Mount Binga – 7,992 ft
Day 1 – Drive Johannesburg to southern Zimbabwe
Day 2 – Drive to Mt Binga, camp at trailhead
Day 3 – Hike Mt Binga, drive to Inyangani trailhead
“No, stay right here. Don’t go near the immigration office until we tell you to,” Jonathan, a Zimbabwean, admonished.
“I’ve had enough of you guys helping me out and taking so many bribes. I can’t afford another dollar. I’ll either do this myself or not get through,” I replied, frustrated with the group of “helpers” trying to navigate me through the chaotic and corrupt border crossing.
“Look over there,” Jonathan said, pointing to the huge crowd of people congregated outside the immigration building a hundred feet from us. “Do you see any other white guys there? No. You look very suspicious in the eyes of the government, especially trying to pass through so late at night. White guys never cross at this border, especially not at night.”
It was true. I’d been at the South Africa-Zimbabwe border for a four hours already, and out of hundreds of people at the border, I had not seen a single other white person. It was also late, already 10pm.
“See those security cameras?” Jonathan said, pointing up at the immigration building. “President Mugabe is worried about western spies, and if they see you on those cameras they will certainly bring you in for questioning. They might not even let you through the border if they think you are a spy. Just let us handle the documents, and you can drive through and nobody will see you. We have guys on the inside, my guys, who can get you through.”
I was in a tough situation. I knew these “helpers” were trying to scam me out of money, but I also knew from past border crossings in Latin America that figuring out which forms to fill out, which fees to pay, and which people have which forms, is extremely confusing and chaotic at the border of a developing country. These guys obviously knew the system here, and at the very least could save me a few hours of figuring it out for myself.
I would later learn that some tourists have waited up to 18 hours to get through the Beitbridge border while their paper work gets filled out. Truck drivers have been known to wait up to several days to get through. I certainly didn’t have that much time to wait around – I only had 6 days and needed all of them to get to the highpoints of Zimbabwe and Mozambique as planned.
For some reason, I couldn’t quite dismiss the thought that there might be a shred of truth in what Jonathan said about President Mugabe being paranoid about spies. It was troubling that I was the only white guy at the border, despite there being tons of white people living in South Africa. Was there a reason tourists didn’t cross there, at Beitbridge?
I decided to take Jonathan’s advice, for the time being at least, and see if he and his buddies could somehow get me through that border crossing into Zimbabwe.
“Ok, here’s my passport and car documents,” I said, handing them to the helpers reluctantly.
Jonathan took the documents and walked over to the immigration office as I waited by the car with the two other helpers, Michael and Robert. We were in a dusty dirt parking area with concrete barriers haphazardly placed to create some sense of order. It was very dark, with no street lights where I was parked a few hundred feet from the border offices. This was on purpose, though, so I wouldn’t be seen.
Soon Jonathan came back, with bad news.
“They are very suspicious of you. The officer sees the Chinese and Russian stamps in your passport. Very suspicious. He wants to see you in person. Follow me, and do exactly as I say,” he told me.
I locked the car and walked over to the border building with the three helpers. We walked in one of the buildings, and Jonathan pushed through a long line of people and got up to the officer.
“Don’t worry, our guys are on the inside,” Michael said. “Stay right here so he can see you, but don’t go any farther.”
Jonathan showed the officer the passport, then pointed back at me. The officer thought about it for a while, then nodded and handed the passport back.
“You’re good, now take this paper and walk up to the front of this line,” Michael told me.
I quickly filled out the paper and walked to the front of a separate line. This appeared to be the visa issuing department, and I had just cut in front of 30 people. They didn’t seem upset, though.
The officer appeared to be expecting me, and took my passport and $30. Ten minutes later he returned it with a Zimbabwe visa. I had read online that the Zimbabwe visa does in fact cost $30, so was not surprised here.
“Now, go back to the car with us before somebody sees you,” Robert said, as we walked outside.
Robert, Michael and I waited at the car while Jonathan stayed at the border with my passport. I offered to charge Michael’s phone in the car, thinking it couldn’t hurt to help these guys out.
