Gahingas in the Mist
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 have had an almost total reversal of both fortune and experience over the last three or four months of this 35 or so square kilometre piece of mountain forest
Firstly, now re-joined by Darja and her sister Majca and boosted by a park debut from Chris and Mike as well as the perennial trekkers Jess and Sean, we took a hike to view the Golden Monkeys. Aside from Chris, Majca and myself, everyone else on the trip was in Uganda purely to research these rare primates (actually a type of Blue Monkey). The research group however was not habituated and was therefore very difficult to find and record so I was excited to see the reaction of the others when they actually managed to get a good look at what they all came here to see.
The trek, like for Sabinyo, started from Park Headquarters where I had camped out overnight in order to save having to get up too early and also to experiment if beer consumption aided mountain trekking
The trail for the Golden Monkeys actually takes you closer to the smallest mountain in the Virunga chain, Gahinga than any of the others, not that you would know it once you enter the seemingly endless bamboo forest which sweeps the roots of all three peaks clean of light with their dense coverage, the only sign of where you are at all is the gradient which while not being a strain is certainly far from being flat though we were helped along the way when finding sticky seeds from an unknown plant enabled me to see how many I could throw onto Chris' back before he noticed. I did pretty well too until Jess betrayed me and threw my entire arsenal at me, so beginning the start of the seed wars which took up most of journey up (and later down) the monkey trail.
I have said it before and I will never get tired of saying it again, bamboo forest is beautiful, especially on a hot day where its dense coverage gives you a welcome break from the harsh high-altitude sun, allowing occasional streaks of light to peak through its canopy so they hit the forest floor in a random assortment of patterns which look like bright broken glass. I think it is this forest floor that I like best about the bamboo forests. Walking up a volcano is harsh, the ground is either slippery from rain or as hard as rock but in the forests it is different. The millions of dead leaves fall from the trees to continue the circle of life as they decay but before they do that they sit peacefully on the ground and such is their number that walking through them is a little bit like walking on a huge carpet in the middle of a cool rocky valley, just what the feet need.
We reached the monkeys after perhaps two hours or so, our guides fortunately ran into the trackers (it seems that it is in no way certain that you will actually find the Monkeys on any given hike, in contrast with the Mountain Gorillas which I believe they even offer a refund for as they are so certain of finding them) so from then on we were led by a pair of men who's job it seemed to be to keep tabs on the monkeys, which I guess are the perfect tour guides in a situation like this
The monkeys themselves were very pretty, due to the bamboo though in the hour we were with them we never really got into a fantastic vantage position. My entire previous primate experiences have been in Zambia and up at the crater lakes in Uganda where you can just pretty much walk up to a group of Colobus or Vervets and probably groom them if you wish they are so adept to human presence. This though was a little different, the monkeys being much shyer and aware of our presence and I could not help but think that if these were the habituated group then I have no idea how the others were supposed to research a group which was habituated.
All things considered though, it was nice to spend an hour in the deep forest watching every now and then as a bamboo tree would shake and you would catch a glimpse of golden fur leaping away. Perhaps this was a more natural experience than I had been fortunate to enjoy earlier in my travels and it was interesting to see monkeys completely on their own and away from a the 'zoo' type environment which had seemed the case when I had observed primates in the campsites. When the hour was up (not before munching down a Scotch pancake which I laced with melted Cadbury's Dairy Milk) we quietly thanked our trackers and made the long hike back to the visitors centre amid more seed wars and attempts to make the trail as difficult as possible for each other by pulling various dead plants into the path of our friends
The second and sadly final adventure into the National Park occurred around one week later (actually after the events of my next post but for the sake of linking the stories together I will include it here) on our final day in Kisoro where we were to hike the last obstacle in our way, the Volcano of Ghinga.
Ghinga means 'small pile of stones' in the local language and it does actually resemble the piles of stones piled up by farm workers in the neighbouring fields. Indeed it is the smallest Virunga in the Uganda chain, some 3,400 meters or so and for that I was thankful that we had saved this one until last. The previous day I had set off with Jess on a magical motorcycle journey at just before six in the morning from Kisoro up to the park. Watching the sun rise in purple skies behind the volcanos as the cold morning air and dewy mist rushed past my face is something I will never forget. We made the journey as Jess was hoping to get me involved in helping her with the Golden Monkey research as her brother Sean had decided to stay back in Kisoro
My research dreams ruined, Jess and I decided to make the most of a beautiful day and hiked off into the foothills of the mountains, stopping at an old Batwa Pygmy cave for a spot of spelunking (and bat evasion!) in the wet, muddy depths which reminded me a great deal of the lava caves back in Musanze, Rwanda. Following this we hiked to two of the areas smaller volcanos, now green and cultivated, where we spent the day laying in craters, running away from (we assumed) dangerous forest children, sampling local drinking establishments, staring at amazing views and attempting to find footpaths which it turned out didn't exist. We got back to the Park campsite at 7pm, 13 hours after we started the day and both agreed that being turned away from the Monkey research was the absolute best news we could have got that morning!
