Hiking is my favorite activity to do when traveling or just even for a weekend getaway. You get to truly appreciate landscapes, your body, and it’s usually free or low cost! It’s about the journey, they say.
When one thinks of hiking in the African continent, Kilimanjaro likely comes to mind. The Tanzanian mountain range hosts Africa’s highest peak at 5,895 meters. The popular and challenging trek comes at a high cost – required permits, guides, and porters can easily add up to over $1,000 and it can be questionable how fairly that money is distributed. If Kilimanjaro isn’t a high priority and you’d like to seek paths less traveled while maintaining a low budget, consider hiking at Mulanje in neighboring Malawi!
I never heard about Mulanje Mountain until I came to serve in Zambia with the Peace Corps. Fellow volunteers made the trek and I heard nothing but fantastic stories, so it wasn’t hard to decide where to go for my first vacation!
Mulanje, located about 1.5 hours southeast of Blantyre, is actually a massif with granite spreading over 650 square kilometers. Rivers eroded through the rocks, creating a unique landscape of valleys and ridges with about 20 peaks. Sapitwa Peak stands at 3002 meters, making it the highest point in Africa south of Tanzania. It may not be the most impressive superlative, but I found the underrated mountain range to be rewarding to explore and I cannot compare it with any other hikes I’ve done!
Trekking to the top doesn’t take special skills and is very low budget, perfect for my travel style. The entry fee to Kilimanjaro alone outweighs the cost of three days of hiking Mulanje! I am not one to shell out hundreds of dollars for walk through nature, so I am picky about where I decide to pay for treks.
I couldn’t find a lot of information online, so I thought I’d put together a quick guide for those looking to trek Mulanje Massif.
Here is a breakdown of the costs as of July 2019.
Guide – $25 per day split between the group (can be paid in USD or Malawian Kwacha). It takes 3 days and 2 nights if you want to reach Sapitwa, so the guide will come out to $75 plus tip. If you have a large group, say more than 8 people, then you should hire another guide. Getting a guide is required and necessary. We used Harry who I found via TripAdvisor. He was super helpful in communicating with me weeks before the trip with all of my questions. He also brought his own pots, plates, cups, bowls, and silverware so we can use them to cook. Much appreciated! He can be contacted via WhatsApp or phone: +265 882 85 72 68. He responds quickly and is reliable! Nice, knowledgeable, quiet and a bit of a jokester!
Porter – $10 per day. The porter can carry your bags and food as well as prepare meals. We opted not to hire a porter, but it would make the hike more comfortable and entertaining!
Park entry fee – 1,000 MWK or $1.30 as of July 2019.
Mountain huts – 1,000 MWK or $1.30 per night plus tip for the caretaker. The huts have thin mattresses to sleep on the floor. The huts were cozy and much nicer than anticipated. We were lucky that we were the only people in the huts during our two nights. A caretaker stays at each hut and prepares warm bathing water, gathers firewood, starts the fire for you to cook, and even does the dishes! Tip him/her well!
Food – This will vary from person to person, but for us, we kept the menu simple and low cost. We brought rice, lentils, oatmeal, peanut butter, a bit of cooking oil, onions, soya pieces, salt, coffee, macadamia nuts (cheap and abundant in Malawi!!), peanuts, fruit, bread, ramen, biscuits, and lollipops. We bought staples together as a group and got personal snacks. I nibbled periodically throughout the day and ate a hearty warm meal at night. I didn’t feel especially hungry at all during the three days. I estimate that I spent less than $10 total on food individually. You can find produce and basic snacks in Mulanje town, but buy some items (like lentils and oats) in Blantyre just in case.
Estimated cost for one person with a porter: $93.30 USD plus tips.
My personal cost (no porter and in a group of six): $26.40 USD.
Either way, the trek is quite affordable and well worth it.
What to Pack
Here are some items to bring along besides obvious hiking shoes, comfortable clothes, and toiletries!
- Sleeping bag (you can also rent)
- Wide brimmed hat
- Water bottle or water bag (you can refill at several points, so no need to carry too much water at any time. Water was clean to drink but if you feel cautious about it, bring a filter like LifeStraw or purifying tablets)
- Food and snacks
- Warm clothes – the nights can get chilly
- Rain jacket – it can rain any time of year, even in dry season!
