a solitude of open spaces

A solitude of open spaces

RICHTERSVELD

"But these queer peaks were stark and bare and of the most startling colours. In serrated lines they stretched out like the teeth of a saw, and their crumbling slopes of rotten schist were of every shade of red, of brick-red, of flaring vermillion, of bright orange-red, in fact of every red-hot gradation of colour."

— Fred Cornell "The Glamour of Prospecting"

The morning brings low cloud and late August rains to Namaqualand. A weak sun breaks over the hills at the foot of the Anenous Pass and a bright plain is shadowed by low cloud; the veld charged with the premonition of spring and the freshness of a desert after rain. In a moment the horizon grows wide and there are purple flowers at the roadside and radiant hills to drive through.

From Port Nolloth the road swings north, tracing the rim of the West Coast, passing abandoned mine dumps and undulating over coastal scrub. At Alexander Bay where the Gariep River empties into the sea, it bends upriver to Sendelingsdrift, climbs through the broken hills of the Akkedis Pass, skirts a forest of halfmens trees tilting their crowns toward Namibia and comes to rest on the banks of the Gariep once more.

The Richtersveld is uncompromising in its austerity. Its bare plains, washed in sunlight, stretch to the base of broad mountains rising over a thousand meters. During the summer the sky is as clear as a mirror, the earth quaking in the grip of a heat which rises from the earth like a wall, the rocks blistering beneath the sun.

Through this emptiness the Gariep carves a wide braided valley between green ribbons of Soetdoring, wild tamarix, Cape ebony and mesquite; its waters rushing over the baked rock, smooth the hard edges of the land.  Heron, as if cast in stone, stand sentinel beside reeded banks, yellowfish rise from deep pools and cormorant pierce the luminous sky like black arrows.

Here on the banks of this river flowing out of the heart of the country, small tasks take on a renewed signficance: lighting a fire, tightening a guy rope, fetching water. When the sun burns out in the west and the heat begins to ebb, the light bleeds from the rock leaving the stillness of the river pools. A mosaic of colours – oranges, umbers, burned siennas and pale magentas – flush across the landscape each evening. Later, as the waters slip past in the darkness, fireflies flash between reeds on the river islands and stars revolve through a black sky.

Inland from the Gariep valley, bare mountains etched sharply into clear skies rise almost vertically from the bed of the Gannakouriep River, the white sands of the Secret Valley open beneath the granite dome of the Tatasberg and the Rosyntjieberg stretch endlessly across the rim of the Springbokvlakte. To stand at the edge of a crumpled canyon, on the rim of a limitless plain, is to be seized by the implacable silence and the presence of deep time.

At Kokerboomkloof, perched on a pile of boulders, a plume of granite freezes in mid-air. No leaf stirs. The dry bark of the quiver trees encase memories of drought and centuries of silence. At the head of kloof, a dark cathedral of rock is outlined against the stars. Here, a thousand years pass without register.  Cycles of heat, frost, or cataclysmic flood would leave no more than scar – a debris line in the stratigraphy of a dry river bed, a seam of yellow clay on a hillside, the  dendritic imprint of drainage lines in an open wash.

adrift on a sea of grass

Adrift on a sea of grass

TSODILO HILLS

"There was hardly a face that was not torn, pock-marked, pitted, and wrinkled as if with incredible suffering and struggling. Everywhere greater fragments had broken away to lie in massive splinters in the sand at the base, or to balance precariously on the edge of an abyss."

— Laurens van der Post "Lost World of the Kalahari"

Forty kilometers west of Ncamasere and the Okavango panhandle, Tsodilo Hills drift like a petrified Armada on a sea of grass. They hold out the promise of high ground, but little else, drawing power from their solitude on the wide plains, as if they waited for the return of the rains, the nomad herds, or the small bands of hunters that once inhabited them.

For miles there’s nothing to draw the eye – no rise or fall of land, no valley, no ridgeline, just broad-shouldered Kalahari horizons stretching as far as the eye can see. The roads run straight, without hesitation across a landscape as level as a billiard board, the hills erupting with little warning, as if a wave had risen from the savannah and frozen in mid-flight – the last egress of an ancient landmass long hidden beneath the desert sands. The Hambukushu call them simply Monna, Mosadi, Ngwana and Ngwana-wa-ngwana – Male, Female, Child and Grandchild.

A low sun casts slanting pathways of light over yellow ankle-high grasses and the male hill begins to smoulder like a burning coal over the thornveld scrub. From nearby, the muted sounds of a village drift toward the campsite — the cry of a baby, the call of a nightjar, cattle pacing slowly through the low bush — as if the veld murmured a lullaby to itself. A slow breeze breaks the stillness of the evening and the perfume of woodsmoke and dry dust rises into the warm air over Botswana.

