Mount Mulanje is a giant massif that rises steeply from the tea fields of southern Malawi’s Mulanje district. Known locally as the ‘Islands in the Sky’ because they’re often in cloud, the mountain comprises 20 peaks above 2,500 m.
After two weeks on the beautiful Lake Malawi, it was super to be walking again as we enjoyed a night on the Zomba Plateau. The following evening we camped with blue monkeys in the lovely Cassa Rosa garden and in the morning were kindly dropped in Blantyre by the owner, Sylvia. From here we made our way to Chitakale and then hopped on a bicycle taxi down the hill to the town of Mulanje.
We admired the daunting view with a cold beer in our hotel’s garden before meeting up with our guide, Stanford, to talk through the plan. After reading the brilliant Hiking Guide to Mount Mulanje, which we found on the Mountain Club of Mulanje website, and chatting to Stanford we decided on a five-day trek covering the length of the mountain and known as the Grand Traverse.
We were off early the next morning, walking from our hotel to the trail-head just outside town. As expected, it was incredibly steep to get up onto the plateau and we were often scrambling up rocks and using the strong grass to help pull ourselves up. With five days worth of food on our backs it was a pretty tough climb.
Once up on the plateau, the trail for the rest of our trek was very undulating but generally clear and well-trodden. Though nothing like the first day’s scramble, it was still steep in parts.
We enjoyed stunning views over the five days with craggy peaks in every direction popping in and out of the clouds. For the first few days it was generally better in the morning before the clouds started rolling in. On the final two days, we had brilliantly clear views with not a cloud in the sky and the nights filled the sky with beautifully bright stars and views of the milky way.
We trekked through expansive green valleys which had views stretching for miles back over town. These valleys were home to wild flowers, shrubs, ferns and grasses and on a few occasions we walked through forest.
There are also a number of beautiful natural pools dotted around the mountain, which despite being icy cold were incredibly refreshing to swim in. As in Lake Malawi the water was crystal clear and so inviting after the steep climbs.
Mulanje has 10 mountain huts and our route allowed us to visit a couple of these. The huts are a lovely place to sleep and a nice change from camping. Each hut has a fireplace, dining area and basic facilities (mattresses, squat toilets and a washing room). The hut’s watchman brings you hot water to wash after your walk as well as wood for the fire.
All the huts are in great locations and it’s no more than a few hours to walk between them. We were often finished walking by lunch so we had lots of time to play cards and improve our Bao skills (each hut had a Bao board so we could pick up where we’d left off from Lake Malawi).
After a couple of days walking we had made it to the Chisepo Hut at the base of Sapitwa Peak. At 3,002 m, Sapitwa is the highest peak in Mulanje. We were up before the sun for our summit attempt, which saw us climbing up sheer rock faces, boulder hopping and squeezing through caves and rocks.
We had lovely views all the way up but no view from the summit unfortunately as the clouds moved in just below the summit. Nevertheless, it was a challenging and really fun climb up to the top and a completely different terrain again from any other walking we’ve done on this trip.
As with Zomba, it was very sad to see so much deforestation although you appreciate why it is happening with guys unable to find work and simply trying to survive. Mulanje is famous for its cedar trees but these have now all but disappeared, being shipped overseas.
We’ve done a number of unbelievable treks over the past seven months and this was a different experience because of the huts. It was a really beautiful walk and if we’d packed more noodles we would have happily walked for another five days!
It’s also the most affordable trek we’ve done and with the public transport serving many of the trailheads it’s very accessible.
There are so many trails and huts, and with such beautiful views and pools to swim in you could easily spend a lot of time here. We look forward to coming back!
- Day One: 30 minutes from town to the start of the forest reserve; 5.5 hours, roughly 1.3 km ascent to Lichenya Hut (1,840 m)
- Day Two: 4 hours, 9 km to Chisepo Hut (2,200 m)
- Day Three: 2.75 hours, 800 m climb to the summit of Sapitwa (3,002 m). 2 hours down. A further 3 hours and 6.3 km to Thuchila Hut (2,000 m)
- Day Four: 3 hours and 6.2 km to Chinzama Hut, a further 4 hours to Sombani Hut (2,080 m). (This includes a detour to a lovely pool on the Malosa river for lunch and a refreshing swim). Approx 8 km.
- Day Five: 3 hours and 5.7 km to Fort Lister. We then hopped on a motorbike taxi to Phalombe (you could walk it in 2 hours) and from there took a minibus to Chitakale for coffee and lunch
Stanford was recommended by a friend and we really enjoyed walking with him. He is knowledgeable, has a lovely manner and is good for a chat. He had a sensible approach to walking and the weather and we really felt in good hands.
He is available via What’sApp at +265 88 845 6174.
Do you need a guide?
For day 1 and climbing Sapitwa, definitely. Between the huts one could do without as most trails are well marked.
Where we Stayed in Mulanje
Mulanje View Motel – 5,000 MkW
We did our shopping at the biggest Shoprite in Blantyre. We didn’t have a porter so weight was critical.
Costs (US$ 1 = 725 MkW)
- Guide – $25/day
- National Park Fee – 1,000 MkW/person
- Hut Fee – 1,000 MkW/person/night (Plus a tip for each watchman)
- Minibus between Blantyre (Limbe) and Chitakale – 1,500 MkW/person
- Minibus between Phalombe and Chitakale – 1,500 MkW/person
- Bicycle taxi from Chitakale to Mulanje – 100 MkW/person
- Motorbike taxi from Fort Lister to Phalombe -2,000 MkW/person