At the end of my road trip to Mulanje town I was more than refreshed to start climbing the mountain right away. I had no clue what all I would be able to do over the next three days before my flight back to India, but all I could think of was climbing up the mountains :)
I had joined a Facebook group page just before I left for Mount Mulanje from Blantyre and lots of questions there. Unfortunately I had no internet connectivity in Mulanje so could never read their reply (I read their good replies only after I was done with the trek). I took tips from my mini-bus driver on the climb and he directed me to the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust but when I reached there I realized it was shut due to a local dispute.
A cycle taxi came and took me to InfoMulanje - a name I was familiar with through the little online research I did about the place. Emma, the angle, was there and very patiently heard me out. I was one of those novices who had come to Mulanje with high hopes, but actually had no idea about how to do what I aspired for. There was a scaled down model of Mulanje Massif at the office; she gave me a couple of brochures, took me to the model and gave a really short but informative overview of the multiple options of treks available, based on the number of days I had. I was enthralled and at the same time felt bad that I had only three days to spend there!
Like a kid I wanted to climb the highest peak (Mount Sapitwa) and asked her if that was possible. She thought for a minute, asked me how fit was I and if I had done trekking in the past as well - I boasted that I was very fit and had done many treks in the Himalayas :) She shrugged and said then you can do it, provided you start the trek in an hour's time! Emma called up a guide on phone, took some advance from me and asked me to go and buy the food for the three days' trek. She also asked if I needed a porter. I think my male pride came in the way and I told her that I would carry my own stuff with much pride - it was a decision I would regret very soon, in fact just a few hours in to the trek!
I did enough shopping for myself and possibly another person from a local store and unfortunately this also made my bag rather heavy. For some reason Peanut butter is extremely popular with many local brands selling it everywhere . I bough lots of that, chocolates, energy bars and dry fruits, apart from a large loaf of bread. For such a small town, I was very impressed to see a superstore located right opposite InfoMulanje, of maybe it's there because the area is popular with the tourists. Apart from food I also picked some practical metal utensils - a pan, spoon, fork and a mug. All of these came very handy during the trip. I also wanted to buy bananas, but completely forgot as I shopped.
As I sat down to have pizza at a local cafe, my guide David came over to tell me that we need to leave immediately as it was getting late and trekking in the dark later in the day won't be safe. I quickly finished my slice, packed the rest and it was around 2.00 pm when we took off. I was a in a great mood and kept talking to David, who looked more sombre than fun. I knew he could be my only companion for the next three days, so wanted to make friends.
The first part of the trek takes you through amazing the gardens spread near the foothills of the mountain. The slope was gentle and the view stunning, the only problem was the overhead sun which made me constantly thirsty. Much to my surprise, within an hour of walking and while we were still in the tea plantations, I was already huffing and puffing. I also took off my pants and wore my swimming shorts, but somehow my bag had become a huge burden to carry. David could see my struggles and offered to take some of the stuff from my bag, and I again refused. It was about an hour later when I asked for another short break that he commanded me to empty my bag and pass of anything heavy to him. I was too tired to protest and allowed him to take all the food (which was most of the weight) and also a few clothes which he neatly packed in his bag.
The trek was better after that, though we had already run out of water and I needed some to quench my thirst. But I was extremely relieved with less weight on my shoulder and even started taking pictures once again! The ascent became steep and our speed was very slow. David was worried that we might get too late and didn't at all like the idea of walking in the dark - none of us any torches with us. So we trekked on, I tried to pace up, especially after we found a small water stream. I threw all caution on side and drank as much water as I could as the next water body was a few hours away. The trek got harsher but my struggles reduced as the sun started coming down.
At six it became clear that we will soon have to walk in the dark as were still far away from our stop for the night. The upward trek ends as you reach the top, and then there is quite a bit of hiking on a somewhat flat plateau. Its not tiring anymore, but when you are already dead tired when you reach the plateau, everything is an effort. I could see the fantastic African landscape so close by only now, and it was quite a feeling to just almost all alone in such an empty and expansive space. We found absolutely no one on the way, and far as far as we could see there were mountains and forests. The flat trek also took us through small forests, even some bamboos.
It was dark and we were walked using light from David's Nokia. There were absolutely no sign boards anywhere, and we could go only because he was such an expert. I would have ideally loved to stop for a while, but the one thing we didn't have was time. I usually looked ahead into total darkness now, and saw the world around me through the narrow torch light of the phone. It was avery dark day and that's when I decided to look for the moon in the sky. As I looked up, I stopped short with my mouth half open. I do not remember if I had seen a clearer sky ever before.
The lack of moon meant that all the sky was completely filled with stars, with Milky Way visible like never before. I was spell bound and started telling David about some of the stars I could place, but he wanted me to reach the hut and admire the view from there, and so we walked on. I occasionally looked up to capture the moment in my brain, but my focus was all on the torch light - one wrong step and I could fall in a pit, or damage my ankle. It was also getting cold now, and I felt almost naked in my shorts as they were just basic short shorts, not meant to protect me from any cold. The breeze would have felt good earlier in the day, but in the night they were almost like torture.
We reached the Lichenya Hut at around 7.30 pm, after what seemed like a walk which started days ago. I was completely exhausted and wanted to skip dinner and just sleep off. Of course, I knew that I need all possible energy the next day (the day I was supposed to reach the summit), so forced myself to eat a few slices of bread with peanut butter. David was exhausted as well, and ate some bread with me. He made tea for both of us - I had some tea bags from the Blantyre hotel which I used, while his tea was simply boiled water with milk and sugar! I told him that tea had to have tea leaves at least, he disagreed. As we sat at the fireplace he told me a little about his family, about his small daughter and I told him about India and my family there. For him India was a dreamland where everyone was rich and happy, and this was something I was hearing the second time in the same day. To me India seemed much closer to Africa than other nations and this surprised him much.
By 8.30 we were ready to sleep. David and I were the only two people in the hut and so were spoiled with choice. I picked a huge room for on the ground floor, while David climbed up to the attic. I was too tired to climb anywhere so simply took off the excess clothing and go into the rather inviting sleeping bag. I have no memories of what happened next - I think I slept off instantaneously. Maybe I dreamt a little about the next day...