Malawi is not known for its mountains, but everyone in Malawi knows Mount Mulanje. It is really the only mountain in the region. It hardly ever makes it into the discussions about African mountains though, because standing at 3,002 meters [9,849 ft.], it is just not as high as the Eastern Africa peaks. However, mountains should be judged by their beauty, not their altitude, and Mount Mulanje has mountains of that.
Mount Mulanje has been unique from the mountains of East Africa since it was formed. While the other peaks were created by volcanic eruptions or continental plates being pushed up, Mount Mulanje is a result of time melting everything around it away, exposing a mound of hard granite from below the earth. Granite plateaus tower above a horizon of farmlands below, like islands in the sky. Their sheer cliff faces glow orange in the dawn light, and are connected by grassy hills, forested gullies, and waterfalls that gently pour into secret swimming holes.
While scrambling to Sapitwa peak is certainly worth the effort, it is a mistake to plan a quick trek to just do so. Mount Mulanje is a place to meander, sitting by the waterfalls, cooling beer in the swimming holes, and making fires in the mountain huts under the starry nights. We spent four days and three nights trekking Mount Mulanje, and felt like we needed more time.
It is the mountain huts that make trekking Mount Mulanje a unique. Built of pine, with big wooden decks, and cozy brick fireplaces, they could pass for chalets in the Swiss Alps. Further, only costing about $US 1.40 (pp/pn), they just might be the best deal in Africa. Our first day we started at Hiker’s Nest near the town of Likhubula, and trekked up through pine forests, along the top of the plateau covered with red flowering succulents overlooking the Chambe basin. We ended in Lichenya hut, nestled in a forest of pine, with a wood shingle roof, and a wrap-around deck flooded with sunlight.
The summit hut is called Chisepo. The trail there passes above the forest, through meadows of flowering proteas, orchids and yellow everlastings, and above the tree line to the foot of the boulder strewn slopes, which lead to the summits. Climbing onto boulders around the hut, you can sit and watch the sunset behind the peaks above you. It is a spectacular spot.
We left Chisepo for the summit at 5:30am. It is as much a scramble as it is a hike. Before first light, we wove through a landscape of tussock grass, and boulders. As dawn arrived we started scrambling up sheer granite faces, and tightrope walking along a couple little ledges. Towards the top, we hopped over, under and around big stone monoliths decorated with old man’s beard.
The summit is a pile of giant boulders, which we slowly shimmied-up to a gap in the rocks with no holds. There is a three-meter pole that looks like a rusted water pipe standing upright. Our guide, Governor, adjusted it to try to wedge it into the rocks as securely as possible, and then we took turns pulling ourselves up it to the summit.
It is the most dangerous part of the hike, but it is just meters under the summit, so it is impossible not to find a way up it. From Sapitwa peak there is a vast view of the whirling dust of farmlands all the way to the horizon, as well as the other plateaus of Mount Mulanje below. It is well worth the couple hours of scrambling.
After lunch back at Chisepo hut, we set off through the heather bushes, into the Chambe basin. It is an easy hike with only a few uphill sections, but seems difficult after the summit hike in the morning. The view from Chambe hut is straight onto a granite rock face which glows orange in the dawn light.
Our morning hike on day four followed the cascades and pools of the Chapaluka river down to Dziwe La Nkhalamba Falls, which is one of the most spectacular places we saw. The river cascades down a rock face at an angle just too steep to call it a natural waterslide, and into two idyllic little swimming holes at the bottom.
The clear water looks inviting, but its icy temperature bites the skin, awaking the wild mountain spirit you came to find. From here it is a short hike back down to the park gate. Climbing Mount Mulanje feels much more like a hike through alpine meadows than the accent of a great peak. However, that does not detract from the beauty of the landscape, or the sense of discovery from stumbling upon a gorgeous swimming hole. It is a uniquely beautiful African mountain, and I recommend you go spend some time on it.
Trekking Mount Mulanje Stats:
Trekking Mount Mulanje Day 1:
Starting Altitude: 640 meters [2,100 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 1,840 meters [6,037 ft.]
Total Climb: meters 1,200 meters [3,937 ft.]
Total Distance: 13 kms [8 miles]
Hours Taken: 5.5 hours
Camps: Hiker’s Nest to Lichenya hut
Accent Rate: 92 meters/kilometer
Trekking Mount Mulanje Day 2:
Starting Altitude: 1,840 meters [6,037 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 2,219 [7,280 ft.]
Total Climb: 379 meters [1,243 ft.]
Total Distance: 9 kms [5.6 miles]
Hours Taken: 4 hours
Camps: Lichenya hut to Chisepo hut
Accent Rate: 42 meters/kilometer
Trekking Mount Mulanje Day 3:
Starting Altitude: 2,219 meters [7,280 ft.]
Ending Altitude: Sapitwa summit 3,002 meters [9,849 ft.], and then descended to Chambe hut 1,860 meters [6,102 ft.]
Total Climb: 783 meters [2,569 ft.] (Chisepo to Sapitwa)
Total Distance: 13 kms [8 miles] (3kms to peak and 10 kms from Sapitwa peak to Chambe hut)
Hours Taken: 5.5 hours from Chisepo to Sapitwa and back, and then four hours to Chambe hut
Camps: Chisepo hut to Chambe hut
Accent Rate: 261 meters/kilometer (Chisepo to Sapitwa)
Decent Rate: 114 meters/kilometer (Sapitwa to Chambe hut)
Trekking Mount Mulanje Day 4:
Starting Altitude: 1,860 meters [6,102 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 640 meters [2,100 ft.]
Total Descent: 1,220 meters [ 4,002 ft.]
Total Distance: 10 kms [6.2 miles]
Hours Taken: 3 hours
Camps: Chambe hut to Hiker’s Nest
Decent Rate: 122 meters/kilometer
Author’s Note: Ensure your trip goes through a couple of different huts, as each one seems to have a distinct beauty, and to go to Dziwe La Nkhalamba Falls. Many people select Skyline route straight to Siptiwa peak, but I think it is a mistake as it trades beauty for directness to the peak. The Mountain Club of Malawi provides all routes and trekking times, a 1:40,000 topo map and GPS maps on their website.
Note that the mattresses in the huts are first come, first served, and are on the wooden floor. So the earlier in the day you arrive the better, but we only saw a few other people on the mountain. We drank water from the rivers and were fine, and the trails are easy enough that you do not need porters, if you pack light.
Governor guided us up Mount Mulanje, and while he is still working on his English and did not explain much about the mountain, he was a good guy, knows the mountain very well, and charged us a very fair price. His mobile number is: +265882509205. Before our hike, we stayed at Likhubula Hiker’s Nest, which was pleasant and clean. They watched our car while we hiked.