Our expedition to find new reptiles and amphibians in Africa’s “sky islands” was off to a cheerful start after our hair-raising but successful sojourn on Mount Mabu. After packing up camp there on November 23, we headed down the mountain to the vehicles, down a narrow, muddy 4×4 track, and onto the “bush road.” After five hours of bumpy driving, we eventually hit the tar road that would take us to the town of Gurué which lies at the foot of Mount Namuli, our next target. To traverse this, we would need to rent motorbikes to take us to a high-altitude saddle on the mountain, and thereafter hire porters to assist with getting the gear to the forest. Our local contact, Cotxane, helped with these logistics but we hit a big stumbling block.
We had run out of cash and the ATMs were not working anywhere in Gurué. We tried everywhere, and all we found were enormous queues of people waiting to access the ATMs once they were running again. This obstacle was serious enough to put a complete stop to getting onto the mountain. Morale was low at this stage, because we had come so far, but were essentially stuck. Simon, Bibi and Michele were in a café trying to get news of the ATM situation, when they were overheard by a random man, Carlos. I have to say, this was one of those moments that restores all my faith in the human race. Carlos offered to loan us the cash we needed to get up onto the mountain. Here was a man who didn’t know us, but had offered his assistance without any ulterior motive, and truthfully he had no guarantee that we would even pay him back.
Yet, he decided to trust us. This was substantial assistance. It was not just simply helping us with a flat tire or a dead battery. Because of Carlos, we were able to hire the motorbikes and pay the porters, as well as the local assistants that would accompany us on the mountain (Elias and Carito). His explanation for his kindly deed was that he could see we were in real need, and he felt like he should help. Mere words cannot express the gratitude we owe to Carlos, and for the trust he put in us.
A dozen 125–250cc motorbikes met us in the morning of the 25th and we lashed our boxes of gear onto the seats. Wearing our 15-kg backpacks, we then mounted as passengers, and our drivers headed out across the tea estate that lies at the foot of Namuli. The first few minutes were relatively flat, but soon we started to ascend a broken-down track that would have been dubious for even a 4×4 vehicle. Our train of motorbikes weaved and darted their way up the track, bouncing over rocks, whipping past branches and racing up inclines to keep up enough momentum to make it. We held on with white knuckles, using newly discovered core strength to keep our big packs from unbalancing our drivers. After two solid hours and 700 meters of elevation we were at the saddle from which we’d start walking. Waiting for us were not only our porters, but the entire population of the local village and then some.
Although this area of the mountain is far from Gurué, it is populated everywhere. Thousands of people live on the Namuli massif. They are essentially subsistence farmers who also farm potatoes for a cash crop. Regardless, money is in short supply so there was an over-abundance of people lining up to be porters, and a bun-fight quickly ensued. I cannot pretend to understand how they solved the issues, but to me it looked like survival of the fittest on who got the job. In any case, we finally got underway and our porters quickly outpaced us on the steep slopes up to the forest. It can be disheartening to be carrying only a daypack with a few kilograms, while watching the backs of our porters disappear ahead, despite the 15–20 kg loads on their heads. After about an hour of struggling steeply uphill, we finally reached the grasslands of the Muretha plateau and the ground leveled somewhat.
At this point, we were treated to stunning views of the Namuli granite dome to our north, and the Pese granite dome ahead of us. Although the entire massif is named Mount Namuli, there are several large granite outcrops on top, and we were actually headed to Pese, below which the Manho forest lies. Another hour through the grasslands, followed by a steep scramble downhill and we were at our forest camp, situated along a stream that originated further up the granite dome. Our expectations were high, as Mount Namuli is legendary amongst researchers working in Africa. Because we had anticipated so much from Namuli, the immediate, grim reality was crushing.
The forest was heavily impacted by human activities, to say the least. Our campsite should have been situated in the higher reaches of Manho forest, but instead, we were bordering on several large patches of newly created “shambas” (local farms). The forest had been cut and burnt, willy-nilly, to make way for potato crops which would be sold in town. We were devastated; witness to the destruction of what obviously had been a gem of biological richness only months ago. The forest in the immediate vicinity of our camp was so vulnerable to the nearby scathing that it was parched and desiccated, drying from the effects of the additional sunlight that streamed in from all sides. There were no lush trees or thick forest floor covered with mosses and ferns, typical of what we expected. We made our camp, and started talking about plan “B” with a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs.