By Phionah Katushabe
Baptism – awkward!!!!!!!!
We are still at Bujuku camp. Remember the place where I almost developed one of the symptoms of altitude sickness? Well, prior to that, some of the Boys decide to baptise me with a new name – that I have obviously not asked for. The short of the very long story is – we are at the table trying to keep warm by drinking tea and sharing light conversations. All of a sudden one of the Boys decides to shower me with words of encouragement for the far I have come and for conquering the day’s bog. Others join in. I brush them aside with; ‘come on guys, did you think I wasn’t serious about this hike? I have come this far and I am going all the way.” And then booooom! “That’s the spirit James. Jamo,” someone blurts out. Apparently now I am like one of them – the Boys. I almost protest, but I have no energy to engage in an argument with a group of males. Disappointingly, I am not consulted on whether I like my new name or not. Harrison then promises to buy me dinner upon return to Kampala to celebrate my achievement. (Dude, Jamo is waiting for you to come to his area code and fulfil your promise). Meanwhile my plan is to ignore them every time they refer to me by Jamo. But these guys are persistent and relentless. I have since come to humbly accept the unceremonious christening. Up to now some of them once in a while call me that and I react with a hi-five. Why not? Enough of Jamo, let’s get back to the trekking story.
Day four – high hopes, dwindling energy
Trekking from Bujuku to Elena Camp – which stands at 4541 meters above sea level is no joke. We have to go past Scott Elliot Pass and the trail is steep and rocky. Thank God there is a top-down epic view of Lake Bujuku. I can’t imagine how more slippery this place gets when it rains. Talking has reduced. Everyone is simply minding their steps and conquering every rock ahead of them.
Arriving at Elena is in itself an achievement given how laborious it is to get there. Every now and again the sky clears a little and it shines, revealing a clear blue sky and white pockets of snow in the surrounding mountains. Quite a sight. But for most of the time it is foggy and cloudy. Did I mention that it is freezing cold? An American whom we find here (he has just descended from Margherita) tells us the weather has been good for the last two days and he had a clear blue sky at Margherita. He even has a solar charger for the batteries! Why didn’t we think of this before the journey?
Day five – at Margherita peak on 01/01/2017
It is a foggy and icy New Year’s Day. The mind is still focused on the prize but the body is gradually weakening and complaining of the cold. We were categorically informed by RMS to carry enough warm clothing, and we tried, but no one is prepared for winter – European style. This is when you wish there was a boda-boda stage nearby to send for extra pairs of gloves, socks and winter jackets.
As we gather our plates after dinner and prepare to fold our cold bodies in the freezing sleeping bags, one of the guides reminds us of a trick to combat coldness. “Fill your water bottle with hot water and tuck it into the sleeping bag with you. Hold it close to your heart or feet for better results.” It works. Some of us are still awake at midnight and we whisper inaudible ‘Happy New Year” to each other. What else can you do on a snowy night in the middle of no where?
We are up at 3:00 am. Outside is thick black. The rocks are covered with snow. We grab dishes and gallop down some porridge (eating at this time is not ideal at all). But we know we need energy, so we take the tasteless porridge anyway and embark on the journey at a half past four am. We are already wearing the harnesses and crobinas, armed with our torches and snow axes. Climbing on rocks with snow in the dead of the night is not easy, but doable. For the rocks that are too steep and not easy to climb there are ropes for support. We arrive at the plateau by daybreak. It is a beautiful view of endless snow and some peaks like Albert and Alexandra. This is stuff for movies where you take pictures and you seem as if you were in the “Game of Thrones” series .
It takes a long while and energy to ascend mount Stanley and go all the way to Magherita peak. When we finally make it, the weather is unpleasantly still foggy and windy. (In such a snow cold place you cannot rest for long before the body begins to freeze. The solution is to keep moving to keep the body warm.) A few minutes taking pictures is all we can afford at the peak – but the pictures cannot be as good as those of my friend Joshua – @kikyjosh who was there on a sunny day. All those moments we missed to photograph, sparing the camera battery for the peak and the whole group is not at there at the same time to take at least one picture! The journey down is not any simpler. We saunter in the snow at the plateau like headless chicken. The guide tells us we have had one of the worst weathers. Thank God we are bound together on a rope, and the guide is in the lead. Meanwhile, the fear for heights that I had has disappeared. Thank you Rwenzori for helping me to combat it.
After more than twelve hours of steep ascending and descending on rocks and ice, anything warm to drink can do. But no! Chefs Vincent and Richard have better than ‘anything’ awaiting us at Elena camp. Mushroom and cabbage soup. Who knew there was such a recipe in the mountains? (Please don’t tell me this is a famous starter somewhere…). I quickly dash down two small bowels before I start processing the day’s events. This is the best soup I have ever tasted.