A group of Ju/’Haonsi emerge from the bush – two older women, a small dirty child and a young girl of eleven or twelve. The girl is blind in one eye. She offers ostrich-eggshell beads and an assortment of traditional adornments for sale. I spend a few Pula on a makalani nut with a miniature cameo engraved into the bark – an elephant, a bird in a leafless tree and a bent bushman on walking sticks.

From the dusty museum at the foot of the hills we follow Petolo, a Hambukushu guide, along the Rhino trail. Tracing the spoor of the first animals into the hills, placing boots in the indentations made by their hooves in the rock, crumbling shards of ochre and specularite between our fingers and taking in the wide savannah expanding to infinity every direction.

Against the side of the female hill, a broad slab of sandstone rises into a sky flecked by white clouds. The painted eland of the 'van der Post panel' watches over the plains like an emissary from another time – as fresh as the day it was painted – as if it could leap off the side of the cliff and transform into the rainbull once more, as if it could summon the rain’s feet, cause ancient rivers to flood, lake beds to fill and the wide plains to brim with game as they once had in an Africa long before it was swept into the tides of history.

In the morning the hills are sombre under a mackerel sky. There'd been wind all night; shaking the tent.  Back on the trans-Kalahari highway vultures circle over ever-receding horizons edged by tall cumulus that draw the car on until somewhere past Ghanzi where a late afternoon thunderstorm breaks and rain pelts the windscreen like bullets. As the storm passes, a coolness grabs the air, the tyres bite into the red earth along the northern rim of Mabuasehube and the machine begins to growl and tremble between rows of yellow-blonde grass

Inside the park, a leopard is framed by the light of a low sun, brown hyena scavenge beneath the stars and the feral perfume of woodsmoke hangs in the still air over the campsite once more.


graves of the ancestors

Graves of the ancestors

KUNENE RIVER

From the crest of the rise, the jade-green waters of the Kunene River uncoil through smouldering hills as they are sucked toward Epupa seventy kilometers downstream. In places the river is broad and placid with steep banks and tall riparian forest, but here at Swartbooisdrift where the Dorsland trekkers crossed into Angola, it is narrower, quicker, reed-fringed and broken by riffles, braided between alluvial bars of graded silts, gravels and cobbles.

The Kunene gathers its waters from the summer rains that fall on Angola's Huila Plateau and carries them south to the Ruacana Falls on the Namibian border where it strikes abruptly west and writhes like an angry snake through the arid wastes northern Koakoland. When it reaches Epupa, it fans out across a front almost a kilometer wide, runs briefly smooth and then plunges between giant baobabs clinging to the bare fingers of rock that break the flow into a multitude of thunderous cataracts.

In the late afternoon, a dry wind blows off the desert and a thin stream of water from a tributary trickles over hot gravel on the Namibian bank. A young Himba girl holds her child beneath the shade of a mopane tree. Her skin glows with freshly applied otjize, gold chains and crimson seed pods thread through her red braids. Around her neck she wears chokers woven from palm fronds and strings of ostrich-eggshell beads are draped across her calfskin skirt.

Centuries ago, Ovambo cattle-raiders drove her ancestors from their homeland near Ruacana – a place they knew as Okarundu KaMbeti – 'the hill of Mbeti that throws its behind into the deep water of the crocodile of Muakapumba‘ (1). During the mid-eighteenth century, the Himba were forced to flee once again, this time into Angola following attacks by Oorlams commandos – warlike Nama tribes on the run from European colonists in the Cape. Now, the graves of their ancestors are still protected by the cow-horn death totems and the older Himba still bear the deep soul-scars of famine and exile.

At Enyandi, halfway between Swartbooisdrift and Epupa, a giant fig tree stands hard against the river so that its branches almost strain the waters, its roots reaching deep into the bed itself. As darkness descends over the valley, a crocodile moon touches the fringe of palms lining the Angolan banks and stars swarm like fireflies through the inky waters as they rush between the black hills. By morning, a golden light like magma pours from the Zebra Mountains in the east. It flickers between the leaves of the fig and glances across the waters lapping over the shallows.

In 1911 Maudslay Baynes, an English explorer, followed the course of the Kunene River from Ruacana Falls to the edge of the Namib Desert on foot.  It took him three months.  What began "in a spirit of picnic" soon became "a struggle for bare existence"(1).  He came across hills on which rows of ironstone boulders separated by bands of vegetation gave them a "zebra-like appearance". Later, after the border war, geologists discovered that these hills were made of anorthosite – a mineral found more commonly on the moon.

