Trip Start Sep 27, 2010
137Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Golden Monkey Guest House Kisoro
Read my review - 5/5 stars
Read my review - 5/5 stars
I suppose that isn't a bad thing to be afraid of, with the caledra erupting and lava heading toward town, I'll be the one standing cautiously at the back not jumping in, good to know if I ever visit the Cretaceous Period or Middle Earth. But I could not continue this anti-volcano stance for long, everyone deserves a second chance and I needed to have a positive climbing experience if I am to tackle some peaks further on in the world (actually Mt Sanai should be the next one and if it snows there I think it means that God is coming, or leaving, anyway its in the bible).
I as I have mentioned, there are three volcanos in the Virunga range which are on Ugandan soil. Muhavura, the largest (which I have ticked off thankfully), Gahinga, the smallest and Sabyinyo which is perhaps the most beautiful and has the honour of falling inside Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. Darja, Jess, Sean and myself had all summited Muhavura already and so, with Gahinga attracting little interest it was an easy choice to attempt Sabyinyo.
I think we were all ready for another challenge and with the weather crystal clear the past three days, we all decided to go for it at the end of the week. (Although Chris didn't take the usual step of getting a mysterious illness or injury in the days before, he put his participation at 50/50, meaning zero, stating that 'a mountain is a mountain, why bother climbing this one?' which was fair enough.)
Like Muhavura and indeed all of the mountains in the Ugandan Virungas, Mt Sabyinyo lies inside the boundary of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the great mountaine cloud forests which are home to a tiny sprinkling of the world's Mountain Gorillas (around nine by the most recent census) and nearly all of the world's population of Golden Monkeys all in a tight thirty or forty square miles covering the routes of the three giant peaks
The ride up to Mgahinga is beautiful, especially on a clear day and doing it on the back of a motorcycle is, for me the only way to travel. The road is far too harsh to to have a comfortable journey in a car as the bikes find their way through the thin patches of level ground and in any case, with the wind in your hair, the Virungas in front of you and the sun on your back, who needs a seat and four wheels anyway? (I will add here that I have previously come back on this road at night in the rain on a bike and it is up there with elephants treading on my tent in Zambia in 2007 as one of the most awful experiences of my life.). When I arrived I was greeted by Sean who let me throw my bags in his banda (i was very careful after over-packing for Muhavura to just bring essentials this time)
After a while Jess appeared and asked if I would like to accompany her, Sean and Darja to visit some vets who were working in a nearby field. My first reaction was to break the news to her that I wasn't actually a vet, despite my baseball cap and general stupidity which drew a laugh. I was a little apprehensive about going, the vets were all staying at the Golden Monkey and were doing fantastic work, abandoning their university in Barcelona for a few months to help vaccinate and look over domestic animals in Uganda and Congo
It wasn't really, we bumped about all over the place and the short drive up the road seemed to take an eternity and Darja's insistence that I have some of her beer had me rather worried about knocking most of my teeth out over her and the other passengers so I had to pass. We arrived in the field (which looked a lot like the field in the Congo where I visited Bunangana Market (see Can-Go!) to see one of the young male vets struggling, with several other people, to hold down a dog to be injected with anaesthetic. It appeared that we had got there just in time for the main event, castration.
