Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

Developing the Moon

April 1, 2010

The quest for the source of the Nile was “the opprobrium” that shamed geographers for millennia. The ancient Egyptians knew the river as far south as the great fork, but further exploration along the Blue Nile was blocked by the fortress highlands of Ethiopia and along the White Nile by the strangling, suffocating swamps of The Sudd. Following routes hacked and forged by the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans failed to penetrate any further into the vast blank space in the center of the map of Africa. It was not until the eighteenth century that James Bruce finally confirmed Lake Tana, in Ethiopia, to be the source of the Blue Nile, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that John Speke correctly speculated that the White Nile flows from the immense inland sea of Lake Victoria. Both men were ridiculed in England by disbelieving peers, incredulous that a puzzle which had confounded thousands of years of geographers and explorers had finally been solved. The source of the Nile is an x marking such a famous and lucrative spot on the map that even today countries vie for the title: Uganda claims the highest source; Rwanda the farthest; Burundi the southernmost; and Ethiopia the most voluminous.

Wrapped up in the mystery of the source of the Nile was the legend of the Mountains of the Moon, “mountains so high they defied all nature by bearing on their crests in this equatorial heat, a mantle of perpetual snow.” The Lunae Montes were first charted by the Greek geographer and astronomy Ptolemy in the first century, based on oral reports from the few travelers to Alexandria who had any information about the unknown people and places of interior Africa. For nearly two thousands years, learned Europeans chuckled at the image of snowy peaks in the thick of tropical Africa, until in the nineteenth century persistent reports arrived from East Africa about the glacial summits on the massive volcanic cones of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro. But were these the fabled Mountains of the Moon? Or was there, as Ptolemy’s map suggested, a long, high range of mountains still hidden in the rain forest clouds of Central Africa? It was in 1888 that the debate was finally resolved when the American adventure journalist Henry Morton Stanley, on a hired mission to rescue the besieged Emin Pasha in southern Sudan, glimpsed the shimmering snowcapped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, the alien spine in very center of Africa. Not only is there snow on the equator, there are glaciers in a region famous as the heart of an oppressive jungle darkness. While Africa is full of astounding scenery, much of it lacks a recorded local history. Many of the legends that Europeans superimposed on the African landscape have become the commonly accepted mythology of the continent. The Rwenzori Mountains, straddling a few hundred miles of the border between Uganda and the Congo, are now known even locally as the Mountains of the Moon.

Recently, my girlfriend and I were hiking in Rwenzori Mountains National Park on the Ugandan side of the border. To summit the highest peak, Margherita, requires six or seven days of backcountry camping, but ours was a more modest adventure: a series of dayhikes from our base at a community campsite straddling the park boundary, an obvious line where cultivation abruptly bumps up against a tall, dense wall of tropical rainforest. The evening of our arrival we followed a community trail to a lookout point high above the campsite. From there we could see the park ascend in rugged stairsteps, first to the Portal Peaks and then, through a perfectly placed cleft in the nearer cliffs, to snowy Margherita.

The next morning Solomon, a park ranger and our guide for the day, led us on the first stage of the trail that eventually leads to the summit. Our goal was Nyabitaba Hut, where summiting hikers stop to sleep for the evening but where we would only pause before turning around to hike back down to our campsite. While not nearly as grueling as actually climbing the mountain, it would be more difficult than any single day on the summit trail, essentially doing two stages – the first one and the last one – in one long day.

Before entering the park, Solomon asked what other hiking we had done in East Africa, probably as a way to gauge our fitness. When we responded by saying we had climbed Kilimanjaro the previous year, he surprised us by saying that he had climbed the mountain in 2006. Even more impressive than an independent Ugandan tourist climbing a Tanzanian mountain, Solomon was part of a small group of select park staff – one other ranger, a senior officer, and two staff from Rwenzori Mountain Services, the sole concessionaire to run tourist expeditions in the mountains – sent to climb Kilimanjaro as a research expedition, to see what Tanzania was doing to manage its more famous mountain park that perhaps Uganda should be doing for the Rwenzoris.

