Day 1 at Rwenzori: Base camp to Nyabithaba

By Laker Winfred L

Have a theme song or songs. Your favorite songs or something. Let it be a song that drives you. The kind you like when running or working out. That number that sends you into a raucous mood. Your ultimate pump song. Have it on hand and get a few of the lyrics by heart.

It has to be the kinda song that will have you on the dance floor when the DJ plays it. Mine are Sauti Sol’s Midnight Train and Brighter days featuring Soweto Gospel choir. I love both songs. They get me high. They got me through the hard start of the lockdown in 2020.

These two songs have some deep inspirational meaning in there. They put me in a mood and bring in this other good energy. They motivate me. They speak life into me.

And you need the pump song why?

Because Rwenzori is very unpredictable! Hard to maneuver! Challenging! Exhausting! Annoyingly interesting! And, in great measure surprising and heart wrenching. You need your great songs on hand for such times.

You will get to a point where you question your emotions, entire being, your various abilities and your sanity for taking yourself to the mountain. Even the most physically fit will get humbled by these Ranges of the moon!

My first day conquering this beautiful mountain was a deep mix of total love, various shades of emotion, rage, and fear clothed in degrees of anxiety.

You will think you are agile, emotionally, and physically prepared for a hike, but boy will you be wrong! Eiisssshhh! I was none of those! I was nothing close to fit for the job!

Rwenzori will draw many things from you. In return it will give you so much in form of grit, patience and verve. It tests you from all angles as a human being. Your test comes at your own Appointed Rwenzori time.

Some will sail through to the top like a breeze, some will tell you their last day was the worst, others the first day, some the third, others sixth and others the entire length of the hike. My worsts came on summit day and last day of the leg.

Those last two days are when I totally lost it! In those two sets of 24 hours! I lost my cool. I lost my temper! I lost my emotions! I lost my appetite! I lost my patience! I lost a bit of my sanity, my verve and my usually calm demeanor.

Enough of the wolokoso! Here’s how my crazy first day at the mystical Mountains of the moon started!

On Friday 26th 2021 we left Base camp for Rwenzori Pinnacle view camp in Nyakalengijo village at 10am or thereabouts where we had our Mountain-check-in. Yes, check-ins are not only for airports and airplanes. Check ins happen at mountains too! Yeah, I invented that!

Entrance to Pinnacle View campsite

This camp right at the bottom of the mountains is between Base camp and the UWA main gate. It is a brilliant idea to not walk the distance. Drive the distance.

Walking from Base camp to this spot will wear you out before you set off. However, if your walking is good, give it a go. It’s your call.

We found the place packed with very many porters waiting to be selected to go along with us for the hike.

You would think this was a market day of sorts. Like cuk auction in Mucwini those days where all sorts of things were brought for sale from cows, goats, sheep to clothes. There would be women seated in lines selling kwete, arege, tomatoes, kajimuru, clothes, cak lukulu and chicken among others.

In the background, the Porters get their instructions.

Porters were assigned to us and each took our baggage for the weigh in. These included our duffel bags which weren’t supposed to weigh more than 20kgs.

It’s at this point that reality starts knocking on your conscience. The frenzy in this place does that. You get excited. You get to realize you are doing this hike after all.

There is no bodaboda stage nearby to get a ka boda ride out. Your Trusted-do-or-die boda guy is beyond reach. And there is no easy escape route. You do the hike or you do the hike! Period!

We were called to order and a brief from the Chairperson of the Rwenzori Ranges Hikers’ Association team plus an introduction of the individual guides and the chefs was made.

The dos and don’ts were succinctly spelt out. It was really more of managing our expectations in terms of sleeping arrangements, meals, wetlands, etc. The shenanigans.

He told us not to expect super star treatment, meals, and the like. Yes, humans are very dramatic beings. We have a very canny way of making demands in the most awkward of ways and places…..like demanding to be served honeyed chamomile tea in tiny sunshine blue China cups in the middle of a rain forest.

A guide shows some part of the team the route we were going to take

Well, we set off for UWA Mihunga main gate at about 11:30am. It took us about 30 minutes or so to reach. We signed in the UWA register as the UWA guys gave off this bored vibe like we were a bunch of jokers who wouldn’t summit.

We took lots of pictures and explored a little at the gate. Totally unaware of what lay ahead of us, off we went towards my first mountain hike and first campsite-Nyabithaba!

The Mihunga central circuit trail which we used started us off with a series of very annoyingly exhausting winding hikes upwards.

It was one winding path after another, after another, and after another as you start to ascend the mountain. It was dizzying almost.