On the last leg of its journey, downstream of Epupa, the Kunene carves a narrow passage through the remote Baynes mountains, siphons through the dunes of the Namib and finally decants into the Atlantic at Foz du Kunene, a lonely outpost of the old Portuguese province of Moçâmedes – now Namibe.

At Epupa Falls , a spectral mist hangs over a deep gash in the amphitheatre of rock and the vibration of falling water sends faint tremors through the ground at your feet. Baynes later described the river and the land it flowed through as “a sanctuary of the mighty pachyderms, of moon shadows on falling water, and silent mountains under a field of stars”.

Now, at this hour, with the sun sinking into the west beyond the Baynes ranges, the falls still embody the power of an older Africa – a rare place of moonlight and midnight rainbows, of crocodile eyes shining like sapphires in shadowed glades and of red Himba glistening among sage-green hyphaene palms.

(1) Giorgio Miescher and Dag Henrichsen. 2000. New Notes on Kaoko: The Northern Kunene Region (Namibia) in Texts and Photographs. Basler Afrika Bibliographien. 300 pp.

(2) Baynes, M. 1923. Notes on the Okovango and Kunene Rivers. The Geographical Journal, 62: 370-377.

the sound of mortars

The sound of mortars

ANGOLAN ODYSSEY

ANGOLA IS HAUNTED by the melancholia of a past parenthesised between Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão’s landing at Cabo Negro in 1452 and Jonas Savimbi’s death in a hail of bullets as he crossed the Luvei River, Moxico Provice close on five-hundred years later. Until that moment, UNITA’s1 magnetic and ruthless leader had led a bloody campaign first against the Portuguese colonists and then against the Soviet-backed MPLA2. But while his assassination brought relative peace to a country that had seen three decades of civil war, many have yet to reap its benefits. Now, shell-shocked, it sleep-walks through a present where the currency of slaves has been exchanged for oil and where the methods employed to extract diamonds from the country’s north wouldn't be considered out of place on a sixteenth-century sugar plantation.

Where the capital Luanda once saw slave caravans snaking from the interior on paths worn smooth by shackled feet, it now basks on the coast in the greasy light of MPLA oil wealth. Where South African Eland-90 armoured vehicles once pursued FAPLA3 battalions to the edge of Lobito, Sonangol’s oil refineries rise from its yellow desert sands, and where UNITA once blew apart the bridges of the Benguela Railway, Chinese construction companies are putting them back together.

These days Luanda’s waterfront flaunts skyscraper-skylines towering above Miami-style beach-palms. But there is another Angola you won't find among Luanda's swank bars and hotel rooms costing the equivalent of a month's rent. This other Angola starts where the tar roads crumble, rut and decompose into sandy tracks and where bridges collapse across the boiling rivers that criss-cross the country’s interior. The other Angola stands on the side of the road on the outskirts of Menongue – one foot steady on the ground, the other blown off by a landmine and replaced by a makeshift crutch sawn from the branches of a mopane tree. It reaches east to where the Benguela Railway has been forged over the Kasai River into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and south to the drying pans of Cameia National Park, to where the Cubango and Cuito Rivers merge to become the Kavango which later swells the waterways of the Okavango Delta.

It was barely a decade after Savimbi's death and two decades after my own rendezvous with Angola's troubled history, that I find myself queuing to get my passport cleared at the Santa Clara border post. I'd joined an expedition organised by a South African company to map some of the less-frequented parts of the country in the east, including the little-known Cameia National Park. Finally, after a day of enduring the banalities of an African border crossing and by the light of a crimson sun settling on the rim of a darkening horizon, the Nissan Patrol and Sani begin a slow drunken ballet across the potholed road to Ongiva, forty kilometers inside Angola. From the opposite direction, the headlights of eighteen-wheeler articulated trucks sway towards us through the dust thrown up by our slow advance.

We bring the vehicles to a standstill on the grounds of the Omupanda Catholic Mission outside Ongiva where we will spend the night. The chapel is closed. A rosary haloed by a single electric bulb, hangs from the door and the sound of prayers emanates from a building nearby. Alberto, a student at the mission, informs us that Father Nazario will not be back until late, but yes, we are welcome to camp beside the chapel.

From Ongiva, deep sand and road wash-outs slow our progress to Caiundo where the waters of the Cubango River flow south strong and blue. These waters will never reach the sea. On the Namibian border they’ll merge with the Cuito before fanning across the Kalahari sands in a silver lattice of distributaries feeding the Okavango. Before the year is out, over ninety percent will have evaporated into the skies over Botswana.

