Sapitwa: Don’t Go There
Climbing to the highest peak of Mulanje, Sapitwa, had been Erin’s and my goal but it takes three days to do so. So we took Friday off, headed towards Chetakali with our backpacks of three-day provisions, warm clothing and a sleeping bag. However because it was a working day, we could not hire MSF vehicle. Erin brought along a friend, Daniel, a young man volunteering in Malawi in various projects and we met at the Limbe Market hoping to catch a Mulanje minibus. Normally it takes an hour to get to Chetakali but the minibus had to be almost full (14 passengers) before departure. When we did finally depart, the conductor continued to solicit for passengers on the way to the highway. It seemed that we were stopped at all the police checkpoints and at the first one the driver had to pay a fine for some kind of violation. The second one was because the police at the first check point left his cell phone in our vehicle and had called the police at the next check point to look out for our minibus. It turned out the passenger sitting by the driver picked up the phone intending to keep it. While trying to leave the van he was accosted and caught red-handed. As he was led away, we saw the police whacking him on the head. The third one was for the same violation but the driver was able to show that he had already paid the fine.
Once out of the city limit the conductor began to pack his van and the number of passengers grew to twenty-two along with bags and baskets of produce and utensils. We were being squeezed and women with their babies on their back had a hard time. At a busy market, a man, two women and a baby with bags of produce stood near the door hoping to get on and while I thought it was impossible for the conductor to take in more passengers, he did by asking passengers at the back to make more rooms and pushing bags of produce under the seats. He then stepped into the van arching his body and lowering his head and closing the door behind him with a resounding bang. After two hours of painful loading and unloading we reached Chetakali and the info-office of the Mountain Club of Malawi.
We first registered at the Info Office of the Mountain Club of Malawi and Christopher outlined our routes on a model. Our hike would start at the back of the office towards Lichenya Hut, about a five and half hour journey for the first day then on the second day, we were to hike for four hours to Chisepo Hut and from there a three and a half hour hike to Sapitwa and three hour down to Chisepo Hut to rest for the night; that would be our hardest day of ten and a half hour hike. On our last day we would descend to the Forestry Office, about a five and a half hour trek stopping at the waterfall for a dip on the way. Christopher had already roused up Pius our guide and we gave him some kwachas to buy his food.
Our hike started in the backyards of small farms of some villagers which eventually led to a large tea estate with Mulanje as a backdrop, a very spectacular and peaceful view. The path became steeper through some bamboo groves and more tea plantations, the Mulanje Boma became smaller as we climbed higher. We reached a vast area of burnt forests, charred bushes and ground, soon our legs and hands were smeared with soot. The terrain became steeper and rockier where we had to do some scrambling over the rock surface. We were aiming for a plateau which could not be seen immediately as each time we scaled a steep section of rocky surfaces more sections appeared. It seemed endless. Finally we pushed through a narrow path flanked by tall bushes onto the plateau, a vast expense with scattered bouquets of papery yellow everlasting flowers and purple irises. The trek was long but thankfully it was relatively flat. We caught a glimpse of Lichenya Hut, but to get to it we first had to descend and then ascend a steep path. By the time we reached the hut, it was almost five in the afternoon, a sign said Lichenya Pool, and none of us had the desire to go there. A bath tub sat serenely in the front yard. I wondered how on earth did it find its way there.
Lichenya hut was grand with a wrapped around veranda and three big rooms and a loft. The hut keeper set a roaring fire of cedar wood filling the large room with its pleasant scent. Pius said the keeper could warm up some water for us for a bucket bath but I just chose to towel myself. We ate a simple meal of bread, cheese, apples, peanut butter and chocolates. The sky was cloudy but in the middle of the night it cleared up to reveal numerous stars but no Milky Way.
Around 6:30 am after a quick breakfast, we hiked for three and a half hours to Chisepo traversing over some steep terrain and crossing a shallow stream over some rocks. There were spectacular views of mountains enshrined in mysterious fog.
We brought along water, snacks and warm clothes and embarked towards Sapitwa following a dirt path bordered with ferns behind the hut and this soon gave way to steep rocky steps. We negotiated narrow ledges or precarious perches on rocks, hopping over riotous jumble of gigantic boulders, stretching my legs to their limits. Then came long stretches of steep sheer rock surfaces where either we walked if there were cracks to provide some traction or crawled on all fours. My sneakers often slipped on the rocky surfaces. We squeezed through rock crevices or cave-like tunnels. Towards the peak it was all rocks. The sun disappeared when thick mists came rolling in and the temperature dropped. For a brief moment the peak came into view enticingly above us.
We reached the peak, Sapitwa, 3002 m, around 2 pm. Half of the view was obscured by thick mists and the other half loomed a breathtaking vista of rocky mountain peaks. Sapitwa means “Don’t go there” in Chichewa. Others say that Sapitwa derives from the phrases "musapite" and "sapitidwa" which mean "do not go there" and "the place you cannot reach". The locals believe that spirits live up here and hikers especially those who trek without a guide have disappeared. Pius told us that a Brazilian hiker got lost in 2009 and was found dead three weeks later. Several spirits are associated with Mulanje. Napolo, a serpentine creature is believed to move between Mulanje and Mchese creating the misty chiperone that often shroud the upper slopes.
On our descent we frequently slid down on our bottoms over the rock surfaces. One false step one could tumble out of sight. It was hairy at times when my shoes were caught in rock ridges and tangled among long blades of grass. We reached Chisepo around 5 pm after hiking for ten and a half hours. At the hut which consisted of one large room with a central fire place we were joined by four other hikers from the Netherlands, Afghanistan and UK. We were the only hikers summiting Sapitwa that day.
On day three of our hike, after a long night sleep we were ready to roll by seven in the morning for what we were told a five and a half hour hike, retracing our steps towards Lichenya until we reached a crossroad where we hiked up steeply for about six minutes with Chambe Mountain to our right. This was followed by an endless slog of steep slippery stony path alternating with gravelly steps, quite difficult to traverse without feeling like falling or slipping off the cliff to our left. We debated about making a detour to a waterfall with rocky pools of refreshingly cold water and in the final analysis we made the right choice.
At the Forestry Department at the bottom of Mulanje at Likabula, we settled our bill for our accommodation and entry fees, walked towards the main road to catch the matolas (bike taxi) for the 10 km ride to Chetakali to meet our ride back to Limbe and Blantyre. Apart from scraped and bruised knees and traumatizing the new toe nail that grew after the last Boston Marathon, I came out of this hike unscathed The many enchanting faces and hues of Mulanje throughout our hike enthralled us all and the pictures cannot do justice to its beauty.