Zimbabwe – Mt Inyangani (8,504 ft)
August 25, 2016
Day 1 – Drive from Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, to just outside Inyanga National Park
Day 2 – Climb Mt Inyangani
Mount Inyangani is a mountain that evokes a surprising amount of fear and suspicion in Zimbabwe. There is a local belief that a vindictive spirit on the mountain causes people to disappear, and in fact, a handful of people have gone missing on the mountain in the past few decades. Two girls, daughters of a government official, disappeared while hiking the mountain in 1981 and were never found. Other hikers, including an eight-year-old boy and a 31-year-old Asian tourist have gone missing on the mountain since then.
The mountain is no more than a short hike, but it is above treeline, and with clouds rolling in and out it’s believable that a hiker could get turned around. It can also get quite chilly, and the summit occasionally even sees snow. Since 2014, though, it is unlikely there will be any more disappearances because the park service officially started requiring all hikers to be accompanied by a licensed park guide when hiking up Mt Inyangani. It’s not expensive for hikers – only $5 per hour for the guide – and the park service will arrange the guide on the morning of the hike.
I had fortunately done my homework in advance of attempting Mt Inyangani, and knew that the guide was officially required. I normally don’t like having a guide for anything, but relent if a guide is required by law, which it is now in Zimbabwe.
I was on a week-long road trip through southern Africa, having started in Johannesburg a few days earlier. After a difficult 5-hour border crossing to enter Zimbabwe (read about that in another report), I had climbed Mt Binga, the Mozambique highpoint on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border, and was ready to tackle the highest mountain in Zimbabwe, Mt Inyangani.
My trip started in the early afternoon as I drove out of Chimanimani National Park in eastern Zimbabwe heading north. The road gradually improved from rough gravel to dirt to pavement in the village of Chimanimani. I continued north on A10 then A9. Twice I was stopped by police at checkpoints, where policemen were standing in the middle of the road with large beat-up metal oil drums blocking the way.
Each time they asked me if I had a fire extinguisher and two traffic triangles. I was prepared, though, after encountering these kinds of stops before. I triumphantly produced the items, and was waved through the checkpoints. It’s a funny situation at these checkpoints. Policemen across Zimbabwe aren’t really so concerned about fires in cars that they set up all these checkpoints to make sure everyone is safe. I think the reason for the checkpoints is that there is a small clause in some law that requires drivers to have fire extinguishers, and the police try to exploit this clause to make money.
If the policeman catches you without a fire extinguisher, they threaten to write you a ticket, unless you pay them a bribe. Thus the policemen act like they are trying to make everyone safer, but in fact are spending all their time trying to get bribes.
Luckily I didn’t pay a single fire extinguisher bribe, and eventually made it north to Mutare around sunset. Mutare is the biggest town in eastern Zimbabwe, and my top priority was to get gas for my car. Gas stations had been pretty hard to find thus far in Zimbabwe, and the ones I had encountered usually just accepted cash, not credit cards. But cash was also hard to come by in Zimbabwe, because most ATMs seemed to be either broken or out of money.
I stopped at the first gas station south of Mutare, and the guys tried for 15 minutes to get one of my credit cards to work, but their machine wouldn’t accept it. I had a little bit of cash on me, but wanted to keep it in case I needed to pay a police bribe. I picked up a few hamburgers at the gas station for $1 each, then drove through town looking for another station.
The next one I stopped at also had a credit card machine, but they couldn’t get it to work. There was an ATM at the station, but they told me it was broken. I was beginning to get frustrated, so resolved to find an ATM and try to pay with cash.
I drove into the middle of town, parked on the side of the road, and started walking around. At the first set of ATMs I put my card in, then a guard came by and said they were broken. He pointed me to another one around the corner, but that one was out of money. The next one was also out of money, but finally I stumbled upon one that both worked and had money. I took out as much cash as I thought I would need for the next few days. It was possible that no other stations would have ATMs that worked or credit card readers that worked.
After picking up some groceries at a nearby store I returned to the gas station to fill up the tank. All the stations in Zimbabwe have attendants that pump the gas for you, and they do their best to put in as much gas as will physically fit in the tank. When the automatic stopping mechanism for the pumping stops the gas, the attendant carefully puts in more and more while peering into the tank, trying to top it off as much as possible.
This time the attendant got it up to $34.84, but could not eek out another 16 cents worth of gas into the tank without it spilling out. He definitely did not want to deal with any coins for change. In fact, in all my transactions I only once saw anyone deal with coins in Zimbabwe. People just round up or down so that they always work with dollars.