In another ten minutes, Jonathan came back shaking his head again. “They will not give you the customs stamp unless you pay them $100. They know you are an American with money, and Mugabe has not paid these workers in three months. Come on, just $100 and you’ll get through. Just stick the money inside this paperwork, hand it to the lady on the other side of the door, and she will give you the stamp.”
“No,” I replied. “You guys have already taken so much money from me. I don’t even know if the CVG tax is legitimate, and the carbon fee for the car sounds like a scam. How do I know you aren’t just pocketing all this money?”
(I had noticed on one of the signs inside that there indeed was a CVG fee required for rental cars, and a carbon tax for any cars passing through, but suspected I had been way overcharged for these.)
“We are just trying to help you through,” Michael replied. “Look at this,” he said pulling out his phone and showing me an email. “This is a message my guys on the inside showed me. See, they haven’t been paid in 3 months.”
I glanced at it, and it seemed like he could be telling the truth.
“But I’m running out of money,” I replied. “You guys told me to go back to the South Africa bank atm and take out $300 for all the fees, and that’s all I have. You also told me most of the ATMs don’t work in Zimbabwe. So why should I give you the last of my money? I’ll get through the border with nothing! What if some policeman needs a bribe on the other side?”
“Yes, that was our mistake telling you to only withdraw that amount,” Robert conceded.
“I’m going to go talk to the customs agent myself. I’ve had enough,” I said, frustrated.
Jonathan gave me the documents reluctantly. I walked over to the building as he had instructed, went in the back door, and walked into the first room on the left. A women and two men were sitting at a desk, obviously expecting me. I handed them the documents, but I hadn’t put any money inside. This, they were obviously not expecting.
The woman, surprised and angry, started scrutinizing my paperwork.
“This is not an original registration form for the car,” she said, handing me a document. Indeed, it was a copy of the car’s registration, which is standard procedure for rental cars agencies to give.
“If you don’t have the original, you need a notary stamp on it, which you don’t have,” she continued smugly. “I’m sorry but we can’t let you pass.”
I looked over the document, and was certain she was making this up as an excuse to get a bribe. “No, actually this is the official document the car rental agency gave me,” I replied. “This is perfectly acceptable.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she replied. “You need a stamp on it which you don’t have.” She pointed to a small sign on the wall,that said exactly what she was telling me, that registration forms must be original or have a notary stamp. I’m pretty sure she put that on the wall just to add legitimacy to her argument, and to let her get a bigger bribe. She was smiling now, certain that she would get a lot of money out of me to pass.
But I wouldn’t give in without a fight.
“Actually, the agent at the car rental agency gave me his personal phone number and said to call him if there are any issues crossing the border. He specifically said I have all the necessary paperwork to cross this border, and he’d be happy to help at any hour,” I said.
The woman started getting nervous now. “No, that is not how things are done here,” she replied. “We cannot do that.”
“It’s really no problem,” I said. “Look, his number is written right here on the document. I’ll just call him up on my phone right now and hand it over to you. You don’t even need to use your own phone or anything.”
I started pulling out my phone to dial the number. The woman was visibly upset now, almost on the verge of crying. “That’s not how things are done here. That’s not how things are done here,” she kept repeating. Then, before I could dial the number, she reluctantly pulled out a stamp, stamped my document, and handed it back to me.
I had scored a small victory that night, and walked back to the car triumphantly, without having lost any money.
“Good, now you have all the documents you need,” Jonathan said, handing me a fistful of other documents and my passport. “Now just drive through and hand these to the agent at the gate. But don’t mention that we helped you. They don’t like that.”
I started getting in the car, but Jonathan held on to one last document.
“And you should pay us for our help,” he said.
“No, I already paid you on the South Africa side, and you’ve already taken all my money,” I replied.
“No, you only paid me for getting through the South Africa side, not the Zimbabwe side,” he replied. “I have a family to feed. You can’t not pay us.”
Given that he was still holding one document, I decided I had to pay them something. I handed over $15 and told them to split it. “If I give you any more, I won’t be able to buy gas on the other side of the border,” I said.
They reluctantly accepted the money and let me through. But I wasn’t quite done yet. Back at the border an agent stopped me and asked for my CVG document. I handed it over, and he looked suspicious.