Solomon almost did not get to go with his colleagues because he had trouble obtaining a passport. Being from the area around the Rwenzoris, Solomon’s tribe is closely related to the tribes of eastern Congo, and his family name is noticeably Congolese. Countless wars have been fought – are still being fought – in the forests of eastern Congo, and countless war criminals are known to be hiding there. The government of Uganda, in an effort to ensure that no Congolese fugitives manage to assume a new, Ugandan identity, scrutinizes passport applications from western provinces with a suspicion suggesting that the applicant is guilty until proven innocent. Solomon had to show his and his parents’ birth certificates to prove that he was born in Uganda to Ugandans, and he had to show his school records to prove he had never disappeared from Uganda, perhaps to fight and plunder in eastern Congo. After several interviews with government officials, he got his passport and then his paid trip to Tanzania.

When we asked Solomon what he and his colleagues had learned, he raved generally about the volume of the tourist traffic on Kilimanjaro relative to the modest trickle on the Rwenzoris. It was an answer that seemed to get the cause and effect backwards, like saying that a professional sports team is good because it has a lot of fans. When we asked what specific practices and policies they are doing in Tanzania that he and his colleagues were not doing in Uganda, he gave only two examples: “They have bigger huts, and more of them. And they have better cooks.” Natalie and I chuckled, fearing that the point of their research expedition had been lost on them, but throughout the day it became apparent that the Uganda Wildlife Authority does have a business model for the development of the Mountains of the Moon. And they seem to be sticking to it.

The trail to the Nyabitaba Hut follows the Mubuku River. Even in the dry season the river was violent and impressive, crashing over giant boulders that looked like little river rocks in the path of a tsunami of water. The trail crossed several tributaries, some of which were small enough to be forded but the other ones, the thick and powerful ones that fell like waterfalls rather than streams, were spanned by a variety of rickety wooden bridges. After about two hours of moderate hiking, the trail merged with one of the range’s spur ridges and angled steeply and persistently upwards. The ridge was so narrow it felt like walking on a stalled escalator to heaven, and on both sides of us the valley floor quickly dropped out of sight. To the right was the sound of one river rushing away below us and to the left was the sound of another; when facing straight ahead there was only the sound of the wind in the trees. Across the valley to the right was a wall of green interrupted only by the occasional cliff or waterfall, and across the valley to the left was the same postcard view. Rare birds like the Rwenzori turaco, endemic to the western branch of Africa’s rift valley, called from the tall, thick foliage. In the wet tropics, greenery grows in all three dimensions, as though it is trying to totally fill every available volume of space. I didn’t know until visiting equatorial Africa that poinsettias are trees.

Like the forest that we passed through, the trail was an ant colony of activity. Every few minutes we were overtaken by another group of three or six or ten porters carrying exactly two cut wooden building posts each. Some used cushioning crowns of woven banana fronds to balance their loads on their heads; others, typically younger men who were either tougher than their elders or thought they were, alternated between sore shoulders. Barefoot or in cheap sandals of used tire rubber, they ascended the muddy, rocky trail at a jaunt, pausing only to untangle themselves when their long, awkward cargo got caught on a jungle vine. Happy for a pause, we would step aside huffing and puffing to let them trot past.

Solomon explained the posts were for the construction of a new dormitory to augment or replace the old Nyabitaba Hut. On Kilimanjaro they had seen that every campsite on the most popular routes had accommodation to sleep over a hundred visitors. Nyabitaba, the only developed hut in the Rwenzoris, has only thirty beds. Solomon explained that it is rare for the park to get that many visitors in a single day, but that both ascending and descending hikers use the Nyabitaba Hut and that sometimes large groups from both directions meet and there is not space enough for everyone in the hut. During our hike, in the middle of one of the peak tourist seasons, we saw only one descending hiker and only four ascending hikers, so like Kevin Costner building his baseball diamond in Field of Dreams the construction of the new Nyabitaba Hut seems to be an act of faithful optimism. If you build it, they will come.

