February 9, we are headed to the first base camp in the forest. We start out in the morning, with only a section of the group gone forward for reconnaissance. Two guides, Eric, me, Michele, Massimo, Simone, Jerome the cook and a soldier that, quiet as a shadow, follows our every movement.
We load up the boat, a small rowing boat with a flat bottom, good to fish in, that here they call Mtumbu. In the evening the lake is dotted with them.
The oar is long and thin, and while they row they hit it powerfully with their hands to wet their palm and get a better grip. After an hour of navigation we arrive at Mkua, a costal bay, a fiord bordered by rushes, that weaves its way into the forest from the mouth of the stream. “A sacred place” whispers Erik. Here people come to talk with spirits. Each cluster of villages here on the coast has its own “spirit area” where people turn for help when there’s no rain, if fish is scarce or an epidemic breaks out. It’s only twenty past ten and the heat is already stifling. The slope is vertical and the first step on the steep and slippery path clearly tells us it will be a tough journey. Soon we penetrate the green wall of the forest, a complex fabric, where thousands of different strands, liane, trunks, branches, leaves, seeds, lichens, moss intertwine, overlap, superimpose, suffocate each other looking for the sun.
According to Michele however, it is evidence of the ecologic order, the complex stratification of life, only seemingly chaotic. Life swarms under us, so much so that the ground seems to be flowing like liquid by the amount of movement under our feet. For those who love wide open landscapes, with purely defined shapes, this environment could prove strongly claustrophobic. The heat and the humidity create a dense climate that, in addition to the kaleidoscopic game of lights, shadows, humidity, verticality and vegetation, sends the observer into a nearly hypnotic state. Our feet disappear in a slippery amalgamation of vegetal marcescence: a nightmare for those who like to see where they are putting their feet. The only solution is not to think about it. A group of Cercopithecus (Allochrocebus lhoesti) fly over our heads, quickly reaching at least 30 metre high.
A few steps ahead Erik points out a chimpanzees’ nest, a comfortable heap of leaves and branches that the monkeys build every day for night-time. In 4 hours of progress we reach the altitude of 1000m, and the guides begin to set up camp. “We are not high enough”, Michele says, “ we need to reach at least 1300-1500 meters. Here we will find very little”.
In mountain forests, life stabilizes only at high altitudes. There the forest has become established over time, giving way to the biodiversity to specialize and diversify. Further down there has been a rise and fall of savanna and forest that only recently, evolutionarily speaking, has become established as a forest. Tomorrow our guides will search for a way to take us higher.