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Dr Julian Bayliss: The Explorer

Explorer, professor, naturalist and fellow of the Royal Geographical and Royal Entomological societies, Julian Bayliss leads pioneering expeditions to undocumented rainforests, discovering new plant and animal species along the way

Welsh researcher, Dr. Julian Bayliss, led a 28-person team of scientists, climbers and filmmakers to the top of Mt Lico in Mozambique; a mountain that had never been documented before. We caught up with Julian to ask him how the expedition came about, starting with how it’s possible to discover previously undocumented environments in the modern world. Over to Julian...

'It turned out to be the largest rainforest in Southern Africa to never have been documented.'

From 2004 to 2005 I was working on Mt Mulanje in Southern Malawi, which is the second biggest mountain in Southern Africa. It sits right on the border with Mozambique and on the high plateau of Mulanje at about 2000m you can look down over Northern Mozambique and see all of these mountains rising up into the distance hundreds of kilometres away. The landscape and whole of the horizon are peppered with these mountains.

Mt Mulanje has a lot of endemism, which means it’s home to species found nowhere else in the world. The question was what degree of similarity do these mountains have with Mt Mulanje. This sparked a project run through Royal Botanic with Mt Mulanje Conservation Trust, the World Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Mozambique. 

We started running expeditions, choosing the mountains using satellite imagery from Google Earth. One of these mountains was Mt Mabu, which you can just about see in the distance from Mt Mulanje. We failed when we tried to climb the peak of Mt Mabu, only getting three quarters of the way because we went up the wrong side of it and ran out of water. But from that position three quarters of the way up we were able to look around the shoulder of the mountain and see this vast expanse of forest extending into the horizon. It turned out to be the largest rainforest in Southern Africa to never have been documented.

'I did a reconnaissance visit to try and figure out a way to get to the base of the mountain because it is in the African bush with no tarmac roads to get to it.'

The local people used the forest as a refuge to hide during the civil war. So, when I say discover, it's really to the international community and outside world, but nobody had concluded or documented the fact this was the largest rainforest in Southern Africa. That was very exciting and really just the start. After that we looked at all the other mountains. 

A mountain called Lico was relatively tiny, only about a kilometer across, but the satellite imagery was interesting. It looked like a volcanic crater, and in the basin of the crater was this dark green, dense vegetation which could only be forest, or rainforest. 

I did a reconnaissance visit to try and figure out a way to get to the base of the mountain because it is in the African bush with no tarmac roads to get to it. Even using the aerial photography or satellite imagery it was difficult to actually figure out the road network or the trail network to get close to the base of the mountain. It had to be done on foot. 

'I talked to the local community... and asked them what they knew about that forest.'

We drove to the nearest tea estate and walked from there. I took a drone with me, which proved to be extremely valuable because the slopes of Mt Lico were very steep and on the side we came in they rise to around 500m. I managed to fly the drone over the edge of the plateau and was able to view the forest for the first time. That was when we realised we had a site with good quality forest that was certainly unexplored.

I talked to the local community around the base of the mountain and asked them what they knew about that forest. They said they didn’t know anything about it, they couldn’t get there and they didn’t know anybody who had been. They said that in the Colonial days the Portuguese tried to climb it, but the rope snapped and they all fell and died. They say there is actually a tribe of little people living in the forest on the top and they say when they go to the base of Lico these little people throw snakes down, and that when the Portuguese people tried to climb the mountain the little people had actually cut the rope!

All those sorts of stories added to the adventure, mystery and excitement.

'I’d done a bit of caving, camping and rock climbing in my youth and that was probably the start of my understanding about surviving outside in nature.'

Unsurprisingly, there is a certain level of base fitness required to be able to walk up a mountain in the African heat. We’d normally start walking far too late in the day, so would typically be only halfway up by midday during the hottest part of the day in the baking sun. Sufficient hydration is essential. You need to drink water, lots of water if you're climbing mountains and also if you're rock climbing. 

You always need more water than you can carry. You can carry enough for the day, but by the end of the day you need a fresh supply. So that’s often what the recce is all about; looking for drinkable water that can be used to top up supplies en route. During wet season I could see water pouring off the mountain so that was not a problem. My next visit was at the driest part of the year to see if the water was still flowing off the top of the mountain. It was, which meant we could camp and sleep and didn’t have to come down on the same day. It also meant we didn’t have to carry water up. 

I’d done a bit of caving, camping and rock climbing in my youth and that was probably the start of my understanding about surviving outside in nature, in the woods and the mountains. But I’m not a rock climber and neither are any of the other scientists, they’re all very much concerned with reptiles, butterflies etc. They work in the African bush and are quite hardcore, but their minds are mostly occupied with finding new species rather than looking at climbing routes. That’s why we brought in George Lyons and Mike Robinson who are two of the UK’s best free climbers.

Julian on the summit Mt Mabu
'I stopped on the edge, gathered my thoughts, looked out over the African plain and then walked very quietly and slowly into the darkness of the forest.'

When we got to the forest, taking those few steps into this previously undocumented land was very quiet, still and peaceful. It was a moment of reverence bordering on a spiritual experience; a very special moment where the whole of the outside world just disappeared and here was this forest which was a ‘new world’. We were walking into a new world that was very quiet, very still, very peaceful. It was so humbling I didn’t go straight in, I stopped on the edge, gathered my thoughts, looked out over the African plain and then walked very quietly and slowly into the darkness of the forest.

It was dark because it’s undisturbed so the canopy is closed, preventing light getting down to the floor and so there’s no undergrowth at all, it’s all leaf litter. It was a special and magical feeling of reverence and also a feeling of relief in a lot of ways that there I was on the edge of the forest after five years of planning.

'Follow your heart, follow your passion, and create an interest that gives you a niche.'

Exploration is part of the human condition. It’s part of our genetics to want to know what’s around us. The sense of adventure, the exploration, the looking into the unknown, the inquisitiveness, the curiousness. 

I’ve always had a deep understanding and love for nature that has been the driving force behind where I'm heading. But I never imagined I would have ended up having these incredible experiences. If you’re reading this and wondering how you could do something similar, just know that it's not going to happen overnight, so stick with it. Follow your heart, follow your passion, and create an interest that gives you a niche. Become a specialist and you become an expert, that’s quite important. Then people will come and find you, and amazing experiences could follow.

I’ll leave you with an example of one such amazing experience I had. I was on top of Mt Namuli in Northern Mozambique when dusk and then darkness fell. I turned off my light and it went pitch black until all of the ground around me lit up with phosphorescent fungi. Then, on top of that, the fireflies came out. There I was, sitting in a bed of phosphorescent fungi with hundreds of fireflies dancing around me lighting everything up. It was mind-blowingly incredible and an example of the magic and beauty of nature we need to conserve for future generations.

Check out Julian's website to discover more about him and his incredible expeditions.