On the night of the 3rd day, when the guides came to brief us about our journey and next destination, they warned us that we were going to climb much higher up, they told us that if we experienced any symptoms of altitude sickness, like loss of appetite or vomiting, we should immediately tell them, so that they could arrange to bring us down to a lower altitude. They also told us that the temperature at Elena was minus 4 degrees and that it was not advisable to bathe in those kinds of conditions out in the cold. That news was a blow because we had become accustomed to our warm 2 minute baths at every camp stop so far. We would just have to make do for that one night at Elena.
That morning before we set off, I observed leadership at work, as one of the guides assembled the porters and gave them instructions for that day. I watched in silence as I thought – there is leadership everywhere you look. There are different styles of leadership, different types of leaders, and different situations that call for leadership. We often downplay it, but leadership is very critical in all facets of life. It was great observing leadership on the mountain, far away from the ‘madding crowd’. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder what was happening back in Kampala. What were the new leadership challenges emerging? Had the youths arrested the previous week for demanding fair play for all presidential candidates been released? Had the former Prime Minister finally been allowed to embark on his consultative process for his candidature? Had the UPC finally resolved their internal party wrangles? Had the MPs listened to and incorporated the citizen’s electoral reforms in the Constitution Amendment Bill? How were we going to resolve our national leadership question? Since I had no access to radio or newspapers, I let these questions go and focused on the task ahead – which was to hike from Bujuku to Elena.
The walk up from Bujuku was through some bog. It wasn’t too bad, but it’s not necessarily comfortable walking through bog. After the bog we climbed up a very steep ridge that led us to a long metallic staircase. Going on the staircase that day, it literally felt as if we were climbing to heaven! I thought I would be able to take pictures of the staircase, but being quite afraid of heights, I just could not fathom standing at the top of the stairs and taking a picture while looking down, so I abandoned that project. The staircase led us to a resting place called Omukandege, which is derived from the Kikonzo word Ndege, meaning airplane. The place was named after a plane was sighted on this part of the mountain, way back in 1938. From that resting place, on a clear day, one can see the three main mountain ranges; Mount Stanly, Mount Speke and Mount Baker.
I took pictures of my colleagues when they arrived at Omukandege and the look on their faces told of the grueling climb to that point. We rested for about 10 minutes enjoying the view from that vantage point, and then we began climbing even higher. That was the thing that amazed me the most about Rwenzori – just when you thought you had surely climbed the steepest part of the mountain, there was always a steeper, more challenging part to climb right ahead of you. The climbing was endless and relentless!
We had been told that since Elena hut was small and the place was cold, the porters would carry our bags to Elena and then go back down to Bujuku Camp. As we climbed the steep ridge after Omukandege, some of the porters were already making their way back to Bujuku and were literally running down the mountain. I always marveled at these men – how, despite the loads of luggage they carried on their heads, and despite the fact that we often walked on ahead of them at the start of each day, they always managed not only to catch up with us, but leave us far behind!
As we climbed higher towards Elena, the vegetation started thinning out and in the place of vegetation, there was rock. From Elena onwards to Margherita Peak, there is hardly any plant life to speak of. This is because the higher one goes, the less the oxygen there is, and so not many plants can thrive in such conditions. After climbing the steep ridge from Omukandege, we stopped at a rocky place to take a break and have some lunch before proceeding to Elena Hut. From this resting place, we could see Elena, but to get to it took us another 40 or so minutes round and round some large rocks. Because of the roundabout way we approached it, Elena Hut would be visible one moment, and then invisible the next. We called it a ghost hut!
We finally arrived at Elena, and true to the guide’s word, the place was cold! The inscription on the board above Elena Hut reads “Remember that global warming is real.” Indeed, as we had been told by our guide, about 100 years ago or so, the snow and glacier on Rwenzori stretched from the peak all the way down to Elena, which stands at 4,541 meters above sea level. However, due to the effects of global warming, the snow and glacier have receded so much so that, the guides estimated, in about 20 to 30 years, there will be no snow on Rwenzori.
An additional challenge to the Rwenzoris is the mining work that takes place the base. The guides said that Government has issued new mining concessions over the past several years and while the companies appear to be mining downwards, the fear by the locals is that the companies could also mine horizontally into the mountain, and thus affect the vegetation and ecosystem of the mountain, to the detriment of tourism. As one guide said to me “We need you people of Kampala to fight for us, to help us protect Rwenzori.”
The cry of the mountain is very clear. Will we heed that cry or will we turn away and look the other side?