I offered to pay the man $35 and he could keep the change, but he was, astonishingly to me, too honest to accept this extra money. He offered to clean all the dirt off of my car, and the extra money could go for that. I told him he really didn’t have to do that, but he insisted and I paid him the full $35.
I can’t fathom how the customs agents and policemen I had encountered were so corrupt, yet this gas attendant didn’t even want an extra 16 cents more than he deserved. It finally gave me hope that my experience thus far with corrupt policemen was not representative of most Zimbabweans.
With a full tank of gas and enough food for the next few days I left town heading north. I continued on A15 in the dark until I passed north of Juliasdale, just south of the border of Inyangani National Park. My plan was to start hiking Mt Inyangani early the next morning, and I needed a place to camp in the car.
The area was luckily heavily forested, and I soon found a random dirt road heading off into the woods. I drove a few hundred feet, but then the road quality deteriorated and my car could go no further. I managed to pull off onto an embankment on the side, and turned off the car for the night. I pulled the back seats down, got out my sleeping bag, and curled up in the back. If I put my head towards the back of the car, I could extend my feet between the two front seats and almost stretch out completely. It wasn’t terribly comfortable, but I was tired enough to fall asleep.
A few hours before sunrise I woke up from being too cold. Amazingly, there was frost on the front windshield! I put on all my clothes, did some situps, and curled back up into my sleeping bag. A few hours of unsuccessfully trying to sleep finally led me to sunrise. When I turned on the car, the thermometer actually read 31F, so just below freezing. I definitely didn’t expect this in Zimbabwe, but it was winter time, and I was at a pretty high elevation.
I drove 10 minutes up the road and entered Inyangani National Park. I pulled into the visitor’s center at 7:30am and talked to the receptionist at the front, saying I wanted to climb Mt Inyangani. I had to pay $20 to enter the park, and then it would be $5 per hour for the guide.
She said there was nobody else climbing the mountain that day, and she called up the guide on his cell phone to tell him there was a person wanting to climb today.
I went back to my car and sat inside with the heat on eating breakfast while I waited for the guide to come. The grass in the lawn actually had a small frost layer on it, and it was a lot chillier than I had expected.
By 8am my guide, Cosmos, arrived. We signed some paperwork in the visitor’s center, and then Cosmos got in the car with me. He would direct me how to drive to the trailhead. We followed a dirt road farther into the park, and the road certainly tested the
clearance of my small rental car. After about ten miles of driving through forest, then up onto grassy hills, we got our first glimpse of Mt Inyangani. It looked like a broad ridge, with steep cliffs on our side but a flat top. It was well above treeline, higher than 8,000ft.
Cosmos said he’d climbed the mountain hundreds of times, guiding groups of up to 60 people! Sometimes schoolgroups would come for field trips, and other times hikers would come from Harare on the weekends. One time a pair of prospective hikers took a bus to the park, not knowing that they’d have to provide their own transportation the final ten miles to the trailhead. Cosmos started hiking with them along the road to the trailhead, but they didn’t end up making it.
At the trailhead we met two other park workers constructing a new outhouse building. They had tents set up, so it looked like they just camped out there for several days while they were working.
We soon started hiking, and I noticed Cosmos brought absolutely nothing with him. I suppose he was tough enough to just get wet if it rained, and maybe if he got thirsty he would find a stream along the way. Indeed, halfway up we encountered a small stream that he drank straight out of.
I brought a jacket, food, and a water bottle with me, not really knowing how long the trip would take or what the weather would be like. Cosmos told me all about the park, pointing out that there are lots of wild animals there like wildebeest and zebras, but unfortunately poachers having been taking quite a few of them. I noticed a large section of the park looked like it had burned, and he said the poachers would set fires to distract the rangers while they hunt the animals.
Much of the park was still forested though. The trail started out climbing steeply to the ridge, then traversed the rocky ridge. Within about 1.5 hours we reached the summit, the highest point in Zimbabwe. There was a huge rock outcrop with a metal summit marker on top. The views were pretty amazing, with rocky hills all around, and only a few villages visible. Cosmos pointed out his home village of Nyanga off to the west. He said he takes a bus into the park in the morning whenever someone needs guided up the mountain.
I asked him why the park requires guides, and he said recently an Indian hiker had gotten lost when clouds rolled in on the summit and he got separated from his partners. The park service didn’t want any more people to get lost on the mountain, so decided in 2014 to require guides accompany everyone. Cosmos
told me some local superstitions about the mountain, which included that you shouldn’t point at anything with your finger, and if you see any strange sights you shouldn’t say anything out loud about them.
The summit was cold and windy, so we left pretty quickly and started hiking back down. Surprisingly, as we got down the ridge we encountered a group of four hikers ascending. What was surprising was that they were four white people, with no guide.