The dog eventually ran off after they had successfully given him the shot so the attention went back to the makeshift operating table where one of the vets, Jesus, was just finishing the stitching on a bitch that had been spayed. The whole set up was remarkable
The anaesthetic had kicked in my now and he was laying with two children some fifty meters or so from the operating table. I walked over and found him on the verge of unconsciousness and gently stroked him before he drifted off thinking that he could do with some comfort ahead of what he was about to go through and it wasn't long before he had been picked up and strapped to the operating table ready to go. This time it was two different vets carrying out proceedings, a young man assisted while the operation was carried out by an attractive young lady named Andie who had come from Argentina to study at the University in Barcelona
The operation was surprisingly quick, a few cuts here, pull this open and take those out, with Sean and I giving each other a wincing look when the deed was done. That was that, Andie stitched up the wound and her assistant (who turned out to be her superior as well as being her husband) carried the little chap to the recovery lounge with his tongue dangling lifelessly from his mouth. I was amazed at how the vets managed to carry out these procedures in the middle of a field with no real amenities other than what they could fit on the roof of a Land Cruiser and under the pressure of hundreds of eyes watching their every move, not to mention the owners of the animals who's livelihoods need to be looked after. I was right, my efforts on the football field did seem rather pathetic after watching them at work, but each to their own I suppose, I am not a vet, if I went round with a scalpel and green overalls I would be arrested in moments after a lot of peoples animals went mysteriously missing, actually scrap that comparison, it makes me appear as some sort of dog butcher, I am not a dog butcher
After the excitement of the animal doctors I joined Sean and Jess on a walk to a local market before heading back to the campsite. It was nice to see another market to compare it with my recent visits to Kisoro and Bunagana. This was far smaller, just a village market with a few goods laid out on each side of the street, but it was nice to see nonetheless and walking back to camp as dusk hung over Sabyinyo in front of us was a very nice way to end the day, the sun giving us one last reminder of our task before setting behind it, leaving a perfect black silhouette as if to tease us for an extra few beautiful moments.
The night past fairly quickly, the fire in the restaurant was a welcome relief from the cool air which, at a few hundred meters up, is quite a few degrees shy of that in my normal habitat of Kisoro fifteen kilometres down the road. The sharp, clear air did give as well as take though and as the three of us made our way back to our respective bandas we were treated to a spectacular star-filled sky where I was shown various constellations which you simply cannot see in the london sky
Darja's band was surprisingly comfortable, the lack of electricity more than compensated for by the light from two candles giving the room a real atmosphere, after all the last time I slept to candle light was my last night in Malawi, so it certainly bought back some good memories and helped me drift off before the big day tomorrow. I wasn't nervous, more excited, I didn't even think of my previous horror climb. The weather had been good lately and while anything can change in an instant up here I would be with friends, I wanted to do this with them, to be with them. That, I thought, had to be worth a few hundred meters or so!
Darja arrived at about seven-thirty in the morning and after a breakfast of omelette and chipati it was time to move and the four of us made our way to the park office to meet our guides for the day. While Jess, Sean and Darja get activities in the park for free (sans Gorillas) I do not and the three of them very kindly and unexpectedly agreed to split my cost four ways so I only paid $20 (the other three putting in $10 each) which I thought was amazing and a great start to the climb
The first hour of the walk was over swampy grassland and every now and then we would come across buffalo dung or, more excitingly, giant elephant footprints left during the night by the park's population of forest elephants. I have never seen a forest elephant and am determined to spy one before my time here is up, the thought of seeing a huge, spectacular creature in such an environment, so out of context from out usual expectations and perhaps even knowledge must be an unforgettable experience. For the time being though I had to make do with 'walking like an elephant', trying to re-trace its footsteps with my own, printing my insignificant footprints well inside the huge holes which was fun until I missed one, sinking half my leg in wet stagnant mud forcing me to quickly abandon my pursuit and follow Jess in front of me who navigated the ground with a certain booted elegance
After drying off (the dry mud made the trouser on my right leg rather crispy) we reached the huge bamboo forest which forms the gateway to both Sabyinyo and Gahinga, filling the gap between the two mountains like a flood coming in from Rwanda beyond them. I had never been in a bamboo forest before and instantly fell in love with it. It was dark and cool, the ground was firm and with the plants shooting up all around up to perhaps fifty feet in the air, it was an overload for the senses that took all my thoughts away from the miles underfoot. I pictured seeing pandas around every corner, chewing away with quiet dignity but I guess this might be one of the only places that you can say that you are MORE likely to see a Mountain Gorilla than something (Benjamin added we had no chance of seeing a Mountain Gorilla either shortly afterward). After a couple of hours walking I was surprised that we had yet to start an ascent yet, perhaps there had been a gradual gradient on the hike but nothing I could say had put me under any real strain which was more than I could say for Muhavura who had nearly destroyed my lower body after the first two hours. Not that I minded, the hike was beautiful and in many ways would have satisfied on its own as a pleasant forest walk, I was just surpassed that the mountain which looked so close from the campsite earlier was so far away and that this, the smallest National Park in Uganda could be so vast
When the climbing did start I barely noticed it. We had come out of the bamboo zone and were now in virgin forest, but it was thick and beautiful, there was a density and mystery about every corner and every step and I was amazed when after what felt like a short climb we came to a break in the trees and could look out over the national park toward the other two volcanos. We had climbed a long way, the bamboo zone must have had more of an elevation than I thought as now we had the most astonishing view toward Gahinga, green and bedazzled in the morning sun looking like a verdant garden compared with Muhabura who stood more parched and beaten in the background like an old man watching over his grand daughter. Below them both we saw the true extent of the bamboo forest we had just walked through, standing in a lighter shade of green it looked like a soft, fluffy mattress before the hardships of the older forest began above it, the whole forested ground looked like the confluation of rivers, two different colours intermixing with each other in a swirl of murk green leaves.