- Quick drying towel
- Hiking sticks (you cannot take any sticks from the trail)
- Inflatable pillow
- Bathing suit for swimming at the waterfall
- Phone and battery pack. You actually can get 4G service on the mountain! Not that you’d want to scroll Instagram while hiking 😉
We opted for the 3 days/2 nights trek to summit Sapitwa Peak at 3002m. Treks are flexible – you can stay as little or as long as you like! I wish I knew how nice the huts were and amount of paths from said huts or I would have stayed for even longer! Next time.
Pre-hike: We all met up in Mulanje town at an AirBnB run by lovely women who have a charity empowering women and children. Funds raised via AirBnB goes to the charity. The rooms are basic but safe and comfortable. Kulsam made us a homey dinner and chai tea. In the morning, she kindly provided fruit and hot water for tea and coffee. They even let us keep our bags there while we hiked. If you are interested in staying here, you can easily find the profile on AirBnB. If you are a new user, you can use my referral link for $25 credit on your first booking. We used AirBnB a few times when there weren’t CouchSurfing hosts and we’ve always had great experiences similar to CouchSurfing.
Some people opt to stay at the base of the mountain in Likhubula, which is also fine. There are various huts in the area, such as CCAP Likhubula. We liked staying in Mulanje so we could stock up on snacks.
Our guide, Harry, met up with us in town to debrief us. We also gave him the money for the park entrance and hut fees.
Day 1: Harry arranged transport to pick us up at 7am from the AirBnB and take us to the foot of the mountain, a 10-minute drive. There we signed into the office, filled up on water, and started off! The path was mainly uphill, but not too strenuous. We took plenty of breaks to enjoy the scenic views, fill up on water in natural springs, and cool off. We didn’t cook lunch, but just ate some packed snacks. It took about seven hours of hiking to reach the first hut, Chisepo. Luckily, we had the whole place to ourselves, but there could be times you are sharing with several others. The scenery was lovely and the hut cozy. The caretaker had a fire already going for us and he heated water for bathing, but I opted to shower in the river!
We were hiking during the cool season, July, but it wasn’t as cold as anticipated. Still, all of my layers were put to good use.
There are a few pots and pans to cook over the fire at the hut. Harry brought us plates, cups, and eating utensils, but I do not think every guide does that. We had lentils and rice and passed out on the floor with the cozy fire.
Day 2: Early in the morning, we started our fire (the caretaker will do it upon request, though) and boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. We quickly packed a day bag and set off early! Since you summit Sapitwa and come back down to the hut, you can leave most of your bags at the hut. You will be thankful because the summit hike is a bit tricky! Several parts require crawling on all fours, ducking under rocks, and squeezing between narrow gaps. I didn’t find this portion strenuous personally, but some may disagree. Getting down was trickier because the slopes could be slippery with nothing to hold onto, so take your time! Honestly, the views don’t change dramatically, but the scenery is still outstanding the whole way through. We also spotted some mountain rabbits by surprise! The view at the 3002m peak is a little underwhelming, but the satisfied feeling makes it all worthwhile.
Do pay attention to your body when it comes to altitude sickness. The trail can be dangerous if you are not feeling 100%.
We took our time hiking up and down as well as spending time on the peak, so by the time we got back to Chisepo Hut, ate some food, and repacked, we set of a bit later than anticipated. The trail to the next hut, Chambo, is rather straight forward for 2-4 hours with a few ups and downs. It became dark about as soon as we arrived, so we couldn’t see the scenery.
The hut was bigger than Chisepo with two rooms and a few “beds” in addition to the mats.
Day 3: You could take your time waking up because it only takes two to three hours to hike to the bottom. Schedule time to relax at the waterfall! There you can cliff jump into the piercingly cold waters or just bathe off the sweat accumulated over the past few days.
Getting to the base from there is a breezy few minutes’ walk. Then onward to your next destination! You can get down the mountain as early as 10am, so there’s plenty of time to catch transport elsewhere.
I recommend Zomba for some more hiking overlooking the pleasant town or Cape Maclear for a quiet place near the lake and some more hiking at Lake Malawi National Park.