In the footsteps of van der Post
“It seemed that Mlanje, from the forestry point of view, was unique. There was no other place like it in Africa or the world. It was indeed a world of its own, a very ancient, lost world of trees that grew nowhere else.”
— Laurens van der Post “Venture to the Interior”
ON A WARM, DUSTY EVENING in southern Malawi, the hiss of a stream at Likhabula forest station is barely audible. From the edge of the tea plantations at the base of the mountain, green fingers of forest reach up through the scree to where Mulanje’s Chambe Peak rises sheer into the evening sky. A feeble sun burns out in the dry-season haze over the Phalombe plain, igniting the slabs of rock on Chambe’s north face before they fall into shadow. After the bustle of Blantyre, the proximity of this mountain, the solidity of its mass, the depth of its stillness, is somehow reassuring.
Mulanje gathers itself beneath Africa’s southern Rift and erupts abruptly to a height of over three thousand meters – the highest mountain in southern tropical Africa and one of the largest inselbergs on earth. It has no foothills to speak of. The fringe of ramshackle villages about its base only reinforce its preeminence over the surrounding plains. Incised by rivers and crowned by rolling wild-flowered uplands, it embodies the power of the earth thrust upward on a continent better known for its endlessly flat savannahs.
In his 1952 book ‘Venture to the Interior’, Laurens van der Post recounts the story of an expedition to the mountain in a part of Africa then called Nyasaland. On the journey he meets Vance (Fred France), a young forester who lives on the mountain with his young wife and new born baby. France insists on joining the expedition, but during the journey the mountain is engulfed by a powerful and dangerous weather system known to the locals as the ‘Chiperone’ that blows in from Mozambique and brings torrential rains. France is swept to his death in the maelstrom of the Great Ruo Gorge on Mulanje’s western rim. In the book van der Post describes how he must retrace his steps over the mountain to inform France’s wife.
Van der Post’s version of events has been disputed, but his book masterfully evokes the spirit of a part of Africa which is atypically, but nevertheless authentically African. On visiting Malawi, I had decided to follow the route he had taken. The journey would provide an opportunity to reflect on how the mountain had changed in the years since ‘Venture’ had been written and to see the endemic Mulanje cedar (Whydringtonia whytei) that he had brought so vividly to life.
Abdul, a withdrawn but good-natured Chewa, will be our guide and we start the climb to Chambe Basin by way of the Skyline Route. By the time van der Post had visited the mountain in the 1950s, the practice of head-loading Mulanje cedar off its slopes had been ongoing some fifty years and the forests in the Chambe basin and the Fort Lister Gap had all but disappeared. Now it seemed not much had changed. As we climb, young boys sweat and grunt their way down the mountain, balancing twelve foot wooden beams on their heads. But this wood is Mexican pine, not cedar. A concerted effort by the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust to rid Chambe basin of this species, is well under way. A naturally open and friendly people, the Chewa that now pass ignore us and focus instead on keeping their eyes on the precipitous track ahead, on breathing and on not falling. One young boy manages a smile, but it’s short-lived and he quickly disappears around the switch-back below.
By mid-afternoon we leave the open-canopied brachystegia woodland of the middle and lower slopes and crest the rim of the basin. Chambe was the focus of some of the most intensive and determined logging by Mulanje’s sawyers and carriers and the cedar groves have long gone. In their place, the carcasses of burnt out pines are everywhere to be seen. France’s restored cottage nestled in the folds of the basin with the overnight hiking cabin just behind. Both front the monolithic eruption of rock that is Chambe Peak and which, from this angle, appears more forbiddingly perpendicular than it had from the lower forest station. It dominates the skyline to the northwest – a shameless unbroken wall of basalt, rising precipitously almost six-hundred meters from the basin floor. As the light changes, vertical fissures in the wall run the height of the dome, come into focus and shift out again, reflecting shades of slate-grey and washed-blue.
Back in the cabin Abdul makes a fire of cedar claimed from the branches of a dead tree. Old gasses and resins trapped in pockets turn to steam and explode intermittently as a sweet, ancient scent permeates the cabin. I read from a 1952 edition of Venture, already dog-eared and smudged with cedar ash. Van der Post had described cedar logs as ‘full of life,’ burning with all the ‘stored-up energy from another world’. The following morning Chambe recedes behind each successive rise on the summit of the massif. In the saddle near the Fort Lister Gap we come upon the first big cedar up close. It’s a colossal redwood of a cedar, rising tall and straight, its summit lost somewhere in the canopy above. A richly resinous sap seeps in places from its red bark.
