Is Rock Climbing the Future of Tourism in Malawi?

While the rock walls drew Matt and me to Malawi, the Mulanje Massif offers plenty more to non-climbing travelers. Located in the Southern Region of Malawi, this jumble of mountains is an inselberg, or a lone peak that rises from plains — literally “island mountain” in German. Sapitwa, the highest of the massif’s 62 named summits, soars to a height of 9,849 feet, gaining over 7,600 feet from the plains. The mountains rise so abruptly, in fact, that Mulanje creates its own weather systems. On misty mornings, the whole jungled mass appears to float.

Like the Galápagos or the tepuis of Venezuela, Mulanje is home to a panoply of endemic species, from the critically endangered Mulanje cedar to the Mulanje tiger moth. Well-developed hiking trails snake through the various basins and plateaus. Interspersed along them are 10 hiking huts, with sleeping and cooking facilities, each tended by a welcoming host known as a hut master.

Matt and I had flown from Washington, D.C., to Malawi toting 200 pounds of gear — drills, bolts, hammers, ropes, carabiners, mechanical ascenders, harnesses — in the hopes of establishing a new long route. We made our base camp in the Hiker’s Nest, a small guesthouse in the village of Likhubula, near the entrance to Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve. A room with two queen-size bunk beds and an en suite bathroom set us back 35,500 Malawian kwacha, or about $35, per night. For another 5,000 kwacha per meal, we ate plentifully: omelets made from freshly-laid eggs for breakfast, and for dinner dishes like chicken curry with nsima, a corn-based Malawian staple akin to polenta.

To help us carry gear up the mountain’s approach slopes, we hired two local hiking guides, Witness Stima and George Pakha, for 15,000 kwacha each per day. Mr. Stima, 32, grew up in Likhubula, where he still lives with his wife and 5-year-old son. He began guiding hikers up Mulanje in 2008 and estimates that he has trekked to the summit of Sapitwa over 100 times. He has guided about 200 hikers in that time, but only 20 or so climbers — the latter all in the past few years, he said.

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