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Author: Duncan Souchon
A visual celebration that takes the reader on glorious visits to Africa's magnificent mountains: The holy ones, the prominent and fabled ones, and those we see and hear of all the time.
The volcanic highlands of the Drakensberg/Maluti, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania , Mount Kenya, Tsodilo Hills, Mount Sinai, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and of course Table Mountain, the jewel in South African tourism.
Mountains of Africa is a journey of both historical and modern travel: walk alongside great explorers of bygone eras while reading about modern-day activities available for mountain enthusiasts.
Also covered are people’s interactions with the mountains from the perspective of the people living in the surrounds, as well as information found in geological, geographical and pioneering history.
Substantial reference is made to particular mountains that are natural sanctuary to certain endangered animals, and to the vegetation and protected parks and areas.
Duncan Souchon is a respected South African mountaineer as well as content manager of SuperSport's SuperClimb web section. An adventurer at heart, a storyteller and also a man who is passionate about mountains, their people and creatures living in the area around them.
MAP OF AFRICA
Leader of the first successful South African expedition to the north side of Mount Everest and the seventh South African to summit the mountain via the northeast ridge.
'Great things are done when men and mountains meet’ wrote William Blake 200 years ago. Meeting the author of this book confirmed those words in my own mind.
When I first met Duncan Souchon, I was amazed at the depth with which he spoke about mountains, and our connection was instant. There is something remarkable about people who love mountains. Generally, they are awake, active and alive. Duncan embraces all of these qualities and more. He is articulate, authentic and a great author. The two of us have spoken a lot about mountains - in particular, the mountains of Africa.
We have shared stories about Kilimanjaro, the highest point on this beautiful continent. He has told me about the awesome Atlas in the north - the Mountains of Mountains - and I was mesmerised when he described how the Greek god Atlas was entrusted with the pillars that kept heaven and earth apart. We've also spoken in depth about uKhahlamba, the Drakensberg Mountains in the south, which is where my personal passion for climbing mountains began.
When I was 15, I got caught in a snow blizzard high in the Drakensberg just a short distance from Mafadi Peak, the highest point in South Africa. I was forced to bivouac in the Injasuti cave. With friends around me, we struggled to fight off frostbite while others took enormous strain in the intense cold, and something powerful and profound awakened in me.
When I left the mountains at the end of that ordeal, I knew I wanted more of that kind of moving experience. There was a deep sense of self-discovery that had taken place in me. The mountains had revealed their awesome power, which I knew I could embrace and inculcate into my own life.
The sheer magnitude, space and solitude challenged me beyond my imagination and I felt consumed by something far greater than I could ever comprehend. There is no doubt that the mountains had given me a spiritual experience and to this day I continue to strive for that awakening.
Since the dawn of time, there has always been something symbolic and significant about mountains. The world's great religions, faiths and beliefs have all associated mountains and the journey to their summit as a path of initiation and a reaching for the divine. Moses went up onto Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the laws of God and its said that Noahs Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey.
In Greek mythology we learn that Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, was chained by Zeus to a rock where he was to suffer eternally - during the day condors would peck out his intestines and at night he would be healed again. This 'rock' is Mount Elbrus in Russia - the highest mountain in Europe.
Throughout the centuries, the great mountains of the world have been given meaningful names. To the Tibetans, Mount Everest is Chomolungma, meaning the 'mother goddess of the universe' while the Nepalese call her Sagarmatha, 'goddess of the sky'. The highest mountain in North America, Alaska's Mount McKinley, is known by the Athabascan Indians as Denali, which means 'the great one'. That great philosopher Aristotle referred to Kilimanjaro as the 'silver mountain.
This well-written book, incorporating many of the myths and legends surrounding the mountains of Africa, is illustrated with superb photographs and profound quotes. Elizabethan Thomas Browne once wrote: 'We all, no matter who, what and where we are, carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is all Africa and her prodigies in us.' Mountains of Africa carries within it all the wonders we seek outside of it.
‘But the fascination of this great rugged "island" in the desert, which the Hereros call Omukuruwaro and the Damaras Daunas, is hard to resist. It has all the mystery of the remote and little known. To quote Maack, it is a veritable museum of Bushman art, and there is doubtless a wealth of ancient remains still to be discovered in the recesses of the gorges.’ - Denis Woods on Brandberg, 1943 Journal of the Mountain Club of South Africa.
Those places in the world that are very, very old have a certain silence around them. It is as though they know... they have a knowledge of what came before, how things changed, why they are the way they are. When you journey to them, then stand upon and amongst their dips and rises, such places exude a presence, a certain consuming stillness that may foster feelings of anxiety, humility and peace all at once. Feelings of being small, insignificant - yet wiser, for there is wisdom in Nature all around.