“How much did those guys charge you?” he asked.
I was reluctant to be truthful, since I no longer knew who was going to ask for a bribe next.
“Too much,” I replied. “I think I was scammed.”
The officer shook his head in disgust. “Those guys always mess things up trying to go around the system. You should never deal with them,” he said.
For a minute I thought he was an honest man who might feel sorry for me and let me through. But I was wrong.
“Do you have anything for me?” he asked. “I will speed things up and let you pass right through.”
“No,” I replied, disappointed in him. “Those guys already took all my money. I have nothing left.”
“Ok, pull over here while we inspect your car,” he said angrily.
I pulled over, got out of the car, and a woman came over to inspect everything. She looked through all my stuff, then gave me my documents back and said I could proceed. It looked like I was almost through, but then I drove up to a big gate across the road. This was the place where I needed to pay the gate fee. Luckily the helpers had procured this document for me, and I handed it over and was waived through.
I was free at last! Finally, after five hours at the border, I had made it into Zimbabwe!
I was on my way driving north from South Africa, towards the highest mountains in Zimbabwe (Mt Inyangani) and Mozambique (Mt Binga). Mt Binga is actually on the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border and is easily accessible from Chimani National Park in Zimbabwe, and that was my first destination.
I had just finished an [unsuccessful] attempt to climb the Madagascar highpoint, and wanted to try my luck at a few more country highpoints in Africa. The cheapest way I could find to hit these two highpoints in the time I had (a little under a week), was actually to rent a car in Johannesburg, South Africa, drive 1.5 days up to Zimbabwe, climb the two mountains, and then drive back.
Car rentals in Johannesburg were a factor of five cheaper per day than in Harare, Zimbabwe, so even though I would be driving a few extra days over just renting from inside Zimbabwe, it would be considerably cheaper. Plus, I could see more of the countryside on a big road trip.
I picked up my rental car from the Johannesburg airport at noon on August 22 and started driving
north. The roads in South Africa are just like US interstates – they’re 4-lane divided highways with high speed limits, so allow for very easy driving. You just have to remember to drive on the left.
I drove for a few hours, then stopped at a gas station to stock up on food and water for the next week. Curiously, my fuel gauge hadn’t budged, even though I’d driven at least 100 miles. It appeared the gauge was broken. The odometer seemed to work, though, so I made a mental note to refill the tank every few hundred miles to be safe.
I drove north through Mokopane and Polokwane, eventually reaching the Zimbabwe border crossing at Beitbridge around 5pm. I pulled up to the border buildings and got out of my car. I was expecting a border like the South Africa-Botswana border I’d crossed a few times before, where one just walks inside the building, hands over passport and vehicle registration, and is waived through.
A man followed me in, though, and offered to help. “No,” I said. “I’m fine on my own.”
“But the crossing is difficult on the Zimbabwe side. I will help you for $20” he said.
I thought about it for a minute, then replied, “I’ll pay you $5 to help.” I knew that if the border of a developing country has “helper” people like this guy, that usually means they are chaotic, and can take a long time to get through without help.
The man, Jonathan, told me which forms to fill out, I got the correct stamps, and went back to the car. At the car another man was waiting.
“You need reflector stickers on your car in Zimbabwe,” Johanthan said. “My friend will put them on your car for $10. If the police find you without these, it is a minimum $50 fine.”
This rule did sound vaguely familiar to me, so I paid for the stickers, then Jonathan got in the car with me as we approached the border. We had to drive across a narrow bridge, with semi trucks parked on one side, making it only 1-lane wide. When I was halfway across another car came, forcing me to reverse back to the south Africa side and wait. Eventually I found my turn and made it across.
On the other side another helper, Michael, got in the car and started showing me some paperwork.
“I’m Jonathan’s agent, and I’ll help get you your CVG document,” he said, handing me some paperwork.
I had never heard of this, and suspected a scam. “What is that?” I asked.
“It’s required for all rental cars. The government used to required that you deposit 10% of the value of the car at the border, and you would get that amount back when you leave. But, usually when people came back to the border to leave, the border agents would say they didn’t have the money. Tourists didn’t want to wait around for the money, so they would just lose it.”