From Chisepo there are dead cedar, rising like tall white spirits presiding over the ravines on Mulanje’s north-west slopes. Then, without warning, the sound of an axe falling on live wood echoes like the crack of a gunshot. A short distance on, we come across felled cedar and makeshift sawyer pits concealed in the forest. These are the first big cedars we have seen in any number and most are already dead. The carcasses of dead trees are abandoned, to be harvested piecemeal by the loggers as the need arises. The remoteness of these west-facing slopes makes policing more difficult and illegal harvesting more prevalent. Illegal harvesting is one of the most serious threats to the survival of this species and here, on the eastern flanks of the mountain, it is most prevalent. The wood is uncommonly resistant to boring insects; much sought after for building materials and shaping the hulls of fishing boats that ply the waters of Lake Malawi to the north.
By mid-afternoon we come upon Thuchila hut. A fire swept through here only the day before. These fires are regularly lit by poachers to flush game and encourage grazing, but they also destroy young and sometimes older cedar trees. A lone blackened cedar stands like a sentinel on the ridge above the hut — still smoking. Later in the day Abdul introduces Mr Mula, the forestry officer at Thuchila. In Venture, van der Post had described Thuchila’s keeper as a ‘… memorable old gentleman with beautiful manners and the most serene resolved expression on his face that I have ever seen’. At sixty-one years, Mr Mula, the man I now meet, has a genial smile and yes; there’s an element of serenity in it too.
“I have been on Mulanje for twenty one years,” explains Mr Mula: “At Sombani … for five, at Chizama … for five, at Thuchila … for seven …”. He emphasizes each number by raising his fingers to his face as he recreates – for himself as much as for us – all those wonderful years on the mountain. He likes Thuchila the most because he says: “It has the most beautiful views in all Africa”. Tacked to the wall of the hut at Thuchila is an old faded dust cover for what looks like a `seventies edition of Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa”. In the photograph a group of people gaze out at a wonderful view – not the Ngong hills of Kenya, but the view from Thuchila across the valley towards Chambe.
But Blixen’s Africa fades in the late afternoon with the sun burning on a smoke-blackened ridge and a small group of Chewa silhouetted briefly on the crest of a rise, their bodies dislocated by the heat. From here I can just make out the shapes of heavy cedar beams balanced on their heads. From Thuchila there is a long climb over the backbone of the central massif and down its western flanks into the Ruo Gorge toward Sombani, the last overnight cabin on the journey.
I walk out from Sombani as evening falls and the Ruo River cuts a grey gash in the otherwise velvety greenness of the basin below. Further down the valley, a grove of cedar is slowly enveloped by mist and thunderheads build in the east toward Mozambique. These white giants slide by the rim of the gorge. There is a peal of thunder and a large raindrop strikes the dry rock. For a moment the mountain is charged with menace. Van der Post’s had described the beginnings of the Chiperone in Venture reads as follows: ‘Black clouds from the Portuguese [Mozambique] border were rolling over the base of Mulanje and soaring up like deep volcanic explosions around its flanks’. Shortly afterward, France had been swept to his death in the gorge below and this thought unsettling. But as quickly as they gathered, the clouds dissipate and the peaks are suddenly suffused in a gentle mother-of-pearl mountain light.
Our first river crossing the following morning is not of the Ruo River itself, but a tributary descended off the valley walls at a steep angle. From van der Post’s description I become convinced that this had been the place where France had lost his life – the suddenness of its descent from the forest above, the smoothness of the rocks, its precipitous plunge into the gorge itself. Sitting on a warm rock I reflect on the instantaneous loss of life and the terrible sadness of a young wife. It is a placid rivulet now, but in full flood the danger of such a crossing is not hard to imagine.
While no tragedy has befallen my journey, it has not been without distress; the pines, the daily fires, the illegal logging. Van der Post had seen a world ‘of unique and irreplaceable living trees, fighting a rearguard action against fire and rapacious human beings’. Now, in these late years it appeared as if their primordial resilience was being tested beyond limits. Despite these misgivings, my imagining the mountain and then climbing it, shrouded by mists and memories of my first reading of of the book twenty-years ago, has not disappointed.
On my desk at home is a jewellery box made of cedar wood scavenged from dead trees. Delicately carved in vegetative motifs and sold legally from the Likhabula forest station, I know that every time I open it and inhale the scent of its interior, the ancient world of mountain giants will come flooding back; dappled sunlight on tree ferns, orchids the shade of amethyst and a 1952 ash-smudged copy of Venture lost on the plane home.