Benjamin informed us that 'the real climbing' would begin now but we still chose to ignore the second rest hut (the first was rather ridiculously placed a few minutes from the start of the hike where we were offered a half hour break, we also declined this one unsurprisingly) which was placed nicely in a little grove cleared of forest and built, as in Muhavura, entirely from bamboo
I have now come to understand that 'real climbing' here means ladders and steps as that is what we now faced for the next couple of hours and Benjamin had not been wrong, it was tough. Jess and Sean seemed to glide up the hill but I was grateful for Darja's insistence on photographing everything in her wake as the stoppages afforded me some precious rest. It was never as bad as Muhavura, but I would be lying if I wasn't thrilled when we did eventually stop for fifteen minutes at an unofficial rest stop by some trees covered with flowing moss, an indicator of pure air I was reliably informed by Darja it was certainly pretty, slightly green in colour but appearing to have a slight purple iridescence in the odd shaft of light which breached the canopy. It was nice to rest but it was even nicer when Sean pointed out the peak of the mountain through the trees, it didn't look too far and when Benjamin announced that it was indeed the third and highest peak I was overjoyed! I loved the climb but to see our goal perhaps an hour away gave me an energy boost and when we began to pack up I was raring to go, wanting to be the first one to the top.
I was, in fact the first to the top, but it didn't happen quite as quickly as I had imagined and there is one word which I think can sum up just why
The peak we had seen may have looked close because it was, as the crow flies, but there was still the small manner of the first and second peaks to climb before we reached the final goal and each was big, very big. The first peak was reached just after eleven or so in the morning about forty five minutes from our last stop. I was pretty tired when we reached it but all thoughts of resting were forgotten when I saw the view. I am not sure what looked better, Gahinga and Muhavura rising up like limpets bisecting Uganda and Rwanda and their towns and cities which we could see clearly in the cloudless sky on one side or the other two peaks of Sabyinyo complete with gorges and huge buttresses creating yet more peaks and troughs as they lurch down on each side toward their respective countries on the other. I think it might have been a draw, most might argue that there cannot be much more of a thrill when going up a mountain to look at the view below but Sabyinyo looked like something out of Jurassic Park, forested pinnacles, huge and foreboding rising up toward the sky, it was something I have never seen before in my days.
We ate lunch on the first peak, my hunger raging after the initial awe of what my eyes were seeing fell away
To get to the second peak you have to climb down the first and the thought of taking some of the strain off my thighs felt good for about three minutes before the ladders started. The ladders, again like Muhavura (sorry for all the comparisons, there are just a lot of similarities between the two), are made from local wood, shown of its branches and hammered onto longer bits of wood, often without a great deal of care and attention. Some are wobbly and others are missing altogether while all are somewhat precarious and climbing down the first peak was more a test of skill than stamina as the ladders moved down at unnatural angles, sometimes making it easier to walk on the grass beside them until the angle dropped lower to make the steps more like a traditional staircase which was all the time awkward to walk on with the large bamboo walking stick in one hand and your other almost useless and grasping at air on the frequent occasions that balance was either lost of untrusted
Soon the descent became another climb switching between ladders and the earth as our path but the angle of attack was never steep enough to take some of the strain with my arms so it was hard work and I made slow progress, once again grateful for Darjas photographic pursuits which halted our progress and allowed me a few moments rest. From a physical point of view this was the hardest part of the climb, I was tired and my legs were burning from overuse and there was no let up for what for the first time became a slog rather than a hike and not even the view could save me as my brain forced my eyes to be transfixed on the awkward ladders and footholds in front of me rather than the view behind me, which was (on the view chances I got) stunning and when we finally arrived at the second peak I simply fell sprawled on my back for several moments before feeling able to appreciate my surroundings (talk of vipers in the grass also had all of us suddenly more keen to sightsee rather than rest).
