Itimbwe Gorge

Looking up Itimbwe Gorge. Reading this week:

  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • Zambia: The First 50 Years by Andrew Sardanis
  • The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven
  • The Ringworld Throne by Larry Niven
  • Ringworld’s Children by Larry Niven

This week I went to go check out Itimbwe Gorge. Itimbwe Gorge is a bit outside Mbala, down a dirt road that is about 6-7km down the Nakonde road past the turnoff. The gorge is the site of several caves that were used by early man. I found out about Itimbwe Gorge via the very useful site Abercornucopia, and specifically this pdf here. This being Zambia, the caves and the gorge itself is unmarked, but by googling some coordinates and asking around for Itimbwe I was able to find it and bike there. The caves as viewed from the road. Once I made it to the gorge, I found the caves really quickly on the right side as you’re facing downhill, about halfway down the gorge. I actually initially decided these weren’t the caves I was looking for because they didn’t look exactly like the pictures in this pdf. I decided to keep exploring and kept going down the gorge. Abondoned farm buildings. The pool referenced in the first pdf, and the current residents of the valley. At the bottom of the hill I found some of the landmarks referenced in the first pdf (“Notes on Archeological Indications in Abercorn Township and Vicinity”):

The stream formerly running down this gorge now runs underground, surfacing at a small pool near Itimbwe farm house, but water was formerly easily available here and in living European memory the gorge was a favorite haunt of klipspringer and similar small game

The farm buildings were long abandoned, and I figure they must have belonged to white settlers that left sometime after independance in 1965. Continuing my exploration, I went up a path that traverssed the pass between the two points I identified as Malawe Ridge and Kazawa Hill. I turned left and hiked up Malawe Ridge, giving some stunning views of the valley and cliffs. Itimbwe Gorge is on the other side of that ridge. After walking along Malawe Ridge for a bit I descended back into the valley to start heading back up Itimbwe Gorge. The coolest part about living in Mbala is all the history that has happened like right here. Up at Kalambo Falls there is evidence of occupation from 100,000-200,000 years ago, meaning that this region is one of the longest continually inhabited regions on Earth. As I descended into the valley and looked around with little evidence of human habitation (well, minus the trails and evidence of annual burning to keep the vegetation down), I tried to imagine the landscape 1000 millenia ago, teeming with wildlife and inhabited by literal cavemen. This area would have provided everything they needed, from water to game to shelter. It’s worth pausing to realize that agriculture is a realtive newcomer to the region, having been introduced by the Bantu people only 1000-2000 years ago. Pulled from my reveries by the realization I had better find these caves and then start heading home, I went back up Itimbwe Gorge to explore the caves. The first two caves described in the pdf wre the ones I eventually explored, but they only mention occasional habitation. The pdf mentions a third cave “at the foot of a high vertical face nearby” in which there are abundant signs of permanent occupation. I never found that cave, but hiking up to one pot that wasn’t cave did give yet another pretty view. The cave I did find is described as:

In another rather spectacular cavity in which the strata has weathered away horizontally leaving a long, deep cave in the cliffe face (Its floor some ten feet above gound level) quartz chips are present in the earth filled crevices of the floor but the floor is broken and sliping and thus not very suitable for any but occasional occupation.

They of course mean human occupation, because I can confirm the cave is currently occupied by several bats and one large hawk. Judging by the cup I found in there, it still receives occasional human occupation as well. Still, despite it being kinda hard to scramble up the 10 feet, it is easy to imagine taking refuge in the cave, cooking a meal and watching the klipspringer run by. It is pretty amazing to me that all this is within biking distance of Mbala and there’s not even an informational marker saying what this site is. There is so much tourism possibility in Mbala, not to mention the cultural importance of these sites, that just a little development I think could go a long way. In a way that makes it cooler to be able to go out and explore these things, but you wish there were more resources to take care of them properly. After leaving the caves I biked home, running into a rain storm on the way, but overall it was a pretty awesome day.