The Chimanimani Fiasco

 The Bundi River Plains

At some point, you have to ask yourself just how much a photo is worth to you? I mean, we all acknowledge that creating a masterpiece requires self-sacrifice, but would you include contracting bubonic plague as a sacrifice worth making for a photograph? Well, as I contemplated what to me seemed like a deeply philosophical question, the rain that had been falling all night came down even harder still. Some of those who were taking shelter inside the mountain hut emerged through the doorway onto the veranda, dragging behind them a thick trail of wood smoke. They had ventured outside simply to place yet more bowls in the path of the water pouring from the roof. It was the only water available for drinking, unless you fancied a wet walk to the nearby river and, frankly, the roof water looked a little cleaner than the stuff from there anyway.

As I wallowed in the self-pity brought on by the repugnant living conditions in which I found myself, my hazy thoughts drifted. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours and my mind was starting to lose its edge. I was growing increasingly paranoid, concerned that even if I could make it back to base camp without drowning my gear, how was I going to get a low-slung Renault Megane off the side of this mountain? The Chimanies are not the French Alps, there is no paved road leading up the col and my journey back to the comparative comfort of Zimbabwean tar demanded that I navigate a red dirt track which I assumed would now comprise of mud!

***

How I found myself halfway up one of Africa’s many tectonic protrusions in a car designed for the cobbles of Paris is a story unto itself. At its heart, though, is the woeful tale of a Land Rover enthusiast left stranded by his beloved consort just days before his planned expedition to Zimbabwe was scheduled to begin. Fuelled by defiance, a good dose of ignorance and the desire to find his own masterpiece, the protagonist packed everything he could into his little hatchback and set course for the Chimanimani Mountains anyway.

 Ascending through the forest.

Ascending through the forest.

The Chimanimani Mountains are widely regarded as Zimbabwe’s finest alpine offering and to find the range, all one needs to do is enter the country and then travel as far east as you can possibly go. Well beyond the political reach of Harare and just as Zimbabwe – rather arbitrarily – becomes Mozambique, the Chimanies stick out of the ground, a compact chain of peaks watched over by Monte Binga. Curiously, Monte Binga is simultaneously the highest point in Mozambique and the second highest in Zimbabwe as it sits squarely atop the dividing line.

For all their geopolitical significance, however, the Chimanimani Mountains are a poorly documented bunch of summits, with a good map being impossible to find. Indeed, the absence of any meaningful information at all meant that as I stood at the base of the mountains contemplating a lone foray into the foothills, I had, in fact, no idea of how far I was about to walk. Even for someone quite familiar with wandering off into the mountains alone, the prospect of losing my way and winding up as an illegal immigrant seemed like a legitimate concern.

Assuming that I could find my way, though, my objective and the principal point from which to explore the Chimanies was the mountain hut which overlooks the Bundi River. The primary route to the hut is via Bailey’s Folly, a trail with a name that says as much about its founder as it does about those who attempt to follow it. Despite the existence of several paths that gently ascend from the Mutekeswane base camp to the 1697 m-high mountain hut, Bailey decided that a direct near-vertical ascent would be the preferred alternative.

The absurdity of this decision can’t be understated. Even a hiker with no mountain experience at all would be equipped with enough common sense to look at the peak above them and know that scaling directly up its flanks is probably not the easiest way to go about things. Nevertheless, Bailey’s Folly is the only marked route and I had little choice, it was either ‘folly’ or nothing at all.

Thus, heavily laden with camera and hiking gear, I began the arduous ascent. For 2.4 km the trail rose steeply, climbing 500 m through rock bands separated by forests and grasslands. I almost certainly flirted with cardiac failure as I hauled my flabby self up the uncompromising incline. I squeezed through narrow cracks in the rocks and tugged on exposed tree roots and all this meant that when I finally reached the brow and caught first sight of the path descending, it wasn’t a moment too soon. I was very nearly dead!

 Bailey's Folly, a direct route up the Chimanimani Mountains.

Bailey's Folly, a direct route up the Chimanimani Mountains.

Thankfully, having recovered from my brush with the afterlife, I was faced with the most remarkable section of the journey, the gentle descent through legions of heavily weathered boulders that lie strewn at the base of all the peaks. Looking as if they too have met their demise, the pale grey rocks resemble bleached bones lying in the sun and the path meanders tightly between these carcasses, giving rise to the region’s name.

Chimanimani means “a little gap”, a reference to the small openings between the boulders through which generations of locals have passed as they made their way between the neighbouring countries. The fact of the matter is that it is the rock gardens which distinguish the Chimanies from every other mountain range that you might stumble upon while wandering the vast expanse of Africa. The boulders are a truly remarkable natural phenomenon that comes to an end rather abruptly with the appearance of a decidedly man-made tin roof. A mere 1.5 km after dispatching with the worst of Bailey’s ill-conceived route making, the mountain hut unexpectedly reveals itself, a building that is unquestionably more palatial than the word ‘hut’ suggests.

Easily accommodating 20 people and endowed with an enormous veranda, the hefty stone edifice boasts impressive views of the Bundi River plains. It’s a house that lends itself to mental images of Cecil John Rhodes or some equivalent colonial dignitary enjoying his gin and tonic on the porch while being waited on by several of the local Shona. There is a certain old-school charm to the building and as I took my place on the vintage stoop, I did so without the annoyance of any other human beings; it was heaven!