From here our journey takes us north to Menongue and then Kuito – towns whose names reverberate with the after-tremors of bloody battles. The road is good and we speed across a landscape where long after South Africa’s withdrawal in 1989, desperate armies propped up by Cold War rivals fought a war that raged, subsided and then flared again in paroxysms of violence across the length and breadth of this vast country.

Like many other African countries, Angola's tragic colonial past rushed up to meet it in the early ‘70s when Portugal relinquished its colonial administration after waging a protracted guerrilla war against independence movements. Portuguese colonists, fearing reprisals, fled. At the same time, rival liberation armies, fractured along tribal fault lines, rushed to fill the vacuum - vying for the power they felt was legitimately theirs. The prize was nothing less than Angola's oil and diamonds.

The fight for independence transmuted into a civil war with the communist-aligned MPLA set against pro-Western UNITA and FNLA4 forces. South Africa, fearing the fall of another neighbouring state to communism, sent a covert task force backed by FNLA troops across the border in October 1975 to prop up UNITA. Fidel Castro sent Cuban troops to meet them. The South Africans skirmished across more than a thousand kilometres5 of southern Angolan bush, coming within a hair’s breadth of taking Luanda before retreating amid growing international condemnation and determined Cuban resistance.

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński described the Angolan war as 'sloppy, dogged and cruel' and on this journey through the south where some of the heaviest fighting took place, the debris thrown up by the conflict is everywhere apparent. On the dirt road outside Kuito an empty AK47 magazine, its bullets discharged, lies in the rusting hulk of a Soviet tank. Sunlight slants through the roof where the turret has been blown off.

Between Kuito and Luena we follow what remains of the Benguela Railway that once linked Lobito on the coast to the copper mines of Zambia and the DRC. For kilometre upon kilometre heavy corrugations throw our vehicles into the air and slam them down in blizzards of sand. We pass abandoned railway stations whose water towers now stand idle, steam locomotives disembowelled by RPG-7 rockets and rolling stock corroded and contorted into vicious metallic memorials to war. To the north, miombo woodlands stretch toward an impossibly far horizon.

In Lumeje the administrator of the local immigration office sits us down in a darkened office with holes in the ceiling and doves in the rafters. “What is our objetiva?” “We have come to visit Cameia National Park … Parc du Kameia … we are ‘turiste’. “Do you have guns?” “No we have cameras.” “Are you sure?” Disbelief and suspicion are evident on the faces of all, but we are sent on our way with broad smiles and handshakes all round.

In the morning, a cold wind blows across the Cameia plains and a red Angolan moon touches the horizon of a land of which I have no memory, but one that feels strangely familiar. Plumes of smoke rise from hunter’s fires and during the day the sky is white near the sun and smoky steel-grey where it touches the slow-bending grasses of the plain. Beneath this sky the land is empty save for parties of fishermen pushing bicycles piled high with dried fish. We stop to talk with Tomé who will sell his catch in Lumeje. There is gentleness and resignation in his eyes, but he won’t allow me to capture it on camera – going rigid and staring intently into the lens when I point it at him.

Cameia once held herds of game that were thought to have migrated to and from the Luiwa plains of Zambia. Now all that remains are egrets, kingfishers and marabou stork hunting fish in the drying pans, steenbok flickering mirage-like through the long grass and termite mounds whose occupants outnumber all other inhabitants in the park.

From Cameia we head still further east toward Luau – the last stop on the Benguela Railway before the DRC. It may as well have been the end of the world, but Luau has all the vitality of a town whose inhabitants are beginning to reclaim whatever hope and dignity they can salvage from their dislocated lives. In many ways it embodies the spirit of the Angolan town: the dilapidated façade of bullet-ridden Neo-colonial and Art Deco buildings enveloped by a thin film of dust and nostalgia, the haphazard assemblage of rustic wattle-and-daub huts on the periphery, and a vibrant village life that daily negotiates the distance between these two worlds.

We set up camp in the police compound near the centre of town. Roméo, the Chokwe police official, has a broad and ready smile: “We can’t offer much”. He gestures to the standpipe for water and the pit latrine in the corner of the yard. “It was the war, you see … but things are better now”.

By 1988, the Soviets were pouring arsenal into the country and fifty-thousand Cuban troops with Soviet advisors supported by FAPLA brigades were ready to make a run on Namibia. The fighting had escalated into a full-scale conventional war with aerial and artillery bombardments focused on Cuito Cuanuvale, a little-known but strategic town in southern Angola. The South Africans were forced to negotiate, but they were in no mood for niceties. The chief of the South African army, General Jannie Geldenhuys, warned Cuba that the day its troops set foot in Namibia would go down as ‘the darkest day in Cuban military history’. Knowing the alternative would have turned the battlefield into a slaughterhouse for young South African, Cuban and Angolan conscripts, both sides backed down. UNITA and the MPLA were destined to slug it out for another savage decade before Savimbi’s assassination brought hostilities to a close in 2002. It took fifteen bullets to kill him and lengthy media releases with cameras panning slowly across his bloodied corpse to convince Angolans that this mythical fighter was indeed dead.

