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Rock climbing

Is Rock Climbing the Future of Tourism in Malawi?

Fifty feet above, a pack of yellow baboons rollicked and screeched across a cliff of sheer black granite. An iridescent blue lizard darted into a crack to my left. I was 750 feet up the 5,600-foot dome of Chambe, a peak within the Mulanje Massif, in southern Malawi. On one of only a handful of rock climbs in the country, I felt like I was on another planet, my senses in overdrive. Behind me, low-slung clouds like clinging cobwebs blanketed green plains.

My fingers bit hard into a small edge of rock the width of a pencil, and I pushed the rubber of my shoes against little ripples in the stone. On a small ledge some 30 feet below me, my climbing partner, Matt McGeever, holding the other end of the blue nylon rope tied to my harness, shouted encouragement. Keeping my body from peeling off the wall and cheese-gratering down the rough slab took all my concentration.

To my eternal relief, the baboons didn’t come any closer.

Two days earlier, I had flown with Matt into Chileka International Airport, in Blantyre, the second-largest city in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. Standing in line for passport control, I chatted with a group of older missionaries from Texas. When I told them I was here to rock climb, they were shocked. “I had no idea Malawi was a place people come to do that!” one of them said.

And, well, Malawi hasn’t been, and it isn’t, exactly — yet. Most tourists come to Malawi to go on safaris among bulbous baobabs in Liwonde National Park or sunbathe on the sparkling yellow beaches of Lake Malawi, which stretches for two-thirds of the country’s length. But Malawi is also blessed with an abundance of rock. This thin sliver of a country, vaguely boomerang-shaped and roughly the size of Pennsylvania, is speckled with fine-grained granite domes soaring for thousands of feet; small steeper cliffs colored cantaloupe-orange; and innumerable boulder fields littered with house-size blocks — all of which could one day be a draw for more rock climbers like Matt and me.

Climb Malawi is among a growing number of international climbing organizations trying to leverage some of their countries’ basic natural resources — namely, rock cliffs and boulders, like those in Mulanje — for adventure tourism.

Success stories for climbing-driven tourism include the Catalonian village of Siurana in Spain, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. In a 2021 economic impact study, James Maples, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University, found that a five-county area near the Red River Gorge logged more than 102,000 climbing visits each year, with climbers spending $8.7 million annually.

And the trend hasn’t skipped Africa. Rocklands, a bouldering area in South Africa, attracted nearly 2,500 climbers in 2017, up from 600 in 2011.

Another prime example is Kalymnos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just a stone’s throw from the southwestern corner of Turkey. Since the introduction of climbing in 1995, more than 3,400 routes — or explored and named lines up a rock, in many cases with a number of expansion bolts for climbers to clip their ropes into as they go — have been established, leading to a corresponding rise in visitors to the island. As a result, certain hospitality services, including hotels, restaurants and guiding outfits, have also boomed.

“Now the people of Kalymnos see their rocks as a gift,” said Veronica Baker, the founder of the Global Climbing Initiative, a nonprofit that has partnered with Climb Malawi and that advocates for climbing as a tool for international development.

Ed Nhlane, a climber and a board member of Climb Malawi, believes the rocks around Malawi can do the same for his country.

“There is endless potential for outdoor climbing here,” he told me during dinner at the Mulanje Golf Club, which sports a recently built indoor climbing wall, on the evening after our first full day of climbing.

Mr. Nhlane started climbing at the end of 2018, on a small 8-by-10-foot panel of green-painted plywood in the backyard of Tyler Algeo, a Canadian expat who founded Climb Malawi. At the time, Mr. Nhlane owned and operated his own hiking guiding company, but climbing captivated him. Since then, he has become a driving force for new routes in the country, using a 36-volt Bosch power drill to install stainless-steel expansion bolts so that climbers can protect themselves against long falls on otherwise blank swaths of stone.

Definitive numbers are hard to come by, but according to a guidebook published in 2020, there are approximately 25 routes on the myriad granite walls of Mulanje. They range from around 300 feet to nearly 5,600 feet — the longest technical rock climb in Africa, established in 1978. When I first glimpsed these faces rising above neon-green tea fields during the hourlong van ride from Blantyre, the idea that there were so few routes was mind-blowing. There could be at least 2,500, I thought.

“Coming here is like arriving in Yosemite in the 1950s — there’s that much rock,” James Garrett, a 71-year-old climber from Salt Lake City who has been climbing for 50 years and has made four trips to climb at Mulanje, told me in a phone call. “There is just huge, mind-boggling potential. And if you’ve climbed anywhere in the world, you know a wall like Chambe with that quality of rock is a rarity. It’s a gold mine.”

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.

We started before the sun rose each morning. (Only about 15 percent of the population had access to electricity as of 2020, according to the World Bank, so making the most of daylight is essential.) Ruth Kalonda, owner of the Hiker’s Nest, would drive us through the foggy dark and drop us off at Vicky’s Seed Shop, from where we would weave on foot through villages of brick huts and mazes of cornfields terraced into the hills. An hour later we would arrive at the base of the cliff, gear up and climb up the gray and black slabs to our high point from the previous day. As we progressed on new terrain, we drilled a hole every 10 to 15 feet to pound in a bolt for protection.

