Meandering through Mutinondo

Panoramic view over the surrounding miombo woodland with the granite “whaleback” hills popping out of the greenery. (c) Ron Smit, April 2022

My previous post about our trip through Zambia ended with us leaving Tembusha Forest Camp and hitting the T2 “Great North Road” towards the Northeast of the country. And for us, the drive to Mutinondo Wilderness.

Our route from Tembusha to Mutinondo, courtesy of Google Maps.

Marina and I had been to Mutinondo before, during December 2020, but we’d only stayed for one night and didn’t really have an opportunity to explore the place as much as we’d like to. We’d promised to come back for longer, hopefully with family or friends. So it was great to be able to visit with Quintin and Tessa.

This satellite image of Mutinondo, provided by CNES/Airbus through GoogleEarth Pro, shows the granitic “whaleback” hills poking through the woodland, as well as the branches of the low-lying “dambo” areas. Copyright as indicated on the image.

That rather unique landscape is one of the reasons why Mutinondo is so attractive. And while there have apparently been visits by leopards in the past, it is quite safe to walk, hike or climb in this area. We had decided that if the weather was good, we were going to climb up onto Mayense, the highest and southernmost hill in the area.

The weather on the next day was cool but good and after having our campsite breakfast, visiting the lodge area, and having a chat about the route with the manager, we set off on our walk. It was already quite late in the day, just after midday or so, but the route that we decided to take, was apparently only about 12km long. We’re all fit and keen, so we set off at a brisk pace, downhill from the Main Lodge, over a wooden bridge, alongside Kite Rock and Kaloko. We skipped climbing these, our eyes were focused on Mayense, looming towards the South.

These “whaleback” rocks are the result of granite intrusions pushing upwards into the surrounding rock. Imagine great blobs of molten magma pushing upwards through the country rock, like the coloured blobs in a lava lamp, until eventually cooling and solidifying. All this would have happened very deep in the earth’s crust, about one billion years ago. Over the many millions of years since then, the surrounding rock was eroded away, leaving the granite plutons exposed. The technical term is “inselberg“, which means “island mountain” in German. And these hills do resemble islands floating in a sea of green, ready for visitors like us to explore.

Marina ascending Mayense. (c) Ron Smit, April 2022

Due to their shape, the hills are not too steep. The ascent of Mayense starts with a steep walk, and a bit of clambering from time to time. However, the climb took longer than expected, mostly because the curvature of the rock keeps the final destination, the summit, out of view. But when you finally reach the top, at 1684m above mean sea level, you are some 240m higher than the surrounding landscape. As a result, you don’t know if you want to sit down and catch your breath, or walk around the summit and take pictures in every direction. We did both, and even though it was quite cool and overcast, we took some lovely pictures.

Marina, Tessa and Quintin behind the little cairn that we built on top of Mayense. Each of the stacked stones represents something of significance in our family. (c) Ron Smit, April 2022

The granite rock is covered in grey, yellow and orange lichen, which I had already mentioned in my previous post.

Anyway, mindful of the fact that we still wanted to complete the rest of the walk before dark, we set off downhill and continued on the route indicated on the map that had been provided.

Our route. Scan of paper map provided by Mutinondo Wilderness.

Since we had done only about a third of the intended route, we continued southeastwards and then eastwards at a brisk pace. There is rock art to be seen at Hyrax Hill, but we unfortunately had no time for a detour there, so we turned northwards, crossed a few little streams, and skirted Julian’s Rock.

We were on the lookout for “Paradise Pools”, at which point we were supposed to turn northwestward, along a track that was apparently going to be somewhat less well marked. After crossing a couple more little streams, I noticed that we were still walking northwards, and were starting to approach another hill, which must be Kapinda’s Rock. (Useful to have an old-school compass in my pocket!)

We had not seen anything that could conceivably have been called Paradise Pools. A pity, it was getting quite warm and we’d have loved to have dangled our feet in such a pool. Anyway, we backtracked along the route, keeping a sharp lookout for any pools.

