Updated: Oct 30, 2019
After Lake Malawi, I think it's safe to say Mulanje Mountain is one of the must-see, and must-do experiences for people visiting Malawi. From seasoned hikers and rock climbers to more occasional hikers like myself, the mountain offers spectacular views from its base and all along its terrain. I started this business to continue to explore the best of Malawi, and what better way to commemorate my first month than to challenge myself by climbing the 3000m high Island in the Sky?
1. Visualise the Goal
As an adult, I've joined several hiking trips on Mulanje to the Likhubula Waterfalls. The "Old Man's Beard" is less than two hours of hiking time, and you'll be treated to icy cool waters in lush settings. As a child, I climbed up to Chambe Hut with my primary school and I remember that I found the hike very difficult. Most of all, I remember reaching the plateau to be rewarded with a view of clouds in mesmerising hues of pink and orange from the setting sun.
For this trip, I wanted to know how far I could go given the limits of my hiking experience. We would hike for a minimum of three hours to a maximum of nine hours each day. I know, from my own memory as a child, that it is beautiful atop the mountain. My friends regularly travel to Mulanje, spending days at a time in blissful isolation taking in crisp mountain air, coming home invigorated and centred.
So, my goals were to learn about myself when in challenging situations, and to get on top of the mountain and see the views for myself.
2. Get Prepared
It's a good idea to increase your exercise routine in the weeks before your hike. Train your body to improve your stamina and endurance levels. You will always be working against the sunset if you are spending the night on the mountain as we were. It is possible to hike after dark, but remember to follow your guide's instructions carefully.
Pack smart and light, because you will have to carry this bag for hours at a time. Ensure you have suitable hiking shoes, sunscreen, wet wipes, sleeping bag, towel and toiletries and a water bottle. Note that there are places along the route where you can refill your bottle with fresh spring water, your guide will be able to show you where. Remember this is a chance to unplug as there is limited cell service and no electricity on the mountain. Embrace the simplicity.
You can also do some in depth research, reading books such as The Hiking Guide to Mount Mulanje.
You have the option of hiring a porter to carry your bags for you so you can concentrate on the climb.
3. Learn from the Experts
It's highly recommended to use a trusted partner for your hike to Mulanje regardless of how comfortable you are as a climber. Listen to your guide's sound advice and trust their directions. They know where the best views are, the quickest routes or the most challenging depending on your needs. There are numerous fire breaks on the mountain which can look like a path and it's much easier to go in the wrong direction than you might think. A lot of local guides understand English but be prepared for some language barrier. See if you can find an offline translator app just in case.
4. One Step at a Time
Taking on a new challenge begins with taking the first step. And so went this hike, one foot after the other. I listened to my body, being thoughtful about how I was placing my feet, mindful of my heart rate and whether or not I needed rest, water or encouragement. I decided not to compare myself to the fittest people in the group, or the people who live, work and play on the mountain. We met several groups of people climbing down the mountain with heavy loads on their heads, very sure-footed in flip flops and seemingly immune to vertigo.
This hike was entirely out of my comfort zone, but the group I travelled with kept my pace, giving me ample opportunity to catch up. It made me think about empathy for people who find it hard to do the things I find easy, and about making room for the person who is least comfortable in any given setting.
I developed a mantra as I focused heavily on the ground beneath me "mountain goat mountain goat mountain goat".
5. Smell the Roses
It's easy to get lost in the details of the task and to lose sight of the bigger picture. Take a moment to rest your body, and then another moment to really enjoy the view as you ascend towards your goal. The reward changed at every level, from cool breezes to soothing birdsong to the lunch break to wicked funny jokes among the group. The landscape changed from wide open plains littered with trees of jet black bark and bright green leaves, to different grasses and bright spots of purple blooms, to dense foliage and striking rock formations. Only people who make it that far can enjoy these treats.
I also got to meet new people from around Malawi, including doctors (handy), a nurse turned teacher at my old primary school (small world!), an architect, an e-commerce entrepreneur, creatives in poetry, graphic design, modelling and marketing (evening entertainment sorted). Everyone chipped in and became fast friends, emerging as morale boosters, chefs, talent show hosts, passionate gamers, amateur therapists and business advisors. That's the beauty of travel, who knows what you will see and who you will meet.