— By Harvey from Malawi
How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!
It was during my third year of college that I experienced feeling so close to death. It was one of those sunny Saturday mornings in the middle of the rainy season that Wongani and I decided to go hiking to the top of Zomba mountain. Wongani was my closest, nerdiest, and the weirdest of friends back then. This being our second trip within a period of 12 months, we had agreed to hike up to the highest point on the mountain, if this was to be a challenge worth taking. We did this because we felt the previous hiking trip we took was less of a thrill due to poor preparations, and we were motivated to make this one an adventure of epic proportions.
Zomba mountain is 2000 metres at its highest point, and occupies an area of 130 square kilometres. For novice hikers, it’s not that much greater of a challenge, and we had heard of many people going up the mountain like child’s play. More importantly, we had done this before, but had turned back only after covering half the distance. The plan was that we choose a section of the mountain with the highest point, hike upwards and then back, following the same route. We had calculated that if we left at 5am, we ought to be back where we started by 5pm. As luck would have it, we were already on the road at 5am, carrying a backpack with four litres of water and some glucose. To make things even better, we had met a guy in the bushes at the base of the mountain who volunteered to walk with us a few kilometres up the mountain. It was ironic since he was a charcoal maker, people who are actually destroying natural habitats in Malawi. But here we were, us, the admirers of nature, and a man who makes a living by destroying nature.
He did leave us on a good track and we parted ways. From this point, Wongani and I marched upward, exchanging the role of carrying the back pack which by now (about 4 hours into the hike) was getting heavier every passing minute. Hell broke loose when our trail began disappearing, the surroundings getting trickier with vegetation, and the upward slope became steeper. Before long, it was no longer mountain hiking, and the whole thing began to look like one of those rock climbing documentaries you see on National Geographic Channel. We did not bring any ropes, as we had not anticipated slopes that steep. I am a very cautious person, so I was first to suggest we turn back, but adventurous Wongani would not have it. He kept pressing on, rock after rock, with me following him behind and cautioning, “Be careful bro, it’s a long way down.” Wongani would only say something like, “Calm down dude,” as he went upwards. Occasionally he’d miss a step, which would send my heart racing at supersonic speed.
He had gone up, 3 big rocks above me. All the while he would be calling for me to follow, excited that he can see a walkable flat mass of land on top. I tried to climb up but I could not. It was after I was tired of trying that the bitter reality became known. Wongani was a much taller person than I was, and he could reach places I could not. All the while Wongani kept climbing, I called out his name, but his responses by now were becoming very distant. I told him I could not climb up and asked him to come back down so that we may abort this seemingly life threatening mission. Alas! Wongani could not climb back down the same way I could not climb upwards. The slope had become so steep where he was, that coming back down would be like trying to climb down a wall built at an angle of ninety degrees. At about 1700 metres above sea level, I tried not to imagine what my friend would look like after falling from such height. I yelled, “I am going back!” and he yelled back that he will find a new path down and that we will probably converge somewhere.
I looked back down, and at that moment I knew it was going to be a long and painful way down. Because the rocks were steep, moving was very difficult – to the point that I was only circling the same place I was sitting. When the wind blew, coupled by the heavy backpack with the four litres of water in it, my body almost fell over the edge. I had to lose the bag… no I have to lose all of the water… no, maybe lose just some of the water… where are our mobile gadgets? Maybe I should call for help, and say something like I am stuck up in the mountains. Through this confusion, I had to sit down and clear my mind. I yelled, “Wongani!” But the man was long gone to find his own way down. I had to get going too, as the time on my phone was displaying 12:20 and I was long way up. I opened the bag and threw the bottles of water over. I watched them smash as they went down the mountain. Since I could not lose the backpack, I took some bandages Wongani had in his bag and tied the bag to the bandages forming a rope. I would then let the bag down onto a different rock using the bandage as a rope, then I’d follow and so on. I could not lose this bag, because it had sentimental value to Wongani, and knowing the man who from time to time named and still names his inanimate possessions, losing the bag was not an option.
Wisdom came over me, I had to follow the gorge that ran from up the mountains going down. Gorges on mountains have running rivers and are mostly covered with vegetation. I figured that moving this way, the chances of me falling over the edge would be minimal. Vegetation would act as support and keep my speed in check, and when I slip I would get caught in the bushes before long. More importantly, the gorge will be my GPS so I do not get lost. It was working, but I was worried about my friend…what if he fell? Wongani was a bit clumsy at times. I had to call him but all the mobile phones were with me after we had previously agreed to do so to void losing or breaking them during the climb upwards. I had to put such thoughts away and focus on covering the distance down. I had worn shorts on this day and by now my legs were full of cuts and bruises…the wounds stinging with the dumpy heat under vegetative cover. I had walked for over four and half hours going down, calling out for anyone who could hear, but no one was up here. The place was quite scary, with nothing but the sounds of nature in the background.
After getting lost more times than I could count, and almost going insane in the process, I was at the base of the mountain. Wongani was nowhere in sight, and I told myself I should walk straight to the hostels and wait for him there. It is a 1 hour walk from Chancellor College hostels to the base of the mountain. Heading home, I contemplated on what I would tell people if Wongani disappeared. What would I tell his parents? I would look like the evil one for leaving a friend behind. Halfway to the hostels I met a group of men whom we had passed at that same place 11 hours earlier, moulding bricks. I was so relieved when I heard them say a guy I went up the mountains was asking them if I had passed by before him. Wongani was about 25 minutes ahead of me all the while getting worried sick of what had happened to me.
The rest of the journey home was an embarrassing and a humbling experience. Crossing through the city, people looked at me with interest. I assumed I looked like some nightmarish creature with bits of bushes in my head, dirty clothes, and red eyes – I was a severely exhausted human being at most. I found Wongani waiting at my door looking worse than I felt. We both went to have our separate hot baths… this was one of the most painful hot baths I have ever had. Later, we convened at my room, ate the food we were supposed to eat when we reached the mountain top, and told each other about our separate horrors we had to encounter coming down the mountain. We laughed and contemplated how close we had come to seeing the worst.
We are looking forward to going back soon. Any partakers?