Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Mulanje Mountain

It's a year since my first visit to Mulanje working as a leader for Outlook Expeditions, and the place laid a spell on me that has proven impossible to break.  I was blown away by the sweeping granite walls, the high altitude meadows, and the strange affinity to Scotland's moorland, with heather, peat and moss, re-imagined in Malawi, a land of mindboggling biodiversity. Last year I met our guide Wonderford Mmambo, and learned about the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team, of which he is a member.  I'm a member of a mountain resuce team too, and I was shocked by the stark contrasts between our two organisations- basically doing the same job. Except that Wonderford's team also do a lot to help out in their community, where there is little in the way of a safety net for people when life goes wrong.

Fast forward to January 2015 and the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team was at the forefront of efforts in the area to rescue people trapped by catastrophic floods.  Many were killed, either drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others passed away in the aftermath from illnesses caused or made worse by the unsanitary conditions. Homes and businesses were destroyed. I'd already wanted to do something to help the rescue team, but the bad news from Mulanje encouraged me, and I undertook a fundraising challenge in May to raise some cash to take out to the team during this year's visit.

I was delighted to see Wonderford again this year, and he accepted on behalf of his team $1160 raised donated by you- my friends, family, colleagues and clients, to support the work of his team.

Wonderford is a superb guide, who knows the mountain like the back of his hand, and is both kind and incredibly professional. The Arran High Team were delighted to have him showing us the way in 2015 and we enjoyed a superb three day trek on the mountain.  He arranged for a team of strong porters to carry our tents and spare equipment for us- a worthwhile investment for enjoying the trek that also helps support the local community. Portering is one of the best paid jobs in the area.

Our route took us up to the Lichenya Basin, via a steep climb through high altitude pinapples, jungle, and moorland, to Lichenya Hut, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric of the huts on Mulanje.

In the forest strangler vines wrap themselves around ancient trees.

The porters carrying our equipment at Lichenya Hut

From Lichenya, the following day we enjoyed an undulating walk out of the basin, and along the narrow neck that links the main mountain to Chambe- an impressive outlying peak with impenetrable granite walls. We were excited to learn that it was the day of the Porter's race, a huge 26km mountain running event that attracts international competitors, but which is always won by one of the strong men from Likhubula, the village at the foot of the mountain.

The leaders in the Porter's Race

Stunning views from the path to Chambe

The entire team, reading the Arran Banner on Mulanje!
At Chambe, we were given permission to stay at France's hut, the setting for the tragic events told in Laurens Van Der Post's account of his 1949 explorations on Mulanje Venture to the Interior.

The following day, we descended to Likhubula, to enjoy a delicious pizza at the Mulanje Pepper Pizzeria. A rare treat in Malawi. After the trek, Wonderford arranged for me to meet some of his colleagues in the rescue team, and I was honoured to hear first hand from David Majeweta, John Ben and Kingsley Mmambo about the difficult times during the floods. I also learned a lot more about how the team functions.  With 24 members in total, drawn from  members of the Guides and Porters Association, six at a time from each of the four main settlements around the foot of the mountain. In this way the team ensure that they are able to provide a rapid response, as the mountain is very large and quite an obstacle to be negotiated. The men work as volunteers, and not only that, but the members of the Guides and Porters Association donate part of their earnings on the mountain to help keep the team going. The team has recently received some branded warm jackets from a benefactor, but on the whole they are fairly limited in their equipment.  They may not have much gear, but there is no lack of strength or dedication. As a mountaineer, who has fallen in love with Mulanje and been welcomed by the people I've met there, their story is a powerful one to me. They deeply impressed me with their commitment to their community and respect for the mountain on which they work.

Wonderford Mmambo, David Majeweta, Kingsley Mmambo and John Ben.

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