On a clear morning I sit among frangipanis and palms on a concrete bench in the old town square. An unsettling breeze blows from the Congolese border. I reflect that the political ideologies that brought suffering even to this remote eastern outpost would have no meaning for the children that now play across the road from me in their crumbling playground. Those ideologies would in any event be distant memories in the minds of victors and vanquished alike, replaced by the ideology of oil and the flow of capital.

From Luau we head over the top of the country through Lunda Sul and Lunda Norte, the diamond provinces that fueled Savimbi's war machine. We overnight in the shadow of the mysterious outcrops of Pundo Andongo, the 'Black Rocks' where legend has it the Ambundu Queen Nzinga left her footprints in solid granite after fleeing the tyranny of the Portuguese on the coast in the 17th Century. We bypass Luanda and follow the coastline south, via the Cuanza River mouth and Quiçama National Park. At Mount Moco in the highlands of Huambo province, the highest mountain in Angola, we meet Mike Mills, a South African ornithologist with a passion for preserving some of the last remaining patches of Afromontane forest in the country. Thin slivers of forest rise against a sea of grass, ravines resound to the prattle of sunbirds, shadows are illuminated by the iridescent red primaries of Schalow’s Turaco and at night, Ruwenzori nightjars call from the deep valleys.

From Mount Moco we trace Angola’s western seaboard south – back toward Namibia. At Lobito yellow clay houses tumble chaotically into a steel-blue ocean; Baia Farta is fantastically desolate and beautiful in a cloak of red sand blown on the afternoon wind from the desert interior. At Lucira we take off our shoes and wade ankle-deep into a cold green ocean.

Our last night close-by the Namibian border is spent amid the earthy embrace of giant baobabs. From a nearby village comes the thump-thump-thump of a dance-beat from worn-out speakers. It may not be the Angola I’d left as a young soldier in the South African Defence Force thirty-three years ago holding an R4 assault rifle, but at least, I reflect – it’s not the sound of mortars.

1National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total Angola) Angolan political party led by Jonas Savimbi (1966-2003). 2People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party (Movimento Popular de Libertaçãao de Angola) Ruling political party in Angola 1975-present led first by Agostinho Neto (1956-1979) and then José Eduardo dos Santos (1979-2017). 3People's Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola) MPLA's armed wing and current official armed forces. 4National Liberation Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola) Angolan political party founded by Holden Roberto (1962-1999).5 Many reports put this number at three-thousand but this is unlikely since the maximum distance inside Angola would have been 1500 km

a walk in the wild

22 SEPTEMBER 2008

A walk in the wild

CEDERBERG

Day 1: Krakadouw pass (12 km)

BEYOND THE CREST of the saddle at Krakadouwpoort is quintessential Cederberg: a sandy track winding into an elemental realm of rock and cedar. The air is filled with the chatter of European bee-eaters, their bellies flashing aquamarine blue as they hawk insects in mid-flight. I pitch the tent beneath a waboom and set off to fetch water from the Heuningvlei stream. Over the Karoo, lightning flashes from a steel grey sky and all night the tent is buffeted by the downdrafts of thunderstorms chasing across the Tankwa to the north.

Day 2 and 3: Krakadouwpoort to Wupperthal (26 km)

By morning there are tendrils of cloud billowing through the poort. I break camp and head to Boontjieskloof hut beneath Klein Koupoort where I spend the day in the open doorway reading and listening to the wind in the thatching as clouds drift past and thunderheads continue to prowl the Karoo. From Boontjieskloof the path follows the course of a long, slowly dipping valley past Grasvlei, Agtervlei and Kleinvei, each of these no more than a handful of dwellings with plots of vegetables and rooibos tea clinging tenaciously to the wilderness around them.

On a causeway over the Dassieboskloof River just past Kleinvlei, a ramshackle cart drawn by a pair of white ponies and russet-brown donkeys rattles past. The four men on board wave and cheer as they lurch across the causeway and disappear in cloud of dust on the far bank. The silence settles in once more and I watch small cigar-shaped mountain fish feeding on insects drifting in the current at my feet.

We arrive in Wupperthal during the late afternoon just as the sky begins to darken and the wind tosses the blue gums in the main road. Wupperthal was founded as Rhenish Mission town by the Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leopoldt's grandfather in 1830 and not much appears to have changed since then. A brass band practices in the town hall and there is an air of expectancy as the town prepares to celebrate Christmas Eve. We head toward the Mission Store where the two women behind the counter are cashing up.

