The wild, untamed expanses of the African continent are no stranger to dark mysteries. It is a land steeped in them, from strange beasts, to natural mysteries, to mysterious tribes, to all manner of high strangeness. Here amongst the vast natural beauty also loom mysterious places that have defied human understanding for millennia; locations cloaked in shadow and often sinister tales, myths, and unexplained phenomena. One such place is an enigmatic, ominous mountain in the remote reaches of Zimbabwe. It is a place heavily pervaded with myth, legend, and bizarre mysteries, as well as among its various strangeness imbued with the disturbing habit of not allowing some to leave, seemingly vanishing them from the face of the earth, earning it the nickname “The Mountain That Swallows People.” It is a place that has become just as notorious for mysterious vanishings in the region as the more famous Bermuda Triangle, and just as permeated with the unknown.
Located within the breathtakingly scenic wilderness north of Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands is Nyanga National Park, one of the oldest and largest national parks in the country. Here is a land of rolling green hills, moorland, and lightly wooded expanses, inhabited by a wide range of unique animals and through which meander quaint streams and roaring rivers, and the park is home to Zimbabwe’s highest waterfall, Mutarazi Falls. The breathtaking scenery and plentitude of wildlife have made the park one of Zimbabwe’s premiere tourist attractions, and sitting at the center of all of this natural splendor to dominate the surrounding landscape is the majestic Mount Nyangani. At 2,592 m (8,504 ft.) high, it is the highest point in Zibabwe, and its plateau of moorland, steep drops, and seemingly eternally mist capped peak give it a rather imposing, mysterious appearance, and it is also known for dramatic weather changes at a moment’s notice, which all makes it perhaps not a surprise that legends have orbited it for centuries.
In local tradition, Mount Nyangani is inhabited by powerful ancestral spirits and is a sacred place. It is also said to be the haunt of evil or vindictive spirits and all manner of supernatural entities and creatures. The mountain has long been feared by the people of the region, a place to be approached with caution, and there are numerous rules that according to lore must be followed when venturing there. One is not to approach or enter sacred locations upon the mountain, for it is said to do so will result in becoming hopelessly lost and unable to leave, doomed to aimlessly wander the mountain unless the angered spirits responsible are appeased somehow. It is also said that if one comes across a colorful snake, a pot with no fire, or a brick of gold it is the spirits tricking you, and that you had better ignore them and quickly move on. The same mischievous spirits are said to enjoy pushing people from steep ledges, with varied advice on ways to avoid their wrath, such as refraining from urinating on the mountain, avoiding profanity, and by all means abstaining from any sort of sexual activity. It is also recommended not to wear red clothing, as this apparently greatly upsets the spirits. Even if one plans to follow these set rules, visitors are strongly implored to seek permission from the village elders of the area before embarking.
These are the dark rumors and legends that have been whispered about among local tribes since time unremembered, but if the phenomena associated with this place are anything to go on, there is something more at work here than just pure folklore. Visitors and locals who have come to the mysterious mountain have experienced a wide range of strangeness. It is said that compasses and electrical equipment will sometimes go haywire or break down entirely here, and that sometimes photos taken here will not develop properly. The weather is reported as almost having a malevolent mind of its own, with gusts of wind seeming to roar in at the most inopportune times and thick fogs or mists that materialize out of nowhere to follow hikers around as if stalking them. There are also numerous reports of visitors becoming dazed, confused, or disoriented for no apparent reason, with even experienced hikers familiar with the area at times becoming hopelessly lost, as well as sudden bouts of profound dizziness or nausea that pass as abruptly as they come. Other various weirdness are unidentifiable sounds, strange lights, and animals that seem to watch and follow visitors around, as well as trees that are twisted into the visage of human faces and talk or whisper, or streams that suddenly turn a blood red in color.
Even the area surrounding the mountain is saturated with spooky lore telling of magical locations and strange beasts. For instance, two dams that were under construction in the areas called Osborne and Gokwe were reportedly plagued with setbacks and troubles due to what the locals claimed was the work of mermaids angered by the desecration of their river. In addition to numerous freak construction accidents, equipment malfunctions, and foul weather dogging the workers at every turn, there were purportedly some construction workers who went missing without a trace to never be found. Things got so tense with the deeply frightened crews, many of whom said they had seen the creatures themselves, that a large portion of the workers refused to go back to work until tribal elders came in to perform special rituals to appease the rampaging mermaids.
