Now is a good time to recount one of my favorite Nyika trips as I beg my family and friends to donate money for a camp that is meant to influence the people living around the park to take a greater stake in protecting it (see previous blog). I think the way we feel about places has a lot to do with the people we associate it with, and I certainly associate Nyika with the man that first introduced me to it; a former Peace Corps volunteer and retired lawyer named Greg Doer.
He invited me on one of his adventures to Fingira rock when I first got to country. I was impressed to see the hiking strength of this 60 year old man, but most of all I admired his appreciation for the nature that surrounded him. Over the next year we became good friends, and he became a great source of advice as I was starting out as a Peace Corps volunteer. Greg and I shared some great debates, and plenty of laughs, but I saw him at his happiest in Malawi when we were hiking in Nyika. I was very happy when he invited me on his last hike before the end of his service.
Greg planned an epic trip for his finally that included climbing Nkhonjira mountain, fishing the Rumphi river and visiting Nyika's ancient Juniper forest. It would be all the more of an adventure since we would hike in the heart of the rainy season. He also asked the other two people I most associate with Nyika for the hike; his counterpart and Nyika game scout Manuel Gondwe (a certified bad-ass), and Greg's friend from Jumbi an ex-poacher turned Natural Resource Committee member Kondwani; a man that can best be described as the smiliest man in Malawi, as his name suggests (Kondwani means happy in Chitumbuka). Kondwani dubbed our crew the big four, and it seemed to me like an ideal group to spend my New Years in the mountains with.
Our first day of hiking was a late start because of a long heavy rainfall. We took shelter with a friend of Kondwani's that lived at the foot of Nkhonjira mountain. They generously cooked nsima and eggs for us, which gave us the strength to do one long hard push up the mountain when the storm broke. We agreed that Manuel and I would hurry ahead to set up camp and start the fire before sunset since we got such a late start. I had a hard time keeping up with the five foot tall hiking machine, as he moved up the ridge line at a fast steady pace.
As the sun set over Nkhonjira's shoulder the clouds and mist we were climbing through changed pink and purple. The whole scene became surreal, quiet, and beautiful. There's something truly magical about the calm after a big storm, and it was made all the more amazing by the sunset and the setting. I was already happy being up on the mountain above the noise of daily life in the village below....no screaming children, no blaring music from the beer dens. I only heard the occasional rumble of a thunderhead over Bolero, the wind through the miombo forests, and the call of a falcon that floated on thermals on the other side of the ridgeline which was a sheer drop-off that went down several hudred feet. I stopped and watched him as he hung suspended, and lifted a bit from an updraft then pointed his shoulder blades down and plummeted through the pink haze. My heart was pumping with adrenaline as I got back to climbing.
We slept under a tarp next to a creek that came from a primal forest near the top. After tea and rice porridge, we explored the forest a bit. It was a dense old growth forest brimming with life, vines hung from the branches of ancient towering trees that three of us could not wrap our arms around together. We took some pictures and caught up to Greg who was enjoying the view, of the bolero valley and beyond to where you could even make out the mountains over Mwazisi in the distance.
We hiked down the backside of the mountain through grassland and some extensive Musuku forests until we got bogged down in another heavy downpour. We wrapped ourselves in our tarps and waited it out for a while, before pushing on to Hana cave, a rock shelter that sits just above the Rumphi River. Greg found a huge bunch of large headed white mushrooms that we made into a delicious soup that we ate our Nsima with.
That afternoon Greg fished the Rumphi with a spin rod and lures. Supposedly there are still trout in the Rumphi from the dams that were stocked by the British in the 60's, but the river was way to high to catch anything in the heavy current where Greg was fishing. Kondwani jimmy rigged a small bamboo pole with some extra line and a lead weight, we baited it with crickets. I found a deep calm pool upriver just before sunset and managed to pull out 5 small catfish. We spent our new years eve eating mushroom soup and smoking the fish I caught in the mouth of the cave while greg played his penny whistle before sneaking off to his sleeping bag in the back of the cave. Kondwani, Manuel, and I stayed up late listening to Kondwani's wireless radio as news came in on BBC about the election violence in Kenya. I curled up in my sleeping bag and watched the Southern Cross rise between the horizon and the lip of the cave, as I thought about hopes for a more peaceful world, and the changes I wanted to make in my own life in the coming new year.
We awoke to a rainy and overcast 2008, and took our time enjoying a catfish and rice breakfast before we hiked 5km upriver so we could cross at a point just beneath a falls where the river dives beneath a boulder field that allows for easy crossing. We spent the rest of the day hiking up game trails, and bushwhacking up and down ridges, hillsides, and innumerable small valleys. Throughout the day we found ourselves in vast Msuku forests that slowed us down significantly as we were all hunched over sampling a few plum-sized fallen fruit before moving on to check the flavor of the next tree. As Greg said we were traveling at “Msuku speed.”