Cosmos and I stopped, and Cosmos let them know that a guide was officially required to climb the mountain. They said they were from the Netherlands and that their guidebook didn’t say anything about a guide, so
Cosmos gave them a brief talking to, but let them proceed to the summit.
When we got back to the trailhead Cosmos talked to the men working on the new outhouse, and tried to make sure that they would stop anyone in the future from hiking up the mountain without a guide. I admit I felt a little sympathetic for the Dutch people, but in this case they really should have taken a guide since it was required by law in the park.
Back at the car I snapped a final picture of the summit and then headed back to the visitors center. We stopped briefly at a scenic waterfall, then got back to the visitor’s center by early afternoon. Cosmos had kept track of our time by his cell phone, starting when we started walking and ending when we got back to the car. I think we were a little faster than his normal time (we took around 2.5 hours round trip), so I said he could round up when we reported it at the visitor’s center.
At the office I filled out some paperwork, paid the guide fee, then offered to give Cosmos a ride back to his home. We drove back to Nyanga and he showed me around the small town. We stopped in a small restaurant and I bought Cosmos some lunch. After we talked for a little while I dropped Cosmos off back at his house, and then started contemplating the rest of my road trip in Zimbabwe.
I had an extra three days before I needed to return the rental car in Johannesburg, and this would be plenty of time to see more of the country side. That afternoon I drove back through Mutare, then cut west until darkness hit. I’d been stopped a few more times for fire extinguisher checks, but avoided paying bribes.
While driving at night, I noticed an interesting custom in Zimbabwe. It seemed like every car I passed would turn on their turn signal like they were turning left, even though they weren’t actually intending to turn. At first I thought they were signaling that there was something wrong with my car, but eventually I came to the conclusion that putting the left turn signal on is the way to say thank you when the oncoming driver turns off their bright lights. It’s similar to turning your flashers on to say thank you after you pass someone.
It took a little while to find a good stealth campsite that night. My first few tries ended up being in peoples yards, and then when I thought I’d found an excellent spot down a rough dirt road into the woods, I encountered a herd of cows and a few dogs investigating my car. I quickly turned around and kept driving. Finally, just outside of Gweru, I turned down a rough dirt road, then soon found an even rougher tertiary dirt road into the woods.
I pulled off, turned off the lights, waited for a while, and was finally satisfied I was in an area nobody would care about. I had an excellent sleep that night, and started driving just before dawn the next morning. My goal was to make it to Victoria Falls in the northwestern corner of Zimbabwe.
I drove through Bulwayo, then northwest on A8 through open forest and occasional small villages. By
mid afternoon I arrived at Victoria Falls, and paid the small entrance fee to walk over and take a look. This was the first time I’d seen white people in Zimbabwe, and indeed, the area around Victoria Falls is like a completely different country. There’s a huge, fancy international airport just outside of town, all
kinds of hotels and restaurants, and tourists from all over the world walking around. I didn’t check, but I bet all the ATMs actually have money in Victoria Falls, unlike the ATMs in the rest of the country.
The falls were pretty amazing, and I can see why they are called one of the seven natural wonders of the world. After walking around for an hour, I crossed
over the bridge into Zambia to touch my toe in country number 100, then returned to my car. That night I gave in and paid $10 to stay at a campground in town, which let me take a shower. I talked to the owner about the best way to drive back to Joburg, and told him about my terrible border crossing experience at Beitbridge. He actually wasn’t too surprised, and said he’s had people say they waited up to 16 hours to get through that crossing! Many people will actually drive all the way up to Victoria Falls (7 hours from Beitbridge), cross into Botswana there, then drive through Botswana to get into South Africa, just to avoid the Beitbridge crossing. Let this be a word of warning to future travelers in the area.
It sounded like the crossing into Botswana was trivial, so I planned to cross there and avoid Beitbridge. The next morning I left town early, passed through one more police officer fire extinguisher road check, then easily passed through the border without paying a single bribe. This border had mostly white tourists crossing back and forth from Botswana, and this is probably why there is no corruption.
I turned south and drove on A33 towards South Africa. This was classic African terrain with huge open grasslands interspersed with occasional trees and no
villages at all. I soon saw a big giraffe on the side of the road, and afterwards had to stop the car to let a herd of 13 elephants cross in front of me! They were each bigger than my car, and didn’t even hesitate to walk straight across the road.
By evening I’d made it close the border with South Africa, and pulled off into a nice wooded place to camp for the night. I easily made it back to Johannesburg the next day, and started preparing for my next country highpoint in the United Arab Emirates.