Not Climbing Mt. Sunzu

Mt. Sunzu

Reading this week:

  • Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming
  • The Books in My Life by Henry Miller

This past weekend I did not climb Mt. Sunzu. It wasn’t for lack of trying. As an illustration of how my adventures in Zambia usually go, here is me not climbing Mt. Sunzu.

Mt. Sunzu is arguably the highest mountain in Zambia. It’s something like 2040m tall, according to Google Maps. Sure, if you search for “highest mountain Zambia,” you’ll get the Mafinga Hills, but that hill is actually split between Zambia and Malawi as it is on the border, so us Mbala people hold that Sunzu takes the cake.

Before setting out on these types of adventures, I look the place up on Google Maps. On the sattelite view, you can usually see the roads and bush paths that will take you where you want to go. As I have complained before, Zambia’s biggest problem, tourism-wise, is the fact that nothing is marked and everything is hard to find. There is no marked path up Sunzu, or any signs that say “go this way.” So it pays to map it out beforehand. In the above picture, Sunzu is the green marker. I had to choose between an eastern route and a western route. Initially I wanted to do the western route because it is less mountain to hike up. The only problem with the western route is from the satellite image, there is no route at all, not even a bush path. The other way is the eastern route. There, you can follow a road to the base of the mountain and then climb up the whole way. It is still bushwhacking, but it is only 1km of bushwhacking instead of 6. Oh and you have to scale the mountain like straight up the face of it. Oi.

So the morning of this adventure I got up early and set out a little after it got light out. The previous day I baked myself some bagel balls so I was ready to go. I got into town at about 8 and then started off the next 30km of biking to get to the mountain. The goal is to do as much biking before it gets really hot.

I got to the mountain at about 1100. As you can see from the map above, there is a long stretch of road that goes downhill to the base of the escarpment. At the top of that hill, I started poking around for a road visible on Google Maps that brings you like part of the way to the mountain. I poked around and didn’t see it, and I continued down the hill. Looking into the forest, the bush through which I would have to whack looked pretty thick and difficult to whack, and since I couldn’t find the road I was looking for anyways I continued down the hill, figuring I would just go with the eastern route.

As I was riding down the hill I started to feel a bump-bump-bump coming from my rear tire. I stopped to check and discovered my tire was failing. So like, fuck. I remembered at that point I hadn’t brought a spare tube, but that is moot if the tire itself blows. This is the same thiing that happened to me when I tried to bike the Mwambezi, and I could barely believe it was happening again. This put me in a pickle, because the eastern route I was now shooting for involves biking like 6km off tarmac down a dirt road, and worst case I bike 6km down it just to have my tire burst. But I had come this far (this is usually my downfall on these adventures, thinking I had “already come this far…”), and I was on tarmac anyways (so I could hitch back to town) so I kept on going.

Towards the bottom of the hill I discovered something new: a fence. All along the road starting towards the base of the escarpment was a fence keeping me from going towards the mountain (I did some Googling today, I don’t think it is this place but hey that’s nice to have more farming in the area). At the road that I was gonna follow to the base of the mountain was a fence, but it looked uninviting and so I kept going hoping I could get around it. The answer was nope: the fence went all the way down to the very marshy river and so I was cut off. I was very indignent and I guess this is how the cowboys felt when they invented barbed wire.

So I sat down on the bridge and had some lunch and considered my options. Since I really wanted to climb that mountain, I decided to go back to the top of the hill and poke around again for a way there. Hopefully my tire would hold out, and I could climb the mountain while there was still daylight.

Getting back up that huge hill was exactly what I wanted to avoid with the eastern route and by the time I got up it, it was about 1300. Again on these adventures I start to do math to myself like “well it’s 1300 now so I have five hours of daylight so maybe I could hike the 12km there and back before it is dark and get back to the road and then just hitch to town and hopefully there is traffic and hopefully my water doesn’t run out and maybe worst case I just sleep by the side of the road and my tire doesn’t seem to be getting too much worse…” and really I should know my own warning signs by now but I don’t. Plus as I looked up it seemed like rain clouds were building, so also added to the equation is me playing optimistic weather man telling myself the rain won’t hit me.

At the top of the hill I found a road that looked somewhat promising and went down it. It didn’t go very far and I found a family there having lunch. I asked if there was a path to Mt. Sunzu. They asked me why I wanted to see “her,” and like jeez guys I’ve been biking since like 6 and it is hot and I am tired and now you want me to get philosophical? They said there was indeed a path… at the bottom of the hill. So like ugh, I wasn’t going back down there again. Plus with the rain coming I decided to give up on this adventure and head back into town.

View from the hut.

But the day wasn’t done with me yet! I started biking and got a little ways but then I could see the actual rain coming. Again I tried to tell myself that the rain wouldn’t hit, but the raindrops started falling on my head and so I put on my rain gear and none too soon. The downpour came very suddenly and I had to look to check it was rain and not hail whacking me. The wind was so strong I was veering off course and couldn’t make any progress. Luckily I looked up and spotted a little hut and ducked into there. So now I was soaked, and my feet were wet, and the hut didn’t stop the wind but at least it stopped the rain. Like jeez, the sky, I already couldn’t climb the mountain, why you gotta make this harder?

After about 45 minutes the rain let up, which in its own way was kinda annoying. I set offf biking again in my rain gear while there were some sprinkles but before long it was sunny and it was hot and I didn’t want to stop to take all my rain gear off again. Plus the fact it was hot was annoying. Also also, I no longer had a really solid excuse to stay in town for the night; if it is raining it is hard to bike back to my vil through the raging river that forms on my road, and so I can mentally justify a night in the lodge. But it was a sunny and beautiful day when I biked back into town, with just enough time to make it back to my vil (my tire held, somehow).

But I was tired, hungry, hot, sweaty, disappointed I didn’t get to climb the mountain, and also my feet were wet. I asked my one friend what she would pay to take a shower in my condition, and she said $20. Luckily a lodge is $10, so I decided to stay the night anyways. So I walked over, checked in, unpacked my stuff, went to go turn on the shower and: the water was out.

Tourism in Zambia would go way up if only it was a lot easier, lemme tell ya.