Malawi is a country many people couldn’t place on a map, and that’s what makes issue 11 of Notes from Outside so exciting. This month’s story transports us to a little landlocked country in southeastern Africa to hike a peak veiled in the dense fabric of local myth. It’s the story of a multi-day hike with rain, slippery bum shuffles and hard decisions included, and it’s a glimpse into a local’s experience of discovering her childhood backyard for the first time. Whether we had you at “Malawi”, or you just happen to love a hiking adventure story, it’s worth setting aside 5 minutes with a hot beverage to absorb this one.
Editor, Notes from Outside
As I lay awake in the cocoon of my mosquito net trying to shut out the drone of the whining critters, I questioned the series of life choices which had led me to the base of Mulanje Mountain. At 3002 meters, Mulanje is the highest peak in Malawi, and the highest I had ever climbed. The planned four-day excursion was going to be my first ever multi-day hike. But it wasn’t the route stats that scared me; it was that the summit was shrouded in local legend.
Growing up in Malawi, I’d been told countless stories of ancestral spirits lurking about on the mountain, crevasses that opened up and swallowed people whole, and unexplained disappearances of hikers. It was often regarded as a death wish to go up to the summit - something reserved for the naive tourist. It didn’t help that the summit, Sapitwa, translates to a place where people do not go. Nevertheless, two decades after leaving the country, I decided to return home and explore this enchanting part of my country that fear had kept off-limits for most of my childhood.
Filled with nervous excitement, I pulled away my mosquito net and set off on the adventure. The day began with an abrupt steep climb up the mountain, through grassland and across rivers. It was cold, wet, and foggy, with visibility less than 10 meters – not the start I had envisioned having intentionally escaped wintry Wales for the tropics. The terrain was challenging, and I soon realised this wouldn’t be an easy trek, but a sense of determination and purpose drove me forward. I was accompanied by my partner, a guide, and a porter. The guide shared a story of the last hiker who had gone missing on the mountain; a cautionary tale that was delivered with the aim of keeping us grounded, reminding us to respect the mountain.
As the afternoon rolled in and the fog began to lift, so too did my apprehensions. I felt for the first time a sense of excitement for what lay ahead. With each passing moment, the clouds shifted and swirled around the mountaintops, almost as though they were dancing, revealing glimpses of jagged peaks and rocky ridges that lay hidden just moments before. The dynamic scenery presented by the drifting clouds meant that if you looked in the same direction even a minute later, the scene would have changed. This added to the mystery of the place and was a reminder to be truly present, knowing no two moments on the mountain would ever be identical.
We arrived at our first mountain hut 12.5 kilometers and 1900 meters of climbing later. Having not encountered anyone else on the hike there, I was surprised to be greeted by a group of Germans and Norwegians who had already settled in and got a fire going. There’s something magical that happens when you meet other adventurous folks in remote circumstances. It becomes effortless to exchange life stories, and in those fleeting moments become a memorable part of each other’s journeys.
We set off for the summit attempt at 5:30 am on day two. The weather was less than ideal – another misty start with ominous-looking clouds in the distance. We hoped to be able to make it to the peak and back to the hut before conditions deteriorated. With my nerves haphazardly packed away like a jack-in-the-box, I was soon climbing up and over rocks, crawling on my hands and knees, tiptoeing across ledges, squeezing between narrow cracks, hopping across boulders, and shuffling on my bum. The mist had made the steep slopes even more treacherous. I scrambled up 45-degree sloping slabs with no finger holds, thinking to myself, “Surely this route warrants the use of harnesses and ropes?” My heart was thumping with desperation to get to the peak, but cracks were beginning to show in my resolve to reach it. The further we ascended, the worse the weather got. I believed I could fight through the fear and reach the summit, but I wasn’t sure about making it safely back down that same route in the worsening conditions. I stopped repeatedly to ask our guide whether he felt it safe to proceed. His shoulder-shrug response did nothing to bolster my confidence. It was the moment when the fog suddenly encroached and it actively started to rain that my partner and I realised we would need to make the difficult call. The guide had climbed this mountain countless times, we were novices. We needed to assess our abilities and the level of risk we were willing to take on, and we had to decide quickly. It was a tug-of-war between my rational and emotional sides. In the end, logic prevailed and we turned around, 1.5 kilometers and 300 meters shy of the peak. “It’s okay, the mountain will always be here,” I muttered repeatedly to myself on the slip-and-slide journey back down.
We got back to the mountain hut intact and I was glad for the decision I’d made, but my relief was still tinged with sadness at having to backtrack. Sapitwa. A place where people do not go. “A place where Vera did not go”, I thought to myself.
I had two more days on the mountain with plenty more exploring to do and I was keen to make this a memorable experience, rather than dwelling on one peak. Having retrieved the rest of our kit from the hut, we carried onwards, and what followed were by far the best days of hiking I have ever had. With the pressure of ‘peak-bagging’ lifted, I revelled in traversing the vast and varied landscape. I swam in refreshingly cold rock pools, foraged for berries, gawked at cascading waterfalls, and bathed in the warm glow of beautiful sunsets. I genuinely lost count of the number of times my breath was taken away on that plateau. There were moments when tears welled up in my eyes, saddened that fear had kept me away from this gorgeous and massively underrated part of my country for so long.
As we made our way back down the mountain on the final day, my legs were certainly feeling the effects of 60 kilometers of walking and 5000 meters of climbing, but the nostalgia was already setting in and I didn’t want this to end. As a cyclist, I was accustomed to long journeys on my bike, but this was different. The slow speed at which I moved through the landscape meant I developed an even deeper connection with it, being able to interact with the flora and fauna more intimately. Although I had only been on the mountain for four days, the experience was transformative. I realised that this adventure was not just about reaching the summit of Sapitwa. It was about letting go of fears, learning that turning back isn’t a failure, and that adventure is about embracing those unexpected detours.
Words and photos by Vera Ngosi
A Malawian living in Cardiff, Vera discovered a love for cycling when she moved to Wales six years ago. Initially coerced into riding a tandem with her partner, she has since become a fully-fledged adventure cyclist and enjoys bikepacking and exploring Europe and Africa. Vera is passionate about increasing the representation of black people in the outdoors, and she is a director and mentor of the Ultra Distance Scholarship. Visit her komoot profile to follow her adventures.