Izi Falls: Getting There

Alli, about to ford a river on the way to the falls.

Reading this week:

  • How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
  • The Passion According to Carmela by Marcos Aguinis

So although the Zwangendaba burial site thing was a fun little mini-adventure, the real adventure this weekend was to go to Izi Falls. Izi Falls, aka Mpona Falls (which I am like 90% sure means “Falls Falls”) is located to the west of Mpulungu along the Tanganyika escarpment, overlooking the lake. The easier way to get there is to take a boat from Mpulungu and then hike up to the bottom of the falls. But every time I bike home I see the whole escarpment in the distance, running from Mbala to the lake, and that is the route I wanted to bike. This turned out to be quite a thing.

On the map it doesn’t look so bad. If you go over to Google Maps and look at the satellite imagery, there is a road that runs most of the way there, along with what looks like a bush path and then maybe 2.5km of bushwhacking, tops. So my friend Alli came along and I am glad she did because she made like all the good decisions. We arrived in Mbala on Saturday to spend the night so we could set off early as possible the next morning. We bought some supplies and made peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for the trip.

We set off as soon as it was light the next morning and started down the road. That road is actually really nice. It is a fairly wide dirt road and well maintained. The whole of Mbala is made up of sweeping, gorgeous valleys, and this road did not disappoint. We didn’t know anyone who had come down this way before and everyone is missing out. There were hills, but the first 20km or so weren’t so bad. But then we hit the escarpment. By virtue of not having gone down, really, we were halfway up the escarpment, but needed to go the other half, and there is a fairly steep switchback. This is the point, though, that gives you the first really grand view of Lake Tang.

Lucky for us though, about halfway up the path a canter came by and agreed to give us a lift. They were carrying sand to a farm down the road, and the guys in the back were pretty friendly, especially after I coughed up five kwatcha for some booze. They took us another 20km or so down the road. There was one moment that really had us worried though; we said we were going to Izi Falls and at the point where we thought we should get off they told us to stay on, and then took us off the main road down a path I did not recognize. When you are trying to navigate unnamed roads via Google Maps Satellite images though, it’s hard to recognize anything, and in the end it turns out they were right. Our canter ride came to an end after another 5km or so at the canter owner’s farm. He offered us lunch and to store our bikes for us, but we were anxious to make more headway and afraid to leave our bikes with him. We probably should have taken him up on both counts.

So we set off down the road towards another village. In this village I started to get upset, because two white people rolling through on bikes attracts the whole village and this annoys me more than a little. We were going down the way we thought we were supposed to go, but some men insisted it was the wrong way and wouldn’t let us proceed. Then there was a committee of six dudes or so that somehow couldn’t quite point us down the right road. Eventually one dude broke out and showed us the way, and so we escaped the village.

The path from this point got less and less reassuring. We were told there was a village down the path, but although in some places the path looked well-worn in others it looked barely travelled. There were plenty of cultivated fields though, so that gave us some confidence. The steep downhills meant we should have ditched our bikes and just walked, but we were too stubborn for that, and so we continued.

What the path lacked in walkability though it made up for in stunning vistas. It was at this point that we sorta busted out of the forest and got to the edge of the escarpment, giving us stunning views of the whole Mpulungu valley and beyond. We were above a lot of the rain so we could look kilometers in the distance to see storms over far away villages. Frankly I think Mpulungu is best admired from a distance and if we had never got to Izi Falls I would have been satisfied with this vista.

But continue we did and we eventually found some homes perched on the edge of the escarpment. I am always amazed that people live in places like this, hard to reach and on a steep hill, but I guess Zambians like the view, too. Here we were getting discouraged because we thought we would have been to the falls hours before, we were hot, bringing the bikes was increasingly evident as a mistake, and every person we talked to kept telling us the falls were “very far.” Whenever you get told things are “very far,” though, sometimes that means it’s 20km away, and sometimes it means it is 2km away and they just think it’s far for us. Lucky for us in this case it appears to have been the latter.

Past these houses we stared to make our final descent into the valley at the top of the escarpment that holds Izi Falls. The falls are hidden until you’re right on top of them, so we couldn’t actually tell we were getting close, so it looked to us like we just had more and more difficult hiking ahead. Here we finally ditched our bikes by locking them to a tree, and here tragedy struck because I lost the wheel nut to my bike. This meant my front tire couldn’t stay on and this was gonna make biking 50km out of here the next day very difficult. But that was tomorrow’s problem and so we forged ahead.