In addition to all of this, Mount Nyangani is perhaps most known for its mysterious disappearances, and for as long as there have been people in the region it has been said to swallow up hapless travelers. Although it is unknown just how many people have actually vanished into thin air on Mount Nyangani, there are many fairly modern cases of disappearances here that have remained unsolved. A rash of such disappearances occurred here in the 1980s. In 1981, the two young teenage daughters of a former government official named Tichaendepi Masaya vanished without a trace on the mountain, and a massive air and ground search turned up not a single shred of evidence of what had become of them. Their disappearance remains a complete mystery. A few years later there was the mysterious vanishing of a 12-year-old schoolboy named Robert Ackhurst, who wandered off from a group on a school field trip and seems to have completely stepped of the face of the earth. Robert’s teacher was purportedly so upset that he had lost a child under his care that he committed suicide the following year. The 80s would see at least three more inexplicable disappearances on the mountain, and in all of the cases no trace of the victims has ever been found.
More recently and well-covered is the case of 31-year-old Zayd Dada, who was a Zimbabwean tourist of Indian descent. On January 4, 2014, Dada went on a hike up the mountain with his wife and another couple in the early morning hours and he would never return. Allegedly when the group got about halfway up the mountain Dada wandered off for a moment to see the scenery as the others rested, tired out by their exhausting hike. When Dada did not return the remaining hikers searched for him but could find him nowhere, prompting them to notify authorities. An extensive search was launched involving the Zimbabwe National Army, the Air force of Zimbabwe, and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, as well as numerous mountain climbers, professional trackers, and volunteers, who swept the landscape using advanced technology such as 3D satellite maps and infrared scanners. Every possible route up the mountain was painstakingly searched to no avail, and the story made national news in Zimbabwe at the time. Even after the official search found no sign of the missing hiker, the grief-stricken family distributed a plentitude of flyers in several different languages across the region. So desperate were the friends and family of Dada to find him that they even sought council from local tribal chieftains, who arranged traditional rituals to appease the spirits of the mountain, but this too proved to be futile.
Perhaps even stranger than those who have vanished without a trace on the mysterious Mount Nyangani are those who have disappeared only to reappear later with decidedly bizarre stories to tell. One such account concerns a senior government official who went missing on the mountain in the early 1980s while out on an excursion with two companions. The group was missing for a total of 4 days, during which time search operations were unable to find any trace of them. During this time, the group later claimed that they had wandered aimlessly in a confused state, and that they did not feel tired, dehydrated or hungry at all the entire time. They also reported that they had seen searchers looking for them but that they themselves had seemed to be invisible, neither seen nor heard when they called out to their would be rescuers.
It is said that it was only when tribal leaders in the area made a desperate blood sacrifice to the mountain spirits that the missing official and his companions were miraculously found again, and although they had been gone for 4 days they themselves believed that they had been gone only a few hours. It was claimed at the time that they had been stuck in a sort of intermediary realm between realities, held their by the spirits of the mountain until they had been appeased, imprisoned in a kind of state of suspension or limbo called chimidza by the natives. Indeed, others who have gone missing on Mount Nyangani and come back alive have been reported as having been in sort of a trance-like state when found and unable to fully remember where they had been or what exactly had happened to them. Are these all cases of what I like to call the “almost vanished;” people who were in thrall to dark forces that sought to make them disappear but who somehow managed to escape their pull and come back with fantastical tales of weirdness?
Even more recently and just as weird is the case of a 20-year-old British tourist named Thomas Gaisford, who bravely went out to explore Mount Nyangani in November of 2014. A second-year university student, Gaisford had won an award called the Wallace Watson Award Lectures, which helps and funds students to make rugged treks to remote areas for study and has the objective of helping students to “gain a greater ability and self-confidence in handling physical and mental adversity and a better appreciation of other cultures and ways of life”. The adventurous young man embarked on a trip to the summit of the mountain alone, but was enthusiastic and optimistic about the ordeal. However, things would take a turn for the strange rather quickly.
At around 3 PM, Gaisford claims that an unusually thick bank of fog descended from the mountain to fully engulf him. Disoriented and unable to find his way through the murky soup of fog that had surrounded him, Gaisford decided to set up camp and pitch a tent to wait out the strange weather, shortly after which an abrupt, heavy rain began to lash out at him. He would end up staying there overnight, and in the encroaching darkness he reported that he had been watched and circled by various animals, which had seemed to almost be keeping an eye on him or studying him. He followed the advice and warnings of local villagers who had told him to ignore any animals that were acting strangely, which they had said meant that they were not of this world, and he would later say of the whole bizarre and unsettling experience:
I prayed and slept there for 10 hours. Several scary snakes approached me. I never disturbed them. They came in numbers, but I stood still. Various animals frequented the place and I could see shining red eyes of several animals staring at me. My character was tested. I remained steadfast. I woke up the following morning after the fog had cleared. I climbed down before I proceeded to Leopard Rock on foot.
