A trek across Malawi’s Mount Mulanje, long rumored to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien


The view at sunset from the northern escarpment of Mount Mulanje in Malawi. (Henry Wismayer)
December 12, 2013

Out of the verdant lowlands it rises, a great black pyramid silhouetted against the sun. Finally, after countless ups and downs and 30 footsore miles, I can almost picture the scene: It’s the 1930s in the old British protectorate of Nyasaland, and a young J.R.R. Tolkien is taking in this same view, his unique imagination fired by a new geographical talisman for Middle-earth.

Travel readers may be accustomed to seeing stories inspired by the return of Bilbo, Gandalf and company to the silver screen. But let me clarify straightaway that this is not an article about New Zealand, the country whose dramatic landscapes have formed the backdrop for Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adaptations of Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Instead, with the second installment of the Hobbit triptych, “The Desolation of Smaug,” now in theaters, I’m taking you to Africa, someplace more obscure, in pursuit of a rumor.

Details: Mount Mulanje

The fertile plains of southern Malawi might seem an improbable place to unearth the origins of a book written in leafy 1930s Oxford, England. But there’s something fantastical here.

Throughout the southern tail of the Great Rift Valley, the landscape is peppered with freestanding eroded mountains known as monadnocks or inselbergs. King of them all is Mount Mulanje, an enormous granite massif located an hour’s drive southeast of the tumbledown commercial hub of Blantyre. Carpeted in plateaus, cut by valleys and piled high with jagged peaks, it covers 250 square miles. Apart from Lake Malawi, it’s this southeast African country’s most outstanding geographical feature, and a popular myth — propagated in forums as varied as travel blogs and scientific journals — has it that this sudden outcropping provided the blueprint for Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain, home to the dragon Smaug and his hoard of gold.

There’s plenty of tenuous evidence to support the claim. Quite apart from its formidable dimensions, Mulanje is steeped in local legend. A community of diminutive people is said to have once lived on its plateaus (Hobbits, anyone?), and among the more superstitious, its nearly 10,000-foot apex goes by an ominous sobriquet: “the place where you are not supposed to go.”

I wasn’t sure whether the association was true or a fib dreamed up by some wag over sundowners at the Blantyre Sports Club. And then I saw it through the bus window, a huge green blister muscling across the horizon, and I realized that whatever the reality, my aim to traverse the mountain from southwest to northeast was going to present a superlative adventure.

A steep climb

Midafternoon the next day, the adventure is already well underway. I set off this morning through emerald tea plantations, before moving steeply uphill through forests of bamboo. Leading the way is a man whose name would make Thorin Oakenshield raise a quizzical eyebrow.

My rangy guide goes by Comestar, a splendid neologism inspired by the misremembered name of a German visitor his parents had warmed to. Born in Likhubula, at Mulanje’s western fringe, Comestar doesn’t know much about Tolkien’s supposed visit, but he knows plenty about the mountain. For the past two hours, his scientific commentary has accompanied each twist in the trail: “Mahogany sap — we use this to treat ringworm”; “There! Eastern double-collared sunbird”; and “Look, leopard poo.”

There are several routes onto the mountain’s highlands, but we have masochistically opted for the Boma route, which is among the steepest. With each upward step, the views have grown — of the green mosaic of the Phalombe flatlands dissolving into the horizon, of other far smaller monadnocks rising abruptly here and there like breaching whales.

But now, as we approach the plateau, the mood is changing. A thick fog has rolled in, reducing visibility to a few yards. For the next two hours, my eyes are fixed on Comestar’s boot-heels as we claw over boulders slippery with lichen and burrow through eerie cloisters of close-set trees. Then, up ahead, an oblong apparition appears through the gloom: Lichenya Hut, our sanctuary for the night.

Lending credence to the idea that Tolkien may have visited in the interwar years, Mulanje has been a favorite bolthole for Malawi’s Western expats since colonial days. This hut is one of 10 such refuges, some a century old, that stitch the walking routes together. Most are now maintained by the Mountain Club of Malawi and the World Bank-funded Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT).

Inside, a smiling caretaker called Douglas welcomes us with a roaring fire, Carlsberg for sale and foam mattresses stacked against a wall. It’s all rather hospitable, for dragon country.

City of spirits

The next morning dawns in brilliant sun, and yesterday afternoon’s sinister atmosphere has given way to an air of bucolic perfection. Looking out from the Lichenya terrace, it’s easy to see what drew the eye of homesick British colonists. The tawny landscape that greets us looks as if a slab of English moor has been deposited in Central Africa. “It’s like U.K., huh?” says Comestar, almost wearily, when I make the analogy.

“But much bigger,” I reply. “Our highest mountains aren’t much over 4,000 feet.”

“Ah,” he scoffs, dismissively. “For me, this would be a piece of cake,” and he thunders off down the trail.

Keeping pace is no problem, though. Mercifully, after the Boma exertions, the walking from here is relatively tame. The day takes us through a breathtaking range of scenery, from undulating grasslands to gnarled forests draped in wisps of light-green lichen. After an hour, we’re skirting the mountain’s western rim, looking out over an ocean of cloud punctured by the giant fin of Chambe Peak, the kind of inverted view that has led Mulanje to be dubbed “Island in the Sky.”