They want to know if this is my first time in Wupperthal. “I’ve been here once before”, I reply and ask if they remember Oom Bard Valentyn and Worgie Meyers. “Those two both passed on many years ago,” they reply.

Worgie was a cantankerous poet-seer who could look into your soul and tell your fortune. He also knew how to rob honey from wild bees. Oom Bard had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He told stories of smuggling wine over the Kouberg pass hidden in a bag of fodder - a transgression which in those days could see you banished from the mission.

We check into one of the thatched cottages near the old church for the night - the Palmhuisie has views of Singkop and walls five foot thick. At 3.30 pm the storm breaks and a warm soaking rain begins to fall. By late evening the rain clears and Singkop looks newly washed, a burnt sienna against the white clouds.

Later, sitting in church, I listen to the Christmas story I know is being told at that moment in far-flung villages like these around the world. It's dark by the time the service has ended and another storm is sweeping through the valley. A group of children bearing candles and singing carols files out of the church. A bolt of lightning illuminates their faces as they pass the old Mission store. It lights up the bluegums lining the road, the horses grazing in the paddock and the white-washed cottages against the hillside. The children shriek with laughter, thrill to the storm and struggle to relight their candles. Later in the cottage, my body is lulled to sleep by the gentle sound and earthy smell of rain on thatch.

Day 4 and 5: Wupperthal to Sleepad hut (23 km)

It's Christmas day and a steep climb awaits out of Wupperthal towards the Skerpioensberg and into the heart of the Cederberg. At Kleinvlei, a heady fragrance of fresh rooibos and woodsmoke lingers on the still air, a lone figure tends a vegetable patch on the commonage and a group of children play in the muddy streets. A young boy pushes a wire car and an old man sits on his porch. They are his grandchildren, he tells us. I ask if they will celebrate Christmas in Wupperthal this morning.  “No, we'll hold our own klein diensie later.” Yes, they have a dominee – and their own church.

The trailhead is behind the graveyard and two of the children show us the way. After a hard climb keeping to the ridges above the Dassieboskloof River, we arrive in the Vogelslang Valley at the foot of the Skerpioensberg. A cold wind blows as we set up camp below Turret Ridge where four klipspringer look on from the cliffs above. To the southeast, layers of shadow and light drift over nameless sandstone ridges.

Later that night I wake in the tent. It's 4 am. The wind has dropped and the moon is out. White swathes of mist have slipped between the rocks and cedars, muffling all sound. I can hear movement outside the tent, the dull thud of hooves against sandstone. Clip-clop, first the one side, then the other. Every now and then there’s a short, sharp nasal cry; the klipspringer again. I drift back to sleep with the image of these hardy antelope among the mountains in my mind, silhouetted by mist, fur edged in moonlight.

By morning the mist has lifted and the vast bulk of Sneeukop looms briefly through spiralling columns of vapour. We shoulder our packs and head over the saddle. The trail winds over hillsides of restios and ericas and crosses cold clear streams. There are more cedars here than I have yet seen; contorted into arabesques and leaning at acute angles. Everything is jewelled by the dew, shining in the early morning light. Close by Crystal Pool, we catch up with the four klipspringer. Momentarily suspended between curiosity and fear they stare at us.  We feel as though we've stumbled through a portal into the inner sanctum of the mountains.

Engelsmanskloof is the northern gateway to the high Cederberg and from Crystal Pool it's a short stiff climb to the shale band below Shadow Peak. A hundred-or-so years ago a Boer commando passing through here was stopped by a lone Englishman without a gun. He insisted the Boers turn back. His persistence or foolhardiness must have tested their patience and they shot him. At first this incident strikes me as slightly comical, but then on this morning, surrounded by the cedars and watched over by klipspringer, the thought of this brutal incident is troubling. We reach the shale band at the top of the kloof and set off at an unhurried pace towards the Sleepad hut.

Day 6: Sleepad hut to Tafelberg (10 km)

At 1964 metres Tafelberg is the second highest peak in the Cederberg after Sneeuberg. It culminates in a flat-topped parapet bounded by cliffs a hundred meters high. On this morning, they brood beneath a layer of heavy cloud. Bars of shadow and light sweep across the ramparts that rise sheer to the summit. I’m taken aback at how steep the climb appears and from this angle.