Part of the hike involved going up some green painted rails. A sort of wood like contraption. I don’t want to call them board walks because we were climbing them on fours. We weren’t walking up those things.

Sweating kabisa started soon. Just a few minutes into the climb. My friends were well ahead of me walking with a breeze while I struggled. I realized my body had lied about being in tip top shape for the hike.

Giant banana plant. The guide said the monkeys feed on its fruit.

I quarreled with it internally for such betrayal. This whole Judas-Iscariotic behavior in the mountains was unacceptable. Ignoring the I need to rest already kamanyiro signals it kept sending me mbu it was already tired, I walked on.

We were not even 2 hours into the walk!

I soldiered on for I had a name and face to keep. My entire clan of Bura from Kitgum, Gulu and wherever else they migrated to was depending on me to reach Maragherita! Never mind that none of them asked me to go up the mountain.

I pushed the body some more. Its issues would be handled after the trip.

Here is a tip. If you are into nature, species of animals and plants you will see, hike easy. Don’t rush. Pace at your most comfortable. Enjoy the wilderness. Just be sure not to leave too much a gap between you and your team.

Unless your objective is to break a world record, hunt trophies, raise cente for charity or impress some anyaka, do an average speed. Feel the mountain. Capture every epic moment. Listen to the rivers! The mountain won’t change its position. Gawk at it if you must! Don’t wear your body out!

You will pretty much walk in a single file the entire time

Our goal as a team was to leave no one behind. Thus I self appointed myself to the behind spot permanently till the end of the hike to make sure no one was indeed behind but myself.

It paid off, this behind thing; because I had the chance to take a lot of pictures, got the guide to answer my various questions, fed my curiosity and enjoyed nature.

I was able to stop and catch my breath during tough climbs, though I was persistently gripped with this peeping fear that some-not-yet-seen-before-Rwenzori-yeti would grab and run off with me into the mountains. I know! I know! There are no yetis in Africa!

Still, being the last in line was good. I liked it. You get to hide in your weaknesses.

I didn’t see any animal or hear birds chirping happily atop the giant forest trees above us. And that bothered me. Only thing I saw was a giant albino slug-like creature comfortably stuck on a big fern leaf. It reminded me of the rare albino reptiles we see on Nat Geo.

There were no flies either except for this annoying bee drawn by the sweat on my head. It kept buzzing around my ears and at some point decided to land on my head despite my frantic swats.

The hike to Nyabithaba wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated. It was hot to a point where I started to discard my clothing one by one. Cap went first. Then short sleeved-tee. I couldn’t remove the rest of the clothing else I would have gone native. I suffered with the heat and sweat like that up to camp.

Going further up, we did side-way walks on tiny ledge-like paths astride the mountain and then we started to slope! Oh what a relief! Well, until we painfully learnt that for every steep slope down, there lay a huge stretched-out-incline above our heads to climb or crawl up!

After close to 3 hours of walking, we took a break at a shelter whose name I don’t remember, had our snacks and refilled our hydration bladders. I know what you are thinking. This bladder is not the one we use for susu storage. This one is used for carrying water to drink. Ask Google for images and more details.

Why such a fancy thing is named a water bladder beats me too. Just know it is a must have while hiking, running, or taking long walks.

We crossed a river over which lay a thin shaky boardwalk and went through more thick rain forests. There was so much green and again, the strangest thing was not hearing a single bird chirping somewhere. I thought that was odd still. Now I know it was the cold!

Taking a series of short breaks after tackling every serious climb, we continued to go higher and higher and higher. And with it the temperature getting cooler.

Despite us walking under giant trees, atop a carpet of dead leaves, the sun barely there I felt hot jameni. I would see my buddies up there resting, all fresh like mountain orchids while I was sweating and dying to take a break from down below!

You should know. The guides are very wonderful and discreet-in-a-good-kinda-way guys too. They will hold your hand. They will tell you where to step, where to touch and what to hold on to. They will also politely and in a matter of fact way keep telling you that you have 2 hours left to reach a certain point.

Don’t take that for the gospel truth. Take that for the village truth. Add two more hours to that timeline and walk on else you will cry for nothing.

If they say the walk will take 6 hours, make that 8 to 9 hours. Our walk to Nyamithaba was estimated to take us 7 to 9 hours. So you know the numbers.

After crossing rivers Kyoho and Mahoma which are tributaries to River Mubuku we continued towards our destination. I thought we were close but waah!

We went over more little streams, still flowing their fresh selves into River Mubuku and yet Nyamitaba was nowhere nearby.

