Finding hidden mountains in Malawi

I want to start by talking about how absolutely amazing the African bottle recycling system is.

My bottle of Fanta was noticeably worn down and re-used many many times. The label was faded and the glass had been ground down in certain places, by a million tiny scratches, a result of grinding against other bottles being shipped around in boxes for many years.

I checked the label. It was about ten years old. What’s more, locals would profit from returning each bottle for reuse. No wonder that the locals (especially the kids) insisted we return their bottles for the recycling incentive. The Australian way of recycling seemed so wasteful in comparison, when one can simply wash and reuse.

Let’s use our lunch stop in Malawi as an example. Blantyre, named for a Scottish town, was a fairly ugly city in central Malawi.

On the way out of town we stopped at a supermarket for snacks and supplies. The butcher’s section was memorable; a glass counter like any you might see in Australia, but one section was packed with hundreds of cow hearts, lined up for sale. We bought sausages and buns for hot dogs, and a copy of Men’s Health. In a funny way, it was sorely needed, we had been reading the same Lonely Planet and book of poetry, and needed some in-car entertainment which we definitely found within its pages. We read lists of ‘how to tell you’re getting old’, dating tips, and funny stories.

Our third night in Malawi was spent at the base of the incredible Mount Mulange, a short drive south of Blantyre. Steep, flat-topped, rugged, and hazy blue in colour, it loomed triumphantly over the surrounding landscape. Malawi’s southern farmland reminded us of the picturesque north, decorated with bright green jungles and banana plantations. As we drove, the road led us around the base of Mount Mulanje, offered an ever-changing view, morphing and changing shape every time we looked up.


Our campsite was located at the top of a steep jungle road, at Mulanje’s base. It was bumpy and slippery offroad, a very welcome change after days of flat highway driving. At the top of the road, we parked and walked to the reception area, a freshly built building. A woman and a man were at the counter, and the woman introduced herself as the owner. The reception area was connected to a restaurant, and had a walkaround balcony, with a network of timber boardwalks leading to the cabins. We wanted a patch of grass to pitch our tents, and while Wessel argued over price, Jeff and I drove the car close to the camping area.


We got out of the car to find half a dozen employees standing at the ready to help us with our bags. We were the only campers and the staff looked bored. They offered to clean our car but we politely declined. We liked to carry bags, tents, and do our camp setup routine ourselves, but these guys looked bored so we gave them a few bags to carry. The guys reacted enthusiastically and grabbed the biggest bags. They told us that this place was popular with mountain climbers.

We chose a patch of grass in the shade to set up, near a pool. The establishment was built on a steep hill, and to compensate, the infrastructure was built in terraces. A big function room was at the top of the hill, then a few cabins trailing down the hill, then terraces of grass camping areas.

As we set up the tents, we took a self-timed photo of the sunset through the trees. Jeff and I set the camera and sat in our tents. Surrounded by dark green forest in the fading light, and sitting in our green tents with serious expressions on our face, this was another of my favourite shots. Wessel joined us on the camping chairs and we opened three cold beers.

We noticed the staff standing around, watching our every move. It was a little unnerving, but we realised that this might be the most interesting part of their day. We finished our beers and they happily came to collect the empty bottles that they had been waiting for. We went for a swim down at the pool, then started a fire in the adjacent barbecue pit. Sausages on bread rolls with the ultra-spicy Malawian sauce Nali, and gin and tonics were on the menu.

As we braai’ed the sausages, one of the staff members stuck around to keep an eye on us, but we got used to his lurking presence. We stayed up late drinking and talking about what to expect in Mozambique the next day.

On the way back to the tents I fell into a rainwater trench, which was running through the garden. A metre deep concrete gully, the freefall scared the life out of me, and I was happy not to have broken my leg. In the morning I was haunted by another Nali emergency, the volcanic chilli sauce wreaking havoc on my digestive system yet again.

With access to a mirror at the nearby bathroom, I contemplated trimming my beard, which had been growing the last few weeks. But I liked it, and let it be. We packed up early with the help of the friendly staff and stopped for breakfast at the restaurant. It turned out it wasn’t free, and we didn’t want to pay either, so we just had coffee. One of Malawi’s bragging points, the coffee was rich, smooth and very tasty. Sad to leave the great coffee, but eager to get back on the road, it was next stop: Mozambique.