I spent the last weekend amidst the mountains of Chimanimani National Park. Imposing, rugged and sobering, the mountains are moody and conditions can quickly change; the waters that run through the range hold both the promise and threat of gold and mermaids. There are whispers of disappearances and frozen faced rocks. Chimanimani would be the perfect setting for an African version of The Lord of the Rings.
With the area falling out of favour with local and international travellers thanks in large part to the trials and tribulations of Zimbabwe’s political scene, the mountains are something of a best kept secret. The hiking is hard earned and the quickly tempestuous conditions are not for the ill prepared. However, all that amounts to the most spectacular scenery I have ever laid eyes on. Ever. Nor did our group have to share this beauty with hoards of other adventure seekers. Throughout the trip, we came across two other people – one an illegal gold panner trying to make ends meet and another a tough, wizened and incredibly healthy National Parks scout called Timothy. I think I can understand why there are stories of mermaids, wizards and witches in those mountains – for it is only the very magical and mysterious that could create such beauty.
I think I have found my heaven on earth.
Timothy has been a ranger for thirty six years. He has taken part in translocation of rhinos, elephants and other animals, deployed on numerous anti-poaching missions and has been posted to all of Zimbabwe’s National Parks throughout his career. He is 59 years old.
The high point of the trip was summiting Mount Binga – the highest peak in Mozambique and the second highest in Zimbabwe. After a start to the day of coffee, oats and fresh water swims, we made our way from our camp at Paradise Pools (yes, Paradise it certainly is!) toward the base of Mount Binga. With dew softening the crunch of grass beneath our feet and gentle sun on our faces, it was the perfect start to the day.
Jen, Jo and Briar cool off in Paradise Pools
After a hour and a half of trekking we reached a stream that had been heavily panned. It is incredible to see the impact we humans have on the spaces around us. Earth had literally been moved and streams diverted in the search for gold; all by unaided human effort. The chalky off-white soil had been shifted and exposed – a stark contrast to the covering of green and bursts of colourful wild flowers. Panning is illegal on the Zimbabwe side of the Park, but allowed in Mozambique. This results in a never ending game of hide and seek between those trying to keep their families afloat and the authorities trying to maintain the pristine scenery. Men from Zimbabwe slip through the unfenced park boundaries and sometimes camp for days in order to pan at night without the threat of being caught. Often I felt as if we were being watched by the fugitive panners, stealthily avoiding us and the cheerful Timothy. I have been told by fellow adventurers, that a few days of walking into the park in the Mozambique side, a bar-come-grocery shop can be found in a cave, stocking cold beer, mealie meal and other necessities . I could just picture a huddle of men, chuckling about the group of people seen puffing their way in the intermittent rain up Mount Binga. I think I will have to find it next time and join them! We must have been quite far from the path (either that or we were uncomfortably close to the latest preferred mining site) as a friendly and albeit trusting panner, offered to lead us to the correct route all the while happily informing us about how much gold he can expect to find each week, what that equates to in US$ and how he evades arrest. This young man had a wife and child to feed; without work available in Chimanimani and hungry bellies to fill, I can understand the appeal of illegal panning.
Brian at a gold panning site
Once we were on the correct path, the climb got tough. Without more than a pile of cairns every now and then to mark your way, the route involves hours of strenuous climbing, navigating slippery and sometimes loose rocks. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular with wild flowers cheering you on with their soft pinks, bright reds and vibrant purples. Often the alluring smell of wild herb brushed by would encourage me to stop and take it all in. Seemly endless acres of mountains, forests, grasslands and snaking fresh water streams stretched out beyond me. Perfection.
On our way up! The ever changing weather hides the Mt Binga summit in thick cloud cover. Our group was made up of myself and 10 other people.
After 4 hours of ascent we reached the top of Binga. More than anything, with so much energy exerted, the sweetest reward is the stop for lunch and a well earned rest knowing that you are standing on the highest elevation in Mozambique and the second highest in Zimbabwe! The capricious weather had turned, huddling under an overhang of a rock, we sought refuge from the cold and rain as we ate a lunch of biltong, tinned ham, cheese, nuts and pro vitas. It is always surprising how tasty this simple combination is after hours of exercise! Thankfully, our efforts were rewarded with a half hour of clear skies and staggering views of miles and miles of untouched Mozambique wilderness before we needed to begin our descent to get back to camp safely before dark.
Jo stands at the summit of Mt Binga
It was so worth the climb. Standing at the top, with the breeze whistling by, you are reminded of the largeness of the world. There is so much more out there, an entire universe in fact, with innumerable stars and varied planets, our own earth home to thousands of animal, plant, bird and fish species and then there is me and my small world. It puts things into perspective quite nicely; life is about so much more than my work day or petty struggles with the gas powered shower or the mundanity of what to have for dinner. Life is for the living. There is so much richness and detail to be found and a myriad of feelings to be felt and places to explore. Standing there I felt the need to get out there and live it!
Thank you Chimanimani for the timely reminder that my life is fleeting, precious and a once off.
Amongst the clouds – Descending from the summit of Mt Binga