We ran into the baboons on our first day, when we climbed an existing route called “The Initiation.” The low-angle granite of Chambe is delightful; it has few actual holds to grab onto, but great texture, allowing for what’s called friction climbing. Occasionally, there were plants to stand on, too. From afar, the cliffs of Mulanje appear to be covered in thick sheets of moss, but up close that green blur resolves into discrete little tufts, each a lone Vellozia bush.

Because the infrastructure for climbing in the region is still nascent, a trip like ours requires a great deal of self-sufficiency. While those with the requisite skills and gear can certainly plan a successful climbing vacation to Mulanje, there are not yet climbing-specific guides for hire by inexperienced climbers. Mr. Nhlane hopes that will soon change.

“The plan is to start with the mountain guides” — like Mr. Stima and Mr. Pakha — “who know the mountains here like the back of their hand,” Mr. Nhlane explained. “We will invite them to the climbing wall at the Mulanje Golf Club and start training them in coordination with Climb Malawi. Then we can develop their skills and eventually they can guide the climbs themselves.”

For Mr. Stima, it’s a tantalizing possibility, in part because of his desire to learn the sport and scale Chambe himself, and in part for more practical concerns. “When climbers have come, it has been a really good source of money to buy food for my family,” he said, adding that he was paying to put his younger sister through secondary school.

By the end of our stay in Likhubula, we had established a new 1,600-foot route, which we named “Witness and George” and which we believe will be a good moderate-difficulty climb for future visitors.

Next we headed north, aiming for the capital city of Lilongwe, in the Central Region and near the elbow of the boomerang. We drove north along paved roads with fraying concrete edges and took a two-day pit stop to safari in Liwonde National Park, staying in the dorms at the budget Liwonde Safari Camp. In one game drive and one boat safari, we saw a massive herd of elephants drinking and mud-wallowing in the Shire (“she-ray”) River; dozens of feisty warthogs darting between fig trees, African star chestnuts and blue gum eucalyptus; more antelope than I care to remember; and hundreds of shy hippos submerged, save for their periscoping eyes.

Once in Lilongwe, Matt and I headed for the Climb Centre, an open-air climbing gym operated by Climb Malawi. This is where the beating heart of Malawian rock climbing lies. If novice climbers can’t yet join guided trips in Mulanje, they’re certainly welcome here.

The scene before us was similar to that found in any climbing gym in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles: A group of young men and women were attempting tendon-busting bouldering problems as Kendrick Lamar blared from a portable speaker. Inspired by Memphis Rox, a nonprofit climbing gym in Tennessee, Climb Malawi does not turn anyone away for an inability to pay, but suggests a donation of 4,000 Kwacha (about $4) per day.

“It’s important that it is donation based,” said Clive Luwanja, 21, whom I met at the gym. Mr. Luwanja is square-jawed, giggly, ripped and a top contender for Malawi’s strongest climber. “A lot of people around here can’t afford it otherwise,” he said.

Climb Malawi runs trips to nearby crags and bouldering areas for its members, and is experimenting with taking visiting climbers like Matt and me along. Over the next week, I joined two of these trips, first to a cliff named Nathenje and then to a bouldering area called Nkhoma.

This model is the “pilot program for what we want to do around Malawi,” Mr. Nhlane told me. “We have a bus, we have a driver, we know the areas.”

For the Nkhoma outing, I met Ernest Kadwa, one of the managers of the Climb Centre, at 6:30 a.m. outside the facility’s gates. Mr. Kadwa, 25, used to be a security guard at Mr. Algeo’s house. When Mr. Algeo introduced him to climbing four years ago, it became his life. “I can’t go two days without climbing now,” he said.

We got into an 11-seater white Mazda minibus emblazoned with the Climb Malawi logo on the driver’s side door — the left side, a vestige of British colonialism — and careened around Lilongwe’s potholed streets to pick up others: Mr. Luwanja, as well as Shalom Maholo, 20; Mphasto Kazembe, 18; Moses Kalirani, 20; and Emmanuel Jekete, 20.

After pulling in at a church, to which Mr. Kadwa paid a parking fee, our crew hiked 20 minutes to the bottom of a sprawling field of boulders beneath a 1,000-foot-tall orange tower. The latter drew my eyes upward — but we had come for the former. Together we spent a breezy morning climbing a selection of the dozens of established bouldering problems, the vernacular term for these short climbs without any ropes. Bouldering pads cushioned our falls and cries of “Tiye!” — “Come on!” in Chichewa — echoed among the blocks.

The highlight of the day was puzzling out the moves of Makona, a short overhanging route with big, dynamic moves straight out of “American Ninja Warrior.” Mr. Luwanja’s power shone through, but it was only Mr. Kazembe who managed to reach the top. He beamed down.

“I like climbing outside more than inside,” Mr. Luwanja said, walking back to the car. “The atmosphere, the weather and feeling the rock under your fingers.”

The growth of climbing in Malawi faces many obstacles. Gear is prohibitively expensive to import, so Climb Malawi relies on donated items. Mr. Nhlane is among the few active route developers; fewer developers means all of that potential rock is slow to turn into climbs accessible by others. But, supported by a driven community and the Global Climbing Initiative, the work continues.

The next big project for Ed Nhlane and Climb Malawi? A 260-foot-high cliff called Mulundi.

“We’d never heard of Mulundi until we drove by and saw this amazing rock,” Mr. Nhlane said. “It’s these hidden gems where you find the most amazing things.”

“The other places — Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi with its snorkeling, and hiking at Mulanje — are great,” he added. “But there’s a whole lot more to offer.”

Source: The New York Times