The journey to the summit
Written by one of our Malawi challengers, Tom Mullee
At the end of April this year, 15 intrepid explorers from HSBC left the home comforts of London (and New York) and travelled to Malawi in aid of MicroLoan Foundation to conquer the third highest peak in Africa – Mount Mulanje. We also had the opportunity to visit some of the communities that the charity is supporting out of poverty.
From the moment we arrived in the country and felt the heat of the African sun beating down on us, the whole team was excited to see what was in store over the coming week. We were anticipating the physical and mental challenges that awaited us and we couldn’t wait to get started!
We immediately began to see the vibrancy and colour of the country as we drove the two hours from Blantyre toward Mulanje. Initially, the most surprising thing was the fact that everywhere looked so green, you see pictures of Africa and think that it is dusty and dry, but Malawi was the complete opposite, green plains stretching as far as the horizon, interrupted only by solitary outcrops and hills – the larger of some causing a few false claims that they were our destination.
When Mulanje finally came into view, however, there was no mistaking it as it dominated the skyline, a granite monster casting a vast shadow over the tea plantations below. We stopped on the approach to take a better look and to get our first photographs and it was at this point that we really started to appreciate the size of our challenge.
After an evening spent organising our packs, getting further acclimatised and with some seemingly trying to cram their entire wardrobe into a rucksack we settled in for a night of comfort before the hard work began at 8am sharp the next morning.
The first lesson we learned was that time has a very loose definition – our actual departure was closer to 8.30! Nevertheless, we set off in high spirits. Well for all of ten minutes until we had to ford our first river. We then began slogging it steep uphill for what seemed like endless hours through head high pampas grass, swamp, rocky land and jungle until we finally came out above the tree line. The hard work and sweat were worth it as we were able to gaze down upon miles and miles of Malawian countryside.
The second day saw us begin with a steep ascent away from our lodge. It was also our first experience of the ‘hole in the ground’ toilets which we would all become experts at using by the end of the trip. Noticeably the terrain throughout the second day began to resemble that of the Scottish Highlands as we wandered through ferns and heather. Lunch was taken in a small valley next to a stream, a welcome respite and a chance for all to wash and refresh our feet after a day and a half of trekking, something I’m sure everyone was grateful of given the sleeping arrangements that were to follow.
The lodge for the second night was at the foot of Sapitwa, the highest peak on Mulanje, its name in English meaning ‘don’t go there’ – something that half the group would find out was all too accurate in due course.
The climb itself was around 1000 vertical metres. After over 4 hours of climbing, we still hadn’t reached the top, this was more challenging than most of us predicted. Eventually, after plenty of snack breaks and one or two tears we made it to the top around midday.
The descent whilst perhaps not as physically exhausting was definitely more mentally exhausting as the enclosing mist and fog slickened our path making the rocks a lot more treacherous. Pretty much everyone slipped at some point aside from the mountain goat-esque guides who bounded down the slopes in their trainers without even breaking sweat. The welcome from the rest of the group back at the lodge was worth it though, a mixture of relief and jubilation from all parties.
The last day on the mountain was altogether more relaxed with everyone in a better mood and descending back towards the base in high spirits, looking forward to a shower and a proper bed to sleep in. It was a great day for taking in the beauty of the area and really appreciating the landscape that we were in.
Meeting MicroLoan women
After travelling away from Mulanje, up to the shores of Lake Malawi we visited two of the communities that MicroLoan have been helping. The women of the villages were more than happy to show us around and let us watch their classes as well as perform songs and dances for us.
We met their children and heard their stories. They were incredibly inspiring, the women had unwavering spirit and spoke with such pride about their businesses.
The group were all incredibly impressed by the passion that the women have for MicroLoan. The women were in agreement that this support was vital in helping their families and, most importantly, allowing them to send their children to school.
We were only there for a week but we left with a lifetime’s worth of memories and all felt incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to visit this great country.