There’s Gold in Those Hills

In the past few weeks, I have posted several stories about some of my adventurous treks in far away countries.  There was one about my near death experience in Mexico and another about my near death experience in Venezuela. But I don’t want my readers to get the wrong impression about the dangers of hiking. After all, I am trying to encourage people to travel and explore, not frighten them away.  In reality, I almost never nearly die when I go on trekking adventures in foreign lands.  Usually, I just have an incredibly good time.  This week’s story is from Malawi, Africa in 2007.  I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had living it.

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There’s Gold in Those Hills

Mulange Plateau, Malawi, Africa (March 2007)

Gold is a mineral that is buried in the earth.  In practical terms, it is not very valuable.  You can’t eat it.  You can’t drink it. You can’t smoke it.  It doesn’t provide energy or warmth and it is not very useful as a building material.  Yeah sure, it is kind of pretty when used as a decoration but that doesn’t make it valuable.  In historical times, Europeans used gold as a form of currency or money.  As such, gold came to symbolize great wealth.  Nowadays, this symbol has spread to the entire world so that gold is now way way over-valued in the international economic system.  Those crazy Europeans are always imposing their metaphors on everyone else… Gold is also a kind of marijuana that grows in Malawi.  In my humble opinion, it is the very best marijuana in the whole wide world.  Now that is something that I call valuable…

Why? Why do I love this country so much? No, it’s not just the Malawi gold, that special native marijuana that makes the whole world shine.  It’s something else; something much more important. There’s magic in Malawi. Magic that radiates forth from the warm smiles of the friendly people.

After four splendiferous days in Nkata Bay, basking in the glow of golden sunrises and golden sunsets, I finally manage to convince myself to move on. There is a bus to Lilongwe, the capital city.  It passes Nkata Bay once a day at about 7:30 am. Yeah right, more like 9:30 am. No matter, I have a pleasant wait on the side of the road chatting with an assortment of locals who meander by throughout the morning. As the bus pulls in, I soon realize that although it is much larger than the minibuses I have taken thus far in this country, it is similarly packed full of people. Miraculously, I make the middle of the rush for the door and manage to score a seat. Seriously, seven hours of standing on this bus would be a total nightmare. As it is, the seven hour ride, if not fantastic, is rather pleasant. Sure, the bus stops a hundred thousand times so people can get on and off. Sure, there are two police checkpoints where we have to get off the bus so it can be thoroughly searched (thankfully I left my Malawi gold behind).  And sure the journey takes many hours longer than I was informed. But still, it is a rather wonderful experience. There are the rolling hills of the Malawian countryside to look at and occasional views of the big lake. There are picturesque huts along the road and the constant flow of the Malawian people provides me with non-stop entertainment. Soon enough, we arrive in Lilongwe.

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Lilongwe is all right. More like a big town than a city. I stay there a few days to catch up on e-mail, change some money and find out about a visa for Mozambique or Zimbabwe. The place I am staying is a backpacker place. I blow my budget for a single room rather than the dorm. Surprisingly, there is no Malawi gold around anywhere. Apparently, the new owners of the place are paranoid about the police.  They are young British ex-pats and they don’t want to get into trouble. Oh well, they have a hell of a bar and it is presently crowded with a great collection of international travelers. The long winded discussions about traveling in Africa are the kind of conversations on which I thrive. On the best night there, the collection of people includes a Swedish guy who is riding a bicycle from the Cape of Norway to the African Cape, two Brazilian brothers who are in the middle of a three year trip around the world, a crazy Mongolian guy (the first Mongolian traveler I ever met) who can make the most unbelievable musical sounds with his voice, a rather sexy woman traveling from London to assuage her mid-life crisis, two cute young American girls as naive and innocent as can be, a wise older German couple and a few others I lose track of in the blur of alcohol indulgence.  Truthfully, most of my efforts are concentrated on bringing some relief to the pretty English lady’s mid life crisis because that is one of my fields of expertise. But I do manage to mingle around and chat with just about everyone.  It is one of those nights.   Actually it is two of those nights and they kind of blend together into one.

After Lilongwe, I head to Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi and the other so called city… well okay, I guess it’s a city. In Blantyre, I stay at another Backpacker place called Doogles.  It’s a nice enough establishment with a good bar, a swimming pool and decent food. But again, it is quite the wild crazy party scene. The bar is packed with a mixture of international travelers and locals. There is a pool table and bad music. There are pretty girls from many countries; the beer is cheap and the glorious gold can be found if you ask around. I am situated in a pleasant bungalow conveniently located in the garden out back. In short, everything is here that a weary traveler could want.  “Hey pretty lady, I have a pocket full of gold and a real nice bungalow in the garden.  Would you like to go play in the flowers?” Nevertheless, I don’t stay long because I am headed to the mountains.

