Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Memories from the other side of Mulanje Mountain

Kondwani Kamiyala

At first glance, the Mulanje Mountain looks like a massive barren rock. You would think there is no life up there. One would seriously believe that life ends with the lush green tea plantations at the foot of the mountain.

Coupled with the mythical tales of the ancestral spirits on the mountain, the belief that the mountain is lifeless is deeply rooted in the core of your heart. That is the mystery of Mount Mulanje.

My perception of the mountain changed the day I hiked it. We never went as far as Sapitwa, the highest peak which is perched at 3002 metres above sea level. Hiking to Chambe Peak, 2,500 metres above sea level, nonetheless, is an experience on its own.

Our hike began with a prayer at Likhubula Forest Office, which is the entry point to this massif.

We needed a little prayer to steel our spirits as we embarked on that daring hike to Malawi’s Island in the Sky, as the mountain is known on the tourist’s map. It was around 8 am when the trek began, as the dew was just evaporating from the grassland.

Slowly and surefooted our ascent went. Slowly, the soil became scantier. The higher we went, the more rocks we encountered. At some points, these rocks were so big that to go past, we had to go on all fours.

We passed through numerous kinds of indigenous trees and flowers. Beautiful butterflies flew past us, as if making a mockery of our efforts.

In our walking and scrambling, we encountered men and women coming down the mountain. On their heads were heavy logs. At least, we could tell the immensity from the sweat glistening on their faces.

Most of them are barefooted. If hiking Mulanje Mountain is a feat, then coming down the mountain, barefoot and with a heavy log balanced on your head is, to say the least, a fearless exploit.

From Mulanje you can also see Chiradzulu miles away. You will also enjoy the breathtaking view of the tea plantations of Thyolo. You could also point out where Chikwawa and Nsanje are located.

If you shout, the echo of your voice will be heard in the ravine below. Some guide, however, would deter you from shouting. That would awaken the spirits.

Looking up the clear blue sky, on your right, you will definitely make out a black line that seems to tear the sky into two. That, as a guide would tell you, is a pulley used to transport things up and down the mountain. At some point, even tractors have been transported on that pulley.

So, after all, it is possible to realise that dream about some tourists being carried on chairs up and down the mountain as they do on the ski lifts of some Canadian ski resort. That, however, is just a colourful dream as of now.

It was around three in the afternoon when we finally arrived at Chambe. Five solid hours of hiking surely got the better of us.

The most predominant feature at this peak is the presence of cedar plantations. The Mulanje cedar is Malawi’s national tree. This unique tree species grows to as far as 40 metres long, with a radius of up to 200 centimetres.

Unfortunately, in some areas you find acres of this unique plant burnt down by carefree mice hunters and other poachers.

What you would find most striking here is the presence of houses. Some were built as far back as 1939, 12 years after the mountain was declared a forest reserve. Most of the inhabitants are forestry workers, who tend the cedar plantations and nurseries.

Nearby is the Chambe Hut, one of the seven huts on the mountain. The other huts are at Chizama, Sombani, Minunu, Thuchila, Madzeka and Lichenya.

A night spent at the hut is worthwhile. Nonetheless, we scarcely slept. The singing of religious songs tore through the night. We were tempted to get out of the blankets and roll off the mattresses. We forsook the warmth of the fire chuckling at the fireplace and walked into the very cold black night. The music was coming from one of the houses: Ndaifunafuna nkhosa yotaika.

You have heard that song before. But no, these were not the gods singing. It was the forestry workers singing to the joy of the Lord, around a log fire. They love to be jovial here. No one can stop them, for they are closer to the heavens at Chambe.

“We don’t like the life below (at the foot of the mountain). There is no love there. There is gossiping there. We make the most of our lives up here, even spiritually,” said one woman.

But there are spirits here, so we are told. The spirits of the angered ancestors who take away those who break the mountain’s unwritten code of conduct.

“Yes, there used to be spirits here. But that was long ago, before people started living here. Now they moved further up, to Sapitwa,” the woman said.

One man, though, felt the spirits still live at Chambe. “The only problem is that they see us, but we can’t see them. When you walk on the path, they stand aside. When they invite you to eat food, you don’t have to invite a friend. The spirits always watch over us,” he said.

As we went back to sleep after some more choruses, it got even colder. The wind was hissing in the cedars and the grass. Thanks to the fire in the hut, the cold was left outside.
On waking up, water is dripping on the sills of the window. We can hear it pour on the roof. There was a heavy downpour.

The journey down the mountain would be harder than we had imagined. We had to use another route, through Lichenya Peak. It was raining cats and dogs all the way.
At most times, the return route was obscured by a heavy mist. Crossing rivers, which were swollen with the rain, was intricate, the rocks were slippery, the noise made by the rare blue or nchima monkeys at their play was disturbing, but still we had to hope that we were going to make it. Hope is the sole tool for survival in such circumstances. Those that seek adventure, but are hopeless are more apt to return dissatisfied.

As we tried to cross one stream, one of us slid into the water. Others rushed and grabbed him, but not so fast, as one of his bags fell into the water, and it was carried down the river. We joked about it later, when we were on safer ground: that bag was a sacrifice to the Mulanje Mountain ancestral spirits.

The greatest wonder, in this downward trek was the Ruo Falls. The thundering, foaming, splashing and falling of the water down the big, massive rock was just mind-blowing.

This memory of the mysterious Mulanje has been in the locker of my mind for five years.
It will remain there for a lifetime.


Victor Kaonga said...

A great post on the mount of Malawi-Mulanje. I am proud of the mountain. Going up and down Mulanje Mt makes one appreciate God's creation in a new way. Keep it up. I wish you well.

Kondwani Kamiyala said...

Thanks Vic for sharing your views on Mount Mulanje. It is indeed one of our lovely treasures that must be seen to be visible.

Lucy Kumilonde said...

hiya nice to read through the experiences you had,my friends just went to one of the huts this easter and everyone seems to be prou..am happy to come from such abeatiful country with beautiful sceneries.
being in the UK yeah.you do experience alot but far from what Malawi can give you..God bless Malawi

ZliaBR said...

Hi Kondwani,
Very interesting post.
I would like to know the meaning of the word: Sapitwa.
I don't know if you heard about the brazilian Gabriel Buchmann missing in Mulanje Mountain last July 17. I have read about these misteries. Thanks for sharing.