Saturday, February 16, 2013

Journey of Mt. Mulanji- Malawi, Africa

"You Can't be serious."  I'm quite certain Mia and I said it at the same time with equal ferocity.  Jamie got it in his adventurous head that we had to climb the second tallest mountain on the continent of Africa (Mt. Mulanji in Malawi).  To know Jamie, you must also know that when an idea is in his head, the Only way I'll be getting it out of there is typically years worth of quiet, feminine head work.  Well, we clearly didn't have time for that.

Political unrest in Zimbabwe was rising again due to elections (voter intimidation was no laughing matter in Zimbabwe at the time).  The US embassy pulled all American diplomatic workers (Peace Corp being an arm of this) in for a few weeks, yet again, to a compound that was easily monitored and protected- should the unrest become dangerous to foreign aid workers.  The idea of being stuck in a walled compound with 100 other Americans with little more to do than look forward to eating red beans for breakfast and a combination of sadza and gazelle stew for dinner for two weeks or more was anything but appealing.  Zim television at the time consisted of highly government controlled "news" and 'Bay Watch' reruns- and we wonder why Zim men thought all American women were 'lifeguards' happy to accomodate desires... (understand that Zimbabwean women are not permitted to show their legs in any way shape or form.  Breasts are for babies- they hold no charm, but legs? taboo).  Having already been through the 'Bay Watch' infatuation stage of life in our teen years, Jamie and I had no idea how two weeks more of constant Bay Watch could keep us from going stir crazy.  And though we enjoyed our fellow Americans' company, our adventurous spirit pounded strong in our chests.  We needed to see the world.  So, we took the unusual offer.... "or you could travel at your own expense for two weeks."

We took an international chicken bus.  Money was in short supply.  Travelling with chickens and African nationals sounded good... to Jamie and Mia.  Though usually willing to go along with Jamie's adventures, I rarely would have raised my hand and said, "I have an idea: let's take a chicken bus for 18 hours- that has no restroom, rarely stops for breaks, with no air conditioning, sitting 5 adults to a school bus seat with the occasional chicken or goat running down the aisles into a developing nation we know nothing about!"  Jamie, of course, was deeply intrigued by such modes of transportation and Mia was not far behind him in adventurous spirit.  So, I followed.

We wound our way through Mozambique, Blantyre Malawi and plenty of hiking from one chicken bus to the next.  We were en-route for Mt. Mulanji.  Whoever told my husband that we can climb Mt. Mulanji owes me a stiff drink!  You know who you are and I am Sure you are out there....

Curious souls can check it out at

Mia, more adventurous than I and in better shape, giggled at the thought, but felt my pain.  We conspired to back Jamie off of this mission by sheer force: "Neither of us is in good enough shape to climb Mt. Milanji with all our gear.  Jamie, we will only do this if You carry All our supplies and leave we women free to carry only our own water and snacks."  Bloody hell- he said, "Sure."

To my delight, a lovely hotel complete with flush toilets and hot showers was available to us at mountain's lower village.  Though ordering anything outside of sadza and mystery meat stew in the attractive, though unused restaurant proved to be a 2 hour wait.  We did enjoy the chicken when we got it and had faith that it was as fresh as any chicken we'd ever eaten... having heard the beheading in the yard behind the kitchen during our wait.

He had to cattle prod me to prepare our supplies for climbing the looming mountain, but Jamie had help from Mia who was also growing excited to be a mountaineer hero.  Up we went, travelling in the back of little bitty pickups on pot hole filled dirt roads.  Safety was no concern, nor was the puppy in the middle of the road near an enclave of rondovals (huts); this driver was all gas and no brakes- a skill we discovered common for most Malawi drivers of 'public' shuttles.  We held on for dear life (though I'm less certain the puppy in our way had such an advantage).

As required, we hired a guide.  Jamie could have easily hired a sherpa to carry our combined backpack, but was feeling strong (and a wee bit stingy- from this wifely perspective) at the trailhead village of the mountain.  I was wearing relatively new hiking boots that did not fit well- bad idea.  Up we went through the winding, beautiful trees of a foreign forest.  The trail was mostly an 80% grade- few flat spots and in no way switch-backed.

Mia discovered that our guide's company was preferable to the bickering married couple she came with- can't say I blame her.  Jamie and I grouched at each other the entire way up the mountain.  His strength waning with a 45 pound pack on his back and my feet burning from new boots.  Arguing was, at that time, quite like us.  Jamie growled feverishly at me every time I returned one of his exertion moans with a quip, "you could have hired a sherpa!"  I was relentless and he was seething.  Mia and the guide were smart to stay well up-trail from us.

Along the trail, we found moments of pure wonder.  Ladies and girls from the village at the base of the mountain were carrying huge bundles of tree limbs neatly tied together on top of their heads, eloquently and effortlessly walking (their skill was such that they appeared to be floating) down the mountain burdened with large wood bundles.  The guide told us that these women collected the limbs from the lumber operation up the mountain to bring firewood to their kitchens.