Around 5:30 we came across a poachers camp where they had just finished drying wild pig meat on a rack over the fire. The fire was still smoldering when we arrived, and they left various parts of the pig; they must have seen us coming up the valley, and took flight. Manuel went ahead a bit to see if he could catch them and confiscate their guns. We took over their camp and made a shelter out of tarps since it had been drizzling all day, but after sunset the clouds cleared out and the stars were absolutely beaming. I showed Kondwani all the constilations I could find. I fell asleep still watching the hot belt of the milky way turning overhead.
We ate a leisurely breakfast while we dried our socks and boots over the fire. Manuel extracted the tusks from the jaw of the wild pig the poachers left behind and Greg kept them as a souvenir. We spent the morning hiking up grassy hillsides, and scared up a common duiker, and 3 Kilspringers along the way and got to the Juniper forest around noon. There was an old dilapidated watchman's hut there that we took shelter in for the night.
The juniper forest was amazing. Some of the trees were up to 18 ft in circumference and they all towered high above us. We found one fallen juniper that had a kachere tree (a parasitic tree) growing in the middle of the trunk. The kachere tree was massive, at least 10 ft in circumference, but the fallen enormous juniper underneath it still hadn't even begun to rot showing what an incredibly hard wooded tree it was. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Junipers were over 1,000 years old!
That afternoon Kondwani, Manuel, and I attempted to climb Kasaramba mountain while Greg stayed back at the watchman's hut resting his feet and cooking us beans for dinner. We failed to reach Kasaramba as we were chased back to the hut by an impressive thunderhead. As we hurried back I got some good pictures of a double rainbow at sunset. We fried up the last of my catfish and mixed them with the beans for dinner as the rain pounded on the tin roof of the little shack and thunder clapped all around the plateau. Kondwani did his best to patch the holes in the roof with chunks of Nsima (use # 101 of maize paste!).
We spent the next day hiking back to gregs favorite spot in Nyika, Fingira rock. It was a long hike over Nyika's vaste grasslands and through overgrown river valleys. We tried our luck fishing another spot on the Rumphi river around lunch time, but nothing this time. We saw two more bush bucks and spotted two mystery animals watching us from the ridge line silhouetted by the ominous storm clouds behind.
Though there are rock shelters actually at Fingira rock we always sleep down the hill in Mavungu rock shelter which is much closer to a water source. We found yet another patch of Mushrooms that we mixed with Lentils for our last meal on Nyika. I brewed a pot of coffee, and made it Irish with some Malawian gin. We toasted the New Year, and another successful adventure.
My only regret was that we didn't climb Fingira Rock to enjoy the view from the top. Since my first trip to Nyika two and a half years ago that is still my favorite spot in all of Malawi. But on that trip our feet were too sore and waterlogged, and the rock was too slippery to make the precarious 300M+ scramble.
I recently made the exact same trip with Manuel and my friend Mike Fong. We followed the same route but managed to make it to the top of Nkhonjira and descend to Hana cave in one day, then get to the Juniper forest the next day where we met up with four Peace Corps ladies that were hiking from the Eastern side of the park with my friend Dan Zgambo who I organized to guide them. Then all of us hiked over to Fingira rock together. It was an awesome trip, and Mike was the perfect hiking partner. We keep the same pace hiking, he's up for anything, and was ever positive (even when we meandered off of the correct path a bit on long 10 hour days of hiking). Not to mention he is an impressively light packer; he only brought a small day pack and a blanket roll, which was more than enough to support his simple needs. He kept Manuel and I entertained with his songs around the campfire each night. I really enjoyed sharing the brilliance of Nyika with my friends, the same way Greg shared it with me.
The last morning before we hiked out to Jumbi I insisted that we all hike up Fingira. I was the last one to get to the top as I was helping one of my friends get through some tricky spots. I found everybody enjoying the spectacular Panarama, with the wide open rolling grass lands of Nyika on the east side (it's like being up on pride rock in the Lion King). To the west my eyes followed the miomba woodland covered escarpment falling away to Jumbi and the long valley to Bolero, then north to the Mountains surrounding Nkhozo estates tractor plowed fields and on to the mountains that surround my house in Mwazisi. I thought back to my many trips to nyika; hiking, biking, and visiting with Malawians. When I stood on the very top and took in the grand view it sent a shot of adrenaline down my spine and I let out a WHOOOOEE that rang off of every corner of Nyika...I smiled at Manuel and said “I love this spot.”