Later and higher, just before we reached the hut, the porters started passing us in the other direction. This time most of them, but not all, carried misshapen scraps of discarded wood. Some carried only a piece or two, but others labored under loads heavier than the posts they had carried up the mountain. According to Solomon, they are paid a flat rate by Rwenzori Mountain Service to carry the posts up and they are paid extra wages for every kilogram of scrap they carry back down. Each porter is free to choose how much scrap he wants to carry, or if he wants to carry any at all. As we had passed the park gate that morning we had noticed a large group of idling men, and we had assumed that as on Kilimanjaro they were hoping to be hired as porters for whichever tourist groups happened to be setting out that day. By the end of the day, after seeing so few tourists but so many porters on the mountain, it was clear the in the Rwenzoris the most reliable work to be had is in preparing for future tourists not serving current ones.

Finally we reached the Nyabitaba Hut, which needs to replaced more because it is too dreary than because it is too small. It is dark and dank, and the bunk beds are so crammed inside that the only way to get to the more distant ones is to climb over the nearer ones. I had to wonder whether I would prefer the one near the door, which would be more bright and airy but which would also be even less peaceful than having an aisle seat near the toilet on a long, crowded flight, or whether I would prefer the frighteningly dark and claustrophobic one in the corner where, once I had climbed past all the strangers between the door and my bed, I would at least get a good night of undisturbed sleep. The new hut was but a skeletal frame so it was impossible to know whether it would be an improvement in style or merely an increase in capacity. Making notes in the back of mind in case I return to climb to the peak, I made sure to confirm that hikers are allowed to sleep in their own tents.

Solomon gave us a tour of the campsite, proudly explaining some of the recent improvements like piped spring water from higher up the mountain and an unfinished side trail to a roaring but unseen waterfall not far away through the steep, dense forest. Most amazing was his description of the management of the camp’s two pit latrines, used one at a time throughout a one year cycle. After one of the toilets has been used for six months, it is locked and the other one is opened for the next six months. The six months allow the waste in the locked latrine to harden. Before the latrine is reopened, last year’s petrified waste is chiseled and shoveled and carried down the mountain one bucketful of excrement at a time. This is done, Solomon explained, because two million people live in the Mubuku River’s watershed, making it a health imperative that so much human waste does not seep into the drainage.

On the way down we asked Solomon about hiking possibilities in the park. Unlike Kilimanjaro, the Rwenzoris are not one big volcanic cone but a long range of craggy ridges and valleys. Our maps showed only one route up the Ugandan side, ascending directly from Nyakalengija to the east, and none up the Congolese side, which seemed like a colossal waste of space. Apparently our maps are dated, as Solomon explained that a new route, from Kilembe in the south of the range, has been opened. Two others routes – one from even further south at Kyarumba and one from Bundibugyo in the Semliki Valley to the northwest – are unofficially in use while still being developed for an official opening. All of the trails meet just below the peak, making it possible to combine them in any order to create several routes up and back down, and even clear over, the Rwenzoris. Solomon added that guides are not averse to bushwhacking, mentioning that a recent visitor had come exclusively to try to spot a very rare and elusive crimsonwing and had spent three unsuccessful days in an unmapped section of the forest. In addition, park rangers regularly bushwhack through unvisited parts of the park to monitor poaching and other illegal activity.

He chuckled when he mentioned that many of the guides and rangers are the children of poachers, and consequently he said they know the forest well, even the Congolese side. Recently, two mountaineering tourists hoping to save a buck had hired local guides to try to ascend the peak from the Congolese side. Their plan backfired when one of them broke a leg and had to be evacuated. Because Congo is in no political state to be developing adventure tourism, the injured hiker had to rely on Ugandan rescuers. Since he had not ascended from the Uganda side, he had not paid for their rescue insurance. The bill for the evacuation – and again Solomon chuckled – was a lot more than what they would have paid had they climbed the mountain from the Ugandan side.

At one point during our descent I pointed to an especially impressive waterfall across the steep river valley to our left, and I asked if I could come back and hire a ranger to take me to it. Solomon said it would be no problem, though he estimated it would take three days from the Nyabitaba Hut: one to bushwhack halfway around the top of the adjoining saddle, another to bushwhack the remaining half, and the third to hike back to the waterfall to enjoy the swim and the view.

