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HIGH IN MOZAMBIQUE, A NEW ADVENTURE IN AFRICA

                                                          BY MARK SEURING  

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Alard’s high pitched whooping sent a tingling down my spine, my hands clammy with excitement as I stared. “There it is! This is what we came for!”

Our faithful old Ford aptly named ‘Mozy’ came to a skidding halt, spilling the contents of our precious beers onto our sweaty laps. Momentarily we were engulfed by dust, our eyes straining to see... The three Mlema peaks suddenly reappeared, the perfect spire shape of the first one holding our gaze, as it rose from the green Mozambican landscape, reaching high into the liquid blue sky.

 

Our mission: to spend 4 weeks exploring northern Mozambique’s potential for rock climbing and to pioneer the ascents of some of the granite domes for which this area, in particular Nampula province, is known.

Mozambique’s massive size is sadly paralleled by its level of poverty. A recent history of war has left the country bare of any noteworthy economic infrastructure, despite its rich natural resources. The people of the northern provinces in particular are solely dependant on subsistence farming and small local markets selling necessities.

 

We had to be well prepared for this trip into Africa, and so sucked up all the info, even the most trivial morsel,  on Nampula and Mozambique from maps, books and the few people who had been there. We spent long nights  planning, motivating, joking ... doing anything to sway the probability of  a safe return in our favour.

 

Unlike most climbing trips, where the actual climbing forms the most challenging part, on our Mozambique adventure the danger from climbing ranked in at a cosy 5th place. Sure, an accident on any climb no matter where you are, can be life threatening, but in Mozambique we would be faced  with additional dangers such as: Landmines, a bitter remnant from the war and a frighteningly real threat when bushwhacking to the base of a climb, wild roaming bandits, malaria, cholera and other weird tropical diseases that can force a trip to be aborted . The greatest concern was, however, the lack of decent medical facilities should something happen.

 

So, packed to the rear-view mirror(no looking back from now on!) with extensive medical kit, weighty car spares, food (including some luxuries like ‘hot-chocolate’) and the bare minimum of climbing gear , a sponsored Ryobi petrol drill our most prized possession, we headed north into the unknown.

 

Our first taste of Mozambique was the 200km stretch through the Tete corridor, previously known as the ‘gun-run’. Cars were only allowed through in convoy and with armed escorts because of the fighting. Now, however, it seems quite safe, but the destroyed buildings and bullet-riddled walls and the general lack of activity along the road make for a fateful atmosphere. Here we had our first encounter with the African brutality, not often understood by our western culture. Goats, tied up, lying at the side of the road in the hot sun, bleating, only to be sold and carried away on a bumpy bicycle. We hurried on through this bleak and desolate place.

 

We decided to take the southern route from Malawi into Mozambique, From Liwonde eastward on a track which runs parallel to the railway-line for 50km’s. Three times the track was blocked by old bridges with half their beams missing. Three times, by driving extremely accurately, one mistake possibly leading to a fall into the river below, we managed to navigate past these obstacles.  By evening, we still hadn’t reached the Mozambique border and were forced to ask at a Malawi Police Station for permission to camp. No problem.

We had just settled into our tent when the night duty officers disturbed us and demanded that we park the car in their garage, hand over all the car papers, the car keys and our personal documents, all for the sake of safety.

There was no alternative, as our queries were met with aggression and a threat to throw us out. Seeing that the prospect of spending the night next to the road was even more dangerous we resigned ourselves to a sleepless night, always wondering what would happen. Luckily nothing did and we collected our valuables the following morning and headed off into Mozambique.

 

Once in Mozambique, the next larger town is Cuamba. It is here that the mountains first appear and seem to spread out in little clusters and solitary domes all the way east to the coast. We had travelled 1600 km to get here and like true ‘Pavlovian climbers’, our hands were sweaty with anticipation.

 

 

The smooth gravel road took us eastward past some impressive mountain ranges which stoked our excitement as we sprawled over some maps, trying to determine their size and looking for a possible approach. Somewhat disappointed we continued on our way, their dark, steep faces looming in the distance, to far away from any road so as to make a closer inspection possible.

