Cured of our hangovers we had bigger things on our minds. The Mulanje Massif is a ‘spectacular 650 square kilometre granite inselberg rising in dramatic isolation above the Phalombe plains southeast of Blantyre.’ It has twenty something peaks at over 2,500 metres, and we wanted to summit the highest, Sapitwa Peak, which sat at 3,002 metres and is the ‘highest point in central Africa’ wherever central Africa’s boundaries may lie.
As we pulled off the main tar road we still had around eight kilometres to get to the parks offices. Six kilometres along we met the first group of potential guides, Teve and Lawrence. They asked could they jump on Redvers for a lift. We suggested that they could run the remaining two kilometres, uphill; Redvers was already suffering from chronic overloading and this would be a fine test for potential mountain guides.
At the entrance gate to the park was a craft stall and around that were almost twenty purveyors of ornately carved cedar walking sticks. At this point a tangent is required. Malawian craft sales people have been the most difficult dealers we’ve come across so far. They berate you for bartering and get incredibly annoyed if you haggle with them claiming that you’re doing them out of a living in doing so. This is despite the fact that they’ll happily start at an asking price of one hundred US for a small piece of wood. They insist on telling us how they had to ‘buy’ the wood from the national parks, (we’re told that this is largely a lie, wood poaching in national parks is on the up,) they have to pay tax on said wood (I’ve never met anyone who pays tax on stolen goods), and then they must transport this wood (a legitimate cost but I doubt they’re sourcing their materials from more than twenty kilometres away) all before crafting it with expensive tools and underpaid skills. They then have to sit at their stall day in day out trying to sell their goods, ‘just to make a living.’ The latter is a particularly bitter pill to swallow from our part as that’s surely part of the shop keepers job description. To make matters worse, whilst they’re prattling on about tight margins and the ‘white’s’ that are forcing them to sell their products at a loss, their market stall neighbour comes up and offers you his piece of wood for half the price.
At least part of this anger is not without reason. In a country whose currency should be valued at the black market rate rather than the current rate, the cost of living is rising sharply. Bread prices and nsima prices are rising whilst the current President Dr Bingu wa Mutharika has expelled the British consulate for suggesting, albeit weakly, that Dr Bingu was displaying ‘dictator like tendencies’, indeed he has attempted to change the constitution to extend his term in power, he is currently trying to have his brother elected as his successor and he has told the IMF (International Monetary Fund) that he can run his own country’s finances until the end of his term without their input. The latter is not always a bad idea but in a country like Malawi whose budget relies heavily on world aid, in particular from the IMF and the World Bank and from individual countries, previously including the UK, it would seem unwise to start telling them that you do not want their advice, only their money. Nothing is free in this world and IMF money I’m sure comes with hoops to jump through, conditions of repayment and powerful individuals who quite like their back being scratched. The papers are free to criticise and criticise they do. They read of judiciaries on strike awaiting payment, corruption at the higher levels and Bingu, Bingu, Bingu. From our experiences the Malawian people know that Bingu must go, they know that his brother must not come in and they know that what they want is change. Dr Bingu wa Mutharika’s term ends in 2014, what will come of it has many people watching.
So back at the park gates, there we were, trying to pay a park entrance fee whilst twenty guys simultaneously attempted to sell us walking sticks and offer us their services as guides and porters. We hadn’t even opened our mouths and they’d undercut each other from six dollars to two dollars per stick.
Once in the grounds the purveyors of sticks followed us through and told us we had to go to the office at the top of the hill. We took their guidance and on reaching the office found that all twenty men had run up the hill with us and were waiting to sell us some walking sticks. After a pow-wow with Laura, Post and I presiding over a gang of would be Sherpa’s we made our plan for the summit attempt based on their sketchy advice, and amidst pouring rain, and we booked the only mountain hut that was offered by our current office. We suggested that we needed to go and book our other hut at the main office; a plan that was greeted with some consternation by the Sherpa group who said they could run down and organise it for us. That smelt fishy; the catch is that no-one organises something for you unless there’s something in it for them and if they’re going to gain someone is going to lose. And so we found ourselves driving back down the slippery mud slope to the main office with around a dozen individuals still in the running for the stick sales.
After reverse parking into a shelter and dislodging it from its supporting wall I corrected the car and avoided assessing the damage. We found the office and a nice man who actually had some honest and unbiased advice for our ascent. It turned out that all our followers were stick salesmen and had no actual guiding certificates or official registration. It also appeared that our now booked Church Mountain Hut was more than a little out of the way. Our plan was reinvented, we booked an official guide for $6.50 per day and two porters at $5 each per day, the latter being a decision based on providing extra employment rather than a colonial desire for the easy way of life. We booked one nights’ accommodation in each of two separate lodges and agreed that we would start our hike at 2pm that afternoon. We would first need to get a refund on our church hut and then our guide would take us somewhere in the village for lunch.
To add further confusion we spent fifteen minutes at the church hut being told that their hut was more useful for our walk. After protracted discussion, we decided that it wasn’t and they gave us a full refund without complaint. Our souls did feel a little sour as it was a church based hut so we left them a small donation, receipt supplied, as compensation for our misdemeanours. Back outside it was walking stick time and by now, after the dismay of the truth being discovered in the official office, we had only three salesmen that had run up the hill for a second time. We chose our sticks and, true to form, where told they cost six dollars each. We told them that they were offered to us for two dollars each an hour ago and so they could decide whether they were going to make a sale. Again they looked unhappy as they took our money but we forced a handshake and the smiles came. Well, the smile came to two of the three men. Laura didn’t want a stick and so one guy lost out.
We parked Redvers in Likubula village and followed our guide, Anthony, to the local restaurant. Sweet tea, fried chicken, rice and xima and we were ready for action. As we got back to the car Post was gently accosted by a gentle man; Laura and I continued getting into the car whilst Post had chat. After a while Post leaned back inside Redvers, “This guy says he runs the mountain rescue team and he wants to rescue us off the mountain. I asked him what if he’s shit and can’t find us but he says he’s not. What do you think?” “The blog writes itself mate,” I replied.
Some further negotiations took place and Post declined the offer of Patrick paying for our accommodation on the mountain, we borrowed his mobile phone so that we could call him when one of us ‘broke a leg’ and he’d be able to complete the first training expedition of the New Year. We’d go up the mountain and one of us would be carried back down.
With full bellies and minds railing with thoughts of mountain rescue we made for our start point, secured Redvers, met our porters and set off. Three hours of muddy and slippery climbing in heavy rain ensued before we arrived at Chambe Hut. The hut keeper started a fire for us and we made tea and began the drying out process for all of our clothing. We cooked rice and sauce and took photos of the nearby mountain face in the bright light of an almost full moon. We slept on mats in front of the fire with our food hung from hooks in the wall to avoid ‘theft by rodent.’