We left the park that afternoon just as optimistic as Solomon and the rest of the wildlife authority about the park’s prospects. There seemed to be a managerial vision for the future of the Rwenzoris and a proactive plan to make that vision a reality. Indeed, everywhere my girlfriend and I traveled on our vacation, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and its community partners were equally inspiring. It became clear that their training is integrated when Solomon recommended that we ask for Bosco or Samson when we visited Semliki Valley National Park and they in turn recommended Patrick at Semliki Wildlife Refuge and Patrick recommended the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary where he used to work. Though government employees, the park rangers were not bureaucrats; they were insightful naturalists who considered themselves lucky to have the important task of protecting Uganda’s natural treasures. Their passion showed.

Back in Rwenzori National Park, Solomon’s enthusiasm and confidence were infectious, making me hope I have the opportunity to return one day to the Mountains of the Moon.

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Under Armed Escort

October 21, 2009



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The Fairway

February 22, 2008

According to the guidebooks, there’s no official name for the coastal alley between Mananjary and Manakara.  The Fairway is just what we dubbed it, and is surely what the experts would call it as well.  We expected adventure in the wilderness.  For most of the way, we found something more like a golf course.

We had, at the time, five years of experience between us as volunteers in Madagascar.  Rob worked with the national parks service in the desert southwest.  Mike worked in a health clinic on the central plateau.  I was an English teacher on the west coast. 

We owned all the guidebooks and we met many of the tourists.  We knew all the popular spots for vacations, how to get there and what to do once there.  But we wanted to get away from those places, to do something new and unknown, something not suggested in the guidebooks and not considered by the tourists. 

We scoured our maps with an eye for adventure.  We saw potential on the southeast coast.  The highway that connects the two largest coastal towns in that region swings well inland between them.  Over a hundred kilometers of pristine shoreline separates the towns.  A broken footpath stretches part of the way along the coast.  There are few villages, and there are several large cuts in the path where rivers flow into the sea.

We decided to hike that coast, from Mananjary in the north to Manakara in the south.  It sounded wild and adventurous; it was a lot easier than we expected.

It was raining the morning we left.  Mike and I searched the market for food and other supplies, while Rob haggled with the boatmen for a ferry ride across the first major cut in our path, the river that empties into the Indian Ocean just south of Mananjary.  We bought six baguettes, two tins of sardines, six small triangles of processed cheese spread, and six oranges, enough for two skimpy days of food.  We hoped to scavenge more food along the way.  We also bought small plastic bags and large waterproof rice sacks for raingear.

Rob and the boatman never agreed on a price.  In the end, boatman let us on board, but he refused to paddle.  Instead, he sat in the back and heckled us as we paddled ourselves across.  Still, we had to pay a little.

The sky was clear and the sun was warm and bright on the other side.   We stepped from that dugout canoe into a fantasy vacation that, with only a couple slight hitches here and there, continued all the way to Manakara.

The path started right at our feet and led up a gentle slope to a flat lane of soft grass.  Low bushes lined each side of the grassy corridor.  Here and there, palms towered over the bushes.  Through the trees to our left, we saw the beach and then the long blue horizon of the Indian Ocean.  To the right, we saw the turquoise freshwater canal that runs the length of the east coast of Madagascar.  But before us was only that alleyway of grass.  It looked like a long and spectacular par five.  We took off his shoes and walked barefoot.

We had our only real trouble with the trail later that afternoon.  The bushes and trees grew taller and thicker.  They crept closer and closer to us.  The trail narrowed.  We lost sight of the sea to our left, the canal to our right.  Then the trail disappeared and everything looked the same in every direction.  We were in a jungle, with a thick, dense tangle of creepers all around us.

We still heard the crash of the waves on the beach, still to our left.  We decided to hack in that direction.