The second peak was much as the first only with the addition of being able to see the first peak below us as we looked on toward the other two Ugandan Volcanos, the small blue blob of our porter still visible against the green grass as well as, unlike the first peak, actually being able to cross the border into Rwanda which runs half way across the thirty or so square meter area of grass we were standing upon
The descent from the second peak was about the same as that from the first and with a very similar process but turned upward again we were treated to a hundred meters or so of walking along a narrow ridge with dizzying falls to the left and right into Rwanda and Uganda respectively (in actual fact if you fell over the Ugandan side you would probably blow over the border into Congo, double the bad fortune if you ask me.) It was certainly beautiful and reminded me of photos I had seen of people walking along the peaks of the Andes in Peru in search of the Inca Trail complete with our walking sticks and the odd froth of mist from the mountains (this may have had something to do with Jess describing her and Sean's adventure to Macu Piccu earlier in the day which had me thinking of far off places in a daydream as per my usual days back at the office in England)
The third peak is the steepest and tallest of Sabyinyo and forms the highest point on the entire mountain and the only way to access it is yet another ladder which was not at all surprising, but this ladder, unlike the others, isn't one you can stumble down with your useless arms in front of you acting as a buffer if you fall, this one, you have to really climb. It looked terrifying and huge, like vertical tracks of an old roller coster you would dare to ride on as it rode the bumps and notches of the mountain face before it disappeared somewhere in the foliage, curving toward an unknown end. Thankfully Benjamin said we could be relieved of our uncomfortable walking sticks at this time, though in the end climbing it though wasn't actually that bad. It was indeed vertical, at some points even going beyond this as it jutted out over a bump in the mountain but because the effort could be shared by your arms and legs it didn't actually tire me out, it was actually a lot of fun until at one point I looked down which was just awful, lose you grip up here and you were a goner, no question as the ladder fell toward the end of the ridge which by the time we reached the top was perhaps three or four hundred feet below yet felt much higher as you looked out at the other volcanos and miles of landscape a couple of miles below you
I was indeed the first to reach that safety just as I had hoped, though my triumph had more to do on the order we reached the ladder and started climbing rather than any physical advantage over the others that I had (I had none) and just like Muhavura before it felt great to leave the ascent over rolling grass that curved out to a plateau as the summit appeared before you. It was a great feeling and just like the first summit there was absolutely no time to feel tired, it was simply magical. Whereas the other peaks had given us a view behind to the other mountains in Uganda and in front to the remainder of Sabyinyo, the panorama was always halted by trees, vegetation and indeed other peaks but now, at the very top the vistas were sweeping and unobstructed save for one peak directly in front of us which by illusion seemed even taller than the one on which we now all stood.
Looking out to the left we could see what looked like half of Uganda, the National Park which had appeared so huge when we were in and just above it looked like a small blot of ink over a large ruffled map as the whole Kisoro region spread out for miles, hills and ancient smaller volcanos looking like pimples on cold green skin as they dotted the horizonMount Karisimbi and Mt Mikeno, massive and imposing rise up, half covered by cloud disguising the latter mountains jagged profile, the whole scene was in stark contrast to the busy and life-filled painting that was found in its neighbouring countries and almost so typified everything that the Congo seems to stand for by its very name alone.
As well as the unforgettable views, the top of Sabyinyo, the reward if you will for five hours of hard work (four hours and fifty-eight minutes to be precise, two minutes ahead of the 'standard' time suggest to summit the third peak) is being able to stand in three countries (Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC) all at the same time. This is done over a series of rocks at the very highest point of the mountain and by moving you arms and legs in kind of a star pattern, you can indeed have your an arm, leg and another of the two in three separate countries, which made for some interesting photos, the combinations of which I am sure that our guide Benjamin had seen all-too-many times before.