“Now we use a CVG, which is kind of like insurance. You buy the CVG, and my company covers the deposit at the border, so you don’t have to risk losing your money.”
I looked over his documents, and it sounded vaguely like some regulation I’d heard about in Zimbabwe.
“How much does it cost?” I asked.
“$150, but you’ll also have to pay a carbon tax, gate fee, visa fee, and a few other fees to get across,” Michael replied. “You should have at least $300.”
This sounded way more expensive than I was expecting, and I regretted not doing my homework to research this border crossing. I had assumed it would be straightforward like the Botswana crossing.
“Well, I don’t have that much money,” I said. “Is there an ATM on the Zimbabwe side?”
“No, there are no ATMs at the border, and even if there was one, most of the ATMs in Zimbabwe are broken. The ones that work only give $50 at a time,” Jonathan said. “You’d better go back to South Africa and get more money there. We can wait for you here.”
This looked like my only option, so I reluctantly dropped them off on the Zimbabwe side and drove back to South Africa. I stopped to explain to the border agents what I was doing, and they didn’t seem surprised at all. I asked them what fees would I expect on the Zimbabwe side, hoping to get some corroboration before I shelled out so much money that the helper guys were asking for.
“They have all kinds of fees over there that I don’t know about,” one agent told me. “I would take at least $150.”
This gave me a bit more confidence that the helpers were telling the truth, so I continued to a gas station, withdrew $300 from an ATM, and continued back across the border to meet up with Jonathan and Michael.
I eventually got through the border, even with a few dollars left over. It was 11pm and I needed a place to stop and sleep for the night. I started driving north on A4 towards Harare, and was soon stopped at a police checkpoint. I rolled down the window, and the police officer shined a flashlight inside, then waved me through. I suspected he was checking for the reflector stickers, which I luckily had.
When I was well outside of Beitbridge I found a small dirt road heading into the woods, pulled off, and soon found a nice spot to sleep for the night. I folded down the seats in the back of the car and had just laid down to sleep when the car alarm started going off. I quickly managed to turn it off, or so I thought, but when I was just about to sleep again it went off again.
This is not what one wants when trying to stealth camp. I dug out the owner’s manual, and figured out that if the car is turned off and locked for a certain amount of time, then a motion detector on the inside is activated. I took out some duct tape, covered up the motion detector, and the alarm never went off again.
My goal for my first full day in Zimbabwe was to drive all the way to the trailhead of Mt Binga, the Mozambique highpoint, in Chimanimani National Park. I woke up at sunrise and was soon driving north on A4. The road was in pretty good condition, and I mostly drove through dry forests. Every once in a while I would see a pull-off with a beat up concrete picnic table. Invariably, the seats were destroyed, leaving just stumps around a circular table. I imagined these rest areas were put in place under British rule, but when the British left Zimbabwe in 1980, they were apparently never maintained.
I never saw a speed limit sign, but judging by a few cars that passed me it appeared the speed limit was around 120 kph. I drove north for a few hours, then noticed a green sign, poorly painted to say something like “cane road crossing – speed limit 40kph.” I slowed down, passed through an intersection, then drove a few more kilometers over a bridge. I had obviously crossed the intersection kilometers ago, so resumed the normal speed.
As I rounded a blind turn I saw five semi trucks and a handful of cars pulled off on both sides of the road, and a policeman waved for me to pull over as well. Another policeman had what looked like a radar gun.
“Uh oh,” I thought. “I bet I’m going to get a ticket.
The policeman and the radar gun man walked up to my car.
“Hello, how are you today?” he asked me.
“I’m doing well, how are you?” I replied.
“Good thanks. You were driving 100 kph and the speed limit is 40 kph,” he said, as the radar man showed me the radar gun readout. “Can I have your license and TIP?” (that was one of the handful of documents I’d accumulated at the border).
“Ok…” I said. “But how was I supposed to know the speed limit if there were no signs?” I asked. “I slowed down for the cane road crossing, but that was a long ways back.”
“It is not my job to make sure you know the speed limit. That is your responsibility,” he replied. “You will have to pay a $700 fine.”
