On the rocks!

At the end of a recent story, I left you near Mkushi, in Zambia. With a promise to write about exploring the surroundings of Tembusha Forest Camp, our campsite.

View from one of the granite outcrops, over the Miombo woodland near Tembusha, with farming areas in the background. © Ron Smit

The camp sits between and against outcrops of a coarse-grained granite, with higher hills nearby. These obviously invited exploration, for the hills themselves, for the views from the top, and, well, just because they are there!

It was a slightly moist morning when we started the walk, but the few scattered raindrops didn’t deter us. Soon we were walking up slopes covered in wet grass and clambering over, between and onto the rocks. Exploration!

Different types of life beneath our feet. © Ron Smit

Due to the way that granite weathers, it tends to form hills (we call them “koppies” in Afrikaans or “kopjes” in English) with rounded tops that look smooth from a distance. However, when you get closer, then the coarse-grained nature of the rock becomes clear and you can easily distinguish the pink feldspar crystals (orthoclase phenocrysts, if you are interested) and the other constituents, giving the rock a very rough surface.

Sometimes, on the way to the top, you have to get down and crawl. © Quintin Smit, with permission.

As you work your way through the grass and the trees, it is easy to forget another very important lifeform, right under your feet. From a distance they appear as coloured stains on the rock, but from closer, it is easy to see the different shapes that these creatures take. I say creatures, because they may look a bit like plants, but they are not…

Lichen on porphyritic granite at Tembusha. © Ron Smit

I’m referring to the various forms of lichen, which are pretty complicated composite organisms, essentially a collaboration between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. As such, they don’t really classify either as plants or as animals. The linked Wikipedia page will tell you more than you probably want to know about lichens, but in summary I could say that the fungi tend to provide the anchoring by sending their little tendrils into the rock or tree bark, while the algae or cyanobacteria provide nourishment for the team through photosynthesis.

It’s difficult (for me, at least, I’m not a biologist!) to identify the specific lichens that we saw, but the ones that look like they have little leaves are called “foliose” lichens. Another type seen in the picture appears to be must closer onto the rock, like paint stains. These are probably “crustose” lichens.

We do know that lichens have been on this planet for many millions of years, with some types possibly even predating the evolution of vascular plants.

But let’s move higher up the evolutionary ladder, and up into a branch occupied by us, homo sapiensResearch indicates that our distant ancestors descended from the forests in Eastern Africa, onto the savanna plains. Standing upright on two legs, to be able to see over high grass, became more useful than grabbing onto branches with all four legs and a tail. And so our forefathers became bipedal animals.

My family, however, attempted the opposite process in our part of Africa. We wanted to use all our limbs to clamber up onto rocky hills, using trees. Many of you know my family well, so you will understand :).

My own descendant striving to reach the top, with another of his ancestors pointing the way (as if it wasn’t completely obvious already). © Ron Smit

You see, we wanted to have those grand views from the top of a granite hill, and of course, we just wanted to be able to say that we did it… However, the rounded boulders topping these hills were impossible to scale.

So we found a dead tree and with a lot of huffing and puffing, grunting and mutual advice and instructions, we managed to lever it against the rock face. The bravest among us then attempted to use this to climb onto the rock. I have to say “attempted” because he did not meet with success. Our makeshift scaffolding was too wobbly and there was still not enough grip on the rockface near the top. Or maybe he is too evolved?

Anyway, we were high enough already to enjoy plenty of views over the surrounding countryside.

One of my favourite views from the (almost) top. © Ron Smit
Drinks “on the rocks” — our Tembusha campfire on the morning after. A fantastic location where we spent a few nights discussing exciting and important stuff. Yes, indeed, assisted by the contents of those green bottles. © Ron Smit

After packing up at Tembusha, we drove back to the “Great North Road” and continued onwards to the Mutinondo Wilderness. Our adventures there are the subject of my next story, so “stay tuned”!

Just in case you missed my previous post, I started this short series, about our travel together with our “kids”, with the story linked below:

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