Mulanje is a mountain like few others in the world. It isn’t a peak that’s part of a mountain range, like many of us imagine when we think of mountains. It is one of the largest massifs in the world, not by height but by area. Above is the view of Mulanje from Zomba, about 70km away, just to get an idea of how very, very big it is.
The sides of the massif rise sharply from the surrounding flat land, and it rises to a sort of plateau at the top, made up of rolling hills and 59 peaks.
Below is a relief map at Mulanje Pizza that shows its shape, major peaks, and the location of the several Forestry Service huts found spread around the top (the tiny black rectangles). Our friend, Douglas, is pointing out where the Lujeri Tea Estates to Madzeka Hut hike starts.
Our family had done a few small day hikes at the bottom of Mulanje, including Likhubula Falls and a failed attempt at finding Thuchila Falls, but we had never been to the top of the massif.
Thankfully, we have friends who have more experience hiking Mulanje than we do, and they invited the girls and me (Stacy) along on a birthday trip for their daughter and a few of her friends.
The hike was less than 4 miles from where we parked to the hut, but it was hands-down the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was RELENTLESSLY steep and rocky, and there is no shade for the bottom half of the hike. It was just our luck that on the day of our ascent, it was a beautiful, sunny day. That made for some great views, but also for some very hot and sweaty people.
At almost exactly the halfway point, there is a fantastic spring/cave area to stop for a break. At this point, we had only gone about 1.6 miles, but I was already DEAD. We took LOTS of short breaks on the trail besides this longer break at the spring. My Romanian friend, Amelia, the mother of the birthday girl, told me about a Romanian proverb that says “long pauses are the key to success,” and I liked that. Long and frequent pauses were definitely the only way I made it to the top.
We were all able to rest and refuel here for a while, refill our water bottles from the spring, and start back up the second half of the hike with a bit of renewed energy.
The next about 0.8 miles after the spring are the most steep of the whole trail. This particular trail is famous for its ladders. Yes, you heard that right, this trail is so steep, they had to add LADDERS to help you get up some spots. And not just one or two, but THIRTEEN ladders. This is the part of the trail where I started saying, “This is crazy. This is something crazy people do.”
Then, as if by some miracle of the human body, we finally found ourselves on top of the plateau. Our own two legs carried us all the way to the top. I couldn’t believe it. The path levelled out, our shaky legs got some respite, and we could enjoy the beauty of the rolling green hills that make up the top of Mulanje.
The path took us through a beautiful, moss-covered forest, which reminded me of something out of The Princess Bride. Thankfully we didn’t see any Rodents of Unusual Size.
This is also about the point where the soles of our younger daughter’s shoes came completely off (they are pretty old), and we had to tie her shoelaces around the bottom of her shoes to keep them on. It only sort of worked. When we got to the hut, we sent the shoes (the birthday girl’s little brother’s shoes came apart, too) back down the mountain with our guide to be fixed. When he returned to lead us back down two days later, they were sewn up better than ever! I love the Malawian “make do and mend” spirit.
Then, we came up over this gorgeous crest (see the header image for the view a few yards before the picture above), and looked down into this deep ravine, which we had to go down into and then back up the other side. I almost cried. I’d thought the uphill climb was over! But the hut was not far at all past the top of that other side.
Finally, just when my legs were sure they couldn’t take any more, we crossed a stream and saw the most beautiful thing in the world: a ramshackle old wooden hut with a rusty tin roof! We’d made it! The hike is said to take about 4 hours. My AllTrails app tells me that would be about right if we hadn’t taken any breaks on the way up. Including breaks, however, it took us 5.5 hours.
We spent two nights at Madzeka hut, with one gloriously relaxing day in between doing what Douglas called, “the most underrated activity on Mulanje: mucking about the hut doing nothing.” We cooked our meals over a fire in the hut, drank hot tea and chatted, and the kids played in the stream.
The kids slept at night like a pile of puppies on the side of the porch. I slept out on the porch (around the corner from the kids) the first night, and there was nothing more wonderful than sleeping with sound of the rushing stream next to the hut. But my sleeping bag was thin and it got surprisingly cold at night, so I spent the second night inside the hut with the two other moms.
When it was time to head back down, we filled our water bottles in the stream and prepared ourselves for the arduous walk down. Hiking down a mountain is definitely not as hard as hiking up, but it is still hard in a different way. I slipped and fell a ridiculous number of times on the way down, and rolled my left ankle no less than four times, because I am nothing if not graceful! I think some of the girls thought I was crazy, because I just kept cracking up every time I would slip or fall.
Once we got back down to the corn, tea, and pineapple fields, we knew we were almost done! (Did you know how pineapples grow? It’s always so odd-looking to me!) The temperature change from the top to the bottom was huge, and it was hard to believe that what started out as such a chilly walk had turned into a sweaty slog by the end.
We took a short detour at the bottom to swim in some nearby pools. The kids swam fully-clothed for a while, and the moms soaked our aching feet and lower legs in the ice cold mountain water. It was such a refreshing way to end the hike!
Out of curiosity, when I returned home from this hike, I looked up to see how hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park compared to this one.
This hike was only about 3.5 miles (I apparently spent about half a mile walking in circles during our break halfway up), with an elevation gain of almost 3,500 feet. Similar length hikes in RMNP have an elevation gain of only around 1,000 feet, while hikes with a similar elevation gain are about 3 times longer! Which means this really is as insanely steep and difficult of a trail as it seemed!
In fact, 15 of Colorado’s famous fourteeners (mountains with a peak elevation over 14,000 feet) have an elevation gain that is less than this Mulanje hike to Madzeka hut! And Madzeka hut isn’t even close to the peak of Mulanje!
Douglas said that what he calls “Mulanje fit” is a very different kind of fitness than most mountains require, and after this hike, I very much agree with him! I have some training to do before trying to hike it again!
Hiking Mulanje is an experience quite unique from any other hike you’ve probably ever done in your life, even if you’re used to higher peaks or backcountry backpacking. There’s a whole system of hiring porters and staying in huts which is difficult for someone inexperienced to try to figure out for him or herself. I’m still a complete novice at it, so my best recommendation is to find a friend or tour company who will organize everything for you. You can find more information here.