 

Malema town suddenly appears out of nowhere,  a welcome oasis after days of hard travelling. Armed with icy South African beers we set off to find the perfect mountain. As it turned out, we found it not 20 km's further down the road.

 

Finally we stood below the steep face of Mlema 1, a peak I had dreamed

about for the last two years since my girlfriend showed me pictures from

her Mozambique trip. But from up close the face did not quite resemble my

dreams, its blank faces were vegetated with grass tufts and its chimneys

occasionally blocked with trees and shrub. The obvious line heads up a

series of chimneys and cracks to the west shoulder and then up a final cone

to the summit.

 

Earlier that day we had arranged to camp amongst a small enclosure of huts belonging to a local farmer named Tome. He was very patient with my attempts, with the use of a Portuguese phrasebook, to explain our desire to climb this mountain. He later conveyed our plans to the local secretario, a majestic old man with large feet, crooked teeth and a friendly smile, and soon we were off to scope out the mountain with Tome's son as our guide.

 

The following day we climbed Mlema 1, a first ascent, requiring 12 roped

pitches with grades including 21 and some sketchy leading, using grass

tufts as holds and for protection, the ultimate in feel-good adventure

climbing: The view from the summit was in itself worth the entire effort. Our guides and friends were waiting for us at the bottom, their joy at seeing the 'Msungu's' (whites) descending slowly towards them from the sky paralleling their sense that we must be crazy. Hence the route name: 'The whites must be crazy '.

 

The next morning Alard and I felt pathetic, totally exhausted from a long drive and the previous day’s climbing. Also, our malaria prophilaxis , taken the night before, contributed to our general state of fatigue. So, having decided to drive toward the coast and see what mountains are out there and then being able to choose the most appealing, we bid farewell to our hosts.

Around the very next bend the east face of Mlema 3 appeared, its 700m near vertical face reaching into the sky. We were boggled by its size and its

compactness, with no simple line bisecting its massive bulk. At the end we

left this wall unclimbed, vowing to return with more time and resources.

 

After spending some rest days on the Island of Mozambique, we headed south for 3 hours on good roads to the town of  Liupo with its with its distinctive 200m high sphinx-shaped dome, capped on its highest side by an 8m roof.

 

Having completed all the tiring formalities of securing permission to climb the mountain and organising a place to camp, we focused on finding a way through the roof. We packed all our gear under the watchful gazes from the local people. One thing you have to get used to in Africa, is being watched, constantly. When you’re eating, packing, walking around and doing whatever, you will be stared at, mostly by children who think you are the most interesting thing in the world. Learn to relax, with time they will get bored, even with the crazy ‘Msungus’.

Our route leading up to the roof is characterised by clean, moderate climbing on good rock, with good gear. Alard learned to trust his micro nuts when a friend popped on a short aid section. He is still seen, tilting his fuzzy head to the heavens and thanking them for saving his life. The roof looked daunting and did not yield to our attempts. The crack was to large for any protection we had, so we opted to haul up our drill and protect it with bolts. We had hoped to do the roof free, but in the end it was worth every bolt: swinging out high above the coastal plains and gulping at the intense exposure, our whooping echoed by a group of local people watching from below. The climb, “Gone Batty 21/A2”, is a classic 6 pitch route in a spectacular setting. Alard and I managed to add another 3 natural lines to Sphinx rock, all characterised by rewarding climbing on good rock. We were especially excited to find two clean Yosemite style cracks , “Cherry in a minefield” being a fulfilling 18 and “The Spirit of Totonto” a harder 22. We seem to have climbed the most obvious natural lines but there is still a huge scope for some excellent bolted routes.

 

Quithele is a quiet village on the slopes of the majestic 650m face of Ribaue mountain; in its midst is our tent, peaceful under a large tree: I was having a bad dream; it was dark outside, the stars bright, enhanced by no moon. The dream: We only climbed 150m in a whole day, eating nothing but dirt and a single roll, shared between the two of us. Grovelling up scary pitches of chimney, aiding, placing bolts off hooks lodged over loose flakes and holding onto tufts of grass. A dream where I was pulling lumps of dirt into my face, placing gear in cracks lined with a crust of soil and finally, exhausted beyond belief, abbing down an old 10mm static line in the hazy light of an approaching dusk. A dream where everything could have gone wrong, but didn’t. We escaped only with some scratches and a battered psyche. A dream, no, I only look upon it as a dream, a dream caked in a gritty reality. 

