The traditional image of the European explorer in Africa? A long single file of porters carrying the baggage, the heavily bearded young man (always a man) carried in a litter, local guides in exotic headgear scouting out the way.
Imagine then, seven mzungus, (white people and hardly explorers, the paths were well trodden, a 5 – 2 female/ male split, age ranging from 19 to over 60, only one trim beard between us all) taking five days to walk in the Rwenzori Mountains in Western Uganda.
The fabled Mountains of the Moon, the biggest mountain range in Africa, snow on the equator no less. Four nights in mountain huts, eighteen porters and two guides in baseball caps to help us. All on foot, not a litter to be seen. I have never been on a portered walk before, but have read many travellers tales about this sort of progress across unfamiliar terrain.
The reality? It rained, it was wet, it was extremely muddy, mostly through swamps, bamboo forests at forty five degree gradients,
through strange giant vegetation. The glorious views across East Africa, watching the sun set over curve of the earth, seeing the high snow-capped mountains tower above us; all hidden by thick mist and cloud.
We walked in wellies, shrouded in waterproofs, our view was the back of the walker in front. Ahead somewhere the porters, able to tackle the terrain with the practice of someone who walks high up into the mountains most weeks of the year. We struggled.
It was also extremely cold, especially at night: fully dressed into the sleeping bag; quick wash of face and hands in the morning;
huddled around the fire at night; the smell of smoke and person lingering for days. Even the packs had to be soaked, scrubbed and washed on our return.
Would we do it again; of course, once the legs have stopped hurting. The guides (Rwenzori Trekking Services) were unfailingly helpful, keeping the pace slow enough for us to cope, getting us over swollen rivers,
up and down the steep parts, pointing out footholds, helping us up again. Our extra gear was always there when we arrived, as was hot tea. The huts were OK, the food plentiful. The porters? ‘They are ever happy’ one of the guides said, it was a very easy trek for them.
The porters danced for us on the last night,
we had to join in, well, some of us anyway.
The experience? One I will never forget, one of the epic trips really. Epic for us anyway and certainly brought those travellers tales to life.
For example, we laboured our way up to Matinda camp, it is under a huge rock overhang and the highest point of our trip (3600 metres). The base camp for the more adventurous going on to climb the peaks over 5000 metres, other colleagues have done it, perhaps next time.
Drying clothes and comparing aches, the mist cleared
and we found that we were in a deep hidden valley, cliffs soaring away on either side.
That night the moon was almost full, about 2 am I was woken by eerie screams echoing up and down the cliffs, they sounded almost human and certainly frightening, like every horror film/ exploration novel; Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’, that sort of thing.
Rather than the prehistoric winged beasts we had been imagining, they were rock hyraxes the guides told us. Hyraxes look like a very large mouse and are, in some curious way, related to elephants. They are very territorial and were screaming to keep other rock hyraxes away; certainly kept us humans in our smelly sleeping bags.
Strange Cultural Transfers part 7:
On our return to Kilembe,
some of our party had enough energy left to make the porters join in a round of the Hokey Cokey, as part of our thank you package. Most of the porters knew the words and some of the actions; how? Knees bend arm stretch out – out – out