Did you Know?
The famous Author Tolkien wrote The Hobbit shortly after climbing Mount Mulanje?
Mulanje is a spectacular 650km2 granite inselberg that rises in dramatic isolation above the Phalombe Plains southeast of Blantyre. The massif consists of a plateau of rolling grassland set at an average elevation of 2,000m, but this is incised by several thickly wooded ravines, and studded with 20 peaks of 2,500m or higher, including Sapitwa, the highest point in central Africa at 3,002m. By contrast, the plains below Mulanje have a mean altitude of 650m, though the northern slopes are linked to the discrete 2,289m Mount Mchese by the Fort Lister Gap, a mid-altitude saddle with an average elevation of around 950m. Both Mulanje and Mchese are protected within the Mount Mulanje Forest Reserve, which was proclaimed in 1927 and is managed by the Mount Mulanje Conversation Trust (MMCT).
Less than an hour’s drive from Blantyre, Mulanje has long been the country’s premier hiking and rock-climbing destination, popular with residents and tourists alike for its dramatic scenery and well-organised and inexpensive facilities. Indeed, Mulanje is the main focal point of the Mountain Club of Malawi (MSM), which was founded as the Mlanje Mountain Club in 1952 and adopted its present name in 1980. Membership forms and circulars of activities can be obtained from:
The Secretary of the Mulanje Mountain Club
P.O. Box 240,
There are innumerable hiking routes from the base to the plateau, the most popular being the Skyline Path to the Chambe Basin and the Lichenya Path to the Lichenya Plateau, both of which start at Likhubula Forestry Station some 8km from Mulanje Town. On the plateau itself there are ten mountain huts, one owned by the CCAP, and the remainder maintained by the MMCT and MCM in collaboration with the Forestry Department. These huts are connected to each other by well marked trails ranging from three to six hours’ walking duration and the peaks and valleys of Mulanje offer enough walking and climbing possibilities to keep anybody busy for at least a month. In addition, many of the streams on Mulanje are stocked with trout, and fishing permits are issued by the forestry office at Likhubula.
Mulanje in Legend
No other geographic landmark in Malawi is quite so shrouded in myth and legen as Mulanje, unsurprisingly perhaps when you consider the extent to which its forbidding silhouette dominates the skyline for miles around. Several legends pertaining to the mountain might be grounded in fact, among them persistent whisperings that it still harbours a secretive population. Of course, this is highly unlikely, taken in the most literal sense, but it does seem likely that the upper slopes of Mulanje formed the last Malawian refuge to the Batwa, recently enough that they live on in folk memory as spirits.
Several other spirits are associated with the mountain. One such entity is Napolo, a serpentine creature who reputedly moves between Mulanje and Mchese, generating the misty chaperone conditions that frequently enclose the upper slopes. Napolo is also blamed for thunderstorms and other destructive weather conditions, and some believe he induced the trategic flash flood that claimed so many lives at Phalombe in March 1991. Other legends describe a humanlike one-eyed, one legged, one-armed creature that floats slowly in the air, waiting to lure anybody who looks at it up the mountain to disappear forever.
Local beliefs about Mulanje are reflected in the Chichewa name of its highest peak. Sapitwa is variously said to be derived from the phrases ‘musapite’ and ‘sapitidwa’, which respectively translate as ‘do not go there’ and ‘the place you cannot reach’ – the first suggesting that the peak is considered to be out of bounds for spiritual reasons, the second simply that it is difficult to reach. To an extent, both interpretations are true, and either way, anybody planning to climb Sapitwa would be wise to treat it with respect – at least two tourists have died while attempting a solo summit in the past decade.
A more recent legend pertaining to Mulanje is that Tolkien climbed it shortly before he wrote The Hobbit and based several aspects of the book on the trip, going so far as to name the homeland of its protagonists after nearby Shire river. So far as we can ascertain, Tolkien did indeed visit Malawi at some point, but not Mulanje itself, and aside from the Shire coincidence, it seems more likely that the Hogsback Mountains in the eastern Cape province of South Africa, which he visited as a child, inspired the landscapes described in the book.
Mulanje Porters’ Race
If you’re in the area around mid-July, ask about the Mulanje Porters’ Race – now an international event – organised by the MCM. The Mulanje porters and other entrants race up and down 25km of steep mountain in one of Africa’s maddest and most daunting fitness challenges, taking in the heights of the Skyline Path to Chambe. You’re unlikely to win, but the prizes have included a bicycle, a plane ride and night of luxury in a posh hotel. The event is open to men and women, and further details can be obtained through infoMulanje ot the MCM or MMCT.
Briggs, P. (2010). Mulanje and Surrounds. In: Briggs, P Malawi. 5th ed. Connecticut: Bradt. p200 - 207