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 briefly before they too, 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 deep beneath Africa’s southern Rift and erupts to a height of over three-thousand meters – the highest mountain in southern tropical Africa and one of the largest inselbergs on the planet – a bold plutonic intrusion on a continent better known for its endlessly flat savannahs. It has no foothills to speak of. The fringe of ramshackle villages gathered about its base only serve to reinforce its preeminence over the surrounding plains – a broad congregation of rocky peaks cradled among wild-flowered uplands and incised by rivers lined with tree-ferns and damp primordial forests.

Like all mountains that are best-loved and most climbed, Mulanje has claimed its share of lives.  A local newspaper suggests its highest peak ‘Sapitwa’ simply means ‘don’t go there'. The mountain is made more treacherous by an unusual weather system which can strike at any time of the year. Named for a neighbouring mountain across the border in Mozambique which provides the first indication of its approach, the Chiperone forms when humid air from the Indian Ocean is funnelled through the Zambezi and Shire River valleys onto the continental plateau. Pushed up against Mulanje's slopes it condenses and unleashes torrential rains which can continue for days at a time.

In his 1952 book ‘Venture to the Interior’, South African-born writer Laurens van der Post tells the story of how the mountain claimed the life of a young forester - the tragedy around which much of the book revolves. Van der Post had been sent by the British Colonial Development Corporation to assess whether Mulanje would be suitable for livestock farming. In 'Venture', he describes how on the journey he meets, Fred France ('Vance') who lives in the Chambe Basin with his wife and their new-born child. France decides to join van der Post in exploring more of the mountain he has come to regard with deep affection.

Not far into their journey a Chiperone settles in with a tenacity that causes the mountain to "vibrate and tremble" with the force of the water bearing upon it. While attempting to cross a swollen river, France is swept to his death in the maelstrom of the Great Ruo Gorge on Mulanje’s western rim and van der Post is compelled to undertake a grim pilgrimage back over the mountain to inform France’s wife. In his mind, the mountain becomes a malevolent being which has willfully killed a young man and had he the strength, he laments, he could have "picked up the whole of Mulanje and thrown it over the edge of the world".

Like many who had read 'Venture', I'd been captivated not just by the poignancy of the tragedy, but also by the mountain he had described so evocatively, and which had seemed to him a world apart, a great ‘wizard’ of a mountain, an African wilderness unlike any other.

Most of all, I wanted to find out how the mountain had changed in the years since ‘Venture’ had been written and to see the Mulanje cedar, a tree that had been brought vividly to life in the book. This ‘cedar’ (in fact not a cedar at all, but a cypress), belongs to the Widdringtonia genus containing just four species found throughout the Afromontane forests of the subcontinent. Where the Mulanje stands out from the others is in sheer size. Growing to a height of more than fifty meters, it is by far the tallest. But its continued existence on the mountain is not guaranteed. 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 from Likhabula, a boisterous assemblage of prospective guides is gathered at the gate of the forest station. One of them, tall and lanky, hangs back. His name is Abdul. He  is withdrawn but good-natured. We negotiate a reasonable fee and heads home to collect a simple backpack a quarter the size of mine. Soon we begin the steep climb to the Chambe basin by way of the Skyline Route, zig-zagging across slopes of open-canopied brachystegia woodland catching the first slow rays of the morning sun. This is the the route that van der Post had taken and it follows the remains of the old cableway that was once used to convey timber off the mountain.

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 brachystegia 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, from this angle appearing 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. Having grown up in the Free State town of Philipolis during the early half of the twentieth century, 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 books blended the physical world of action and exploration with the mystical and sometimes magical world of Africa and the psyche. Several, including 'In a Province' and 'Flamingo Feather', obliquely tackled the racial inequalities in South Africa at the time.

Yet sadly for those who admired him and loved his writing, J.D.F Jones' biography published after his death in 1996 revealed the outline of a man who was deeply flawed. He'd long been accused of being a romantic and mystic, his writing regarded as archaic, obtuse and paternalist, but Jones had shown that he was also dishonest in the way he represented himself and that his relationship to women had been less than chivalrous.

Whatever his deficiencies may have been, few writers have surpassed his ability to summon in prose all that was 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 engagement with the Bushmen and their plight, perhaps no other demonstrates his mastery so clearly as ‘Venture’.

The following morning I hitch the pack on my back and follow Abdul's measured strides across the summit massif, looking over my shoulder periodically to watch Chambe recede behind each successive rise. In the saddle near the Fort Lister Gap we come upon the first big cedar up close, a colossal redwood of a cedar rising tall and straight, its summit lost somewhere in the canopy above, a richly resinous sap seeping 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. Suddenly, 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 broad grey gash in the otherwise velvety greenness of the basin below. Further down the valley, I come upon a scene that seems to be taken directly off the canvas of a Japanese watercolour – a grove of cedar being slowly enveloped by mist. Over my shoulder, thunderheads build in the east toward Mozambique, sliding past the sharp-edged rim of the gorge. Great white cathedrals of cloud. There's 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 description of the beginnings of the Chiperone echoes back at me: ‘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. 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. In van der Post's words, a torrent of water had "suddenly appeared out of the gloom about a hundred yards above, charging down at us at a steep angle, and finally, just before it reached us, smashing itself up behind a tremendous rock, deeply embedded on the side of the gorge".

The suddenness of this particular tributary's descent from the forest above, the smoothness of the rocks and its precipitous plunge into the gorge below seemed to fit the description.

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.