to a nearby stream. The water is so cold, but putting your feet in it is so refreshing.
Like most of the huts, Chisepo Hut is made of cedar wood. You can’t miss that sweet scent. Neither can you miss how hard the wood feels.
The first night at Chisepo was quite uneventful. It could be that the hikers were just too tired after the seven hour trek. Or else, they could have been thinking about the experience to Sapitwa the following morning. Nonetheless, it was time for some to get to know each other and make new friends.
The following morning, at around seven, the hikers were back on track. The last leg to Sapitwa, some four hours away, had begun. It is a steep and rocky climb. Most of the times, the hikers would go on all fours, as the MDF soldiers sang songs to keep up the spirits.
There is less vegetation on this part of the trek. You can see rock formations that will leave you amazed. Not only were the hikers thrilled by the peculiar shape of the V-cave or the rabbit ears rock, they also had to pass through caves until they reached the last hurdle, where the soldiers pulled them using a rope.
That Saturday afternoon, the peak was calm. It wasn’t as cold as it may be.
To add the warmth, Lawi and Agorosso played music. They strummed their guitars, as the other hikers sang along and recorded the milestone on their phones. That was also time for the Kodak moments!
The act at the peak climaxed as Usi, who is also a renowned actor, sang his own song, a song that sent the hikers into stitches of laughter.
That performance at the summit was like a dress rehearsal for what was to happen at Chisepo Hut that night. By the bonfire, Lawi and Agorosso dished out music. Heart-rending it was to see Agorosso playing the percussions as Lawi dished out such songs as Amaona Kuchedwa, Phukira, Lilongwe and The Whistling Song, among others.
“I must say, it gives me great pleasure to play with Agorosso. The other time, I met Oliver Mtukudzi in South Africa and he told me what a great musician Agorosso is. In fact, the two were recording an album when Tuku passed away,” said Lawi.
For Usi, being on the mountain is one thing, but what happens after the hike is another.
“We have seen for ourselves the degradation on the mountain. We have seen for ourselves the tourism opportunities that exist here. We have to take steps to protect this mountain which has so many exciting features,” said Usi.
While acknowledging calls that the event should be annual, one of the organisers Mervis Maigwa hailed female hikers who took part in the challenge.
“It is exciting to see that women took up the challenge. Women dared and all of them reached the summit,” she said.
Most hikers will tell you, the descent is harder. Mainly, that is because your mind is already home. And, for that matter, you apply more effort to avoid running downhill. The memories rest for life.