in the footsteps of van der Post

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 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.