We stayed atop the mountain for forty-five mintues, Benjamin was still worried about the rather negative looking clouds now breaching Rwanda and Congo so we finished the last of our lunches, handed out more of the Glucose Striker Energy biscuits and began the long walk back to camp, a walk which obviously began as something entirely different.
The climb back down the first peak was petrifying. Where as when climbing up the peak you could easily test each rung of the ladders with your hands before trusting your weight to them, now you had to place your feet blindly down while effectively pulling the ladder out of its screws as your entire bodyweight hung on the flimsy pieces of wood, some of which I knew to be very loose indeed. It was kind of a toss up between holding on for dear life and guessing where to put your feet or looking down, seeing that dear life flash before your eyes, and seeing a foothold. Sometimes, where the rungs were missing, there was no foothold at all and you were forced to lower yourself slowly on the lose steps of the ladder, tiptoeing wildly in midair like a ballerina looking to perform a perfect pirouette in the sky. It was absolutely not for the feint of hear or those, like me, with a rather sceptical view with regard to heights. In the end Darja, who was in front of me and somehow climbing down facing away from the ladder, guided my blind feet onto safe rungs and footholds, warning me of any loose screws or wobbly rungs. At one point I decided it might be best to actually hold the sides of the ladder rather than its rungs but on feeling just how lose the entire structure was, I decided that me falling to my doom in whatever country the wind blew me into was better than managing to pull the entire ladder down and curse my friends to the same fate.
It took about half an hour just to climb down the third peak and after this began the familiar up, rest, down, up, rest, down momentum of our trip up the mountain in the opposite direction, Benjamin allowing us ten minutes or so at the summit of the first two peaks to regain some strength and take in one final view of the majestic surroundings. From then on it was fairly simple, I will refrain from literally calling a walk in the park but it was far less taxing than the eight or nine-hour Muhavura marathon which nearly kneecapped me a month ago. Jess and Sean again wafted through the terrain like a gentle breeze up ahead making light work of a mountain which I imagine most high streets and shopping malls in Canada must be like (yes my versions of places are quite stereotypical, I apologise) with me coming in third, taking to running a few sections in short bursts before a slip or trip would halt my confidence and Darja bringing up the rear with Benjamin and the now-revived porter, talking excitedly about Park life and the various plants and animals (mainly birds) which we had encountered on the trip.
We arrived back at the park headquarters around about eight hours after we left them, a quite stunning and modern building which, if I was to hazard a wild guess, looked as though it was built by the the same people responsible for the National Museum of Rwanda, back down in Huye. Bright and airy, with professional displays and fixtures. The warm afternoon light was in contrast with the chilly morning air that had seen us on our way and the four of us sat on the cool grass of the shade in front of the building before posing for a customary 'team photo' with our guides and porter (who we had to run and find money for - another plus about staying right outside the front door!) before saying our goodbyes. There were many constants with my previous climb, the ladders, the vegetation (in the upper forest anyway) and indued the service I received from the UWA. Benjamin was fantastic and knowledgeable, allowing us rest when we needed it but making sure that we kept going while always checking on the weather and while our porter didn't make the end he did look genuinely unwell and carried on his duties as we made our way down which was good of him as I think I would have made my own slow way down as soon as the group disappeared over the hill and forfeited my pay! But there were so many differences I would almost categorise it as a totally different location! The weather was clear and beautiful, the views spectacular and mesmerising and the climbing, while challenging and potentially dangerous, was fun, that for me was the big difference, I had fun up there, I never once wanted it to end, never wanted me to be teleported back home! Of course the people helped, climbing with friends is always going to be beneficial, especially such good people and everyone did a great job without ever wishing to stop or rest.
Ulitmately though, as much as others assisted me in getting back up to the top of Uganda, I am rather proud of myself. Sabyinyo isn't a challenge to seasoned climbers, its a nice walk in the woods with one or two tricky sections and one of the world's most dangerous ladders, but after the horrors of Muhavura where I stated 'I will never climb again!' it was great to get back up there and put my misgivings in the past. The only problem now though is that there are three Virungas in the Ugandan section of the range and I have climbed two of them which just doesn't seem quite like I have finished this particular chapter. How many tourists climb all three I wonder? I do not think that I can leave here without putting myself on that very unique list.