I spent the morning hiking in the Mulanje Mountain Reserve – a UNESCO heritage site. The mountain range is stunning. Waterfalls pour off the peaks, plummeting into pools and running in gushing rivulets down the mountainside. Clouds crown the peaks, breaking only on occasion for a view of the verdant top.
From the trail, with a chorus of tree frogs singing, we spot samango monkeys above in the treetops. Actually, far before we spotted them, they’d seen the dogs we are hiking with. As they jump from tree to tree, they stay so high in the canopy you have to squint to see leaves moving to catch a glimpse of their tiny dark bodies.
It is their cries we can hear below, and the corresponding hungry howl of the dogs at our feet. In truth, the dogs cannot decide if they want to pounce into the jungle with bravado for the chase and a chance at an exotic snack, or head back to the car with their courage tucked with their tail between their legs.
As we hike, I listen to the Monkey Scout. In the US, he would have been an Eagle Scout, but as an African – this man is well versed in all things jungle.
“This plant has barbs. Be careful. This plant looks edible, but the flower will kill you. See that bird? That’s a hornbill. Big cry, small bird. See this tree? This tree is a hardwood. The poachers would have a hard time finding a saw strong enough to remove this beast. Bloody poachers… Wait! Listen? Hear those monkeys? Those monkeys have mustaches. If we stand here very still and can keep the dogs close, we’ll be able to see their long wiry mustaches.”
We climbed and climbed. At one point, I threw my hands above my head, stretched my spine and felt my heart thumping as my lungs sucked in as much of humid air as they could. With mushrooms and moss under my feet, I crunched down the path, wary of the dark trail ahead. The canopy – a twisting combination of vine, eucalyptus (gum) trees, African hardwoods and brush – is so dense in places, it closes out the tropical sun above. In my mind, I know there aren’t gorillas/lion/boogeymen in this part of the world. In my imagination, I’m on a remote, slippery lime green cloudy forest trail, in the middle of nowhere, listening to animals in the jungle. Anything is possible.
My heart races.
We reached a small hydroelectric dam built to provide energy to the estate. The water is crystal clear runoff from the rainfall above. A pounding stream feeds the damn. We’ve been able to hear this water bubbling along for more than a mile. We slide into the water holding our breath. Matt, without any fear, swims up one side and down the other, climbing on the dam wall and diving into the darkest part of the pool. I join him after a lot of coaxing, name-calling, and promises that there is no way possible that a croc could be on the bottom waiting for just such an American treat. Soon enough, I’m also standing on the dam wall, shaking from the cold water and dripping wet, jumping blindly into the same dark pool screaming “cowabunga!”
Jungle badge — earned.