The Nyamithaba cabin around the corner

We kept going and going and going with the hope of reaching the camp anytime but kulu. Nasing!

Of course given the village numbering of things we realized the camp wasn’t anywhere near and decided to focus on reaching there before dusk.

And then boom from the blue! Out of nowhere thing appeared!

From the least place you expect, we did a sharp weird turn around a giant rock below which sat a cave of sorts. Something was being roasted nearby! There was smoke! There was the smell of a settlement! There was warmth!

I thought, well, another temporary resting point to take evening porridge before we take off!

A sign post in the wild never looked so good when I saw this!

In a spot ahead at the turn of the sharp corner sat a green wooden cabin just meters away, its back turned to my tired self! There was a beautiful white sign post with Nyabithaba written on it!

A sign post has never looked so beautiful! I asked Jethro our guide if this was it and he said yes. I was a little skeptical but allowed. It wasnt a porridge stop, it was a night stop after all!

Alas! Our camp with our tents all set up was right there! Right there!

Camp Nyabithaba! The last place we expected to be under 8 hours of hiking!

We were ecstatic! The person ahead of the team was shouting heavy tired weeeeee-weeeeees! And the porters were welcoming the 8 of us to camp!

The feeling of seeing camp when you least expect is priceless. I am glad the guides gave us the over estimated ETA digits! I would have missed this element of surprise!

I noticed as soon as we reached the porters swiftly started to change into warm heavy clothing. The cold set in. It hit slowly but hard to the bone. We all got into our warm clothing too!

We tried to shower. The water was cold beyond comprehension. This was the last point to shower for most of us. The water was cold and close to impossible to use even for basics like brushing one’s teeth and washing the face and hands.

When the seasoned hikers tell you that you will go for 7 days or more without a shower in the mountains you will think, “Gosh! That’s so filthy. I am different. I cannot spend a night without a shower. I will manage. I am a humanoid” and stuff. Don’t you worry. You will find yourself saying no to a shower out of your own volition.

A fire was made for us from charcoal and not firewood. We sat around it and got to talk through the events of the day. We also got to know each other a lot better.

Tea was brought. We could still make phone calls so we did. But from a specific spot.

Dinner was interesting. Steamed veggies, some irish potatoes and rice. One of us asked for bundu. Chef seemed surprised by this request but it was brought.

Bundu you should know is a meal made from dried cassava flour and is very filling. The porters and guides had that and a few of us soon added ourselves to their list of bundu users.

After dinner, we had our second briefing of the day to bring us up to speed on the next day’s activities and departure time. We asked the usual questions of what to wear, to expect, to see and ETA to the next camp.

The Tour guides mentioned being impressed with our pace and how we arrived way ahead of the time they had expected us to. Me, I was not shocked. Our team was good!

We then spent a little more time chatting and having tea around the fire and turned in early about 8:00pm. The cold drove us early to bed!

Our fire that was very very welcome!

Things I learnt and mulled over as I prepared for bed on day one: the guides not giving you exact timelines works in your favor, sleeping without a shower won’t kill you, have no expectations, you are your best cheer leader, have a theme song that psyches you up and trust your mountain guide!

As I lay in my sleeping bag thanking God for day one, I went over the day’s fears conquered: I did not fall off a cliff! I did not beat myself up for coming. I did not break a limb. I did not cry. I did not curse anyone. I did not get angry. Did I struggle? Yes. But I survived.

It was a good day one after all. My craziness, spirit and Midnight Train had helped pull me through the day. Sauti Sol may never know this but these lyrics of theirs kept my head leveled during the hard times. At times I awkwardly sang the lines out loud through the day and the entire Rwenzori hike.

Oh, it’s unbelievable that we make it this far
Undeniable, we see the promised land from afar
And it’s so beautiful, no, they can’t touch the fire
And you know it’s not in vain, steady tripping through the pain
Oh, yeah

Steady rocking on the midnight train
Steady rocking on the midnight train (Oh, Lord, oh, Lord)
Oh, Lord, steady rocking on the midnight train (Steady rocking on the midnight train)
To Zion, to Zion (On the midnight train to Zion)

Yes. Have your inspiration song on hand and learn the lyrics!

And finally as sleep started to creep into my space, there below in the foreground was the soothing sound of large water flowing down the mountain, making loud gashing symphonies with the rocks to form River Mubuku.

I slept off without any expectations of the next day. With Rwenzori, chuck your expectations!

Published by Latin Mucwini

I like food. I read. I exercise. And I am Luo. I am on this adventure called writing. Cannot wait to see where this goes

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