It is two hours by minibus from Blantyre to Chitikale at the bottom of the Mulanje plateau. It is also, theoretically, four hours by regular bus but the regular bus is much cheaper. I am a budget traveler and slightly stupid so I choose to take the regular bus. I leave town at 7:00 am hoping to make the mountains by lunchtime. The bus drops me off on the side of the road in a small town. From there, it’s another 11 kilometers up a dirt road to the guest houses outside the national park of Mulanje. I don’t know if I will have to walk or if there is possible transportation so I go to a little restaurant to have a cup of coffee and think about it. It is 11:00 am when I arrive.  Sitting in the restaurant are two Malawian guys drinking beer. They invite me to join them.  I say no because it is still morning, I am hungover from the night before and it is going to be a long walk up the hill to the national park as it is.  They insist I should because  they like to buy drinks for foreigners and there are pickup trucks that will take hikers up the hill to the park entrance.  Two and a half hours later, a little bit drunk but hangover effectively cured, I say good bye to my two brand new best friends from Malawi and head out to find the pick up truck they told me about. I find a pick-up truck with a bunch of people in it. But it’s the same deal as everywhere else in Malawi. The truck leaves only when it’s full. And it isn’t full enough. So I sit my semi-drunk self down on the back of the truck for two hours where I am surrounded by curious locals and an assortment of enthusiastic youngsters trying to sell me guide service up the mountain. By the time the truck leaves and I make it up to the tiny village of Lihlukundula it is four in the afternoon (so much for the two hour journey from Blantyre).

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But the truck doesn’t deposit my drunk ass in the center of the village. Instead, it deposits me at a crossroads where I am met by another group of young men. They all want to be my guide. They tussle with each other for the chance to carry my bags to the guesthouse.  They insist that they are showing me the way as they walk along with me on the obvious path. Somehow, Samuel stands out from the group and I ask him if there is ganja around. “Sure is,” he says “but you better be careful who you pick as a guide because some of them don’t smoke.” So that’s how I choose my guide. I don’t care about his qualifications for the mountain or his abilities as a guide. I just want a friendly pothead to keep me company.

Samuel shows me the way to the cheap guesthouse. I take a dorm room that is completely empty. After that, about 5:00 pm, I go with Samuel and another guy to see the pools in the river. What a swimming hole! It’s a rushing river with tumbling rapids, giant rocks and a deep pool. I have a glorious plunge into the water that washes all the remaining alcohol right out of my system.  Baptized in a mountain stream, I am clean and sober once again. After the swim, we head into the village to buy food supplies for tomorrow’s trek.  Along the way, as the dirt track passes through corn fields, we come upon a marijuana dealer.  Isn’t that nice; a pot dealer in the corn field. We buy a small amount and Samuel rolls a joint with a strip of newspaper.  With the ink on the paper and all, it is not exactly the healthiest way in the world to smoke weed. Nevertheless, I very much appreciate the inventiveness and talent.  Most importantly, it works just fine and by the time we get to the village, I am stoned out of my mind, the sun is setting and the village seems like a place from a fairy tale. There are big rock mountains in the background, endless green corn fields in the foreground and a delightful collection of thatch huts and wooden shacks to complete the picture.  There is also a small market of vegetables and meat and of course, the ever smiling, happy angelic, Malawians. God I love this place. It almost doesn’t seem real.

So we wander around the market and try to sort out food for our planned hiking trip. We are going into the mountains for four days so we need several things but thanks to the Malawi gold magical marijuana, we have a hell of a time deciding on what to buy.  I want to taste and purchase everything.  And I want to take all those crazy happy funny people selling vegetables home with me to my country.  Why can’t the whole wide world be this much fun?

Somehow, we manage to get the essentials (I picked up other stuff earlier in Chitikale while waiting for the pickup).  After that, Samuel shows me the one village restaurant where I have a nice meal of rice and eggs and then he says good night. He will meet me in the morning. I walk the two kilometers back to my guest house by myself under the light of the moon.  Perhaps I should be scared all alone in the dark in Africa. There are, theoretically, dangerous black people lurking in the forest… Ha! I feel fantastic. The big mountain looms ahead of me and the tall cornfields are all around as I skip my way merrily along the winding dirt track. Sometimes, it’s just good to be alive.

