The day takes us through a breathtaking range of scenery, from undulating grasslands to gnarled forests draped in wisps of light-green lichen. After an hour, we’re skirting the mountain’s western rim, looking out over an ocean of cloud punctured by the giant fin of Chambe Peak, the kind of inverted view that has led Mulanje to be dubbed “Island in the Sky.”
Along the way we find evidence of continuing efforts to conserve Mulanje’s unique environment. We pass firebreaks designed to interrupt flash fires, and stumble across makeshift greenhouses nurturing potted saplings of the endangered Widdringtonia whytei. In maturity, these splay-branched trees with gray trunks and bunched needles will reach heights of 100 feet, and are so synonymous with this mountain that they carry the common name Mulanje cedar. To see such sustained and well-managed conservation efforts in impoverished Malawi seems little short of miraculous and is testament to the determined work of the MMCT.
However, any impression of human influence over this wild realm quickly subsides as we turn east and head toward Sapitwa, a jumble of naked crags that comprise the massif’s 9,843-foot-high point, and the crucible of Mulanje’s nefarious myths. “The capital city of the spirits,” Comestar breathes as we walk beneath its gray ramparts. “My forefathers said if you go there they will make you work” — his voice contracts to a rasp — “without payment!”
Such old misgivings are not without contemporary foundation. In 2003, a Dutch woman disappeared while attempting to climb Sapitwa alone. Near Chisepo Hut, we see a boulder engraved with the simple epigraph “Linda’s Place” standing in her memory. “A rescue team came over from Holland, but they couldn’t find her,” Comestar recalls sadly. “Some people started believing again after that.”
Despite these admonitions, we had planned to climb Sapitwa, but the decision is reversed when we meet a bedraggled group of German trekkers who have abandoned the summit trail. “We only went halfway,” puffs their flip-flop-wearing guide. “Too many clouds.” With no sign of the clouds shifting, we opt to heed the superstition and leave the summit to its slave-driving spirits.
Pushing north, we find further evidence of Mulanje’s Middle-earth credentials — Sapitwa’s ever-present molars become the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo defeats Gollum in a game of riddles; corridors of ferns and cedars become the Mirkwood where his dwarf companions are captured by giant spiders. And the evening brings us beauty to rival Rivendell, sylvan refuge of the elves.
After dumping our bags at nearby Thuchila Hut, we sit at the nape of a great rounded promontory known as the Elephant’s Head, because of the way it undulates, and watch the shadows lengthen on the lowlands. Below us, Malawi sprawls in a glowing pastel expanse punctuated by columns of smoke from evening fires. Distant Lake Chilwa shimmers luminous in the low sun, the Zomba Plateau a great black barrier to the north, while the inescapable Malawian sound, a bar blaring reggae, drifts up from a village below.
Rain hinders day’s walk
The weather is dank as we leave Thuchila the next day. Clouds drift and swirl over the plateau, thickening when the ground rises, pulling apart like cassava porridge as we descend. The smell of wet cedar-wood permeates the air. And, “see there, more leopard poo,” says Comestar.
As we walk in the shadow of Namasile Peak, whose fluted bastions look like giant fists reaching forward to rake in a winning hand of poker, more stubborn clouds engulf us, the temperature plummets, and it starts to rain.
For the rest of the day, the waterproofs come on with irksome regularity, but we take comfort in the knowledge that it could be much worse. At their most malevolent, capricious winds blowing in from the Mozambican mountains to our east can summon a chiperone, a ghoulish weather phenomenon pithily summarized by Comestar through the hood of his jacket: “Heavy strong wind, constant rain for a week. It’s not so fun.”
Not far from here, South African-born writer Laurens van der Post, whose travels in what was then Nyasaland formed the basis of his book “Venture to the Interior,” endured a full-blown chiperone in 1949. For five days, his group battled with the conditions, until one of their number, a forestry official named Fred France, perished in a fall over a precipice — tragedy stalking this mountain once again.
The melancholy of Van der Post’s “gray, old, pre-human world” resonates as we forge through these northern reaches. We see no one all day save for a damp poacher, barefoot, raggedly attired, wielding a panga. He’s hunting for rodents, and though I know that his activities are imperiling this fragile ecosystem, he seems so desperate that I can’t think ill of him.
And then, another hut, Sombani, perched above a glade of cedars, a lonely outpost so solitary that it might have been here forever. Late into the evening, we sit by the fire in wicker chairs, so weary that even our tofu and nsima, the bland Malawian staple of maize paste, makes for a delicious dinner. In the night, snapshots from my time on the mountain fill my dreams.
A former slave route
It’s only when we’re on our way off the mountain that I have my moment of extreme Tolkien empathy. The catalyst is a first glimpse of Mchese, a vertiginous peak detached from the main Mulanje massif by a broad valley. In the early light, it appears as a black scarp wreathed in a scarf of cloud, as spectral and mysterious as anything from the pages of fantasy. Could this be the spot where the author stood? It looks like a fitting lair for Smaug to me.
“And far away,” Tolkien wrote, “its dark head in a torn cloud, there loomed the Mountain! … The Lonely Mountain! Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least.”
Perhaps it is more prosaic associations that have put me in mind of monsters. For the yawning rent before us is the Fort Lister Gap, once an infamous slaving route for Arab traders corralling their manacled human cargo back to the markets in Zanzibar. So Mulanje had its Desolation, but its scourge was not a dragon but man. Sometimes, humankind is far worse than the greatest imagined evil.