It is important to follow your guide’s instructions. While it may not happen to everyone, I get to taste the consequences of disobedience the night after Margherita. You see, half way through the journey I get tempted and remove the snow glasses. As a result my eyes begin to pain and cry involuntarily later that night. Panic mode sets in. “What if I lose my sight? How will I descend the following morning? What if the damage is permanent? Should I awake the guide and ask for a remedy? I should have listened to the guide.” Thankfully by the following morning the pain has subsided but I have to wear sunglasses as we set off from Elena going down to Kitandara camp to avoid bright light and wind. My guide still has no idea. The Boys have consoled me, so I think I will be alright.
Day six – Kitandara – Guy Yeoman trail urgently needs a boardwalk
First, the two Kitandara Lakes are stunning! Second and most importantly, there is need for a boardwalk on the trail from Kitandara to Guy Yeoman Camp for the sake of preserving the bog (I learned that the bog is a big time water reservoir). If that is not reason enough, then just to ease the walking here. By the way, UWA (http://www.ugandawildlife.org/) and partners are doing a great job maintaining the trails and making them as easy to use as possible.
There is a steep ascend from Kitandara camp to Fresh Field Pass and shortly after, the bog begins. I don’t know if I am just tired, but the journey seems endless. On another day I would be thrilled by the Kabamba rock shelter, but not now! We can see the camp where we are headed, yet we just can’t seem to get there…. By the time we arrive I am too tired to move an inch. I leave my walking stick by the door and literally throw my body on the bench inside the camp. The gloves are dripping, my hands are freezing and the feet can’t feel anymore. Just then, the Russian guy hands me a cup of hot water. What act of kindness! “Yamanya!” I silently tell myself as I gallop it and say my “thank you’ afterwards. (This guy is with his partner. We set off from base camp together, but they usually move ahead of us and walk very fast. And then there is the problem of language barrier). This camp is warmer than where we are coming from and there is a campfire to dry our everything. Such luxury.
Have I mentioned that one of the Boys – Philip got a headache in the night and has had to be taken back to John Matte camp to reduce altitude as the rest of us proceed to make the central circuit? Thank God it is after Margherita.
Day seven – We made it!
From Guy Yeoman camp we are supposed to stay a night at Nyabitaba camp on the way down, but no! We are too spirited to stay. We decide to walk all the way to the base camp at Nyakalengija and the journey, even though eight hour long, is not tiring. The spirit to take pictures that had left us on day five is back in full swing. We can also see nature for what it is and enjoy sights again. I cannot quite describe the feeling of gratitude to God after arriving at the UWA Park exit, knowing the whole group made it safely. And I can see everyone feels the same.
Tips for first time hikers
- Hike with a great team. If you are not into solo hikes, then choose your hike mates wisely. We were in the mountains for seven days. This is quite a long time to spend with people you do not get along with. So trek with either the people you are already acquainted with or be very open minded to accommodate other people with different views and tastes.
- Timing – For most outdoor ventures, weather matters a lot. December was perfect timing for us because it was dry so we did not have to walk in rain all day. You should also consider timing for prices. If it is low season, you might even attract discounts compared to when it is peak season. Peak seasons for Rwenzori are December to March and June to August, according an official from UWA.
- Prepare mentally and physically – Trekking is challenging physically and mentally. You need to prepare for it well before time. In my case, a physiotherapist and good friend Stanley @lubstylez trained me a few times prior to the hike. He also gave me tips on how to deal with fatigue, breath control and how to recover exhausted muscles.
- Have the right gear. There are many times I regretted not having bought more and heavier gloves and socks. Such small and cheap items but with the power to affect your journey.
- Listen to each other and stay as a team. It is important to stick together and make unanimous decisions that will not affect the morale of the rest of the group members. Also, listen to one another to ensure that everyone’s views are respected.
- Save for the activity – Most adventures require digging a bit into one’s pockets, so be ready for it. Give yourself ample time to save and create time without hurting other plans in your life.
If you have the urge to explore and adventure now, don’t stifle it. Remember, if the time is ripe and the apple falls to the ground, it will eventually begin to decay if you do not rush to pick it up. Trekking to Rwenzori will teach you lessons that you cannot learn from any classroom anywhere. It will inspire you to unlearn a few things. Besides, you need to make this experience before the glacier recedes further. We were reliably informed by a UWA official that the glacier has been receding two meters monthly.
We experienced fun trekking the “Cloud King” but more importantly felt the urgency to do something to salvage what is remaining of this holy sanctuary. Man has destroyed it, man must conserve what is remaining and try to restore it for the future generations.
Salute to all our guides, chefs and helpers for the smiles and laughter that we shared and the humility with which they do what they do… And of course to the five coolest Boys in town, my Bazungu (as we were referred to by some of the helpers, because they rarely see Ugandans trekking all the way to Margherita, with the exception of journalists). Boys, big up on yourselves (with a +256 accent).