No paradisical pools were found. Also, no sign of the “less well-marked” track that we were supposed to follow.

And time was marching on. Not only that, but Marina was starting to feel similar issues with her feet that she had a few years ago, when she walked the “Dodentocht“, a 100km-in-24-hours walk in Belgium. But that’s another story, and it’s not my story to tell, either. So we were quite keen to make progress back towards our campsite, to say the least.

We rested a few times, and took some photographs of plant life along the way.

Tiny but beautiful little flower. If you know what it’s called, please let me know. (c) Ron Smit, April 2022
Another little unknown beauty hiding between the grass. (c) Ron Smit, 2022
Some fungal colours, too! (c) Ron Smit, 2022

When you walk through the Zambian bush, then it’s nice to know that you are in an area where there are no elephants who could trample you, and where there should not be any large cats to take a bite out of your body.

However, size is not everything, we realized.

During one of our resting and/or photographic stops, we managed to collect a few ants that stealthily wandered up against our legs. These guys (or girls?) then proceeded to take a bite out of our skin when least expected. And when they were inside our clothing, we couldn’t see them to remove them. So we were forced to slap or rub our legs, hoping that the offending ants were eliminated. This usually doesn’t work the first time.

Eventually, after backtracking a few times, we decided that we knew where we were going, or at least in which direction the campsite was. Like the intrepid explorers that we think we are, we struck off into a northwesterly direction, keeping to the North of Julian’s Rock. Not really on any kind of marked trail.

We had been told that the track would allow us to cross the river, just after a little waterfall, and we scouted a few opportunities but they didn’t look promising. Quite a bit of “bundu-bashing” was involved to try and find that place where crossing was supposed to be possible. We were now into late afternoon and didn’t feel ready to fall into the water and have to walk the rest of the way in wet clothes.

Finally, after passing the Ndubaluba Falls, we found a place where we could clamber across the river, using large boulders as stepping stones. A very beautiful place, but we had no time to admire it. By now the sun was starting slip below the trees, and dusk was rushing over the countryside, towards us.

Marina’s feet were getting worse, but she gritted her teeth and she persisted. As we approached Choso Falls, Quintin and Tessa went ahead towards the lodge, they moved a lot faster than we did and Quintin still wanted to take some sunset pictures from Harry’s Bar at the lodge.

For the last kilometre or so, when it was almost completely dark, Marina resorted to walking barefoot. I walked ahead, switching on my phone torch from time to time. It wouldn’t be nice to step on a scorpion… So if any of you ever doubt that she is tough, just remember that she walked barefoot through the wilderness, in the dark!

For those of you who think that I’m exaggerating – the view of sunset from the vicinity of Choso Falls, on the way to the campsite and the main lodge area. (c) Ron Smit, 2022

When we reached the lodge area (where the dinner that we had reserved was ready) the manager was very pleased to see us. He’d been a bit surprised that Quintin and Tessa had “just left us behind”, and was considering when he might have to go and look for us. But then he doesn’t know us :).

According to Quintin’s smart watch, we had walked more than 20km…

After a great dinner provided by the Mutinondo team, we were quite happy to clamber up into our rooftop tent for a well-deserved rest!

There were some more relaxing activities during the next day, but I will leave that story for a next blog post. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “Meandering through Mutinondo

  1. Ah, one of my favourite places on earth. J and I have wonderful memories of scaling the inselbergs on one day, and doing some of your other trail on another. We are not as intrepid as you all are!


  2. Onze kinderen Martine en Benny met hun 2 zonen onze kleinkinderen zijn nu in Malawi. Ze reizen daar door het land en doen ook safaris. De kinderen vinden het fantastisch.


  3. This was a great little (tiring) experience! The view from the mountain top was worth every drop of sweat it cost me.
    In answer to your question, most ants (that we see at least) are actually female… this is due to the fact that usually we see the worker ants, and these are female. Fun side fact; any female ant can become a queen. Their diet determines this (and not genetics).
    Looking forward to part two 🙂


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