In a flat land, they say, a molehill can seem like a mountain. So perhaps it is no surprise that, in the relatively flat land of Malawi, the one and only major mountain is commonly referred to as an “island in the sky”.
Mount Mulanje is an “inselberg”, or isolated mountain, a feature common to parts of Africa, that towers above the surrounding grassland at some 3 000 metres. Malunje’s peak, Sapitwa, is usually covered by clouds and when the peak sticks out above those clouds, it does look like an island.
Those clouds offer more than just an illusion of sea, however. They also deliver rain and — among the mountain’s many other offerings — water, for the surrounding areas.
Situated 65 kilometres east of the country’s commercial capital of Blantyre, Mulanje has become a source of wealth, both for the government and also for tourism-focused communities that run lodges and hiking expeditions on the mountain.
Mulanje offers hikers stunning scenery, including clear-flowing streams, lakes, gorges and waterfalls. A well-known water body is Dziwe la Nkhalamba, a natural lake whose crystal-clear waters spill down the mountain.
It is this enchanting scenery that perhaps gave rise to a plethora of myths about Mulanje. One of the common myths advises hikers to eat any food they find on their path. It will have been prepared by the gods who live on the mountain and is a good omen. Another myth remind hikers that if they anger the gods, they will get lost, never to be found. As good a reason as any to eat that food!
Taonga Mtambo, 29, is one frequent visitor who has not been at all put off by the myths. She points out the health benefits and looks at the mountain as a great source of sport and fun.
“You need to have good energy to go up because some places are difficult to pass through. In such places, experienced hikers go first with ropes to pull us,” she said.
For many, the highlight of the year is the Mulanje Mountain Porters Race. In this race, local young runners get the opportunity to show their fitness by racing around the mountain. The winners are rewarded with prize money.
Doris Siska is a champion of the Porters Race, having won it a record five times. Describing the race, she said that although it’s usually tough, it’s been worth sweating for.
“We start by running along the mountain and then up. We crawl as we go up the mountain as you cannot run. After reaching the top, we descend until we reach the finishing point,” she said.
“What is interesting about the Porters Race is that a number of foreign runners come to compete. It is more like the Mulanje Mountain Olympics,” she added.
After the hard work of climbing the mountain, there is also the need for rest. Mulanje is surrounded by a number of lodges and resorts that welcome local, regional and international guests.
Concerns over illegal tree felling on mountains and the impact on erosion and climate change has prompted the government to monitor and manage the mountain resource more carefully. There is growing awareness across Africa of the extent to which mountainous regions, often tree-covered, deliver crucial rainfall. Countries such as Kenya have seen a calamitous loss of precipitation after extensive illegal logging in highland areas. As in Kenya, Malawi is looking to conserve its indigenous forests.
Editing by Nest, bird’s virtual newsroom. This work was made possible through the support of #AfricaNoFilter, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.