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Samuel comes to my guest house at 7:30 the following morning. We go to the forest service to reserve a place in the various huts for three nights and then we head up the trail into the mountains. Oh to be hiking again; really hiking. The trails are overgrown and steep and muddy and slippery. Not like that absurd excuse for a trail that closely resembles an interstate highway on Kilimanjaro, this is the way mountains should be.  It is a challenge, an effort…  an adventure.  Whoooppeee!!  One hour into the trek, we come upon one of the more spectacular waterfalls I have ever seen. Do you know how I feel about waterfalls? To me, at least, they are holy, sacred and absolutely essential to my spiritual well being.  As a matter of fact, according to my own personal, newly invented belief system, swimming in waterfalls not only makes you live longer but it also brings good luck. We take a plunge into the pool at the bottom of the falls. I’m telling you, such an experience just has to be good for the soul. It makes me feel clean and rejuvenated in every sense of the word.

After a leisurely stay at the falls, a little food and a joint, we continue on.  High ho the dairy o’, up the mountain we go. The various trails ahead of us are twisted and intersected and not marked at all. I would never find the way without Samuel. But in four more hours we reach the Chambe hut. We have the place completely to ourselves. It’s the rainy season on Mulanje now so it’s nearly impossible to climb the peaks.  Accordingly, there are very few hikers, practically none at all. As a matter of fact, we only see one other tourist with a guide during our entire four day trek. In the hut, there is just the caretaker and us. We build a fire in the fireplace; have a little warm food and coffee and smoke another joint. We are going to go out walking again in the afternoon but we get hit with an end of the world type thunderstorm. It rains like there is no tomorrow or day after or day after that. So we just smoke more glorious gold and watch the lightening dazzle the sky.  What an absolutely brilliant way to spend an afternoon.

At some point towards sunset, the hut is visited by a local guy who lives in the mountains and does forest work. He also has some ganja to sell. How good is this country? We are in a hut in the middle of nowhere and the gold comes walking up to our door. We have enough for the hike already but just barely enough.  And besides, if it rains a lot, we may end up sitting around in huts with not much to do. What the hell, let’s get a little more.

And so, for the next four days, Samuel and I hike around the Mulanje plateau. We stay in a couple different huts, experience a few waterfalls and swimming holes, smoke lots of glorious gold and manage to climb one peak. We intended to climb several peaks but the weather does not approve. It is the rainy season and our wanderings are variously interrupted, shortened and changed due to sudden downpours and thunderstorms. Every time we intend to head for a peak, the clouds come in and cover it up. We have one opportunity though. On the third morning, we awake early and the sky is perfectly clear. There is one peak near the hut we are staying in so we head for it. And yes, we make it to the top before the clouds move in and it is truly spectacular. Now, finally, I have a broad view of the amazing area I am hiking around. It is a giant plateau with grassy fields on top, but sticking up everywhere amid the grassy top like giant pimples on a face are jagged rocky peaks. There must be about thirty of them. Some have waterfalls tumbling off the sides. They all have shapes like giant sculptures. Given time and opportunity, I’d just love to climb them all.

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But alas, it is not possible. Time runs short and the weather is not cooperating. I will have to return one day (perhaps in the dry season) and just explore, explore, explore. For now, I have to settle for a taste of Mulanje.  All I get to experience is a single nice peak, a few waterfalls, a couple swimming holes, and some of the best sunsets on the entire planet earth.

On the fourth day, we return to Lilkubula village in the early afternoon. I swear that place just has the perfect fairy tale setting. I hang out with Samuel and some of his friends for a while. I eat lunch again at the one restaurant. But, unfortunately, I have to be moving on. Believe me, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to. I feel at home in the mountains. I feel at peace in the mountains. And the Mulanje Plateau in the Rainy Season with no one else around is really my kind of place.  But I only have one month left of this year’s traveling adventure and it is still a long ways to Capetown where I have to catch my return flight home. I can’t stay, I can’t stay, I can’t stay.  No I’m sorry universe, I just can’t stay at this particular paradise.

Samuel takes me on a short cut through the village and the cornfields to the crossroads where the pickups pass. There are no trucks in sight but there are a few bicycle taxis. They offer to take me on one bicycle and my big backpack on the other. It will only cost 300 kwacha (two dollars) to the main road. I say goodbye to Samuel and climb on the back of the bicycle. God I love transportation in this country. Down we go; twelve kilometers on a dirt road on the back of a bicycle; through the cornfields, and the tea plantations and the tiny villages…. Hands in the air… Wheeeeee!!  Once or twice, I fear for my life as my bicycle driver thinks he is Evil Knievel when we hit the steep hills. But somehow we make it to the bottom in one piece and I catch the minibus back to Blantyre. I arrive just in time for a party at Doogles Bar.  That’s right; after my arduous hiking adventure, I am rewarded with a hearty helping of beer, music, chicks, and good old Malawi gold. Down from the mountains today and tomorrow I go to Zimbabwe. I guess I better live it up tonight.

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