Day 2 – The road not taken
6AM was our wake up time Saturday morning. The caretaker for Likabula Lodge prepared a breakfast for us in similar fashion to something Godfrey might have made. One member of our 5 man team was so nervous that instead of eating, he had to excuse himself from the table and make an offering at the porcelain altar. None of us had climbed a mountain before, and there was no feeling appropriate for the occasion apart from trepidation. After breakfast, we met Chip and our 3 porters.
Chip lives in the town of Mulanje and makes his living by guiding people around the mountain. He gets paid 2,500 Kwacha per day (about $7). Kellen has used Chip before, and he’s even loaned him some money to start a woodcarving business. Kellen arranged to have Chip guide us for free, as a way to pay back his loans. The other 3 porters don’t speak English well, but they make their living by helping to carry equipment up the mountain. We each had a backpack, but our 3 porters carried a few essentials, i.e. sleeping bags, Snickers bars, and Settlers of Catan.
We designated which porter would get what duffel bag, took a picture, said a prayer, and then asked Chip to lead the way. The first 5 minutes were deceptively easy. We walked on soft dirt with just the slightest incline. 5 minutes was enough time to grant us an unwarranted confidence towards our impending journey. We then came to two roads diverged in a wood. We were told to take “Skyline Path” only to later find out that it was the one less traveled by. Skyline is probably less traveled by because it’s steeper and more painful. And no, I wasn’t sorry that I couldn’t travel both paths.
15 minutes on Skyline was enough to obliterate our false sense of confidence. Our path was a staircase of melon sized rocks, tucked into flat brown dirt, framed by an ironically pleasant mix of both fresh and dried grass. Every corner we turned ruined the evidence of our progress, and replaced it with an unavoidable reminder that mountains are, in fact, really tall. Sweat dripped down my face, and coated my lips with salt. I was ready for a break at any moment, but would never dream of voicing my inclination. This was a man’s trip. You don’t do things like rest on a man’s trip. The other 4 guys possessed the same stubborn thoughts, and so we hiked uphill for a full hour until we mercifully came to another group who was already taking a break.
They, like us, were white. Whenever you see other white people in Malawi, there is an unspoken but shared curiosity wondering what the other party is doing in this country. The conversation is had entirely through eye contact. I took off my bag, and sat down next to one of the guys who looked to be my age. I don’t remember his name, but he and his friend are teaching at a missionary school in Blantyre for the year. His group had their own guide, and they would be taking a different route than us.
After finishing our break, and parting ways from our fellow teachers, we hiked another grueling 1.5 hours before reaching flat land. We took the first of many premature celebratory photos, not acknowledging that we weren’t even halfway that day.
Eventually we made it to a stream, which did signal our halfway achievement. I stripped my sweaty cotton shirt from my back, and our group passed around nuts which were aggressively devoured. Being that this was a spiritual retreat, it was also time to whip out the Bible. I read a well-timed passage from James 1, and offered a prayer for the group.
The remainder of our hike took us through two breath-taking views that neither words nor pictures can adequately describe. Below is an attempt to capture to both.
The latter was taken a few minutes before we reached Chesepo, the hut we would be staying at for the night. Upon our arrival, we entered the hut and beheld our third breathtaking sight: Coke and Fanta. Instinct, rather than intentional action, took over and we grabbed for a bottle and toasted “to Kellen.” It was unanimously agreed that we would not be here without his help.
That night, after dark, my view included the sporadic igniting of distant village fires creating tiny, spread out lights for miles. It was a solemn reminder that even out here, there are happy villagers living the entirety of their lives next to this giant of a mountain. Before bed, Woody gave his testimony, prayed, and we all fell asleep under a full moon. Tomorrow we would conquer the peak.