By Majka Burhardt and Sarah Garlick
MB: I say goodbye to Ethiopia (intentionally), and to my new ultralight Thermarest (unintentionally). My first-ever spotting of the Congo appears initially out of a plane window, and soon through a propped-open plane door during a re-supply. Malawi and Mozambique bound.
SG: It’s 5:30 a.m. at Boston’s Logan Airport. I have a bad reaction to my anti-malaria meds and vomit into a trashcan at the airline check-in desk. I can feel the stares of the hundred or so early morning passengers in line behind me. Please let this not be a sign for what’s to come.
MB: We hike the wide side of a long arcing bend in the trail to see Mt. Namuli on its other side. I requisition a flask of whiskey from an already drunk porter. Herpetologist Werner Conradie confirms the presence of crocodiles in the Malema River while we are hip deep, midstream.
SG: It’s dark. We’ve been hiking for 6 hours already and there’s nowhere to stop until we get to the Queen’s hut at the base of the mountain. Our guide Cotxane (pronounced co-chan-ee) says it’s only 30 more minutes, but I don’t believe him. We are a group of thirteen—climbers, scientists, guides, and porters—hiking single-file through the bush, illuminated by the narrow light of four headlamps. I can’t help but think about lions and spitting cobras, the former apparently hunted out from this area, the latter we’ve already seen, but with any luck not active at night?
SG: My skin, thinned by the malarial meds (the bane of my existence), feels like fire under the equatorial sun. I hike behind a young woman named Katarine who we’ve hired, with a few other locals, to help carry our equipment from the Queen’s village up to a grassy plain near the base of the mountain’s southeast wall. She is slender and strong, balancing the 40-pound duffel seemingly without effort on her head as she hikes barefoot along the dusty red path.
MB: Today I finally meet Namuli’s granite face, face-to-face. It turns out that a 50-degree granite slab is the threshold for reasonable “hiking.” 53-degrees means we start climbing. I watch Sarah levitate up vertical grass. We swing leads leads. The high point of my lead? Feeling like I was one with the vertical grass. Low point? Slinging clump of said grass for protection. Gave up any semblance of cleanliness under my fingernails.
SG: Paul has dubbed this our “Chia Mountain” and it’s an apt description. Who knew grass could grow on vertical rock? But it’s surprisingly solid to climb. Meter by meter, move by move, I make my way up the first pitch. It feels good to open this face, despite the absurdity of the vegetated terrain. A difficult move around a non-solid bush gets me into a squeeze chimney. I realize the black coating on the rock is not dirt here, but soot, which instantly coats my face, my arms, everything. I keep going until I run low on gear, then build an anchor. The thought of wildfire reaching this high up Namuli’s rock face occupies the back of my mind.
MB: Watched from 100-feet up the face as Werner, Sarah, and Paul celebrate spotting a gecko running up the granite face. I convince Werner to trust a rope and let go. We eat dinner as a blood moon—dark orange from the smoke from dozens of burning fields—rises over Namuli’s eastern hills.
SG: I am so dirty. I’ve tried to wash the soot and dirt away down at the river in the rainforest, but I can’t seem to get clean. My fingernails are rimmed with black grime and I’ve seen Majka’s sidelong glances. How does she stay so clean? Will she ever want to travel with me again?
MB: I don my gaiters at dawn. Eight hours later I learn that one of the most deadly snakes in the world is as skinny as my thumb. Today we leave Namuli; memories full of what we need to know to come back in 2012.