It was one of the few places on the planet that remained unmapped and unexplored, but now Mount Mabu has started to yield its secrets to the world.
Until a few years ago this giant forest in the mountainous north of Mozambique was known only to local villagers; it did not feature on maps nor, it is believed, in scientific collections or literature. But after "finding" the forest on a Google Earth internet map, a British-led team of scientists has returned from what is thought to be the first full-scale expedition into the canopy. Below the trees, which rise 45m above the ground, they discovered land filled with astonishingly rich biodiversity.
The scientists found what they believe are three new species of butterfly, a previously undiscovered adder snake and new populations of rare birds. They also expect to find new plants among the hundreds of specimens they have brought back with them. Photographs from the trip - published here for the first time - show just part of the forest, tropical creepers, giant snakes such as the gaboon viper, and other wilodlife seen by the team, including small klipspringer and blue duiker antelope, noisy samango monkeys, elephant shrew, and the granite-like rocky peak of Mount Mabu. Back at Kew Gardens in west London, where he is based, expedition leader Jonathan Timberlake said the wonder of what they experienced was only sinking in now that they are home: "That's when the excitement comes out - when you come back home or start reading some of the background and realise you're breaking new ground."
Mount Mabu was "discovered" in 2005 when Timberlake's team were looking for a site for a conservation project. Soon afterwards, locally based conservationist Julian Bayliss visited the site and studied satellite photos which showed a forest of about 80 square kilometres. "It's then we realised this looked [to be] potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I'm aware of in southern Africa," said Timberlake, who has spent most of his working life in the region. "Nobody knew about it. The literature I'm aware of doesn't mention the word 'Mabu' anywhere; we have looked through the plant collections of Kew and elsewhere and we don't see the name come up. It might be there under another name, but we're not aware of any collection of plant or animals or anything else taking place there."
After a few exploratory trips, in October and November this year 28 scientists and support staff from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Switzerland, with 70 porters, drove to an abandoned tea estate where the road ended and hiked the last few kilometres into the forest to set up camp for four weeks. One highlight was emerging from the canopy on the peak of Mount Mabu, 1,700m up, where "hundreds upon hundreds" of male butterflies had gathered in the sunlight to attract mates by flying as high as possible. "There were swifts flying in and peregrines in the air above: it was phenomenal," said Timberlake.