An expedition to the Chimanimani Mountains of Zimbabwe.
It was Phil's idea, of course. He was a good four years younger than me, a strange, taciturn photographer, as fit and tanned as his freelance work could make him, always off somewhere in some god-forsaken corner of Africa and now here in my living room on a brief interlude. I looked down at my paunch, softened by too many years in office jobs, and considered his suggestion.
I had seen the Chimanimani Mountains from the valley below. The whole setting is beautiful, the little town of Melsetter on a rise in the valley, the Sabi River still digging its trench between that rise and the great wall of the Manis that fills the Eastern vista; and the pale, dusty blue of the African sky vaulting over all. Two whole weeks up there, alone with the wind and the eagles? The prospect was enticing and daunting at the same time.
Phil had it all worked out. We would survive on Pro-Nutro, a porridge-like food developed to feed Africa - it was supposed to contain everything necessary to sustain life. For fiber we would take bran flakes, which we could mix in with the Pro-Nutro. And for shelter, we would have Phil's own invention, a tent consisting of no more than a large, soft plastic tube and a ball of string. Thread the string through the tube, attach the ends of the string to two convenient supports and the tube droops down into a triangular shape, forming both the walls of the tent and a groundsheet. Everything was designed to save weight for we would have to carry it all on our backs.
I remembered the time I had climbed Inyangani, the highest mountain in Zimbabwe. Admittedly, I had been only fourteen at the time but it had been easy. And the Manis were at least 500 feet lower than that. Surely I could do this.
Phil was excited now as he saw me wavering. He was and still is an intense soul, utterly dogged and serious in his enthusiasms, and so uncompromising with the world that he has few friends. Why he chose me to accompany him on this adventure has always been a mystery to me, but I felt flattered that he should do so. I began to believe that it was possible.
As Phil described the scenery up on the Manis, my final resistance crumbled. He made it sound like another world, a strange land like no other. The rest of the Eastern Highlands I knew well, that range running along the border with Mozambique like a fortress wall. The highlands of Inyanga were so similar to Scotland that settlers had named their farmsteads and holdings appropriately. And south of Inyanga rose the gentle Vumba, clothed with forests that were the home of creatures seen nowhere else on earth. And finally the Chimanimanis, last bastion before the Sabi won through to the flat lowlands of Mozambique. It would be good to see what they had to offer.
So the decision was made and I took two weeks off work. Phil arrived in his ancient VW Combi, we loaded up the supplies and backpacks and set off on our journey through the familiar sights of Africa. MMBA we called it, miles and miles of bloody Africa.
But Africa stops when you crest the rise that gives you the first sight of the Manis. The great, gray bulk of them crouches on the horizon, a secret land of mists and cold, no cousin to the dry, hot landscape of Africa. Some trick of the winds has given the land around Melsetter a wetter climate too and the vegetation is greener than we are used to. Orange groves abound in the foothills and great willows and oaks fill the valley of the Sabi. Gone are the msasa and acacia of Africa.
We had a goal in mind and were not distracted. Through it all we drove until we reached the place where the road ended, right up against the wall of the Manis. And it is a wall. Straight up as far as one can see and continuing both to the North and South. This was going to be a climb, not a stroll as Inyangani had been.
But it was too late to turn back. I followed Phil as he shouldered his backpack and started off along a path winding into the undergrowth. It led to a place where a small stream, falling from the heights above, had etched out a cleft in the wall, a place where it looked at least possible to ascend. We began to climb.
It is hot work, climbing in Africa. The valley of the Sabi is much lower than the high plateau where all the cities of Zimbabwe are sited, so it was even hotter than I was used to. I was soon sweating and puffing like a steam engine. But Phil is not a great one for empathy so I was forced to struggle on gamely, determined not to be left too far behind. Somehow I managed to keep going, with only the occasional short halt to regain my breath.
The climb ends quite suddenly. Step between two rocks like a gateway on the path and you are there. The Manis reveal their secret as though you have passed the test and can now begin the inner mysteries. Before me stretched a mountain upland, flat but tilted slightly down towards the South. Short, green grass covered the land but here and there groups of gray rocks broke through to raise accusing fingers at the sky. The air was sharp and cool, clear and clean. A breeze chilled the sweat on our faces. The sky was flawlessly blue, no longer the washed out sky of Africa. I rested on a rock with Phil, both of us savoring the coolness.
On the far side of the plateau the mountains rose again in another wall. Phil pointed at them.
"We'll have to hurry. It's getting late and we have to be up there before nightfall."
I looked at him, aghast. "But...."
He did not wait for my protest. "There's another smaller plateau up there. That's where we'll camp."
"You could have told me," I began, but he just laughed.
"You'd never have made it this far if you'd known."
I saw the sense in this and just nodded, adjusting the straps of my backpack for the next stage of the ordeal. We set out across that green upland.
The first step of the Manis is a strange place. It is empty and silent except for the hiss of the wind in the grass. One comes across natural amphitheaters where the rocks break through and march in straight lines around a square of grass. These rocks all lean in one direction as though drawn by an unseen force and their faces are hollowed and jagged with erosion, as though some crazed sculptor were recording nightmare creatures from a dream. Sometimes they are pierced through, the resultant hole blue with the sky behind. And their gray surfaces are mottled with the yellows, blues and greens of lichen. But it is the straightness of the lines in which they stand that is so unreal; all shoulder to shoulder, lined up as though by the intent of some weird drill master.