Along the way we find evidence of ongoing efforts to conserve Mulanje’s unique environment. We pass firebreaks designed to interrupt flash fires and stumble across makeshift greenhouses nurturing potted saplings of the endangered Widdringtonia whytei. In maturity, these splay-branched trees with gray trunks and bunched needles will reach heights of 100 feet, and are so synonymous with this mountain that they carry the common name Mulanje cedar. To see such sustained and well-managed conservation efforts in impoverished Malawi seems little short of miraculous and is testament to the determined work of the MMCT.

However, any impression of human influence over this wild realm quickly subsides as we turn east and head toward Sapitwa, a jumble of naked crags that comprise the massif’s 9,843-foot-high point, and the crucible of Mulanje’s nefarious myths. “The capital city of the spirits,” Comestar breathes as we walk beneath its gray ramparts. “My forefathers said if you go there they will make you work” — his voice contracts to a rasp — “without payment!”

Such old misgivings are not without contemporary foundation. In 2003, a Dutch woman disappeared while attempting to climb Sapitwa alone. Near Chisepo Hut, we see a boulder engraved with the simple epigraph “Linda’s Place” standing in her memory. “A rescue team came over from Holland, but they couldn’t find her,” Comestar recalls sadly. “Some people started believing again after that.”

Despite these admonitions, we had planned to climb Sapitwa, but the decision is reversed when we meet a bedraggled group of German trekkers who have abandoned the summit trail. “We only went halfway,” puffs their flip-flop-wearing guide. “Too many clouds.” With no sign of the clouds shifting, we opt to heed the superstition and leave the summit to its slave-driving spirits.

Pushing north, we find further evidence of Mulanje’s Middle-earth credentials — Sapitwa’s ever-present molars become the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo defeats Gollum in a game of riddles; corridors of ferns and cedars become the Mirkwood where his dwarf companions are captured by giant spiders. And the evening brings us beauty to rival Rivendell, sylvan refuge of the elves.

After dumping our bags at nearby Thuchila Hut, we sit at the nape of a great rounded promontory known as the Elephant’s Head, because of the way it undulates, and watch the shadows lengthen on the lowlands. Below us, Malawi sprawls in a glowing pastel expanse punctuated by columns of smoke from evening fires. Distant Lake Chilwa shimmers luminous in the low sun, the Zomba Plateau a great black barrier to the north, while the inescapable Malawian sound, a bar blaring reggae, drifts up from a village below.

Wind and water

The weather is dank as we leave Thuchila the next day. Clouds drift and swirl over the plateau, thickening when the ground rises, pulling apart like cassava porridge as we descend. The smell of wet cedar-wood permeates the air. And, “see there, more leopard poo,” says Comestar.

As we walk in the shadow of Namasile Peak, whose fluted bastions look like giant fists reaching forward to rake in a winning hand of poker, more stubborn clouds engulf us, the temperature plummets, and it starts to rain.

For the rest of the day, the waterproofs come on with irksome regularity, but we take comfort in the knowledge that it could be much worse. At their most malevolent, capricious winds blowing in from the Mozambican mountains to our east can summon a chiperone, a ghoulish weather phenomenon pithily summarized by Comestar through the hood of his jacket: “Heavy strong wind, constant rain for a week. It’s not so fun.”

Not far from here, the South African-born writer Laurens van der Post, whose travels in what was then Nyasaland formed the basis of his book “Venture to the Interior,” endured a full-blown chiperone in 1949. For five days, his group battled with the conditions, until one of their number, a forestry official named Fred France, perished in a fall over a precipice — tragedy stalking this mountain once again.

The melancholy of van der Post’s “grey, old, pre-human world” resonates as we forge through these northern reaches. We see no one all day save for a damp poacher, barefoot, raggedly attired, wielding a panga. He’s hunting for rodents, and though I know that his activities are imperiling this fragile ecosystem, he seems so desperate that I can’t think ill of him.

And then, another hut, Sombani, perched above a glade of cedars, a lonely outpost so solitary that it might have been here forever. Late into the evening, we sit by the fire in wicker chairs, so weary that even our tofu and nsima, the bland Malawian staple of maize paste, makes for a delicious dinner. In the night, snapshots from my time on the mountain fill my dreams.

Smaug’s lair?

It’s only when we’re on our way off the mountain that I have my moment of extreme Tolkien empathy. The catalyst is a first glimpse of Mchese, a vertiginous peak detached from the main Mulanje massif by a broad valley. In the early light, it appears as a black scarp wreathed in a scarf of cloud, as spectral and mysterious as anything from the pages of fantasy. Could this be the spot where the author stood? It looks like a fitting lair for Smaug to me.

“And far away,” Tolkien wrote, “its dark head in a torn cloud, there loomed the Mountain! . . . The Lonely Mountain! Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least.”

Perhaps it’s more prosaic associations that have put me in mind of monsters. For the yawning rent before us is the Fort Lister Gap, once an infamous slaving route for Arab traders corralling their manacled human cargo back to the markets in Zanzibar. So Mulanje had its Desolation, but its scourge was not a dragon but man. Sometimes, humankind is far worse than the greatest imagined evil.

But what of “The Hobbit”? Weeks later, back home, an e-mail from Adam Tolkien, the author’s grandson, blows the myth away. “JRR Tolkien travelled very little outside of the British Isles,” I read in dismay. “He most definitely never travelled outside of Europe.”

And so, it seems, the rumor was a fallacy after all — a harmless lie invented by who-knows-who and who-knows-when. A fiction: No doubt Tolkien would have approved of that.

Does it matter? Not really. Mulanje has a magic all its own.

Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London. His Web site is www.henrywismayer.com.

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