Given my initial route-finding anxiety and coming face to face with mortality, things were now going exceedingly well. I divided the afternoon between hunting for photos and catching up on some reading, but as sunset approached, a bank of clouds rolled in from Mozambique and unceremoniously dumped their watery cargo on the hut. I wasn’t concerned, though, the hut seemed like a perfectly agreeable spot to wait out a storm and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one to hold such an opinion.

Almost as swiftly as the rain arrived so did three other hikers: Colin, a self-proclaimed mountain guide, and his two petite Japanese clients. Colin was an interesting fellow, a practicing Rastafarian sporting an appropriately coloured knitted hat and the foggy eyes of a true believer. Strangely, however, he had traded the characteristic Caribbean accent for an English one that would make the queen proud. His enunciation was indeed so proper that it made his flamboyant and rather frequent use of expletives somewhat startling. His female guests didn’t seem to mind, though, the language barrier apparently rendered them immune to cursing.

As you might expect, Colin had a few opinions on the matter of Zimbabwe’s political situation and I spent much of the early evening being schooled in the matter of just how “fucked up” things had become in the country. I listened and nodded, indulging his apparent passion for politics and swearing. Just as darkness fell, though, a loud and unnerving rasping sound came from within the wooden chest upon which I was slouching.

 The path through the rock gardens.

The path through the rock gardens.

“What the hell was that!” I exclaimed while jumping to my feet. “It’s rats”, Colin replied, seemingly at ease with the spine-chilling noise. “They come out at night and fight over the scraps of food”, he explained. Having stood up, Colin strolled over to the wooden box and opening the lid, shone his torch inside. There, in the murky darkness, three pairs of beady eyes stared back at us.

For the record, I’m not scared of rats in a jump-on-the-table kind of way, but I prefer not to share my bed with rodents. I had planned to sleep on top of that chest for it doubled as the base of a bed. Colin recommended that I instead sleep in one of the back rooms, suggesting that I would be less likely to hear the skirmishing there. I quickly followed his advice, relocating all my equipment and adopting some of his choice vocabulary as I did so.

The human psyche is a strange thing. In one very brief instant, my entire perception of the mountain hut had reversed. Fundamentally, nothing had changed since my blissful afternoon on the stoop, but knowing that there was a rat problem I no longer wanted to be there. The charm was gone and everything about the building now looked dirty and dilapidated. It was going to be a real struggle for me to get any sleep in the filthy little hole called a bedroom and to make matters worse, rain was now thrashing the mountain.

Everywhere I looked, the hut’s roof was failing. Drips of water were falling with ever-increasing regularity, onto the beds, onto the table and onto my sleeping bag! I relocated yet again, this time to a bed in the corner of the room. I lay there hoping that the morning would come quickly, that I would just fall asleep and awake to sunshine, just wishing for the whole ordeal to end. However, despite my wishing, a gnawing sound as before. “Holy shit, there’s a rat in the bed!” I shouted as I flew to my feet. It was just too much. The torment continued for hours. Neither the rain nor the rats let up!

By the time dawn broke I had locked myself into the passage, a place that I reckoned was impossible for a rat to access. The floor was cold and hard with a scattering of puddles, but rather that than disease. Mercifully, daybreak also meant that I could once again take up residence on the stoop. The rain was still pelting down and it was a little chilly in the early morning air but at least I was no longer confined.

When Colin finally woke up and appeared from inside, he asked how I had slept. I gently nodded my head, recounting the night’s anguish in my mind. “Okay”, I mumbled. Together we sat in silence, staring across the misty valley, mesmerised by the relentless downpour. “How long do you think this will go on?” I asked. “Four days”, Colin replied, gesturing the total with his hand, “four days”. Who in their right mind answers that sort of question with “Four days”? I can’t be stuck here for four more days, I barely managed to survive one!

I spent the subsequent hours mulling over precisely what I was doing on a far-flung hill in the corner of Zimbabwe. I visited the Chimanies on the promise of unique and compelling photos but had instead landed up in a cesspit. As yet, I had nothing to show for my efforts bar a bit of psychological scarring, but I was ready to tap out.

 The boulder fields of the Chimanimani Mountains.

The boulder fields of the Chimanimani Mountains.

The question of how wet I would really get if I made a dash for base camp percolated in my mind. I hadn’t packed for a monsoon and I was deeply concerned that my camera gear wouldn’t survive even the speediest of descents. I was caught, trapped between wanton destruction and a second night with the vermin. As I teetered on the edge of rational thought, a dozen or so overlanders came sloshing through the rain, the luckless bunch drenched, cold and looking a little bewildered by just how the normally sunny Africa could cast so much water aloft. Immediately upon seeing their sorry state, I knew that any chance I had of escaping had evaporated, my equipment simply wouldn’t make it!

The group shuffled inside, a fire quickly being lit using plastic bottles and wet wood. The resulting thick, acrid smoke filled the house, venting through every opening it could find. The sooty air poured out through cracks in the windows and bellowed through holes in the roof. I found myself watching in wonder, perplexed by how any organism could survive the noxious atmosphere.

Adding to the mayhem, soaking wet garments were strewn everywhere. The floor was flooded by the drips from clothing as well as those falling from the ceiling. Quite unfathomably, living conditions that were already dire had deteriorated to appalling and despite just a few minutes before aborting any plans to get away, I was now ready to flee! I didn’t care about photographs or photography gear anymore, I had found my limit. There was no photo in the world worth staying for!

***

As it turned out, I got lucky during my descent to base camp. I buried my camera as deep inside my bag as it would go and made a dash. I happened to time my effort perfectly, encountering a period of less-brutal precipitation. I completed the trip back to Mutekeswane without incurring any significant damage and a day later even succeeded in getting my Renault back to the tar!

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