Halfway across the plateau we came to a stream. The water ran swiftly over a bed of pebbles and all was the color of whiskey. We drank from the stream and the water was clear in our hands and cold. Phil told me to pick up some of the pebbles and I lifted a few from the bottom. Once in the sunlight they were white, blindingly so. It was only the water that gave them color as it hurried on its way over them.
The climb up to the second step was more difficult than the first. In places there was real rock-climbing to be done, fortunately for short distances only. I was pretty tired by this time. And we reached the top only just in time, for the sun was setting as we arrived. Phil wasted no time in choosing a campsite near another, smaller whiskey-water stream.
There were no trees to which to tie his string but we made do with a pair of rocks that jutted from the slope. And his tent, although small, worked well enough. We made a small fire and boiled some water for our first Pro-Nutro meal. There is no twilight in Africa; the sun sets and it is immediately night. As we ate our frugal meal in the firelight, Phil voiced his concerns over leopards. I shrugged and said that I was so tired, nothing would wake me that night. And so it turned out.
We were awake with the dawn and scrambled from our sleeping bags, aware now how each lump and bump in the ground had bored painful places in our bodies during the night. There was a light frost on the grass and the water from the stream was painfully cold when we splashed our faces to wash away the sleep. A spot some distance from the camp, amongst some rocks, was chosen as our toilet and we were ready to explore our new kingdom.
That upper step of the Manis is more like a valley than the plateau beneath. Its sides are steeper and the grass not so lush, the rocks more numerous and smoother. The valley is like a bowl set in the mountains and, on the Eastern side, those mountains rise high in another great step to be conquered. A few small rivulets and streams wander down from the mountains and form a pool at the lower end of the valley, before leaping over the edge to fall to the plateau below.
Our first day up there was spent in exploration and we soon knew most of the area for it is not extensive. The valley is little more than a mile long and less than that in width. Behind our campsite a long rise formed the western edge of the valley and, from its peak we could look back over the plateau and beyond. In the distance, beyond Melsetter, a great flat-topped mountain rose from the blue mists of the lowlands. "Pork Pie Mountain," said Phil.
The next morning Phil broached a new project. He wanted to climb the mountains to the East. I looked up at their heights and chose what seemed the lowest. "I'm prepared to try that one," I said. He griped a bit but gave in eventually. So we climbed the mountain. It was not quite as difficult as I had expected but exercise enough for a city boy like me. And the sight that met us at its peak was worth a far greater climb.
From the tops of that Easternmost range the land drops away vertically, as though all of Mozambique had lost its grip and fallen into an abyss. We were standing on a wall that continued North and South as far as we could see and at our feet was emptiness that did not stop until it met the dim, misty flatness of the lowlands, thousands of feet below. From the foot of the wall, the blue plain led on to the vague and barely-perceived horizon. Phil intoned the inevitable. "On a clear day, you can see the ocean."
Is it possible to see more than a hundred miles? I don't know but, if it is, I know where it can be done. That view will stay with me forever, and I'm no great fan of heights.
From the huge emptiness at our feet there came occasional sounds; dogs barking in a village, a voice calling out from a hilltop, faint but discernible. So clear is the air up there, so enormous the silence. I do not know how long we stood and gazed out over that vista but in the end we came down, silent in our awe.
After four days in the valley, Phil began to get hungry. He would come down from the rise behind the camp and announce, "I've been looking at Pork Pie Mountain."
"Uhuh", I'd reply, noncommittal but knowing where this was leading.
"I could really handle a pork pie right now," he continued.
"I guess so," I replied unhelpfully. And he'd go quiet for a while.
"You know, they do fantastic fry-up breakfasts in the Melsetter Hotel", he began again. Now, I knew this was true for I'd stayed in the hotel myself a few years before. But I was also in no hurry to leave that silent, peaceful valley. And I found it no hardship, existing on a diet of Pro-Nutro and bran flakes; I have always regarded food as no more than fuel.
But I think Phil was not only desperate for some real food; I think he was also getting bored. He'd seen what he wanted to and taken the photographs he needed. Not having my capacity for doing nothing at all, his feet had become itchy and he wanted to move. The food thing was merely the way he hoped to get me to agree.
I wouldn't be moved. "You said two weeks," I said.
"Yeah, I know but I'm hungry," he moaned. "Surely you must be too?"
"Nope," I replied and the subject was dropped for a while.
Over the next couple of days, Phil became ever more desperate in his appeals. He would show me Pork Pie Mountain and tell me its name over and over again, looking for a sign that I was weakening. And in the end I struck a bargain with him - we make a week and then we go get the biggest breakfast Melsetter has ever seen.
And so, on the seventh day we packed up in the dawn light and headed downwards. This time the journey was much quicker, partly because I had become fitter in the intervening days, but mostly because gravity is so much easier to go along with than fight against. Down we came, through the strange land of the standing stones, down to the wooded valley of the trees and an old VW, and on to the bright lights of Melsetter.
And I do admit that was one of the best breakfasts I've ever eaten.
Word Count: 2,390