Was this the account of a man merely scared and alone on a mountain notorious for its unpredictable weather, perhaps with all of that sinister legend dancing around in the back of his mind to amplify the terror of the situation, or was there something more ominous and perhaps supernatural pulsing in the background? If Gaisford had not set up camp and waited out the mysterious fog ensconcing him would he too have become another one of the mountain’s victims, doomed to vanish off the face of the earth like the others? Gaisford himself had been skeptical about the spooky lore surrounding the mountain before his trek, as well as the warnings that locals and tribal elders had given him before setting out about the supernatural menaces lurking out there on the peak, but the strange ordeal made him think there may have been something to it. He would reflect on the experience, saying:
I had heard lots of strange stories about the mountain, but I never believed them. I tried to put that at the back of my mind. I never consulted traditional leaders before I embarked on the expedition, but I later realized that I should have done that. I am happy to be alive. There is more to experience. I have learnt a lot about Zimbabwe and about myself.
What is going on at the seemingly cursed Mount Nyangani depends largely on who you ask. If you ask the tribes of the area they will spin fabulous yarns of angry wandering spirits, dark magic, and forbidding zones between dimensions that trap souls. Tribal elders have long warned that it is absolutely necessary to follow the rules of the mountain and to not anger the many roaming spirits that eternally guard it. According to the locals, the missing people are being held captive by the spirits of the mountain, and that if only they had followed the etiquette they would have been fine. They also claim that the only possibility of bringing these lost people back is through intense rituals to ask these spirits for forgiveness, and they have urged park officials to cooperate with enacting guidelines to follow the proper, scared methods and rituals of calming the spirits of the mountain. One local by the name of Sekuru Nhando recalled one of the searches and how it related to these rules thus:
The search was called off due to the heavy winds and what these people failed to read was that the helicopter was swayed by the winds to Hauna area, which is where one of my descendants lives. He was supposed to lead the rites. But when my medium tried to tell the search team, they didn’t heed her calls so I just left it like that. They are all alive and well. They angered the spirits but will be returned when proper channels are followed.
Perhaps a more rational explanation is that the very terrain invites disappearances. This is a place of sharp, spectacular weather changes and unusually thick mist build-up, which can endanger and disorient hikers. It can also conspire with the perilous terrain that features sharp drops, craggy, rocky footing, sudden steep gorges, and trails that become quickly overgrown and faint from the relentless encroachment of vegetation fueled by the constant rainfall here. All of these factors can spell trouble for even the most experienced hiker, and the slightest mishap can leave someone stranded or injured in foggy conditions, unable to find their way out or even worse plummeting down a steep cliff to their death. The conditions here can be so dangerous that there have been strong pushes for new safety rules and precautions for the many visitors that come to this majestic place each year, and some of these have taken effect. Currently, hikers wishing to explore the mountain are required to pay a 5$ an hour fee to be accompanied by an experienced guide, they must fully charge their cellphones before beginning their trek, and they must be equipped with a flashlight with fresh batteries. For its part, the government has been busy setting up new cellphone and radio towers in the vicinity and regularly clearing and marking the main, safer trails, with plans to construct trails that are fully paved.
Whatever the causes behind it, Mount Nyangani remains a mysterious place that marries stunning natural beauty with ominous legends, strange phenomena, and sinister vanishings. It seems to be at once a real place endowed with beauty yet beyond time and almost beyond reality, existing in its own realm to look down into our world from its looming vantage point above the world of green sprawled out at its feet. This is a land traditionally deemed to be the habitat of spirits and strange creatures, full of ancient magic and modern intrigue. What mysteries and perils, natural or otherwise, hide up there in those mists? Indeed, what happened to those who ventured here only to never return? Were they the victims of the simple hazards of hiking in such a potentially deadly place, or did the mountain choose to keep them for itself? Whatever the real reasons, Mount Nyangani has remained true to its nickname and swallowed them all the same, and this place of mysteries old and new remains there surveying its domain, in a sense an inscrutable presence that may forever lie beyond our grasp to fully understand it.