The first week of 2018 closed on a positive note. Today, I went to Kasungu District, an agricultural area famous for commercial farming at large scale. The target was Ngala hill, though the locals call it Ngala mountain. It is not difficult to see why that is the case. This is largely a flat land being on the same plains that originate from Lilongwe and cover several districts in the Central Region. There no big mountains around, and any hill becomes prominent. Kasungu has a big and beautiful river that meanders across the land, and in this rainy season, is full of water and surrounded by lush vegetation on its banks. Nature’s dry sense of humour prevents you from taking an easy swim largely due to the presence of Nile crocodiles. These giant monsters, that never stop growing, easily navigate this river which is a major tributary of Lake Malawi.
Ngala hill has a namesake in Lilongwe, but the one in Lilongwe has a yawning cave mouth, earning the name Ngala Ya Pakamwa, which as shared before, means a rock with a mouth. The Ngala hill in Kasungu, in keeping with the name has a rock dome on its second highest peak, with a cliff face on one side, and a very steep incline on the other side. It is covered in a natural woodland, which has been devastated by rampant deforestation. Even today, we met loggers coming down from the hill with huge chunks of logs, and found a few trees that have already met their fate against axes and saws. Despite this, the hill is covered in greenery from baby trees, shrubs, grass and diminutive flowers that seem to hesitate adding colour to the green canvass.
I spied a lonely hawk towards the peak, and another bird of prey that looked like a kingfisher. The other birds, though present, did not seem to be in large numbers. A butterfly here and there darted across our path, and though smaller in size, did not disappoint in packing dark and exotic colours. At one point, I startled what looked like a quail, but this one had a brown plumage and what looked like a line of white dots running on the fringes of its beautiful wings. None of these guys gave me a chance to snap a photo. I am not sure if this is as a result of having hunters that come to this hill for a small-scale hunting spree. I could be wrong about the hunters being that this was my first visit and having not observed the animals for a long time.
I was in the company of Lt Boniface Banda of Malawi Defense Force (MDF) and our local guide was Stephano, a local trader who plies his trade at the Bua River Police Road Block. Being very versatile, he is comfortable selling newspaper and fresh apples. Now, to that portfolio, he has added the services of a part time guide and part time porter. My host, BB as he is popularly called by his friends, has an active outdoors lifestyle and I knew his participation was going to raise the bar for me. Having suffered under the hands of my friend AKB, who is a power hiker, I guess I was secretly looking forward to some tough times. So I let him lead, and the guide picking up a cue from him, went into super drive mode. And so began our adventure.
The trail we picked was short, fairly straight and steep leading to a local peak. The intention was to get to the ridge of the hill, and then approach the rock dome from the northern side. Being that the hill is sitting roughly east-to-west, it seemed like a logical choice. Its execution soon found me drenched in sweat, while my partner looked like he was floating away, and the guide gliding over the grassy trail. I tried to keep up but at some point, I took a deep breath and stopped. I turned around, and – wham! – I was hit back by what I saw. Bua River below, which had looked gorgeous at ground level, was now shimmering with celestial beauty. Like a giant silver snake, with its broad banks caused by seasonal overflow, coiled across the land in a hypnotic pattern. All my pains were immediately gone and I knew this hill, and this trail in particular, was a good choice. I took courage and gunned for the peak. With every inch forward, the view got better and better.
We reached the peak, and got a 270 degrees view, and could see Kasungu township in the distance. Everywhere we turned, there were stretches of cultivated land, interspersed with tiny knolls and patches of trees. As a plus the peak was somewhat covered in shade, and the breeze was amazing. After a water break, we embarked for the ultimate target. A few hundred metres later the rock dome came into view. Its northern face boasted of boulders with jagged edges and held back its approach. The slope at this point looked like the angle was above 70 degrees. The guide had to disappear for a while to hunt for a reasonable approach. He soon reappeared and led us to a vertical wall.
The crux of the climb came at the point where we had to use hands and feet to yank ourselves on a slab of rock that was above our heights, and was on a precipice whose fall would have seen a few things broken and perhaps permanently shutdown. The guide kindly offered his hand to help lift us up, but this was summarily dismissed. This hike was about expanding our frontier, and this stage was necessary to challenge us to the limit. At least, it challenged me to the limit. My hiking partner grabbed an invisible hook on the rock, sank his left foot into the rock, and was gone in a flash. When I got there, everything became flat and smooth. Where was that hook and dip that were there moments before? All the comfortable hooks were clutches to patches of grass, a false hook waiting to give away once engaged. Eventually, the job was done, and a gallon of sweat was left behind.
On the rock dome the view was truly panoramic. Such beauty, even the best camera cannot capture. There was no shade, nothing to impede the amazing global view. I took it all in and realized once again how beautiful the natural world is. We took our photos and soon it was time to return. The lieutenant quickly discovered a different trail which was much easier than the one we used during our ascent. An hour later we were at the bottom of the hill, and we headed where we had packed our car to return to civilization. And though we are all part of city life, moments like these in the wild remind us all of something inside us yearning to interact with nature in a different way. Something that is clearly searching perhaps for something we once possessed. I hope to find it one day as I continue looking for new mountains and hills across the country. I hope you find it too.