Monday, September 12, 2016

The Warm Heart of Africa

Spending time in the Johannesburg International Airport waiting to board my flight to Malawi I was hit with a small realization of how much I have changed since arriving in Southern Africa over a year ago...

Riding the moving sidewalk through a mostly empty terminal I felt the urge to wave, say hello to, or acknowledge everyone that I passed. An urge that no one else I passed seemed to share..

First international flight in over a year.

The water had been shut off by the city the first night I was in Lilongwe.

My trip to Malawi was split into two legs. First I traveled South to the Blantyre, Malawi's second largest city, and met up with Julie to for a 3-day hike up Mount Mulanje and then we traveled North to Lake Malawi where we met up with Jeff for a few days at the lake.

This is a thing! 

Julie had been on vacation in Mozambique for a couple of weeks and while traveling to Blantyre herself she met up with a guy from South Africa, Wally, who was also interested in climbing Mount Mulanje. The price of a guide to climb the mountain is $25 a day so we were anxious to add another to our party to bring down costs.

We spent the night with a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV), named Katherine, who had initially served with PC in El Salvador before the country was evacuated. She was house-sitting, and cat sitting, at the time which meant that we had two beds and a very comfortable couch to crash on!

I cheated on Mokopu. . 

We took off early the next morning intent on meeting our guide and getting onto the mountain as quickly as possible. Wally was initially concerned because it was raining while we were walking to the minibus rank and kept mentioning that he might not climb the mountain with us opting instead to wait a few days or even participate in the Porters Race happening the following day. Julie and I encouraged him to refrain from making a decision until we were able to talk to our guide, Steve, and see what he thought. 

Mount Mulanje is a massif which means that instead of being one proper mountain it is a group of mountains caused by the movement of the earth's crust. According to Wikipedia the Mulanje Massif is approximately 13 x 16 miles and includes many different peaks. Including Sapitwa Peak, Malawi's highest point at 3,002 meters above sea level.

Our first look at Mount Mulanje

Our guide, Steve, met us as we hopped out of our taxi in Mulanje and we got our first real look at the mountain we were hoping to climb. The size of the massif prevents any views of Sapitwa, the highest peak.

We quickly hopped on some bike taxis are on our way to one of the entrances to the park, Likhubula valley. Steve was kind enough to let Julie and I stash some things at his house on our way so that we didn't need to lug everything we'd brought on vacation up the mountain. 

Taking bike taxis to the base of the mountain

Julie and Mount Mulanje

When meeting Wally for the first time he casually mentioned that he'd climbed Kilimanjaro a couple times and had been considering running in the 25K Porters Race that runs up and then back down part of Mount Mulanje. I was intimidated, I was feeling out of shape and was starting to get concerned that I might even hold Julie and Wally back! Little did I know that I had nothing to worry about..

The first few hours of the hike was seemingly straight up the mountain, it was brutal. Wally turned out to be the one out of shape and often holding us back and it was definitely a source of frustration for me. We were stopping to wait every 5-8 minutes which wasn't allowing us to get into the rhythm needed to continue climbing continuously. Eventually, I told Steve to continue hiking and we could wait for Wally after hiking for longer intervals.  

A plateau where we stopped for lunch 

Looking back on the trail across the plateau

As we hiked over a mountain we were met with dark ominous clouds, and could tell it was raining in the distance. 
Looking back at where we had come from was still mostly blue skies.

Our camp for the night with Wally on the porch

We paid extra per day to be able to use these lodges with the cookware and sleeping pads. It was worth the extra money to not have to lug up our sleeping pads and cookware. 

Cooking our ramen for dinner

Our first night it rained most of the night and though we were only 500 vertical miles from Sapitwa Peak we were never able to see it. Steve came to us after dinner and talked to us about our options. He made it clear that it was not safe to climb the peak the next day and even though I was disappointed I wasn't willing to risk our safety and trusted his instincts. Unfortunately, Julie and I had plans to meet up with Jeff in 3 days so we didn't have enough time (or food) to be able to wait out the weather by hunkering down in the cabin for an extra day or two, which is what Wally chose to do.

Instead Steve reminded us that the annual Porter's Race would be taking place the following morning and if we woke up early we could watch the fastest runners hit the highest point in the race before heading back down the mountain.

White chalk lines indicating the race trail

Steve waiting for the racers

First racer! Pretty sure this was also the guy who won the entire race.

The winner of the race completed it in 2 hours and 4 minutes...

These guys were flying down this mountain.

The top runners complete the 25K in less than 3 hours! 
It took us over 5 hours of hiking (not counting stopping for lunch) to get to this point on the trail that it took these runners less than 1 hour to get to.

Outside of our cabin the second night on the mountain

Since we didn't climb Sapitwa our second day was filled with significantly less hiking which we took advantage of by lounging around the cabin in front of the fire and exploring the beautiful area.

Final day

An hour or so from the base of the mountain we came across this gorgeous waterfall and swimming hole.
After a minute or two of hesitation I dove right into the frigid water and swam to the waterfall.

post-backpacking/pre-swimming yoga

LOVED these bike taxis

Balancing on the back of the bike taxi with a very full pack

Julie and I with Steve

Steve and I with our taxi bike drivers

Even though we didn't bag the highest peak this was an awesome hike! Our first day we were actively hiking (not counting breaks/stops) for almost 5 hours and gained more than a mile in elevation! We learned later that most people cut the first day into two days instead of our straight push up the mountain. Also, unlike 80% of people we met on the trail we opted to not use porters (guys hired to carry our bags). Needless to say, I think we're pretty badass.

Goodbye Mount Mulanje, I hope we'll meet again.

Hello Lake Malawi!

After a long day of traveling on public transportation Julie and I arrived in Cape Maclear on the south end of Lake Malawi. The water was amazing and because it is such a massive lake I constantly made the mistake of calling it an ocean.

Our first full day we rented kayaks and snorkel gear with our Canadian friend, Jason, that I'd met in a hostel my first night in Lilongwe.

Stopping for a lunch break on the far side of one of the islands.

Makoenya, avocados, bread, and tomatoes.. what more could we want?

Relaxing after a VERY LONG day of kayaking at least 8km

The next day we renting the chill lounge for the ultimate day of relaxation on the water

Very excited that we found cheaper and larger beers than our hostel was offering.

Jeff enjoying the bread and avo leftovers

Local women and children washing clothes and bathing in the lake

Playing Jeff's favorite game of liars dice on our last night at the lake.

My new obsession, chips with salad.

The last night in Malawi Julie and I pooled our money to make sure that we would have enough Kwacha to pay for the taxi ride to the airport but that we wouldn't have any Kwacha leftover that we'd be stuck with. I don't remember how... though it may have had something to do with me ordering a couple beers at dinner... the next day we found that we did not have enough Kwacha for the taxi ride. Luckily our driver was willing to take Rand as well! Julie threw in some extra meticais that she had leftover from her travels in Mozambique for good measure. 

Check out this video Julie took of us walking through the market in Malawi!
Listen for the Ssss sound the men are making to get our attention.


  1. Bike taxis! Love that they are a thing!

  2. Hi there Katie! Just wanted to make sure you had heard about's New Years Blog Challenge. It's a great Third Goal activity, plus extra motivation to start the year strong on your blog. I’d love to see you join in this year! Just sign up by January 1: All the best to you in 2017!
    -Michelle C., RPCV and former PC "Blog It Home" winner