Perfect for a paddle…and a few cannonballs
As far as we know, and as far as we like to guess, no human has travelled up this river valley since the mid 19th Century. We assume there was some exploration at the time of slavery, and it may even have been used as a route to escape the lakeshore horrors. There really is no record. As hard as it has been to wander up the river now, it would be infinitely harder and likely a lot more dangerous in the torrents of the wet season. The location of the river where it enters the lake was (until Charlie spent a decade changing opinion of it) land which was deemed cursed. It was a snake haven and natives would even kayak half a mile around it, rather than walk the lake shore. More about Charlie and his plot later…
Apart from where the river runs away and from where we approached the falls, it is surrounded by sheer but sprouting, jungle cliffs. Shimmering water cascades down the greys and blacks, yellows and reds. Stickly plants and prickly bushes grow raggedy around the rocks. Climbing vines hang precariously from worn away roots in the weathered gashes and tufts of grass and soil leak out of the cracks exposing more of the canyon’s rugged history. In front of us in the sunshine is a wall of bright, mashed-together colours; like a huge, overloaded, and frustratingly-slashed dry pallet of a frantic oil painter. We had trekked into a tight gulley which is impossible to see from any far-off viewpoint. With only a few ropes and without being spiderman, it’s unlikely any of us can safely climb any further up river. With rustic beauty all around us, and being mildly frustrated, this was the end of our road. A few miles to the north west, beyond the waterfall, are pathways across the bush between Ruawe and Musuzu (a city-like hub in the centre of northern Malawi). Mzuzu is large and densely populated. Modern buildings as we know them line the streets. Restaurants and banks, supermarkets and gyms, government offices and education centres spread across the city. Yet just a few miles away, we couldn’t be more remote or any more isolated. We are off the map.
Above the lower falls, the pool is a perfect rest stop for our hot and scratched bodies. A breeze follows the water flow and if I smoked like the rest of the guys, I’d also be kicking back for a well deserved fag break. Shady trees hang over the elevated waters and oddly, the river floor and pools up here are deep with soft, clay-like mud. It’s still perfect for a paddle. God knows if there are any water dwelling snakes or cat fish large enough to swallow a small child, but it’s unlikely half way up the cliff. Obviously, we take our chances and cannonball ourselves into the deepest spots.
Different to our trek travelling up stream, we had to use the ropes to navigate back down the rocks. As all mountaineers will tell you, most accidents happen on the way down, not on the way up, so we’re not so gung ho for the journey south. We all made it down safely and apart from a night or two between us and basecamp, we contemplate whether we take an extra day to explore more of the bush or if we get back for a well deserved soapy shower (not all together. We’re close, but not that close). Essentially, we all fancy a chance to recharge and Bjorn and I have plans in other parts of Malawi.
Passing caves and dens, rocky over hangs and gulleys where river otter are abundant, we see plenty of spaces where relatively large mammals would be quite at home. Their spur is everywhere and from he look of it, the otter are mostly eating fresh water crabs. The trees are taller upstream and some harbour huge vines which stretch and hang, droop and loop around the shadowy bush. Monkeys are at home here and if it weren’t for our humanistic murmurs as we scramble around the forest floor, we’d likely see a lot more wildlife.
It’s impossible to be silent when navigating as a team, working together to make sure our feet land safely on immovable stones. Throwing bags and ropes, cameras and machetes all requires a certain amount of talking or grunting. While during ourselves around interesting places, all of us find perfect spots for motion-sensor cameras. If we can’t see it on this expedition, we’d like to source evidence of what is here when we are not. There’s an abundance of mammalian picnic spots! The trees provide a wonderful wilderness which oddly, I haven’t seen anywhere else while traveling around Malawi. Where land can be farmed, trees are cut down. Where wood is required, the trees are cut down. Anyone coming here to gather useable hardwood would have a hard time ahead of them. It’s sad that what saves our forests, our most remote locations and our wildlife, is merely extreme inconvenience. Had there been just a shimmer of gold or any other gemstone in this valley, it, along with all the trees, would not be here. If it was more accessible, the river banks would no doubt be as bare as Bjorns chest as soon as I get my camera out.
Without being able to fault their enthusiasm, Bjorn and Charlie are like a kids in a sweet shop. The river is ours today and now that we know what is ahead of us (downstream), we take every opportunity to make it our playground. We’ve stopped focussing on how to navigate the cliffs and the falls, the pools and the trees, we know where we’re going. Every bend in the river is a new climbing frame or rockslide. The adult in me knows that it’s only a matter of time before one of us end up on our arse with a banged up spine or sprained wrist or ankle…or worse! There are snakes and bees (Bjorn is allergic and I have his rescuing epi pen)…but who cares? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring and this is about as free as you can be in the wild.