Standing 1,100 metres above sea level in the Zambezia Province of northern Mozambique, Mount Lico is an inselberg with sheer rock walls that rise up to 700 metres above the surrounding countryside. While an impressive structure in its own right, Mount Lico holds a secret that was discovered (or, more accurately, rediscovered) in 2012. Within the volcanic crater atop the mountain, covering 30 hectares, is an undisturbed rainforest that could well be one of the oldest living biomes on Earth.
Julian Bayliss of Oxford Brookes University identified Lico as a place of significant scientific interest in 2012 when using Google Earth to search for landforms and vegetation features worth investigating. He had no idea what might be lurking within the isolated rainforest, although that did not stop him from putting together a 28-strong team who would make the journey to Mozambique for a 10-day expedition into the unknown.
In May 2018, Bayliss led the expedition to Mount Lico, setting up a base camp in its impressive shadow. Funded in part by the Transglobe Expedition Trust, Biocensus, the African Butterfly Research Institute and several other organisations consisting of universities and museums, the team scaled one of the shorter cliff faces with the help of two leading British climbers.
Believing Lico to be one of the most pristine forests on Earth, the team began their research, digging for two days in order to get to the bedrock where they could read the soil layers like a history book. Recorded in the soil was proof of past forest fires and plants that had grown there over the centuries. The soil also contained millions of caterpillar droppings and, after further exploration, they found that the insects were so numerous amongst the tree canopy that said droppings fell like a dry, soft rain in some areas.
After 10 days in the rainforest, and although reluctant to leave, the team returned to base camp with their myriad findings. The first new species confirmed was a butterfly unique to the Lico habitat, much to the delight of the scientists from the African Butterfly Research Institute. Following this, the team discovered new species of snakes, frogs, toads, rodents, insects, crabs and one flowering plant indigenous to Lico.
A marine biologist from Mozambique’s Natural History Museum also found a new species of fish on top of the mountain, swimming in the pools and streams located amongst the dense foliage. It was this find that led to an even greater discovery, a tantalising mystery and many new questions about Lico’s past. While following the main stream that meanders through the rainforest, the explorers unearthed partly buried ancient pots near the water’s source. A place so isolated from the rest of the world had once had human visitors it seemed, although how long ago was unknown.
The team made enquiries around the local community and studied history books, however there was no memory or record of any human ever setting foot on top of the mountain before. So how exactly did the makers of the pots get up there? Did they once live there? Was the land around Lico much higher at the time they were around, helping them to traverse the terrain easily up to the forest? Why exactly were the pots placed at the source of the stream? Investigations continue even to this day as Bayliss and his team try to shed light on the mystery and uncover answers to these questions.
Mount Lico remains as a stunning landmark amongst the already-impressive Mozambique terrain, however the shroud of mystery that has now settled over it just adds to the appeal. The thought of how many more natural and historic treasures may remain hidden within the rainforest at its apex will no doubt drive scientists and explorers alike to mount further expeditions in the future.