I looked behind him, and one of the truck drivers was angrily arguing with another officer. A handful of people were standing under a tree, and it looked like some were paying the officers money. Something seemed suspicious here to me. Those truck drivers obviously drive up and down this road every day for a living. They, if anyone, ought to know what the speed limits are in every area. Why would they all get pulled over? This area was far away from any road crossing or inhabited area. In fact, it was well into the woods, and it’s not clear why the speed limit would have been 40 kph out here.
Also, there was no way those guys could afford a $700 fine, and they were certainly driving faster than I was. Those were the people who’d been passing me on the road! Obviously he saw an opportunity to make some money on a white guy.
I was still under the mentality of not getting scammed, and remembered how standing firm at the border crossing had saved me a bribe. So I pressed my case with the police officer.
“How am I supposed to know that the speed limit was still 40 kph? In fact, that’s the only speed limit sign I’ve seen in the past few hours! And I passed it 10 km ago.” I said. I argued a bit more, probably too much, and the officer started getting mad.
“I am finished with you. I’m going to bring you to the magistrate in town. This will be a $700 speeding fine. You can argue with the magistrate,” he said angrily, starting to walk away.
I suspected he was bluffing. He really wanted cash right there. If I went into town to deal with a court, the officer wouldn’t get any bribe at all. But he still had my license, so there wasn’t much I could do. I looked in my wallet, and all I had left was a $20 bill, and 10 euro note, and 15 rand.
I walked over across the road to talk to the officer. This time I apologized for everything I said, told him it was all my fault, and that I would pay the fine I owed. But I showed him that all the money I had amounted to about $35.
“Ha, that’s it?!” he said, peering into my wallet. “You couldn’t even pay a basic $50 fine! You might not even get past the toll booth ahead.”
“The border agents took all my money, and there were no banks open between there and here,” I replied as nicely as I could. “If you let me go to the next town I can withdraw money there and pay the fine there.”
The officer just scoffed at me and walked away. I tried talking to the radar man, and then a female officer collecting money, but they said it was between me and the officer.
I waited around a half hour there under the tree, getting cold and wet as a light drizzle formed. Every time another car came by, the officers jumped up excitedly, like they had just landed another fish and were realing it in. At one point a bus came driving up extremely slowly, in fact slowly enough that the officers couldn’t actually catch it for speeding. The driver must have been tipped off to the speed trap.
Finally I approached the officer again.
“Is there anything else I could give you in addition to all the money I have?” I asked. “I can give you all the food I have too. Please, that’s all I have to offer.”
The female officer looked at the him and said something in a language I didn’t understand.
“Ok, show me what food you have,” he said grudgingly.
I went back to the car, filled up a shopping bag with my food, and handed it to him, along with the $20 bill, 10-euro note, and 15 rand.
“Ok, you can go,” he said, handing me my license and TIP form.
“Could I at least have enough money to get past the toll booth ahead?” I pleaded.
“Fine,” he said, shoving 10 rand back at me.
I took the money, got in the car, and took off [slowly]. I couldn’t afford another stop, because now I only had the equivalent of $2 on me, just enough to get through the toll.
I passed the toll booth a few miles later, paid the last of my money, and got through. There was a small village on the other side, and I desperately looked for an ATM. But there were none. I stopped in a small food shop, and asked about ATMs. The owner said if I bought something with a credit card, he could give me cash back. That sounded perfect!
However, he only had $25 on hand to give back. I picked up some chips and tried to buy them, but his machine didn’t work. We tried for 30 minutes, with him calling up other people, but none of my credit cards worked. He finally determined that only Zimbabwe credit cards would work. I would have to drive another few hours north to Masvingo to find the next ATM.
I nervously got back on the road, driving well under what I thought was the speed limit, hoping I could make it to the next ATM without being pulled over.
Sure enough, after ten minutes I rounded a corner and saw two policeman standing in the road waving for me to stop. I certainly wasn’t speeding this time, but I was sure they would find some way to get a bribe.
“Hello how are you doing?” the officer asked after I rolled down the window.
“I’m well, how are you?” I asked, trying to be as polite as possible.
“Very well, thanks. Can you show me your fire extinguisher and two traffic triangles?” he asked.
