The alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. on Monday 25th May. I turned off the alarm and tossed and turned in bed for a few more minutes. I had roomed with Michelle that night at Wash and Wills. I called her name to check whether she was awake and asked her to turn on the light. I got out of bed and went to the bathroom to take a shower. I didn’t quite know how to feel, but at the same time, I was looking forward to the start of the climb.
We were down in the hotel lobby by 6:30 a.m., our bags ready to be packed onto the car again. We had breakfast at 6:50 a.m. My stomach was felt knotted due to the anxiety I was feeling, so I couldn’t eat much. I just had cereal – Weetabix, and a cup of coffee. We then left for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office in Budadiri. Bernard called someone who gave us directions and told us it would take us at least 40 minutes to an hour, to get to the office. We drove along the Kumi road, out of Mbale and turned right at Namugumba and drove 25 kilometers to the UWA office. The road to Budadiri is in quite a sorry state. We were lucky that there had been no heavy rain otherwise we would have gotten stuck along the way.
The UWA Office
At the UWA office, we were welcomed by an official called Andrew. He took us into the small front office, showed us a map of the Sasa/Sipi trail that we were going to take and explained the major highlights – one of which was a wall of death! Now, no one wants to hear that they are going to climb a wall of death on the first day of their journey. We looked at each other with dread – what had we gotten ourselves into?
The trail we opted for is a five day trail, but we thought we could do it in four days. Andrew only advised us that in order to enjoy the mountain experience, we had to do it slowly. We then paid the park fees and paid for the support team that we needed on the climb, which included two ranger guides, one cook and five porters to carry our luggage plus our food. We also agreed on and paid for tents, cooking utensils and binoculars. The whole process of agreeing these items and paying and getting receipts took about an hour. By this time, we were impatient to start the climb!
After the UWA office, we drove 5.5 kilometers to Bumasola Village, which is 1,790 feet above sea level, and the point at which our climb was to start. We off loaded the car, got our rucksacks and we each got some snacks to pack for the day – a small bag of raisins, two packets of gonja (plantain) crisps, one packet of salty crackers, one packet of sneakers (minis) and two bottles of water each.
Francis our main guide called us together and asked us to introduce ourselves. He told us that the section of mountain that we were about to climb would be one of the toughest during the whole climb, and with that note, we set off on our journey. Time check was 10:05 a.m. We took a path behind one of the shops at Bumasola, which immediately led us to the trail we were going to use. And it was instantly steep! There was no gentle build up to the climb!
The Climb Begins
We started off with a lot of vigor and before we were five minutes into the climb, we were panting heavily and sweating profusely, and we saw our path winding all the way up and disappearing somewhere way above us. This was going to be a long day! The climb itself was a shock to the system. The mountain immediately humbled us and we now knew why Andrew had advised that we couldn’t climb as quickly as we thought we could. Because of the strenuous beginning, we started wondering whether Hannington our driver was still in the vicinity, and if we could just run down to the car and give up on the climb. However, we soldiered on slowly putting one leg in front of the other. We were quiet for most of that time because we needed all the energy we could muster, just to keep on climbing.
We had our first major break ten minutes into the climb. The first half of the climb takes you through the community zone. Part of the lower ranges of the Elgon Mountain is inhabited by people, before the part that is gazetted as Mount Elgon National Park. Our second stop, another ten minutes later, was at a home where the inhabitants had left for the day. The house was locked up. We rested at a stone that was in the compound. Across that house, I spotted a chicken at the neighbor’s place and thought how lovely it would be to have roast chicken up on the mountain. However, that house too was empty, so there was no one to ask about the possibility of buying the chicken.
We continued the climb up to the Elgon Park entrance, which separates the community settlement from the park, and that is where we encountered the Wall of Death. Previously, people would die trying to cross that section of the mountain, because it is mostly made up of rocks, on a steep part of the mountain and with no support whatsoever. Now, the climb is made less perilous because there are steep metal steps. Walking on those steps was scary, and because we were so high up, I was too scared to look down. I have such a fear of heights that the only way I can climb is if I don’t look down to where I am coming from. We made it over the flight of steps –at least three in all, and took a rest at Mudange cliff. This was about two hours into our climb – and while we were resting, the cook and porters, whom we had left at Bumasola, still packing up our stuff, caught up with us at the cliff. Those people are truly experienced climbers. We watched in shock and awe as they carried our luggage and seemed to walk with ease.
Sasa River Camp
After the rest at the cliff, we made our way through a forested section of the mountain, all the way to our first camp – Sasa River Camp. Sasa Camp is 2,900 feet above sea level. All the camps on the mountain are rudimentary in nature. Most of them consist of a kitchen, which also doubles as the quarters for the support team. There are several bathrooms on site. At each camp there is also a big hut/dormitory type structure, made of wood and covered with iron sheets, which is supposed to act as a rest house for the climbers. Most of these structures are still incomplete. They have bunk beds inside, but the beds have no mattresses. The beds are just bare wood. We hope that UWA can work fast to make these structures habitable soon.
We arrived at the camp at 2:05 p.m. totally exhausted! While at the base, we had assumed we would walk all the way to the second camp – which is called Mude Cave Camp, but we failed to make it there. We were dog tired and needed to take a rest. Upon arrival at Sasa Camp, we had a much needed cup of tea, prepared by our cook, whose team had arrived at the camp way before us. After tea, we rested a while and then asked our lead guide about the possibility of taking a bath. He laughed at us so hard and told us that on the mountain, people do not bathe because the water is ice cold. We told him that we were a different kind of team and that we desperately needed to bathe, in order to properly recuperate from the hard climb. He pointed us to towards Sasa River and that’s were we had our first bath. We had no basin or bucket to use, so we literally had to step into the river to take a bath. That water was the iciest water I have ever encountered! We managed to wash the essential body parts before quickly jumping out of the river.
For supper, we had rice and baked beans and then we went to bed quite early. Most of us were asleep by 8:30 p.m. that first night. Michelle and I shared a tent, Bernard had a tent and my brother elected to sleep in the dormitory, having forgotten to come with the right number of pegs for his tent. At some point during the night it rained and Bernard’s tent got wet. He had to shift his sleeping bag and luggage to the dormitory.