I think lazy bloggers like me should just ignore the question of writing frequency instead of starting half their entries with "It’s been a while". Like so. But here's a long one.
Climbing a mountain at Easter sounds quite a biblical quest. We just spent about four days wandering about Mount Elgon National Park in eastern Uganda, on the Kenyan border. Sunday was peak day, devoted to Wagagai Summit (4,321 m above sea level). Elgon is an extinct volcano with a large caldera at the top and several peaks reaching almost to the same height around it. Four thousand metres is already an altitude that changes the way human bodies operate; especially upwards one tends to (and should) go much slower than the mind would like to. Walking like zombies, in other words, is the principle. Oxygen is not quite as readily available as at sea level (eller hur, Kirsi?). A few days in those heights, especially when combined with tens of kilometres of walking, can easily cause some headaches.
Hiking in the Nordic countries, everyone carries their own stuff to and fro, including tents and food. Not here. Between us three mzungus
, we had three porters (plus two guides with guns), with only a few kilos on our own backs. It certainly made progress a lot easier and faster, and the guys were nice, though at the same time it feels odd to have to socialise with a bunch of strangers during a hiking trip (which, to me, is by definition a retreat to nature and silence). And then, of course, there is the usual and quite absurd hassle of tips. I’ve never understood or liked the culture of tipping, but it gets even more bothersome when it’s a completely unofficial (yet somehow compulsory) practice separated from the main payments. Park entrance fees include the guides, and we paid the porters in advance, but still everyone expected more cash afterwards. Since Uganda in general is not a tipping society in an established way – drivers of metered taxis don’t expect any extra, in restaurants it’s just a few per cent if any – it is next to impossible to figure out what people like these workers expect. The only reason they expect tips in the first place is that they work in a field that serves tourists; wealthy visitors from established tipping societies have created the demand. Whenever I see this "I’ve been paid but I want more" look on someone’s face I get the same disturbing feeling as with street beggars. Somehow it’s almost impossible to do the right thing because added supply will only result in increased demand (which will cause more awkward situations).
Nature in Mount Elgon was wonderful, except that we saw almost no animals. It was all scenery and flora. The area above 3,500 m is full of giant lobelias, some five metres tall. It’s strange to walk in a forest of flowers. We did see two kinds of colobus monkeys and some birds, and a buffalo path, but a lot of the pictures taken during the hike are portraits of lobelias in bloom, growing alone or in groups of hundreds.
The first evening after starting on the Piswa trail from the village of Kapkwata was bad. We had two hours of solid rain and arrived in the camp after dark, all wet, cold, hungry, and tired. Warming up took a lot of effort, and the smoke from the fire always seemed to head straight for my eyes. The improvised pasta dinner had to be forced down. And of course the tent, rented from the UWA, was way too small for my height. Four nights of curling on my side on bumpy ground didn’t seem a nice prospect.
The national park is not always in harmony with local communities. The growing population needs more land for agriculture, and most of the people don't see the point of protecting nature. There are some poachers and a lot of encroachers. People simply use the protected area as if it were their own land, and politicians do little because the encroachers are also voters. In Elgon, the problem is more visible than in most Ugandan parks because the Mbale area is relatively densely populated. At least two patrol huts used by the UWA were burned a couple of months ago. Here are the remains of one.
Day two was warm, 22 km and an estimated 1,100 m climb to Hunter's Cave (3780 m asl). We moved from the rainforest zone to a bushy area and further above the treeline to what I can only call lobelia country. Lunch at a sunny brook. After a sweaty day, it was nice to clean up in another little stream by the camp. This whole day, as well as the next one, we were lucky to have no rain whatsoever. April and May are usually the wettest months, and most afternoons there is at least a one-hour shower.
Daylight stipulated the timetable: it's necessary to start early. After dark (7 p.m.) there's not much else to do but sleep.A downpour before Hunter's Cave would have been nasty because the next night was very cold. When I opened the door zipper at six in the morning, a thin sheet of ice covered the whole tent and the grass outside. At dawn, the view to the valley was nothing to complain about (the pic is from the previous evening).
The day started with a steep uphill that lead to the rim of the caldera above 4,000 metres. The top offers an excellent panorama of mountain silhouettes, the easternmost of which are on the Kenyan side. Suam Gorge draws the border on the ground. There are some hot springs in the caldera, but they are not accessible in the rainy season.
We crossed the caldera towards the west, joining the busier Ssasa trail on our way towards the western canyon. Then followed the first descent of the trip. Mude Cave, the next camp, is located at about 3,500 m in a bush of short evergreen trees. The larger number of visitors on the Ssasa trail was immediately evident: in the camp we met other hikers for the first time, and the place even had a pit latrine (what's commonly called a "long drop")! The latter is a big deal – a big change from digging your own holes – since life on the hike is often centred on food and its digestion.
The next day we headed back for the first few kilometres and then turned towards the peaks. It was 9 km one way, an 800-metre climb. Although Wagagai is the highest summit, there are a couple others that look more dramatic. One of them is called Jackson's Summit (4160), which we had a good look at on the way up. The other picture is from Wagagai; the next peak, whose name I forgot, was a lookalike of JS.
One of our porters walked the whole trip barefoot! Apparently his boots had just been damaged beyond repair, but we only heard about it after wondering amongst ourselves for days whether the guy, who barely (pun intended) spoke a word in the whole time, simply preferred to wear no shoes. I can only imagine how he felt sleeping at Hunter's Cave, where the guys didn't even have a hut, and the temperature dropped below zero. Every porter was very fit physically: they could have easily gone a lot faster than we did even though they had the heaviest loads. We didn't have a proper backpack for everyone, which is why we bought a big Winnie the Pooh bag on the way to Kapkwata. One of the guys carried it on top of his head for sixty kilometres. Poor Winnie didn't make it to the summit because the heavy baggage stayed down that day. The barefoot guy, however, came to the top as a tourist – he had never been there before.
The last day was the nastiest physically. It was one long downhill of over two thousand vertical metres. The path was not particularly wet but still enormously slippery. It was only possible to step in its middle part in a totally flat spot. I started to suspect this had something to do with the materials of our soles because the guides in their rubber boots kept stepping in the middle with no slips whatsoever. They, of course, said they were simply used to the conditions, but I had trouble believing that experience defies gravity in such an uncanny way. This picture is from the top of the steepest part, a practically straight-down drop of several hundred metres at the forest's edge. Had it rained, it could have been seriously dangerous to come down that slope. Now we managed, one sideways step at the time.
The afternoon ended with the three muddy mzungus
and an enormous amount of muddy stuff travelling to Mbale in a matatu
. The ride had all the classic elements: over twenty people, sacks of charcoal, a bunch of matooke
, and at least one live chicken manoeuvred into a Toyota Hiace, which crept forward on a choppy dirt road with plenty of bouncing and rattling.