Mount Ribàué, our last montane forest on the schedule, is located another few-hundred kilometers to the east of Namuli. This is the least-known of all the mountains we are visiting. For Mabu and Namuli, there have been some recent botanical surveys, but Ribàué is more elusive. Few have ever visited the mountain for scientific purposes. The last survey for reptiles and amphibians was in 1964 and lasted just a day or two. In some ways, therefore, Ribàué held the most promise in our minds.
Another long, bumpy ride over dirt roads provided us with some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. The way is littered with large granite inselbergs, seemingly toppled willy-nilly onto the flat savanna, creating 1,000-meter cliffs at angles that apparently defy physics. We passed Mount Inago, another inselberg that we had hoped to visit, but time had grown too short. We proceeded past, longing to catch a close-up glimpse of the forest that remains there.
A new chameleon was recently described in 2014 from the Inago forest, and due to the heavy degradation and transformation of that forest for agriculture, the chameleon is already considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN. But Inago would have to wait for another time. We continued to bump our way down the road that finally brought us into view of Ribàué Mountain. Edges of forest could be seen dipping down from the higher plateau that remained obscured from our viewpoint, but we struggled to find a way that we would access the forest ourselves.
Ribàué is essentially cracked in half, high mountain on each side of a much lower valley. The forest on the western chunk seemed accessible, but we’d have to cross perhaps 10 km of savanna before accessing the base of the mountain, and then at least 700 m of altitude up the steep slopes. The forest on the eastern half seemed more accessible, due to a road that ran up into the lowest slopes of the mountain. We decided to camp at the end of this road, as the forest clung to the slopes about 800 m above, and we could walk directly up from our camp. This western half of the mountain is known as M’palàwé and we were informed that the forest on the top ridge is protected as a forest reserve. It sounded great.
We quickly made camp and decided to walk up to the forest late in the day, so we’d have the opportunity to be there at night when most of our work takes place. Frogs and snakes are particularly active at night, and chameleons can easily be seen sleeping on branches. We grabbed our gear and headed up around 3:00 p.m., expecting the walk to take a couple of hours. We found a path that is obviously used by local people accessing the mountain. We slowly started slogging uphill (it was still hot). The path meandered through shamba (small, local subsistence agriculture), which we totally expected at the lower elevations. We climbed and climbed, all the while meeting more and more shamba. As we started to gain altitude and break into where forest should have been, we noticed that new shamba was in the making.
The ground was soft with ash from burned wood. Stumps bore fresh chop marks and the burned husks of trees were strewn nearby, having been recently felled. We still had some vertical ascent to make, and while the lower reaches of forest had obviously been converted to shamba, we plodded onward toward the ridge as we were sure there must be forest there. Eventually, we made a mad scramble up some boulders and into an enormous patch of brush. Coming out the other side, we were on the ridge, but the trees were gone; we were only met with more shamba. The forest was utterly cut and burned. We walked through the devastation with heavy hearts, moving along the ridge hoping to encounter something that was intact. As the sky grew dark, we found a small patch of forest, only a couple-hundred meters in length along the ridge. It would have to suffice for this night’s search. We waited for dark, sitting on a log and feeling helpless and frustrated, our expectations for this forest crushed along with the trees.