For days, it has been a kind of a destination – “towards the Ruvuma.” But now that we are here, somehow it isn’t. We could actually wade through it with our packs balanced on our heads and just wander on, through more trackless bush.
To civilisation and its bureaucrats, it is the border with Tanzania, but in this remote wilderness it really is just a place where a large river flows; where river dwellers like hippos and crocodiles and otters live and where bush dwellers descend down the steep banks to drink. For us, the closest it got to a destination was a place where we dropped our loads to stare over the chocolate water slipping by, and rest in the cool shade of the giant wild fig in the background until the midday heat had subsided a bit.
Upstream, to the west, were the odd bush village on the river; further on, an uncertain road butted up from Lichinga, with more villages tenuously clinging to its meagre feed. It was from one of these, on the way in, where old Kgalilaga, local headman, bush man, and speaker of rudimentary English and Fanagolo, learnt as a young man working on the South African mines, was fortuitously recruited.
Further west, the maps told, the land rose to the mountains that seam the Great Rift Valley. These are rough badlands, where artisanal miners work ancient gold diggings, Kgalilaga told wide-eyed.
Finally, after some two hundred kilometres, the earth plunges into the Great Rift Valley and Lake Niassa, where “many people” live.
But Eastwards. Eastwards, towards the Indian Ocean the wilderness stretched for untold kilometres and here very few people, if any, dwelled. Not even Kgalilaga knew anything about it, not even from fireside stories.
Needless to say, this is the direction we headed. The land was mostly flat, but here and there massive basalt domes rose from the land like the backs of gigantic tortoises. The bush was Miombo, lush and dense along lowlands and the river and the gullies that flow during the rainy season. These thickets are the favourite haunts of buffalo, leopard, bushbuck, reedbuck and waterbuck and smaller antelope. Where the land lifted, it is sparser but still ample for the eland and hartebeest and sable that hold here. And across all of this roamed elephant and lion and wild dogs and hyenas and jackals and badgers and many, many more wonderful creatures.
So, at about three o’clock we shouldered our packs and set off eastwards, eager for the brutal and the subtle that awaited us.