A journey to the Island in the Sky: Africa’s Uluru
By Matthew Sterne
It is in Cape Maclear that I first hear about the Island in the Sky.
We are sitting on the deck of the guesthouse watching the sun setting over Lake Malawi when a girl at my table starts describing her hike up Malawi’s biggest mountain. While the fishermen bring in their
boats and local boys sing to passers-by I focus on her story.
On a round-the-world trip, she describes Mount Mulanje as better than Machu Pichu. Her giddy descriptions of the walks and views of her three-day experience are so impassioned I change my plans. With a short amount of time left on my trip and a hankering for a broader experience, I set off the next day for Mount Mulanje.
The Lake of Stars
My journey started ten days before in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe and I immediately aimed for the lake and Nkhata Bay. As a land-locked country, Malawi’s huge source of income and pride is the massive Lake Malawi.
Often referred to as the ‘Lake of Stars’, a name so delightfully coined by David Livingstone, it is the third largest lake in Africa.
With one thousand different fish species, hippos, crocodiles and fish eagles calling the lake home the nature alone is a serious attraction but really it is the people that make a stay in Malawi so unique.
Despite the poor living standards in Malawi and high HIV-infection rates, Malawians are undeniably upbeat. The people of Malawi are one of the happiest in the world and everyone seems to be smiling and eager to chat and interact.
This omnipotent joy is contagious and the highlight of almost any trip to Malawi. The cheerfulness seems to affect each traveler with a genuine bliss which makes it that much easier to savor the beauty of the lake.
The start of my bus journey to Nkhata Bay was delayed as we waited hours for the bus to fill up. ‘This is Africa’, as my Dad (or any other person who has watched Blood Diamond) would say.
Most of the first few hours were spent with every toddler on the bus screaming in horror at the sight of me and my pale face.
They would innocently peer my way and immediately break out into dreadful crying sobs. I was initially alarmed by my effect on the kids but the laughter of the other passengers soothed any anxiety I had.
“Every day is Christmas here”
Twelve hours later I arrived in the enchanting Nkhata Bay. I liked the place, a small ramshackle dusty street village, and loved the lake. Surrounded by African jungle the lake was warm, wonderful to swim in and full of tasty fish. Local fishermen in dugouts paddled around while I took in the view from my balcony.
There was a fantastic carefree feeling in the town, almost like an island vibe. As one local so gladly put it, “every day is Christmas here”. It is one of those places where you dream of starting your own backpackers one day, a sublime paradise one could spend every day but I had to keep moving.
I took things even slower at my next destination, the idyllic setting of Monkey Bay, where I lazed in hammocks, went on afternoon walks into the town and ate avocados the size of melons.
My third stop was the popular Cape Maclear, where I went on boat tours to the islands and quickly developed a snorkeling obsession.
The Island in the Sky
Now, I am in a banana-packed mini-bus on the way to Mulanje. This tiny village is at the base of the mountain that shares the same name and is the access point of the hike. It is late afternoon as we approach along a dirt road through well-ordered tea plantations and dusty soccer fields.
Along the road, I catch only fleeting glimpses of the mountain and suggestions of its magnitude. By the time the bus arrives in the town I still can’t capture the mountain in one view, it seems like we have arrived at the side entrance.
Emerging from the grove of bananas that is my mini-bus I am greeted by John, a local mountain guide. He walks with me up to my accommodation at the base of the mountain. As we walk he tells me about the hike and the supplies we will need which he will organize.
He is a quiet and intense young man and seems as excited as I am to do the hike. For the third time in my trip I spend the night as the single guest in a lodge (I have unknowingly gone in the rainy season, the downfall of a spontaneously booked trip) and go to bed early in anticipation for the next day.
We meet in the early morning mist at the base of the mountain, a fittingly mysterious rendezvous and start our ascent briskly. We set off through a sparse wood, crossing a river and passing women and children collecting firewood.
Blue monkeys play in the trees above us as the wood thickens and becomes a lush jungle. We tramp through the dense vegetation and shortly come upon steeper terrain. For a few hours it is strenuous work as we scramble up on our hands and knees.
High School Girlfriend
While I huff away John tells me about the mountain, his life, his village and how he needs more money if he wants to marry his girlfriend who is still in high school.
While still on the steepest paths we pass poachers carrying off timber. John tells me how they sleep in the caves and take many days to find the trees, cut them down and then carry them out.
I criticize their crime and then move on to berating the society where they are forced into such a way of life. John explains that many of the men simply do not have any choice and we leave it at that.
The hills have eyes
Eventually we push through the challenging terrain and reach the plateau. As we trek the last few kilometres to the hut the mist lifts and by the time we reach our destination it is a bright sunny day.
The hut is a simple house run by an old warden who speaks no English but every now and then breaks into a delightful cackling laugh. Despite being a rather old man he has a young family and invites us to join them for lunch.
It is a warm gesture but a strange experience. The warden’s one-eyed wife impassively stirs the ntsima, the very popular and cheap local porridge, in a big black pot while staring at me with her good eye.
Their two young sons sit opposite me, also staring, nonchalantly chewing on either end of a boiled rat. Tail and claws and teeth and all. I eat my lunch of ntsima and tiny fish with many bones, say my thanks and leave while the boys finish off the last of the rat.
A geological surprise
After lunch John takes me to the viewpoint. We walk for half an hour and then suddenly the panorama appears quickly, almost surprisingly. We turn a corner and there it is. The shock of the view washes over me as I slow down, stop and take it all in.
The drop to the tea plantations far below is severe and straight allowing an unhindered view of the surrounding area. All of Africa seems to stretch out before us. Through the vastness I pretend to see Mount Kilimanjaro on one side and Victoria Falls on the other.
The horizon is flat and complete and feels impossibly far away. Out of this plain Mulanje rises up with no warning, a geological surprise, like an African Uluru, staggering and magnificent.
We are silent as we take in the sweeping vista. While sitting on top of the Island in the Sky and staring out over the land I think that this is a perfect finish to a memorable and refreshing two weeks in Malawi.
The lake might be Malawi’s main attraction but the string of unique experiences and gleeful faces has made the holiday even more special. As always it is the people that make a place what it is. I sit savoring the moment, cherishing the view and quietly praising the genuine friendliness and joyful spirit of Malawi.
Eventually, we turn and start back to the hut.
Matthew Sterne is a freelance writer from Cape Town, South Africa. He has worked in an ice cream factory in Norway, a camel safari in India and a pub crawl in Amsterdam. He has been a door-to-door salesman in Australia, a club bouncer in America and a kayak sea guide in Greece. His family says he lacks direction but he knows exactly where he is going. Everywhere.