The Namib Desert is the oldest in the world. It is a time-less place of shifting sands, rust-red dust and stinging winds. It stretches the length of the Namibian shoreline, from the diamond beaches towards South Africa's western coastline to as far north as the southern Angolan border. Weary sailors of old who sought the refuge of the Cape of Good Hope morbidly labelled this stretch of shore the Skeleton Coast.
Starting in earnest north of the Orange River, this wasteland of yellow sands and tall golden dunes is to a large extent the result of fine silt and precious stones deposited by the mighty river, which winds its way across the dry western half of the subcontinent. From its source across the African continent to the east, high up in the skyward-reaching uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains, the mouth of this watercourse over the millennia has worked its way down the Namibian coastline, depositing fine sand and silt accumulated from the vast land distances it has travelled, and finally emptying into the cold Atlantic.
Further north, beyond the dunes, this 'Nile of the south' has contributed to the desert landscape, which takes on a more habitable guise, particularly as it moves away from the Atlantic Ocean. The coastal towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay hunker down between the dunes and the sea, while inland, scrub and low-lying bush struggle to survive between the soft sands and the scattered rocky crags.
A DESERT CATHEDRAL
It is here, away from the barren coastline towards the desert centre, that a monolith of red granite 700 metres high and roughly the shape of an enormous stone cathedral rises out of the flat dry surrounds. Named Spitzkoppe by the early German settlers, legend has it that in 1904 a soldier of the royal Schutztruppe ascended the peak and announced his success at the top by setting the rocky summit alight. He never returned and no evidence of his success, or his remains, has ever been found.
Truth or myth, Spitzkoppe's attraction is magnetic, its surrounding landscapes surreal and mystical. Massive boulders and queer formations lie scattered around the ancient giant inselberg (literally 'island mountain’). Soft colours of tan and earthy red contrasted against the deep blues of the clear Namibian sky magnify the intense atmosphere of the place, so thick it's tangible. At night, under a multitude of stars burning white against an inky sky, carnivorous hyena and jackal cackle in the night, while spotted eagle owls with large oval eyes spy from dried-out tree stumps. Here, Bushmen once roamed by day and by night rested beneath the granite mountain that had once burned with red fire.
The San people were the first to inhabit the Spitzkoppe region. They dwelt among the peak's lower reaches during the wetter seasons when streamlets and rock pools were life-supporting and hunter-gatherers were able to go about their activities among the surrounding desert plains. Today, evidence of their occupation of both Spitzkoppe and the lands around may be seen through their rock paintings, of which there are many at the base of the mountain, or under the shade of overhangs, or on the boulders strewn below the cliffs.
This granite monolith and its surrounding rock features, which are smaller versions of similar geological formation and are called the Pontok peaks, are all inselbergs.They are granite magma pipes that penetrated the planet's crust millions of years ago but failed to surface, instead solidifying deep beneath the sandy carpet of the desert. Over time, erosion of the earth's surface led eventually to these spires 'growing' out of the surrounding landscape. This phenomenon is known as inselberg formation.
THE BURNING MOUNTAIN
Tremendous though it may appear to the naked eye when standing below Spitzkoppe, the monolith is dwarfed by a collection of peaks to the north. Towering above the northern expanse of the desert, they are by far the most severe, remote and the grandest of the Namib Desert's mountains.
The massif, made up of young granites surrounded by a lower range of black lava, is an enormous circular assemblage of peaks that, collectively, has acquired the name Brandberg, or 'burning mountain'. The ominous tone to this name is not to be taken lightly as the main obstacle confronting the visitor or climbing explorer is undeniably the heat and lack of water on the mountain. The sombre, burnt-out appearance of the place, permanently dry in the searing desert heat, affords Brandberg a deep sense of respect from even the hardiest of souls.
Those who aspire to scaling its rocky summits must endure these harsh conditions to heights of over 2600 metres. Königstein, Brandberg s highest point at 2697 metres, is the highest mountain in Southern Africa outside of the Drakensberg. Climbers need to carry their own water, and will seek to escape the direct heat throughout much of the day, but the rewards are great. The desert mountain landscape is spellbindingly beautiful, and despite its remoteness being quite overwhelming, the absolute purity of the place is enticing. Brandberg is an untouched world.
Diverse flora that have adapted to the severe conditions are the pearls of the vast dry ocean of sand and stone where life forms generally would fail to survive. Brandberg acacias, known as bergdorn ('mountain thorns'), have persevered in this harsh environment, as has the queer-looking upside down, or phantom, tree which, the Bushman people believe, fell head first from the heavens.