At the top of Welbedachtkloof directly below Tafelberg, a path turns upslope towards Consolation Peak. At some point in the past, a portion of the parapet broke away from the main massif, leaving an isolated outcrop on its southern end known as the “Spout”. Tucked into the base of the Spout is Spout Cave and we head there now, following a short walk across a gentle plateau and then a final push up the scree slope.  We abandon our packs in the cave and follow the cairns through the jumble of boulders that lie between the Spout and the summit massif itself. On the eastern flanks, a giant sandstone obelisk balances on the edge of the dizzyingly high sidewalls, while below the land drops away suddenly towards the Doring River and the Tankwa beyond.

Beside the obelisk, cutting into the cliffs, a boulder-jammed passageway marks the route to the summit. We start climbing; sliding under and over boulders. The head of the passage culminates in a narrow, steep sided cleft which we scramble up with aid of a chain, emerging into a world of rock and wind and big sky.

Honeycombed by weathering, the convoluted sandstone has been hollowed, cracked and hewn over inconceivable intervals of time. There is disorder and chaos, but their is symmetry too, recurrent patterns echoed through the furrowed surfaces. After the storms, there is water everywhere; collected in rock pools, percolating into the sandstone. The elevation, the views over the mountains, over the Tankwa plains, the gusts from the easterly wind, adds to the sensation of standing on an asteroid hurtling through space at a million miles an hour.

Day 7 and 8: Spout Cave to Sneeuberg  hut (20 km)

The following morning we tumble off Tafelberg and head down Welbedachtkloof. A fire has raged through this kloof in recent months and it has claimed many cedars. This particular cedar – Clanwilliam cedar, Widdringtonia cedarbergensis - like its cousin on Mt. Mulanje in Malawi - is in fact not a cedar at all, but rather a cypress. Throughout the 19th century, the cedars were harvested for furniture and building materials. Their richly scented wood was once prized for its resistance to rot. Once common throughout the Cederberg, by the 1880s only a few specimens remained in the highest most inaccessible recesses of the mountains.

Having survived harvesting the species now faces new threats. Fires have burned with brutal intensity through the Cederberg over the last three decades killing several generations of trees — one of these fires was caused when a baboon electrocuted itself on a powerline.

Now, as we walk through Welbedachtkloof, it seems as if all the young trees have perished. The fire was so hot that it shattered shards of rock off the surfaces of massive boulders as it swept up the narrow kloof. Réne Spammer of Driehoek farm told me that in some cases the fire had burned the cedars to their roots. No trace of the living tree could be found - all that was left was a hole in the ground.

By mid-morning we've descended the kloof and crossed the Driehoeks River. We continue at a cracking pace across the valley toward Sneeuberg, our route following the Uitkyk Pass road for some way where a steady stream of cars pours into the tourist hot-spots. At Cederhoutkloof we leave the road, relieved to find ourselves back in the mountains.

Day 9 and 10: Sneeuberg to Kromrivier (21 km)

On the morning of the second day at Sneeuberg hut, I watch the early light catch the highest ridges of Sneeuberg itself. Somewhere up there on the slopes is the snow protea and even though it’s a little early in the season, I hope to see at least one in flower. We follow the path from the hut towards the Maltese Cross and then turn suddenly upslope at a steep angle. A stiff two hour climb brings us to the saddle immediately below the summit. Right there in the bowl of the saddle, is the first snow protea, a magnificent specimen, probably two meters across, with giant white flower heads. This rare protea is only found on the very highest peaks on the Cederberg between 1700 and 1900 metres. It grows close to the ground, hugging the soil where temperatures can drop well below freezing and snow blankets the mountains in winter.

From the saddle, it's another hour’s climb to the summit. The sensation of altitude is breathtaking. We stand over a kilometre higher than the Driehoeks valley and around two kilometres higher than the coastal plain to the west.

THAT AFTERNOON I stand on a rock outcrop overlooking a field of glowing red torch lilies. Male sugarbirds are calling from every stem. A fresh wind blows from the east once again and thunderheads build behind the Maltese Cross which stands like a dagger struck in the earth to the hilt. Later, I lie in its shadow and inhale the resinous scent of pelargonium crushed beneath my boots.

Behind us is almost a hundred-and-twenty kilometers of mountain wilderness. We carry within us the memories of cedars etched against blue skies, white thatched cottages in a mountain stronghold, water fetched from a stream, the discipline and simplicity invoked by walking for long periods in wilderness, the paring down, the silence, sitting beneath the shade of waboom on a hot day, crossing a river, pausing to look at the sky and wondering if the rain will come, the passing of day into night, night into day, watching Orion over the tent before drifting to sleep.

It’s New Year’s Eve and we walk over the saddle between Sneeuberg and The Pup, passing by way of Disa Pool where we scoop handfuls of mountain water as we have done so many times these past eleven days. Six grey rhebok bound up the slopes on the far side. A short while later we lay down our packs for the last time at Kromrivier.

in the footsteps of van der Post

In the footsteps of van der Post

MOUNT MULANJE

"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 pre-eminence 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.