So, after a long day what better volcano to be climbing in the morning but the smallest one? Well, probably none of the others actually but it was by no means an easy day! Not remembering my previous success with beer before climbing I had a reasonably early night before getting up at six for the climb feeling a little tired from the previous day's exertions but nothing an omelette and chipati wouldn't cure I thought and wolfed down my breakfast, washed down as always on the cold Mgahinga mornings with some hot chocolate. Once again I was allowed to climb for just $20 (reduced from $50) thanks to the marvellous staff at the Park, especially a gentleman called Christoph who manages the Kisoro arm of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority who was a real gentleman.
Chris had promised to climb at least one of the mountains but (as expected) when the time came he was ready with one of his excuses, this time he needed to pay his bill at the hotel, quite often an all-day task if you ask me so he was excused. In his absence it was up to Sean, Jess, Darja and myself to attempt to summit our final Ugandan Virunga and Mike to assault his first (with nothing to do every day he is not researching the Monkeys has vowed to do them all also)
Despite being the smallest of my three hikes the going was surprisingly hard, even the areas we had covered the previous week on the Golden Monkey trek. I don't know if it was the previous day's hiking or the fact that I knew I still had to get back to Kisoro, pack (never quick when you have about ten times more stuff than you need in a big whirlpool of mess in a small room), sort out my bill and hope the bank was open in order to get money for the said bill all before we left for Kabale later that afternoon, but I was certainly in worse shape than I had been, even Sabyinyo with its hellish ladders seemed easier than this.
It was achingly beautiful though with bamboo forests once again being the order of the day for most of the hike before the ground rose at too steep an angle to support it
The hike to the top took about three hours in total and though I was exhausted, as with the other volcanos there was a treat at the summit to quickly quell any notion that rest was needed. Whereas Muhavura, the largest of Ugandas virunga chain had a clear lake at the top and Sabyinyo unforgettable views of three countries, Gahinga, while lacking views, took you into rather an enchanted fantasy world. The reason it lacked any views was that it never rises high enough to really clear the primary forest and the top or very near the top is home to trees and vegetation tall enough to block out any views of the surrounding landscape. While this sounds disappointing, it does make up for it with an almost-too-perfect bright green crater swamp which is sunken fifty feet or so inside deep tropical-like forest making you feel like you have stumbled across an alien oasis half-way up a mountain.
Before you could say 'lets hack our way through this forest to get to the lake' we were pretty much all getting our feet very wet indeed in the bog-like grass that surrounds the shore of the lake
The virungas though do not let you off that easily and I paid for my confidence by managing to break all previous falling-over records anywhere in the world in one big bumpy 2-hour stint. It was like there was an invisible rain cloud hanging over the exact areas only I chose to walk over! No one else seemed to have any problem at all in negotiating the trail, but for me and my notoriously slippery shoes it was like trying to ice skate (which also leaves me on my ass an awful lot). Jess who was following me, seemed to find the whole spectacle quite hilarious, refusing to overtake me as to not spoil her fun as I went over again, ever aware that twisting my right knee an inch the wrong way could lead me to be carried the rest of the way back to England. It was funny though, by the end it was so frequent that I eased to the ground like an old man into a relaxing bath tub, the ability to fight the sliding had either departed or had simply decided that it was easier to fall than fight it anymore. By the end of the trail I looked like I had been on a messy tour of a chocolate factory rather than climbed a volcano!
I did make it back though, we all did just as the frequent rain found its way over the mountains, washing a good portion of the mud from my face as I stood at its mercy. It was a proud moment for Sean, Jess, Darja and myself, I should not think that too many tourists climb all of the Virungas in Uganda either out of lack of time or indeed lack of need but it was a challenge that as soon as I thought about, I wanted to achieve. It was nice to end with Gahinga, I doubt that it gets climbed too often and it was good to say goodbye on the path less trodden despite my ability to, rather than tread, to make my way down on my back, front, ass and face as the Virungas reminded me just who is the boss around here and just how small I am.