Chasing a rumor, a writer explores Malawi’s Mulanje Mountain, which resembles a Tolkien landscape but has a magic all its own.
Chambe Peak rises above the Lichenya Platueau and into the clouds. A diminutive people is said to have once lived on its plateaus, and its nearly 10,000-foot apex is called “the place where you are not supposed to go.” )
Out of the verdant lowlands it rises, a great black pyramid silhouetted against the sun. Finally, after countless ups and downs and 30 footsore miles, I can almost picture the scene: It’s the 1930s in the old British protectorate of Nyasaland, and a young J.R.R. Tolkien is taking in this same view, his unique imagination fired by a new geographical talisman for Middle-earth.
Travel readers may be accustomed to seeing stories inspired by the return of Bilbo, Gandalf and company to the silver screen. But let me clarify straightaway that this is not an article about New Zealand, the country whose dramatic landscapes have formed the backdrop for Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adaptations of Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Instead, with the second installment of the Hobbit triptych, “The Desolation of Smaug,” now in theaters, I’m taking you to Africa, someplace more obscure, in pursuit of a rumor.
The fertile plains of southern Malawi might seem an improbable place to unearth the origins of a book written in leafy 1930s Oxford, England. But there’s something fantastical here.
Throughout the southern tail of the Great Rift Valley, the landscape is peppered with free-standing eroded mountains known as monadnocks or inselbergs. King of them all is Mount Mulanje, an enormous granite massif located an hour’s drive southeast of the tumbledown commercial hub of Blantyre. Carpeted in plateaus, cut by valleys and piled high with jagged peaks, it covers 250 square miles. Apart from Lake Malawi, it’s this southeast African country’s most outstanding geographical feature, and a popular myth — propagated in forums as varied as travel blogs and scientific journals — has it that this sudden outcropping provided the blueprint for Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain, home to the dragon Smaug and his hoard of gold.
There’s plenty of tenuous evidence to support the claim. Quite apart from its formidable dimensions, Mulanje is steeped in local legend. A community of diminutive people is said to have once lived on its plateaus (Hobbits, anyone?), and among the more superstitious, its nearly 10,000-foot apex goes by an ominous sobriquet: “the place where you are not supposed to go.”
I wasn’t sure whether the association was true or a fib dreamed up by some wag over sundowners at the Blantyre Sports Club. And then I saw it through the bus window, a huge green blister muscling across the horizon, and I realized that whatever the reality, my aim to traverse the mountain from southwest to northeast was going to present a superlative adventure.
A favorite of Western expats
The next day, I set off in the morning through emerald tea plantations, before moving steeply uphill through forests of bamboo. Leading the way is a man whose name would make Thorin Oakenshield raise a quizzical eyebrow.
My rangy guide goes by Comestar, a splendid neologism inspired by the misremembered name of a German visitor his parents had warmed to. Born in Likhubula, at Mulanje’s western fringe, Comestar doesn’t know much about Tolkien’s supposed visit, but he knows plenty about the mountain. For the past two hours, his scientific commentary has accompanied each twist in the trail: “Mahogany sap — we use this to treat ringworm”; “There! Eastern double-collared sunbird”; and “Look, leopard poo.”
There are several routes onto the mountain’s highlands, but we have masochistically opted for the Boma route, which is among the steepest. With each upward step, the views have grown — of the green mosaic of the flatlands dissolving into the horizon, of other far smaller monadnocks rising abruptly here and there, like breaching whales.
But now, as we approach the plateau, the mood is changing. A thick fog has rolled in, reducing visibility to a few yards. For the next two hours, my eyes are fixed on Comestar’s boot heels as we claw over boulders slippery with lichen and burrow through eerie cloisters of close-set trees. Then, up ahead, an oblong apparition appears through the gloom: Lichenya Hut, our sanctuary for the night.
Lending credence to the idea that Tolkien may have visited in the interwar years, Mulanje has been a favorite bolt-hole for Malawi’s Western expats since colonial days. This hut is one of 10 such refuges, some a century old, that stitch the walking routes together. Most are now maintained by the Mountain Club of Malawi and the World Bank-funded Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT).
Inside, a smiling caretaker called Douglas welcomes us with a roaring fire, Carlsberg for sale and foam mattresses stacked against a wall. It’s all rather hospitable, for dragon country.
The next morning dawns in brilliant sun, and yesterday afternoon’s sinister atmosphere has given way to an air of bucolic perfection. Looking out from the Lichenya terrace, it’s easy to see what drew the eye of homesick British colonists. The tawny landscape that greets us looks as if a slab of English moor has been deposited in Central Africa. “It’s like U.K., huh?” says Comestar, almost wearily, when I make the analogy.
“But much bigger,” I reply. “Our highest mountains aren’t much over 4,000 feet.”
“Ah,” he scoffs, dismissively. “For me, this would be a piece of cake,” and he thunders off down the trail.
Keeping pace is no problem, though. Mercifully, after the Boma exertions, the walking from here is relatively tame.
“Capital city of the spirits”