Its squat branches grow out in an impulsive, unruly fashion, just like other plants chaotic root systems. Cactus-like euphorbias are not uncommon. The yellow-flowering kokerboom (quiver tree) of the Aloe family may be found amongst the dry scrub and alongside wild figs near waterholes in the ravines.
On the rare occasion, clouds gather in from the ocean and the heavens open up onto the Brandberg massif. The fallen water adds a new dimension to the desert mountains. Forgotten rivers swell in the valleys and pools of water collect in small recesses, many of which are moulded into the rocks and slabs like basins or baths sculpted by the hands of time and nature.
The place is transformed into a Garden of Eden, with lush meadows of green grasses and small flowers covering the landscape. It is as if, even though only for a brief moment, new life is breathed into the soul of the Brandberg. Then the sun and the heat take a firm grip once more, and scorching temperatures soon wither any attempts at moisture and lushness. It is merely a moment in time.
ART GALLERY UNDER THE SKY
At first glance the land may appear desolate and devoid of life. If you look closer, a world of activity not noticeable to the eye at first thrives on the mountain's surface. White-backed and sand runner beetles scuttle across the desert floor, along with small reptiles such as the lizards or coy web-footed geckos that are quick to make off at the first signs of a disturbance.
Larger reptiles such as the Peringuey adder bury themselves in the sand, lying in wait for their prey, and certain species of spider, such as the white dancing spider, may grow to an alarming size. It is a ferocious hunter. Bees are common, their hives sought after by the Berg Dama, or the Damara people, the most recent of the mountain's permanent human inhabitants, although they left its rocky slopes around the end of the 1800s. They still return from time to time to the massif they call Daunas in search of honey and other secrets held within.
Larger animal species such as big cats and antelope are scarce due to the shortage of surface water. Still, leopards find refuge amongst the rocks, Brandberg's crags being a terrain well-suited to the beautiful resetted cat's lairs. Small buck species and herds of zebra may be spotted, as well as smaller mammals such as mountain hares, dassies (rock hyrax), the black Kaokoveld mongoose and mice.
Archaeological evidence suggests a time when the land was not as dry as it is today, when people sheltered in the mountains, drinking water from the streams and hunting in the valleys. These people left traces in the form of pot fragments and spearheads, now covered in earth, buried by time. However, upon the rock walls of the mountain's faces, in shady caves and under natural shelters is the second largest collection of rock paintings in the world (the largest being in the Drakensberg).
These paintings are a permanent exhibition of the lives, culture, traditions and environment of these people. The works of art forever stand on display in this open-air gallery under desert skies, the wild animals its sentries, the wind its eerie curator.
A HARSH LANDSCAPE:
Climbing Brandberg remains a difficult and tiresome affair. Of the first climbers to explore the desolate mountains following the German surveyors of the beginning of the last century was Cape mountaineer Denis Woods. In 1943 after he'd climbed the massif, having left his honey-seeking Dama companion, Johannes, at their high camp, he describes the harsh conditions while summitting Königstein. His words are recorded in the 1943 Journal of the Mountain Club of South Africa.
The final rocks offered no obstacle, and I reached the top at about one o'clock. The crown of the peak is a broken granite cap, running in a short ridge from north to south. Among the kopjes on it one locates the summit (8550 feet), a projecting boulder whose tip seems to have been shattered by some recent force. The pioneers knew better than to build a beacon there. Their little cairn lies in a depression among adjoining rocks on the south a few feet below. There I found records of Maack's party, but there were no others.
A strong and very cold wind was blowing from the sea, hardly putting one in mind to admire the view, if such it could be called, for the outlook was of the most mournful desolation, unrelieved by the smooth-lined, dull-hued folds and ridges of the surrounding peaks of the massif, which simply provided a rather melancholy foreground to the grey voids beyond. Into the vastness of the dry plains and the river valleys, 6000 to 7000 feet below, everything else was merged, semi-obliterated by haze and mirage effects. ...It was a place of absolute isolation, an abode of utter loneliness.
To those who would seek mountaineering attractions in the Brandberg heights, one might in the first place say that they are conspicuous by their absence. For so many of the things which mean much to us in the mountains we know are lacking there. For the alluring grandeur of our crags, the green lushness of kloof and vlakte, fresh with scented breezes, friendly with whispering streams and gay with flowers, Brandberg provides the most bleak and forbidding counterparts. The smooth granite walls and wide empty faces are bared bones of the earth. One may scale or traverse them dryly without enthusiasm, for they can scarcely be called inviting. [...]