Hiking up Mulanje Massif with children

It was our second to last weekend in Malawi and the day before Easter. The TV droned on, babbling on about something unimportant, on and on and on! I could see how this weekend was panning out and there is quite possibly nothing that annoys me more than spending entire days watching TV! Especially when there is still so much to see and so little time. The choice was to either sit in front of the box all day and watch other people living, or get out there and make a memory!

As it happened, just recently a few people had spoken about how incredible Mulanje Massif is and about their experiences of walking up it. We’ve certainly spent time at the base of Mulanje, exploring the forests and rivers but had never attempted to hike up the mountain. We have young kids and had assumed it would be too much for them and maybe too dangerous.

Mulanje Massif is a huge protrusion of granite rock, over 3000 feet high in places. The plateau is studded with peaks and often shrouded in mist or passing clouds. It’s carved out with ravines, cliffs and rolling hills. Waterfalls tumble from the skies and streams run into deep pools. Flowers of every colour and shape adorn the grasslands and pockets of cedar trees scent the mountain air.

It’s not to be taken lightly though, it deserves your full respect.  Mulanje Massif is renowned for its rapidly changing weather and for the chiperone mist that envelops the mountain, making it impossible to see even a metre in front of you. In the winter, temperatures can drop to below freezing and in the rainy season, the gentle streams often transform into raging torrents. The mountain is also shrouded in myth; with the talk of spirits and sacred sites. In fact the highest peak, Sapitwa, translates into ‘the place you cannot reach’ and has claimed a couple lives in the past decade. Many people hike up Sapitwa but it’s highly recommended that you go in a group and never solo.

Of course, the likes of Sapitwa was not on the cards for our family or for any young children for that matter! But Mulanje Massif is certainly not restricted to adults only. There are a number of routes up the massif, some of which are very difficult. We took the Fort Lister route which starts above the town of Phalombe and is said to be the easiest and safest for children. That’s not to say it’s easy! It’s quite exhausting especially if you are not super fit! But there are no cliffs to fall off and the path is well used.

It’s recommended that you take a guide with you and to use the well-organized ‘porter’ scheme.  There is a guide and porter office at the Fort Lister Forestry base. There you will be given the option of hiring a guide and a porter for an amount equivalent to 20 US dollars per porter per day and 25 US dollars per day for the guide. The porters and guides are on a ‘rotation’ basis and it is not necessary to book beforehand.

Most people hire a porter to take up their food, sleeping bags and clothes – which I can assure you, is well worth it! Not only are you providing a source of income for these strong, fit men but because it’s a tough walk that in many places, goes straight up. You’ll be glad not to have the extra weight on your back. For young children, 6 and below, it is recommended that you hire a porter for them too! Although the walk from Fort Lister is only 5.6 km’s long, the first half is relentlessly steep! The second half of the walk varies a bit in that there are 1221 steps, a few short ‘flat’ parts, some zig-zags, 2 foot bridges and 2 streams to top up with water and cool your feet if necessary! Make no mistake about this hike, it is exhausting! Especially for the likes of us who have not done much hiking. It usually takes 3 hours to do the hike, but in our case, we did it in 7. We had a picnic half way up and plenty of breaks along the way. I would suggest starting the hike at 8 am, especially if you have kids.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir

View on Fort Lister trail

When we finally reached the top and the sun cast its golden yellow light across the rolling hills of the plateau and we saw wisps of cloud in motion tumbling over the granite peaks, I was struck by an immense feeling of happiness and sense of achievement. As we walked the last kilometer of the hike, I couldn’t help but feel, ‘This is it; this is what life is all about!’

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Our 2 porters, Radius Robin and Barnat Beaton and our guide, Lyson Baulen

“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. 

It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
― Cheryl Strayed

That night we stayed in a rustic log cabin, with blackened walls from cedar wood smoke, a couple tables, beds and chairs. We booked it on the same day at the Fort Lister forestry base. It cost us 1000 kwacha, about the price of half a bunch of bananas! The caretaker made sure there was plenty of water for drinking and washing. He supplied us with wood and lit the fire. That late afternoon, we chose to take a family dip in a nearby stream! I can’t speak for winter, but in March, the water is cool and refreshing, especially after the hike we did!

After our dip in the stream we warmed up our supper on the fire, fed the children hot cups of condensed milk tea and enjoyed an Irish coffee! Once we were full and relaxed, we went outside – kitted with sleeping bags and snowsuits -and looked for a comfortable rock to sit on. The children eventually fell asleep under the Mulanje night sky while watching stars and making wishes.  My husband and I stayed up for another mug of hot coffee, enjoying the sounds of the night, the gurgling stream nearby and the magical view of the Milky Way; content and wishing for nothing more.

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“Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven, blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For more information about hiking up Mulanje, accommodation on the massif and how to get there, check out the Mountain club of Malawi website.