Dang it, I thought. This sounded familiar too. I had heard that in some developing countries police officers will ask for seemingly random items like this at a checkpoint, and if you don’t have them you have to pay a bribe. But unfortunately, yet again, I had failed to do my homework on Zimbabwe and was not prepared for this.
“Sure, let me check the trunk,” I said, getting out of the car. “This is a rental car, so they probably gave me these items somewhere.”
I dug through trunk and found one traffic triangle, but no fire extinguisher.
“Um, I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” I said. “Let me keep looking.”
I kept looking everywhere, trying to be as slow as possible so maybe he would get tired and let me pass. But after it was obvious I didn’t have the other items, I had to stop.
“I’m really, sorry, but it looks like I don’t have them.” I said. “Can I buy them in the next town?”
“Yes, but you’ll have to pay a fine here,” he said, smiling.
“I’m really sorry, but I actually don’t have a single dollar left,” I said, pulling out my wallet and showing him it was empty. “The officers back at the speed trap 20km back took everything, including my lunch.”
The officer started laughing. He seemed surprised that there were other officers so close by, and he obviously was not coordinating with them at all. He walked over to talk to the other officers and they laughed as well.
“Ok, you are free to go. Safe travels,” he said, handing me back my license.
I kept driving cautiously down the road, and managed to reach Masvingo without getting stopped again.
Here I withdrew money at an ATM and filled up on gas. I noticed all the money that came out of the ATM was extremely dirty and worn US bills. I knew the economy of Zimbabwe basically collapsed around 2007, with literally a quintillion percent inflation. At one point they were printing out 500-trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes that were worth only 35 US cents!
To solve to rampant inflation problem they convert completely over to US dollars. I’m not sure how they get all the money from the US to Zimbabwe, but once over there it definitely stays. I bet that’s why every bill is so worn out and dirty. It may have been circulating there since 2008.
I turned east out of Masvingo on A9, and soon passed another police checkpoint. This time I got lucky and they waved me through. I never figured out how they decided who to stop, but maybe it’s just random. At that point I resolved I had to somehow purchase a fire extinguisher and two traffic triangles to avoid any more possible fines.
Soon afterwards I found a small auto-mechanic shop outside Masvingo and discovered that they indeed sold a fire extinguisher for $26 and an extra traffic triangle for $5. I asked them if there were any other items that police checked for, and they could only think of a spare tire and reflector stickers. I already had those, so I was covered.
Finally, I could drive with relative confidence that I wouldn’t have to pay any bribes. I continued east, getting stopped two more times at police checkpoints. Each time they asked for a fire extinguisher, and I triumphantly produced one. I easily passed through.
By evening I reached the village of Chimanimani in a densely-forested logging area. I continued past town on a deteriorating dirt road, following signs for an outward bound camp. The road was close to the limits of what my 2wd low-clearance car could handle, but I eventually reached the park boundary and pulled over in the grass parking lot at the end of the road. It was about an hour before sunset, so probably too late to summit.
I had read there was an entrance fee to the park, so I walked over to a small brick building to find someone to talk to. My car was the only one in the lot, and I got the impression this park didn’t see too many visitors.
There was nobody in the building, but eventually a woman walked up a trail from another building and let me inside. She said the fee was $20 to hike, and $5 to camp in the campground at the trailhead.
I knew I could stealth camp outside the park to avoid the $5 fee, but felt like I would be supporting a good cause to camp in the campground, so paid the full amount. I asked the woman if there was any map of the park, and told her I wanted to climb Mt Binga the next day.
She rummaged around in a drawer, but couldn’t find any map. Then she noticed an old topographic map on the wall and pointed out Mt Binga on the map. There was no trail labeled to the top though. In fact, she pointed out that most of the trails that were on the map were incorrect, since the map was so old.
“Have you been up to Mt Binga?” I asked, hoping she could at least inform me about the route.
“No…” she replied. “Wait, I know someone who can help, though.”
She walked outside, and came back with a man who had been raking up leaves. He told me he had been to Mt Binga many times, and described the route. I was supposed to hike up the main trail, which was well-marked, to the shelter. From the shelter there was no official trail to the summit. But there was a poorly-maintained path that I could try to follow. I was supposed to drop down to cross the river in the valley below, then scramble up to the summit following the faint path.