I had determined to retrace a route over the mountain which the South African writer Laurens van der Post had followed in 1949 after he had been commissioned by the Colonial Development Corporation to assess whether the Mulanje plateau was suitable for livestock.

In his 1952 book ‘Venture to the Interior’ van der Post describes how, during the course of his sojourn on the mountain, he meets Fred France, a young forester who lives with his wife and their new-born child in the Chambe basin. Despite van der Post’s apparent misgivings, France insists on joining the expedition. During their journey they are overrun by a powerful weather system known to the locals as the Chiperone. Blowing in from Mozambique, it is capable of unleashing torrential rains on the mountain and during an attempt to cross a swollen river, France is swept to his death in the maelstrom of the Great Ruo Gorge on Mulanje’s western rim. Van der Post is compelled to retrace his steps over the mountain to inform France’s wife. A journey that must have weighed heavily. France was probably not the first to be killed on the mountain, and he was certainly not the last. Many more have succumbed to the mountain’s moods and a local newspaper suggests its highest peak ‘Sapitwa’ simply means ‘don’t go there’ in the local Chichewa language.

After reading ‘Venture’, like many others, I had been captivated not only by the terrible tragedy, but also by the mountain which van der Post had so brought so evocatively to life and which had seemed to him a world apart, a great ‘wizard’ of a mountain, an African wilderness like no other.

I had hoped my own 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 Mulanje cedar, a tree that he had brought so vividly to life in his book. This tree is in fact not a cedar at all, but rather cypress belonging to the Widdringtonia genus — one of only four species known to occur on the southern African subcontinent. Of these, the Mulanje cedar is the tallest, towering as high as fifty meters. A combination of commercial harvesting which began in 1898 and ended in 1955 and invasion by Mexican pine introduced by the colonial authorities in 1946, has brought this species to the brink. The last pockets of forest are now threatened by frequent fires and illegal harvesting.

On the morning of my departure I’m accosted by a boisterous assembly of prospective guides gathered at the gate of the forest station clamouring to take me up the mountain. One of them, tall and lanky, hangs back. His name is Abdul. He strikes me as withdrawn, but good-natured. We arrange a fee and he heads home to collect a simple backpack a quarter the size of mine. Soon we begin the steep 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 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 until the 1950s and the cedar groves have long gone. In their place, the carcasses of burnt pines are everywhere to be seen. France’s restored cottage is 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 where Van der Post describes cedar logs as being ‘full of life,’ burning with all the ‘stored-up energy from another world’.

Van der Post himself, it seemed, had come from 'another world'. He'd grown up in the Free State town of Philipolis during the early half of the twentieth century and his childhood would have been infused by the landscapes and cultures of the South African interior. In his twenties he became critical of imperialism’s racist undertones and co-edited the controversial Afrikaans magazine Voorslag with William Plomer and Roy Campbell.  His first two books dealt with racial inequalities in South Africa. Accused by turns of being a charlatan, a romantic and a mystic, his writing sometimes obtuse and paternalist, few writers have before or since surpassed his ability to summon all that was deep and elemental about his native continent. Of his many books, from those dealing with his experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, to those that bear upon his long and impassioned engagement with the Bushmen and their cosmology, perhaps no other demonstrates his mastery so clearly as ‘Venture’.

The following morning I hitch the pack on my back and follow Abdul, looking over my shoulder periodically to watch Chambe recede behind each successive rise across 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 we begin to see 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 detonates like the crack of a gunshot. A short distance on, we come across a 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 these 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 – now the most serious threats to the survival of this tree and here, on the eastern flanks of the mountain, the 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 cedars as well. 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 our journey and close by the point at which van der Post had to turn back following France’s death.

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 in a scene reminiscent of a Japanese watercolour. Over my shoulder, thunderheads build in the east toward Mozambique, sliding by the sharp-edged rim of the gorge like great white giants. There is a peal of thunder and a large raindrop strikes the dry rock in front of me. For a moment the mountain is charged with menace. Van der Post’s description of the beginnings of the Chiperone in Venture reads as follows: ‘Black clouds from the Portuguese border were rolling over the base of Mulanje and soaring up like deep volcanic explosions around its flanks’. Shortly after this, France had been swept to his death in the gorge below and I find this thought unsettling as I wonder if these thunderheads will bring rain. But as quickly as they gathered, the clouds dissipate, and the peaks are suffused in a gentle mother-of-pearl mountain light.

Our first river crossing the following morning is not of the Ruo River itself, but rather 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 on this quiet sunlit morning 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.

On my desk at home is a jewelry 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.