Our jungle was a lot smaller than we thought.  A few steps later we emerged onto a bright and sunny beach, right at the feet of a group of women bent to gather fallen coconuts.  They dropped their coconuts and ran to hide behind a one-legged man who seemed to be their supervisor.  This unusual party guided us back to the soft, grassy corridor; we never lost it again.

Early the next morning we came to a small village where we supplemented our meager supply of food.  We bartered for some rice and fish and then paid a little extra to have it all cooked for us. 

In the meantime, we entertained.  Everyone in the village came to watch, to gawk, to laugh.  Rob juggled and danced.  Mike made faces and tried to tell jokes across the language gap.  I photographed the whole madhouse affair.

Here, we saw the Madagascar that we hoped to find on this hike away from the colonial big cities.  The villagers were still using the ravinala palm tree for nearly everything:  the wood for the frames of their homes and the fronds for the roofs, for pliable fishnets, baskets, and even for waterproof clothes.  They all wore a small, unique palm frond cap with four points and no bill.

But they all wore evidence of the outside world, as well.  They had old, ragged shirts, cheap windbreakers, and stained shorts that had trickled down to them as donations from wealthier people all over the world.  In villages like this one, these discarded fabrics die their final deaths, first worn to rags and then scrubbed to shreds and only then discarded.

We hired two men in the village to ferry us along the canal in their dugout canoe, a ride that helped us cover almost fifty kilometers that day and shaved one whole day off the length of the trip, not that we wanted to rush.

The boat ride ended in the sort of paradise one expects to find at the end of a rainbow, a small village of stunning real estate named Tanambao.  It sits atop a high sand dune on the inland side of the canal.  The town itself is built on the fine, white sand of the dune, but all around it is a field of low, green grass.  Palms shade the town and line the grassy field.  Across the blue water of the canal is the narrow strip of land that separates the freshwater from the saltwater sea.  Tall pine trees, an unusual surprise on a tropical coast, tower over a grassy path.  Beyond that is the beach and then the Indian Ocean.

Just before dusk that evening, the trail came to a dead end at one of the cuts in the coastline where a river flows into the ocean.  We decided to worry about it in the morning.

We picked a cozy spot nestled in some pine trees and made our camp.  We went to bathe in the freshwater of the canal, always alert for nearby crocodiles.  That night we ate the last of our food.  We slept outside, around our campfire, under the stars.

The next morning, we waited only thirty minutes at the mouth of the river before a fisherman drifted by in his canoe.  A short but heavy downpour blew in and back out again while he paddled us across.  That was our last little bit of difficulty or discomfort in four days of hiking.

We ate boiled, unripe jackfruit for lunch that day.  We had come to another small village, and that was all they had to offer us.  It tasted terrible and gave us diarrhea for days, but it filled us when we had no other options.

We spent several hours in that little village.  We sat and watched an old woman weave a mat from palm fronds.  We drank coffee with a group of men.  And again, we played with the kids.

If we wanted to eat dinner that night, then we had to find the next village by dark.  After an afternoon marching doubletime, we made it with only a sliver of dusky sunlight left.

 We were now near enough to Manakara that the village had a small market.  We bought a gluttonous amount of peanuts and homemade biscuits which we ate ravenously right in front of people who never get to eat so much in a day.  We bought rice and fish and again paid someone to cook them for us.  And then we bought eggs because it was taking too long for the rice and fish to be ready.

No one seemed to mind.  In fact, a spontaneous party followed our arrival.  Everyone came to meet us, but this time they entertained us; they sang and danced while we ate.  Later, the Prezidenta ny Fokonolona provided us, for a modest fee, with a room for the night. 

We made it to Manakara the next afternoon.  It was another easy and beautiful day along an easy and beautiful trail.

We crossed a small footbridge and saw a hotel and a string of bungalows on our left.  Mike sat outside in the shade while Rob and I went inside.  We bought some snacks and asked about the distance to town.

“Twelve kilometers,” they said.  We were shocked.  We thought we had another hour of walking at the most.  “But a lobster truck comes here every afternoon to buy from the local fisherman.  Ask him for a ride into town.”

And that’s how our adventure ended, in the back of a flatbed truck, sitting on top of several coolers of live lobsters.