He offered to guide me up, saying I was the only visitor in the park, but I insisted on going on my own. I would have certainly enjoyed his company, but didn’t want to pay for a guide, and I think it’s funner to make my own route-finding decisions.
I briefly considered hiking up to the shelter that night, but outside a cloud had descended over the area, making visibility very low in the dark. I instead told him I planned to sleep in my car and hike up the next day as a day-trip.
The worker told me it was going to get very cold at night, and said I could actually just sleep on the floor inside the entrance building. I thought about it for a minute, remembering how uncomfortable it actually was sleeping in my little car (I had to kind of curl up in a ball to fit laying down), and then accepted his offer. He even showed me an extra blanket in a back room.
As the sun set I went to sleep in the entrance building, planning to get up early for my hike.
I woke up at 5am, an hour before sunrise, and quickly started hiking up the trail. The trail was indeed
well-maintained, though at times difficult to follow in the dark and fog. As the sun rose I broke out of the trees and the fog started to lift.
The terrain was very rocky, and at times I was scrambling over boulders on the trail. After a few hours I crested a small grassy hill, then dropped down the other side, reaching the shelter back in the trees.
The shelter was enormous, probably large enough to sleep 40 people. It had a huge communal room, and three huge bedrooms with bunks. There were fireplaces in each room, and a huge porch with sweeping views across the valley below. Across the valley I could see Mt Binga, or at least the bottom part of the mountain. The upper half was still stuck in the clouds.
I took a short break, then descended down a trail towards the river below. I soon saw a sign reading “Mt Binga” with an arrow, but it was unfortunately ambiguous. The sign was hanging on a tree, so I wasn’t quite sure where the arrow was supposed to point. I decided to follow the trail heading straight down to the river. At the river the trail disappeared, but this
was what I had expected.
It looked like from here I would be on my own finding my route. Luckily the clouds on the summit was lifting, and I could start to pick out a good direction. I walked up a grassy hill on the other side of the river, then started scrambling up some rocks. The terrain soon got tricky, and I got cliffed out once or twice.
Then I noticed a small path below me, and it appeared I had stumbled across the main route to the summit. I scrambled over to the rough path, and continued following this upward. The path was pretty faint, and I lost it several times in the grass and rocks, but eventually I followed the path up to a small plateau.
At the plateau the path intersected with an even larger path, and it looked like I had finally reached the main route to the summit. The path crossed through open grassland, then started ascending rocky steep terrain. There was no obvious dirt track now, but luckily there were occasional cairns I could follow to stay on track. Now the clouds were descending again, and I turned on my gps to record my track in case I had trouble retracing my steps.
I scrambled higher and higher, following cairns, until I popped out on a ridge, which was the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border. Amazingly I had broken out about the clouds, and could see rocky mountains around me
to the south and north. Mozambique extended to the east, with gentle grassy hills below.
I followed the ridge for a few more minutes, before scrambling up the final rock outcrop to the summit. An old concrete marker marked the top, and a few pieces of wood had fallen off to the side. It was surprisingly cold – probably in the 40s with wind. I’ve heard it snows on the summit occasionally, and I was indeed there in the winter.
I ate a snack, enjoyed the view, and sent a quick satellite text message saying I’d reached the summit. Unfortunately clouds still blocked my view into Zimbabwe, but it was sunny towards Mozambique. I walked around the summit a bit, to make sure I definitely stepped completely into Mozambique.
Eventually I started getting pretty cold, and started heading back down. It was pretty easy to follow the cairns, so I never needed to consult my GPS. The path actually went all the way back to the river, and I
had narrowly missed spotting it on my ascent.
I took a short break back at the shelter, then quickly hiked back down to the trailhead. I got back to the car by 12:30pm, for about a 7 hour round trip. I was still the only visitor in the park, and hadn’t expected to get back so early. I was fully prepared to camp out at the trailhead another night, but with so many hours left in the day I decided to get some more driving in towards my next destination, the Zimbabwe highpoint.
After eating a quick snack, I pulled out of the parking lot and started heading north toward Mt Inyangani.