The mountainous terrain that straddles the eastern border of Malawi with Mozambique, is the area where the Chewa people believe all plants and animals were created during one massive thunderstorm. And as we came through, the chains of green mountains that rise up out of the land did resemble to us vast husks, littering the landscape.
After eight hours of bumping across an atrociously potholed dirt road, passing endless rural settlements and nothing remotely close to civilization, the lush mountains, and the tarmac in Malawi were a burst of fresh air. But what really took our breath was the awe-inspiring expanse of rock rearing up against the horizon after customs: Mt. Mulanje, a vast massif of plutonic rocks withstanding the erosion that levels the rest of the country where the African Rift is pronouncing itself without compunction.
At Mt. Mulanje, on July 10, we experienced the Porter's Run, a heroic (or foolish) run, worthy of a little more detail.
For three days, we trekked through Mt. Mulanje, accompanied by our guide John. As far as we could discern, guides are not really a necessity for the experienced hike as long as you stick to the main routes. But our pride, or embarrassment, couldn't accept porters carrying our luggage, and it is frowned upon by the Forestry Office to not involve anyone from the Likhubula village community. So we took the laid-back and gentle John (Johani, his African name) as guide, leisurely advancing us while we sweated our guts out during the climb. I was glad, though, because we could fire off our numerous questions to introduce us to the cultures of Malawi, and the local language, Chichewa. Like South Africa, there is a gourmet of languages inside Malawi, Chichewa being a dominant one. I lost track after John listed seven.
John had done the Porter's Run a few years ago. He had become 7th - that was good enough for him. He had finished the run. Plenty don't, particularly during rain or wet conditions. Many finish on a stretcher. It was raining on our second day, bucketing down during the night, and descending on the third day was laborious work, with frequent skips and slips across the ruddy clay. We feared for the runners.
On the first day, we ascended the steep climb to Chambe plateau, resting in the shadow of Chambe peak. Mt. Mulanje is an agglomeration of jointed, granitic rocks, sliced through with burbling brooks and occasionally perfumed with the aromatic Mulanje cedar, a species of tree that is undergoing re-habilitation, as it is under threat of the Mexican pine, which of course is not indigenous. It is also, predictably, under threat of logging.
Most famously are the clouds of Mt. Mulanje, which is romantically advertised as "Island in the Sky". The weather is fickle, and unpredictable. Clouds drift up against the shiny flanks, linger in the vales, clump together for a communal drizzle or a gregarious fog. It gives fine pictures, and necessitates lots of layers of clothing - when the sun comes through, the cold turns to heat.
On the second day, we hiked to Lichenya peak. Mount Mulanje was a busy place, those days. On route, we passed two men, wearing bags of lime on their heads, who were tracing the route of the Porter's Run with lines of lime. We passed more men, earlier on, with machetes, hacking at the undergrowth, to clear the path. For the visitor from outside Africa, who visually have sponged themselves with movies depicting the atrocities of African wars, the sight of machetes undoubtedly carries an echo of menace. While it is what it is in most of Africa: a tool for everyday's use. We also passed two groups of fellow visitors. All whites. The only Africans on the mountain are working. Guides, porters, woodcutters, caretakers. The tourists are white, wherever we go. Africa hardly caters for Africans. It makes one uncomfortably skin conscious.
The next day, after a night of rain in Lichenya hut, we picked up the route again, and descended back into the yawning Likhubula valley, that slices deeply into the massif. It had taken us three days to hike the 25 kilometers some 200 - 300 people, mostly porters and guides from Likhubula village, would run the next day. The fastest time achieved was 2 hours and 11 minutes. John didn't think it would be bettered - the conditions were too wet. I could only think of the broken bones that would be forthcoming, and the cold on the mountain.
The Forestry doesn't take the responsibility to close an annual event. If you want to participate while you know the conditions, it's your own decision and responsibility, not theirs. And the first prize is luring, 20.000 kwacha, a little more than 100 Euros. But for a porter making 700 kwacha per day if there are visitors, it's a boon. Second price, 15.000 kwacha. Third price was 10.000 kwacha, and a mattress. Still worth running for. For the women, first price also was 20.000 kwacha. Several women were contesting and also, surprisingly, a significant amount of mzungus (whiteys), who seem to sniff out these sorts of arduous treks for their next endorphin rush.
At six o'clock in the morning, the music of frivolous, fast-darting beats, rose up to our campsite. We walked down to observe the contestants, tucked in red shirts, huddled before the starting line. Officially, the start was "between seven and seven thirty" (it started at a quarter to eight). Two TV-cameras documented the start of the event, and 2 bemused Dutch visitors took a few pictures, well in the know what the runners were going to face.
We didn't wait the three hours to see the winner come in, but rumbled out of the village, back to the main road, and coursing west.