By Rushongoka Wa-Mpiira
Then the sun retreats into its cradle as you settle down for the campfire at the base camp. The portal peaks are already peeping their heads out and it looks like a lost world, but you are quickly reminded that where you are headed the next day, is much isolated, much higher, much tougher, and much lost! The night grows as you feast on your roast pushed down the throats by the mix of humor and wild imaginations as you gaze the glowing night sky; the adrenaline, exhilaration and anticipation are all in, full dose, but the experience you would embark on just after dawn is simply inconceivable.
The best nights are found in the middle of the jungle!
Lying slightly north of the Equator, the Rwenzori Mountain ranges dot the border between Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Eastern Equatorial Africa, rising 5,109 meters above sea level and boasting of the largest permanent snow cover and glaciers, albeit dwindling, in Africa.
The spectacular massifs separated by deep gorges, with myriads of fascinating vegetation zones, water falls, plant and animal endemics, the massive bogs, the intimidating rocky peaks and of course the snow and glaciers right at the equator are already endless marvels; but this pristine place has much more to show and teach you if you are crazy enough to journey in the misty ranges to its highest peak. Here are the lessons;
- Most of the things you’ve always feared are the most beautiful!
You don’t fear chameleons; you’ve only not met the Rwenzori Three-horned Chameleon
It’s just about two hours into our maiden day of the 8-day expedition and Johnson, one our highly experienced three guides spots the Three-horned Chameleon, endemic to Rwenzori. The extremely colorful, graceful and harmless creature moves slowly and majestically as we marvel at her unrivaled beauty. My fear for chameleons vanishes as we indulge in the splendor of our ‘new friend’, who definitely was on our must-see list. Later when we would meet a few others, members of our crew who previously had similar phobia like mine were able to touch and drop the chameleon on their heads so they could help with curling their hair!
What I had always detested turns out to be one of the most beautiful and adorable creature.
- Nature is the most ancient, gothic cathedral
The most beautiful cathedrals are not the ones with high ceilings and falling chandeliers
It’s day two and we are hiking along Bujuku River, and just before we reach John Matte camp (3,420 m), we are ushered into a grand gothic ‘cathedral’ of ancient heathers with a grand ‘isle’ of boardwalk, with ‘pews’ carpeted with colorful moss, and with falling lichen ‘chandeliers’ locally known as Nyamireju. We unanimous break into ‘wows’ and shortly go silent in awe and wonder. “This is a gothic cathedral” I break the silence, and everyone mumbles in agreement. I imagined waiting for my bride as her father walks her down the ‘isle’ while a pianist on a grand classic Baldwin plays ancient cathedral hymns and Pachelbel’s Canon in D major complemented by the babbling of the river and joined possibly by the whistling of Rwenzori Turaco, another endemic, which we had just spotted a few meters away.
We would spend an overnight at John Matte camp, overlooking the ‘cathedral’.
- Wetlands are the uncelebrated heroes, you will learn to appreciate these spongy places
Rivers and lakes don’t manufacture water; they are just channels and vessels
Come to Rwenzori, and see where water is finally made! Even with glacial water reducing drastically due to retreating snow cover and glaciers due to climate change, there is still an unprecedented amounts of water stacked up in the massive bogs (massive wetlands of decomposing peat) that are replenished by underground cisterns and rain water as they supply small streams that merge into big streams and then rivers like Mubuku, Bujuku, Nyamwamba, Semuliki and others that supply the Great Rift Valley Lakes. The Rwenzori is indeed the remotest source of the Congo River and the Nile River!
Going through the lower and upper Bigo Bogs on day three toward Bujuku camp, Josephat, another guide tells us that the bogs hold up to 80 per cent of the water in the Rwenzori, and at this point you fully appreciate the role of mountains and wetlands to our own survival.
- You must never underestimate the power of words
Bujuku; the heart of the mystical challenge!
After a long six-hour trek in the bogs, we make it past the beautiful Bujuku glacial lake to Bujuku camp (3,930 m) where we would be welcomed by the signpost; Bujuku: The heart of the mystical challenge. Just above you are the towering rocky peaks of Mt. Speke and right in the opposite direction is Mt. Baker and the camp sits in the middle of a tattered gorges. The temperatures at this point have already dropped to near zero and it feels so isolated and so frightening. You only can try to imagine, in vain, where you are headed the next day.
And then you read an official statement from UWA hanging by the cabin wall telling you how many people have suffered mountain sickness from Bujuku, and how some who insisted and continued actually died in the mountains. “You must lower the altitude by going back to John Matte” in case of any complication. After reading this statement and had been feeling slightly unwell, Phionah, who would be christened ‘Jamo’ would fall in a state never seen before, a one of physiological and emotional ruin. She or actually ‘he’ could keep calm and brave the rest of the journey, but a mere writing on a piece of paper nearly cost her the mystical experience.
- The little and simplest of things are the most valuable
Clean, dry socks and gloves would cost you an arm and leg at this point
Its day 4 and we are indeed in the middle of the mystical challenge hiking up the rocky steeps to Elena, the last camp high on Mt. Stanley which now serves as the basecamp to the ultimate challenge to Margherita peak.
