Sunday, January 22, 2012

In the footsteps of Laurens van der Post in Malawi

It's more than half a century since Laurens van der Post's expedition to Mount Mulanje in Malawi ended in tragedy. Here, his friend retraces the writer's journey

Mount Mulanje, MalawiView larger picture
Famous footsteps: the imposing Mount Mulanje Massif in Malawi. Photograph: Jason Gallier/Alamy

I climbed a mountain in Africa at an age nearly too old. Before I did, I mentioned the idea to a friend. "This," she said, "is the start of dementia. You are 74. You know little about climbing. It is irresponsible!"
But I had a purpose in going. This concerned the South African writer Laurens van der Post, a friend of mine in his old age. In 1949, on a mission for the British government, he flew to Nyasaland (now Malawi) and journeyed across Mount Mulanje with two foresters and some porters to assess the mountain's livestock capacity. During a five-day rainstorm one of the foresters, Fred France, was swept over a precipice by a torrent; the rope holding him snapped and he was killed. Laurens's book Venture to the Interior, which became a bestseller, describes the accident.
After Laurens died, JDF Jones, known to all as JDF, wrote a biography of him. Concerning Venture to the Interior, JDF claimed Laurens had "absurdly inflated the mystique and menace of Mulanje, and the scale of his expedition". I felt the disparagement was wrong. I resolved to retrace Laurens's journey on Mulanje and find out for myself.
I asked Chris Badger of Wilderness Safaris in Malawi to arrange the trip for May, the month Laurens was on the mountain, but he demurred, saying: "Some of the dry riverbeds are currently raging torrents." So I went in September.
I flew overnight to Johannesburg, then to Chileka airport, near Blantyre. Michael Muyafula, one of Badger's guides, met me there. In the afternoon heat and glare he drove me towards Mulanje, some 70 miles away. The roads swarmed with people of all ages, some walking, some on bicycles freighted with massive loads. The most notable was a trussed pig, stretched out on a board and draped with banana leaves to keep it cool.
Full story at The Observer


Books Ahoy said...

That looks so pretty! New follower :)

Books Ahoy

Keri h said...

Laurens van der Post - whose work I loved as a teenager - has a strange reputation. I know 2 of his publishers (who couldnt stand him, because they knew him as a skite, a boastful liar) and I wonder if his old friend has dismissed too quickly legitimate criticism?
I am open-minded (but must admit the queasy-racisim of some of his work make him totally unpalatable for me, as a reader.)