 

We thought the worst was over when we started up the climb the following day with our haulbag, planning to free-climb the route in 2 days. At 250m the obvious line we were following was blocked by a smooth 20 m face, only climbable with bolts or aiding at A5. The latter option was too risky and the former impossible, seeing the drill was sitting in our car, useless. It was a difficult decision, but we aborted our attempt, giving the lack of motivation to re-climb the first 150m as our reason. We’ll be back!

 

On our way home we passed through Malawi where we relaxed on the islands of Lake Malawi for a few days before embarking on our last mission: to climb the famous 1700m high Chambe West face on Mt. Mulanje. The massive size of the face and its fantastic location in a mountain range which offers some good hiking make it an appealing challenge. We managed a one day ascent of the face and relaxed on the beautiful Mulanje plateau for a few days. A great place and well worth a visit.

 

For the climber and explorer, Mozambique offers a feast of adventure. Whether you want to be the first to climb some of the many domes in Nampula Province, explore the mountain ranges with their wild and exotic ecosystems, seek out forgotten villages sometimes found along the endless white beaches or just want soak up the atmosphere of a country with remnants of a colonial past, this is the place to visit. Mozambique is rebirthing into a time of opportunity and growth. The past is always near, haunting the present in various forms: the damage of a recent war, general poverty and often derelict roads. All in all, the ingredients for an unforgettable adventure. Enjoy.

 

 

FACT FILE:

 

Our research had revealed that Mozambique is not only divided into provinces but these are further divided into many smaller districts, each with their own administrator, the secretario. So, when you want to climb a mountain you have to ask the secretario of the district, in which the mountain lies, for permission. If there is no village nearby with a secretario, this could be quite a mission. If you want to walk around and scope out a mountain, hope that it does not lie in different districts. Neighbouring secretarios  hold each other in high esteem and it is required to formally ask the other secretario whether you can enter his district. Our guides would turn back because we had no formal invite. More time would allow you to make the necessary arrangements if you want to enjoy longer hikes and trips of exploration.

 

Portugese is the dominant language in northern Mozambique, next to the local language of Makua. Not many people in the north speak English. You might find a German speaking local, if you’re lucky. Take a Portugese phrasebook.

 

Always organise the exact amount to be paid to a guard or a guide or for camping beforehand. It will avoid a misunderstanding later on. Remember: Money is ‘Sange’ (blood)!

 

Always have small notes available. Often people won’t have change and you will end up paying more.

 

Best time of year: In winter, May through to September

 

Currency: 1 Rand = appr. 2000 Mozambican Meticais

 

Best car to take: 4 wheel drive

Train is possible, but you would be very limited

 

Access from:

-South Africa through Zimbabwe, Mozambique’s Tete Corridor, Malawi, then either through Nayuchi or via Mandimba into Mozambique.

-South Africa to Maputo and up the coast to Nampula. A long trip and not recommended due to the bad roads above Quelimane

-Harare, Zimbabwe,

-Blantyre or Lilongwe, Malawi (faster and easier)

-Lusaka, Zambia

 

Malema is a quaint town with a long, wide main street lined with

beautiful, old Portuguese style houses. We were amazed to find a real

bakery, restaurant, pub, a bank, working telephone and shops in the middle

of nowhere.

 

Ribaue is a quiet town with a decent market selling fruit and veggies and the last good remnant of Portuguese culture, bread rolls, the African version sometimes containing sand: “Crunch!”.

 

Liupo, situated 40km from the most beautiful beaches at Quinga and has everything a traveller might need. A lively and well-stocked market, telephone, ‘bush-mechanic’ and hospital. For good camping contact Sergio: He offers free camping (although a donation is reluctantly accepted), pit-toilet, bucket-shower and a guard. He is very keen to meet travellers, mainly to learn about the world and to improve his English. The market offers nightly entertainment in the form of old, poor quality, action videos for a mere 50c. The local people love this nightly ritual, packed into the small outdoor cinema, they giggle uncomprehendingly at the ridiculous action shots. The level of enjoyment depends on one’s frame of reference.

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