We reach Elena camp (4,563 m) on a clear sunny late afternoon and enjoy great views of Savoia glacier and of Mt. Baker across dotted with pockets of snow, albeit under tight competition with fog. But its freezing cold as night closes in, and whereas you are well prepared with heavy winter jackets, the most challenging parts to keep warm are your feet and hands. The few pairs of woolen socks have already been overused and are dirty, wet and stinking; the gloves are dripping but also have holes punched into them by the sharp rocks for you have had to crawl-hike at some point, someone had already borrowed your last spare pair, and it turns out at this point that the humble socks, the simple gloves and a hot water bottle to warm your sleeping bag are the most precious, most scarce, and most life savings items. Little things we always take for granted!
- Life hangs on a mere thread
Life, as it’s known, hangs on a mere thread better known, as gene, and we are no more than that. You get to understand that when you decide to leave the ‘uncomfortable comfort’ at Elena hut to hike up to Marghherita.
It’s no pistols here, it’s ropes, crampons and axes!
The adrenaline is high as the rocky peaks get engulfed in misty clouds and you imagine how you will get past the towering sharp overhangs. Josephat, The lead guide summons you for the final briefing and tells you how you will leave the camp at 4:00am to start the final ascent to Africa’s third highest point. Mounted with harnesses, heavy snow boots and donned with your ‘last line of medicine’ of warm clothing as it came to be known, you head out of the hut, its been snowing all night and the dry rocks now have a substantial snow cover and extremely slippery.
Aided by your head touches and equipped with an ice axe, you face your first challenge of the long day; soon you are hiking at 90 degrees and the only option is to use already installed ropes (read threads). At this point, you must turn into a professional rock climber and your life simply hangs on a ‘thread’. Any simple mistake and you lose grip, you just fall off the cliff and that’s it for you. You have to make sharp corners at terrifying angles simply hanging on a thread or on your fingernails hooked into a crevice.
Then it hits you hard that life simply hangs on a mere thread!
- Enjoy every good moment, because its just but a moment and is about to cease
At Stanley Plateau; the mood is celebratory, but it will it last?
After a gruesome challenge hiking up the scary cliffs, you reach a ‘paradise’ as dawn breaks. You are walking toward Stanley plateau and the sight of Stanley glacier – the single biggest remnant sheet of ice on the mountains – sends everyone murmuring ‘wow’. The last few hours of hiking in the dark on one of the most dangerous spots are truly paying off.
At Stanley plateau, you indulge in all sorts exciting moments, it’s new year’s day remember, you exchange ‘happy new year’ wishes with an older couple that had been ahead of you, capture the moments in pictures and its an endless marvel filled with joy. In your minds, Margherita is just around the corner at the end of the plateau and you will soon be there and the ‘party’ will have no end.
Hell no! The guides lead you past the plateau through a minor glacial valley to a rocky elevation. You are growing more silent at this point and soon you are at a steep descent hanging again on ‘threads’, the ‘party’ has officially closed! And the laws are clear, when you go down; you must come up to get to the peak.
- Your body is a counterfeit, your mind is the real deal
Any logical, rational person would have given up here. You’ve got to abandon logic sometimes!
You finally make it at the bottom of the rocky descent and the signpost that points to Margherita peak welcomes us. You mount crampons on your shoes, tighten the harnesses, and get jointed to each other on ropes by the locking ‘crobinas’ to face the long, slippery, and melting Margherita glacier.
You are bunched up together in two groups, you must keep the same pace, if one fails, you have to pull them. It’s snowy and windy, you are hiking at a perpendicular angle, and you don’t seem to make any sensible strides. You have no idea how long this will go on, the other smaller group of three with ‘Jamo’ is ahead and you have lost sight, scenes of people dying on adventures you have watched in movies and documentaries replay in your mind, you ask yourself what it is you are doing and why. Your body gives up, but your mind tells you ‘one more step’.
You are all struggling, and Harrison, on top of pulling the most struggling member of the bunch, keeps reassuring you with ‘guys, we can make it’. And yes, you believe him, you push on, the snowy wind is still intense and you are now facing its direction, soon you meet the Russian couple that left basecamp with you five days ago, they left Elena before you and they are now coming back from the peak, they assure you that you are 30 minutes away.
But you still have to climb up with a rope through a narrow rocky ravine, your body can’t possibly make it, you are simply holding on to your mind!
- It’s not what you get in the end, it’s who you become in the process
When powerful feeling of accomplishment engulfs you, you’ve got to leave immediately to go set higher challenges!
You still have to get on the ropes to go through the narrow ravine and head up on your final ‘assault’ to Margherita peak. You soon meet Jamo’s team coming down and you are reassured. Soon you see the signpost. The energy comes back, the excitement, the am-the toughest-man-in-the-world feeling, the sense of accomplishment fills all of you.
But the snowy wind is still intense, coming right from a place unknown engulfed in foggy clouds. You step at the peak, pull out the cameras and hey, they are frozen. Lucky enough, some phone, which had been stacked deep inside a bag, is able to work, you capture the moment, but you must leave immediately, it’s very snowy, windy and extremely hostile, it took you five days and prior weeks of preparation to get here but you can only spend just about three minutes.
Getting back to Elena camp 13 hours later since you left at 4:00am, you fully understand that the end is not the most important; it’s the person you become in the process!
The write is an adventure enthusiast living in Kampala, Uganda