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Mount Mulanje

Fabulous world of Tolkien's favourite mountain

Mount Mulanje – known locally as ‘chilumba mu mlengalenga’ (‘island in the sky’) – covers an area of 650 sq km and is the highest peak in southern central Africa at an impressive 3,002 metres above sea level.

The mountain, located in the south-eastern corner of Malawi, has a fascinating ecosystem. As many as 500 unique species of animals and plants are found here and the area is recognised as a biodiversity hot spot.

Since time immemorial there have been myths and legends about Mount Mulanje, mostly originating from the people of the local Lhomwe, Yao and Mang’anja communities, who believe that spirits control life on the mountain. It is said, for example, that the trees where the spirits live can regrow within a day of being cut down. It is also believed that the Dziwe la Nkhalamba pools at the head of the Likhubula River are inhabited by the spirits who can be spotted in human form swimming in the pools. A sighting is said to bring good luck. One of the mountain’s most popular venues is the beautiful Likhubula Waterfalls and pools. These can be accessed only on foot and are located about one hour from Likhubula Forest Office.

THE TOLKIEN CONNECTION

The story goes that J.R.R Tolkien, author of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, visited Mount Mulanje in the 1930s and was inspired by its mystery, magic and beauty – so much so that he chose the mountain as part of the backdrop for his book. Many travellers have followed suit, seeking to experience the magic of Malawi’s second most outstanding geographical feature after Lake Malawi.

On the south side of the mountain lies the Great Rift Valley, with spectacular free-standing eroded mountains known as monadnocks or inselbergs. Their geographical features are similar to those described by Tolkien in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. 

Hiking to Mount Mulanje is an exceptional experience, whether one approaches from the south or north side of the mountain. Trails are clearly marked and visitors can choose between a gentle trek and a serious climb. Wildlife is limited on Mount Mulanje, but vervet monkey, rock hyrax, leaf-nosed bat and klipspringer are not uncommon. Professional porters and guides are on hand to help visitors get the best out of their experience.

GRUELLING RACE

The Mount Mulanje Porters’ Race, held every July, has been attracting both local and international participants since it was first held in the late 1990s. Defi nitely not for the fainthearted, this 25 km event involves running up and across the challenging plateaux of the mountain. Usually it would take about 12 hours to cover the whole distance, but some athletes have done it in less than three hours. The race is open to men and women. Although it may be described as gruelling, the race is considered a great alternative way to enjoy the unique surroundings of the mountain.

FOREST RESERVE

In 1927 the Mount Mulanje area was gazetted as a forest reserve owing to its unique ecosystem, home to a variety of rare life forms. The government felt it was important to create the reserve in order to protect the area and safeguard the water catchment as well as preserving indigenous flora such as Malawi’s national tree, the Mulanje cedar, from extinction.

The high rainfall, deep ravine and dense vegetation have led to the formation of many rivers which supply clean water to thousands of households in the surrounding plains. The indigenous communities have always revered Mount Mulanje, seeing it as a gift from God that preserves and sustains life. Traditional rites are often performed to appease the mountain spirits who provide the food that they cultivate and harvest. This settlement, however, has placed great pressure on the land and this has led to a close working relationship between the Department of Forestry and Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust (MMCT). They now spearhead conservation efforts aimed at protecting the forest’s irreplaceable natural resources as well as encouraging community participation. 

Also involved in conservation efforts is the Mountain Club of Malawi, a social club for residents of Malawi and visitors affi liated with mountain clubs internationally. The club aims to encourage and assist people to make the most of the country’s unique opportunities as well as helping to provide long-term solutions for the conservation of natural resources.

The Mulanje Mountain Biodiversity Conservation Project contributes by raising awareness of the value of biodiversity and its importance for the local communities. This not only ensures that conservation takes place but also allows the community to play its part in conservation.

MOUNTAIN HUTS

The Mountain Club of Malawi (MCM) works with Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust and the Forestry Department to maintain nine of the 10 huts on Mount Mulanje: Chambe, Chinzama, Chisepo, France’s Cottage, Lichenya, Madzeka, Minunu, Sombani and Thuchila. The remaining hut, Hope Rest Cottage, is maintained by the Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian (CCAP). All provide basic amenities for a comfortable stay including mattresses, cooking and eating utensils and other useful items. Visitors climbing Mount Mulanje have the option to join the MCM. Benefi ts include the provision of cooking and camping kits and other basic equipment. Most of the huts have spectacular views of the terrain and are used regularly.

WHAT TO WEAR

Mountain weather can be severe and unpredictable. Visitors are advised to check with local weather advisories before setting off. Information and weather forecasts relating to the main mountain areas of Mulanje, Zomba, Dedza and Nyika are available at freemeteo.com.

TEA PLANTATIONS

The country’s tea-growing industry is centred around Mulanje and Thyolo in the south of Malawi. The tea estates around Mount Mulanje bring the landscape to life and are part of Mulanje’s heritage. The mountain offers spectacular views of the plantations stretching up to Mozambique. Various tea estates are open to the public. Tours give visitors a chance to learn more about the various types of tea and how they are produced. Tea tastings are an enjoyable and popular part of these tours.