Climbing a Lost Mountain

By Ned Morgan.

Mozambique’s Mount Namuli is not for the fairweather trekker. The granite slab of its unexplored south face is full of untold potential hazards, not to mention the puff adder and black mamba snakes found at the base. And if you ascend it without the blessing of the Queen of Mugunha, so the legend goes, you will die on the mountain.

Yet the attractions outweigh both real and legendary threats. Namuli is an inselberg – from the German insel (island) and berg (mountain) – a monolith of erosion-resistant rock that juts out of the landscape of grassland and rainforest like a cloud-capped fortress. Many inselbergs, including Namuli, are also islands of exceptionally diverse life. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) has identified it, and the Eastern Afromontane it is part of, as a biodiversity hotspot.

 

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The unexplored south face of Namuli. Photo courtesy The Lost Mountain.
The unexplored south face of Namuli. All photos courtesy The Lost Mountain.

 

Here, flora and fauna have evolved in relative isolation. The nearly 8000-foot mountain, second-highest in the country, harbours a large and unknown quantity of species new to science. The CEPF calls Namuli “significant, threatened and understudied.”

After hearing about Namuli from British scientist friends, Majka Burhardt – a pro climber, writer and film producer – mounted a recon trip there in 2011 with fellow climber Sarah Garlick and others.

Wisely, they paid a visit to the Queen of Mugunha before making a first ascent of a section of the south face. And the Queen gave her blessing to the mission. I asked Burhardt about the blessing. “It’s not like you high-five her and she gives you a ticket,” says Burhardt. “There’s a process. And you need to bring her things: she likes corn whiskey and dried fish.”

 

The approach.
Burhardt (left) and Garlick examine lines on the approach the mountain.

What was the local reaction to her mission?

“We were welcomed by the community. Some things might be lost in translation,” she explains, “but once you’re there proving your mettle in the backcountry, that changes the response. So we told the Queen about this study and then we got to know people from the local villages. And [on the return trip, this year] we’re working hand in hand with a Mozambican conservation team, who will be in the community every day.”

For many years Namuli was “lost” because of civil wars, beginning in the 1960s, that convulsed the southeast African country. War continued into the ‘90s and today landmines remain a hazard in the south; British-based NGO Halo Trust led a successful effort to eradicate landmines from northern Mozambique by the mid 2000s.

 

Kate Rutherford (left) and Majka Burhardt near Namuli in 2011.
Garlick (left) and Burhardt make camp.

Burhardt explains Namuli’s significance. “It is an everyday sacred place. Because people are farming around it, it is very much integrated into people’s lives, yet the mythology – ie, if you don’t have the Queen’s blessing, you’ll go up and disappear into the clouds – carries a lot of weight. I have a background in anthropology, so I’m interested in finding out where that comes from: how far entrenched is that belief in the cultural lore surrounding the mountain? And where does that intersect land use?”

“If you don’t have the Queen’s blessing, you will disappear into the clouds.”

Burhardt will return to Namuli this May with pro climber Kate Rutherford and a film crew plus an international team of scientists who will conduct surveys of Namuli’s southern cliff face, surrounding grasslands, and rainforest. The climbers will establish a route for the scientists and film crew to ascend the south face. The scientists will be on the lookout for king dwarf geckoes, mountain ants, mongrel frogs, skink (a lizard), birdlife, and bats – many of them previously unknown species believed to be endemic to Namuli.

 

Mongrel frog.
Mongrel frog.

 

At present, the mountain has no conservation status. Mozambique is a fast-growing economy and slash-and-burn agriculture is impacting the ecosystem. Burhardt hesitates to refer to farming as an “encroachment.” “That sounds very negative,” she explains. “The people who live around Namuli have every right to live there.” The nearest town is about an eight-hour hike, but hamlets are as close as an hour’s hike, and tea plantations grow not far from the base. “When we were there in 2011 we saw burn lines,” says Burhardt. “The mountain has enough vegetation that wildfires can burn up the face. So a big part of our project is working with the community and figuring out the most sustainable and economically viable way forward.”

Find out more about the The Lost Mountain Project here. Join the Kickstarter campaign here. Majka Burhardt and Kate Rutherford are Patagonia Climbing Ambassadors. The Lost Mountain is also sponsored by Clif Bar and is a non-profit partner of 1% for the Planet.

 

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