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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

― Precious Mwansa-Chisa

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The three gems of the North Swaka jewel box

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Standing proudly, Mount Mumpu is Zambia’s highest free standing mountain. It is located in the North Swaka Protected Forest Area in Central Province, which is also the location of Changwena Falls and Fort Elwes.

Standing at the peak of Zambia’s tallest free-standing mountain, Mount Mumpu, I was in awe of the breathtaking view of the lush Miombo woodland that spread out as far as the eye can see. Although Mount Mumpu, aka Mount Mumpu Welume, is relatively unknown to most, it is no hidden gem. As a matter of fact, Mumpu stands tall, proudly rising above all else around it, hiding from no one and waiting to be found and explored by anyone brave enough to conquer it.

The Mumpu expedition is extra special because you have the opportunity of experiencing, not one, not two, but three gems in a jewel box. Mount Mumpu, Changwena Falls and Fort Elwes are all within eight kilometres of each other and are all nestled in the North Swaka Protected Forest Area in Mkushi District of Central Province.

Before my most recent ascent, I had summited Mumpu 16 times, each time with a different group of varied experiences and distinct stories to take back home. I had such fond memories of Mumpu that when I was approached by Charlene Milner of Busy Bodies Gym in Ndola to lead her and 20 others to the summit earlier this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The fact that she was doing it to raise awareness and funds for a good cause (raising money for two schools for children with disabilities) was inspirational and reminiscing on the expedition, I am so glad we did it.

The night before my trip to Mumpu with Charlene’s group, I loaded my vehicle from my home in Lusaka and kissed my family goodbye knowing I would have a very early start the next day. At 4:30 the following morning, I jumped into my midsize SUV and hit the road heading north for my four-hour journey to Mkushi Town. I arrived in Mkushi at around 8:30 ahead of the group’s 10am meeting time at the agreed rendezvous point. Up until then most of us had only communicated via a group chat we had created weeks before and this was the first time we were meeting. After a quick meet and greet, we headed out north of Mkushi and into the Forest Area through Mkushi’s Itala Market.

Itala Market is a hive of activity and consists mainly of a long street a few hundred meters long with little shops and stalls on either side and merchandise lined up along the road. You can find almost anything in Itala, from colourful chitenges to bicycle spares, soft drinks to plasma screens. You need to skillfully manoeuvre past the traffic and come out on the other side. From Mkushi town it’s about 40 kilometres meandering on a bush track through the forest to the Changwena Falls Campsite where we set up camp for the weekend. Beware that it’s rough camping at the ‘campsite’ which is basically a clearing in the forest about 200 metres from the Changwena Falls.

Changwena Falls

The Changewena River flows through the dense forest into an opening over rocks, cascading into three rock pools, that you can swim in. This is known as the Changwena Falls. After eight long hours of driving, it is the perfect reward. At first sight, you are struck by its sheer beauty and serenity. A visit to the natural paddle pools fully equipped with a shower at the top of the falls is a great way to end the day, every day. After setting up our campsite and having a quick swim in the falls, we shared a hearty meal around the campfire and exciting campfire stories under the stars. We retired early for the night to allow us to get as much rest ahead of the next day’s Mount Mumpu hike.

The ascent of Mount Mumpu

After a restful night, the team was ready to conquer the mighty mountain. We all gathered for breakfast at 6:30 and then set out for the seven kilometres hike to the base of the mountain which everyone did with ease. We kept a comfortable pace of 15 to 20 minutes per kilometer, saving our energy for the actual climb. As we got closer to the mountain, we could see it peeping through a dense canopy of trees in the distance. The closer we got, the bigger the mountain appeared and the more we had to deal with the reality of the challenge that lay ahead. By the time we got to the base, we could clearly see the massive cave that the locals will tell you is rumoured to have swallowed many hunters back in the day (but that’s a story for another day).

We began our ascent in great spirits, zig-zagging up the northwestern face of the Mumpu making our way for the cave. Teamwork and camaraderie were the key ingredients to successfully getting the whole team to the top. We constantly checked on one another and made sure everyone was fine, with each team member being responsible for the people both in front and behind them. The climb at the entrance of the cave became a whole new level of steep. At this point, we had to do a bit of scrambling over the rock face and into the cave. There were a few tricky points, but with teamwork and determination, we all made it through the bat cave.

The rest of the climb from the cave to the summit has the most stunning views. Every few minutes we stopped to have a break, top-up on water and snacks and then continue to the top. Reaching the summit was a worthwhile experience. We had driven eight hours, hiked eight kilometres, and climbed an altitude of about 2,000 metres (6,500 feet), passing through a bat-poo infested cave along the way up. And every step of the journey was worth it! After a few minutes of celebration and of course millions of selfies, we had to quickly and carefully make our way back down to the base as it began to dawn on us that we would be getting back to camp in the dark. It took us almost four hours to get down to the base and hike back to camp. Upon arrival at camp, I snuck into my tent for a five-minute nap that turned out to be an hour long.

Fort Elwes

The following morning a few of us decided to hike eight kilometres to Fort Elwes. The fort was built in 1896 by European gold prospectors and is located in a saddle in-between two hills right a few meters from the Zambia-Congo DR border. What remains of the Fort today are parts of the stone wall standing a couple of meters high and in other places, a pile of rocks that one can only imagine was once a magnificent reinforcement against competitors chasing after gold deposits in the mineral-rich forest. After a quick lunch with the most amazing view, we hiked back in less than three hours, just in time to join the others for one last dip in the Changwena Falls. Our challenging but magical time in the forest was nearing its end.

Our last night was all jokes and laughter. What better way to celebrate success than with good food, great friends, illumination by the light of a campfire from the earth and a billion stars from the sky? We came as strangers and left as friends. We came with courage and left as conquerors. This was the end of one experience, but not the end of it all. Zambia is blessed with countless waterfalls, hills and mountains and monuments and we got to witness just a few of these wonders on that trip. But the end of one adventure simply marks the beginning of the next.

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