Beautiful Mount Nyangani turns hostile in moments. It “swallows people” in the local legend – many have disappeared without trace over the years but there’s no way of knowing exactly how many. The latest publicised disappearance was of 31-year-old businessman Zayd Dada who became separated from his family and friends as the weather quickly deteriorated on a hiking trip just over a year ago.New safety rules for hiking on Nyangani will make it safer but won’t change centuries of mystery and fear in the Nyanga district. National Parks now require hikers to climb with a professional ranger/guide for a fee of $5 an hour, cellphones must be fully charged before setting out – those that aren’t don’t get to go – and hikers must carry a torch with spare batteries. Cellphone and radio towers are being put up at the top with boosters at strategic points elsewhere.
In folklore, Nyangani is the sacred home of ancestral spirits.
Zayd Dada’s family not only consulted chiefs and spirit mediums, they also brought in mountain rescue experts from South Africa who used the latest technology to find him, without success. They had pin-sharp 3-dimensional satellite enhancements of the mountain and satellite weather ‘snapshots’ of conditions before, during and after Mr Dada’s disappearance; these might have shown the direction he went when the mists and cloud descended upon him. There were several possible routes he could have taken after becoming disorientated. The experts had scanners and heat seeking equipment to sweep across the geology and flora and fauna searching for any unusual shapes and objects deep in the crags and crevices. A shoe, scraps of clothing, a belt buckle, a wallet or human remains should have shown up. There were no signs that Nyangani’s predators – leopard haven’t been seen there in any numbers for years – might have found a corpse. Mr Dada’s family sought closure, but with no information either from spirit mediums’ rituals or state-of-the-art mountain rescue technology they thought he might have fallen, concussed himself and lost his memory. They distributed flyers among nearby communities, one in Portuguese in case he had strayed across the border into Mozambique. Still no results were forthcoming.
The family was adamant he would not have staged his own disappearance, for whatever reasons.
That has been known to happen before, of course. Disgraced British politician John Stonehouse faked a drowning, left a suicide note among his clothes on the beach and was identified years later living under an assumed name in Australia.
In the 1980s, no traces of the two young daughters of a local politician were ever found. Nor were any remains of a 12-year-old schoolboy, Robert Ackhurst, ever found back then. In traditional belief, they may have been put into “chimidzi” or “suspension” by the invisible inhabitants of the mountain. Robert’s teacher from the Banket school was later to commit suicide from the unending grief of having lost a pupil in his charge on Nyangani.
Admirable journalist Ropafadzo Mapimhidze has also recounted how, when working in the provincial capital, Mutare, she was warned not to dismiss superstitions surrounding Nyangani, so deeply are they ingrained and how perilous it could be to do so.
“Locals say that when you come across a strange, colourful snake, a smouldering clay pot with no fire in sight or a brick of gold it’s best to pretend you have not seen anything and move on,” she wrote.
She recalled meeting a respected senior government official who went missing for four days on Zimbabwe’s highest mountain (2,590 metres) when he was a young man. He said afterwards it seemed he had been missing for just a few hours and he didn’t feel hungry or show any signs of fatigue or dehydration. Cultural rites were evidently performed and he was ”released” unharmed by the custodians of Nyangani.
The nearby Nyangani Falls, a safer bet? I don’t take anything for granted, but I am with the spirit world on this one. The world’s most advanced mountain rescue technology found nothing untoward on Nyangani, but that doesn’t prove there are no spirits up there.