When we finally entered trees in the clouds, the wonder of barking green monkeys became our gift to witness.  They were shy creatures, owning the treetops and somewhat hard to observe.  Unlike many of the primates we'd met in Zimbabwe, this species remained quite uncomfortable with the presence of humans (or, perhaps, non-native humans).  But, the experience of being within their habitat and the few glimpses I got were magical.

We then came to a timber extraction operation.  Both Jamie and I had worked in the United States in timber country.  We were both quite familiar with US timber extraction practices.  In fact, one of Jamie's uncles was a lead US sawyer and educator of mechanical sawing practices.  What we found in the Mulanji forest was a step back in history in our perspective.  Men were using crosscut saws and hand bow saws to not only fell these old growth trees, but were milling boards from the logs right where the tree fell.  The care these timber workers took with each board was resonant.  Every tree, every cut had meaning and was quite intentional.  Their pace was slow by our knowledge of modern forest management mechanics and the forest did not seem to mind the gentle, small-scale extraction of this timber operation.  No scar was left as each and every limb, piece of hewn lumber was used.

Timber sherpas carried two freshly hewn boards down the mountain at a time.  Each board varied in length and width.  No two were the same.  They were beautiful, the boards, the strength of these sherpas, the slow practices we witnessed.  But, what struck me strongest was the quietude.  The forest, even in the midst of a fully active timber operation, was not buzzing with machinery as all US timber operations I'd been around always did.  The birds still chirped, the monkey's could still be heard calling to one another, the frogs still brogged their lovesongs.  Was I in the midst of the time of Gifford Pinchot?  Was this the timber felling experience he got to witness?

At dark, we finally arrived at a beautiful, though unfurnished lodge.  A fire was started for us by the lodge keeper.  Mia and I cooked rice in our tiny camping pan... 3 times, and opened a can of beans to warm and share.  The lodge was cold and we were alone in it. Our guide retired to the lodge keeper's quarters.  Our sleeping bags had been purchased in Zimbabwe- where frost is rare.  They were not warm enough for the altitude we slept at.  By the end of the night, we were all three cuddled as near to the fireplace as we could comfortably get, close to one another in an effort to share body heat.

Our trip down the mountain was relatively fast.  Though the blisters on my feet split and created endless pain in the boots I still have (though rarely wear for long hikes anymore).  My lack of speed frustrated my co-adventurers for sure, but I was in great pain and could not keep their pace.

Arriving at the trailhead village was a moment of decadent gratitude.  Village women sold roasted yams (that grew wild), fresh from the fire.  I devoured that yam and have never eaten a yam since without due reverence to the humble grandior of Mt. Milanji, Malawi, Africa.

Of course, this was hardly the end of our journey.  Our options became 1.) 'sit' in the back of the chibuku truck to return to the lower village where our hotel was nestled amongst tea fields or 2.) wait until dusk for a second possible shuttle truck.  All exhausted and uncomfortable with the idea of hiking through the lower village at night, we gave the chibuku truck driver fare to take us to the lower village.

A small older Malawian lady paid the fare with us, though several other Malawian travelers stayed behind, opting to take their chances with the late shuttle.  We found this strange, since our travels through southern Africa had taught us that no shuttle or vehicle was Ever passed by no matter how full it was or what it looked like: Southern Africans generally had no qualms about sitting on one another if they needed to in order to get where they wanted to go; a trait I succumbed to with a quiet smirk hiding this thought, "The whole British and American concept of personal space Was over-rated anyway..."

This question lingered strong as we stepped in the back of that chibuku truck: Why were we virtually alone in an African shuttle?

Chibuku is the widely supplied, high alcohol content cross between raw whisky and small beer adored by many native African men and a few women.  To this American, it smelled like vomit.  Though I never tasted the stuff, Jamie told me that it tasted like a 'bad, cheap home brew with lots of sediment in it.'  Once we crawled in the very back of this enclosed chibuku distribution truck and the driver closed and locked the door, the smell overwhelmed me.  I nearly lost the one yam in my belly several times on that hour-long, treacherous journey.

The chibuku driver was every bit as speed oriented as every other Malawian "shuttle" driver we would encounter.  The problem was that we were stuck at the very back of this truck with crates stacked precariously all around us.  We had very little more than the flying crates and each other to hold on to.  It was the first time I had ever experienced being inadvertently beat up by crates in the midst of vomit while being tossed violently every which way.  I think I kissed the ground when we were finally let out of the back of that chibuku truck.  Now I knew why most Malawians chose to wait for the shuttle.

Our hotel was a sight for sore eyes and that hot shower was among the best things in life.  I slept for  a day and a half.  Jamie's desire to leave the next morning and embark on our next adventure was seriously hindered by the wife that was clearly not going ANYWHERE unless he carried me and all our gear himself. A trial he himself was hardly interested in again just yet.

Then we were off, to the next Jamie inspired and Mia endorsed insane Malawian adventure....