By Anya Whiteside, 2013
Sometimes some things just have to be done. And when you hear of a mountain climbing adventure scaling peaks with names that sound like they’re from a Lord of the Rings novel in a remote part of Uganda it would be rude not to.
Mount Moroto with its twin peaks Sogolomon and Sokdek, rises 3,082 metres out of the plains of Karamoja, home to the Karamajong. So, of course Steve and I joined a group from the Mountain Club of Uganda to see whether we could get to the top. The Club has an archive that has some written accounts of those who had climbed Mt. Moroto before. One account, written on a typewriter in the 1950s, has a hand-drawn map of the mountain headed by the note ‘no great accuracy claimed for this sketch’. Plenty to go on!
As Steve and I drove the twelve hours from Kampala the scenery changed. The square concrete houses of Kampala gave way to round mud huts, the forests gave way to plains and savannah and the roads became worse. As we neared Moroto we started seeing the Karamajong, most of whom greeted us with warm smiles and waves.
After meeting the rest of the group we drove the 48 kilometres (two and a half hours) to the small village of Tapach where we were to start our walk. In Tapach we met with a group of young men eager to guide us up the mountain. We traversed up a ridge with incredible panoramic views. The scenery was so different to the walking I’ve done elsewhere. Instead of the mountain ranges of the Alps or Pyrenees we could see for miles out over the flat plains of Karamoja, with the odd ancient volcano rising inexplicably out of the bush. The green mountain rose around us, an oasis of vegetation out of the dry bush below. It was stunningly beautiful as the blistering sun shone down and storm clouds gathered threatening in purple billows over the horizon.
The weather starts to come in – Photo Credit: Kyle Halloway
Suddenly the heavens opened and it was an unremitting downpour. We soggily continued up the mountain until we reached a relatively flat ridge just short of the highest peak. The storm had paused momentarily to get its breath back so we took the opportunity to pitch tents in the relative dry.
I had assumed our local guides knew the mountain well, and I was right. Of course the mountain is not unclimbed! Locals graze cattle and goats on its slopes and the easiest way to visit family on the other side of the mountain is to go over it. It’s true that very few had been to the summit but there are many paths over the mountain. Yet our guides and porters were unprepared for spending a night on the rainy mountain. I think they had assumed that no one would be silly enough to walk in the mountains if it started to rain – you would just go back down. I asked them if there was shelter nearby and they said there was a cave down the mountain where they could light a fire and get shelter for the night.
That night the storm intensified. Many people’s tents were flooded and as I snuggled warm in my sleeping bag I thought with dread of the road back to Moroto – would we get back? The next day we emerged into a soggy world, left the camp and headed for the summit. In between bouts of rain and wind we glimpsed the incredible views across the mountain and plain being battered by weather. We reached the top, a top rarely climbed, and looked out into mist.
Keen to get down and start driving long before dark Steve, myself, and some others returned to camp packed up and headed straight down. Others warmed up in tents before following later.
As we descended the cold receded and the rain grew softer. We were able to push back hoods and look back at the mountain we had just climbed. The luscious green valleys rose to the mountaintop still ringed with purple clouds and new waterfalls pouring down its sides. Local villagers began to emerge from their huts and we were greeted with friendly handshakes and bemused incredulity that we had stayed up the mountain in the storm.
After a slip sliding and knee crunching descent we reached Tapach around 4pm and arrived in Moroto two and a half hours later. We were the lucky ones. Those ahead of us in a Rav4 had taken six hours to drive/push/dig the 48km and those behind us didn’t reach Moroto until 11pm after having to cut out all the seatbelts to form additional tow-ropes.
As we left Moroto for the long drive back to Kampala soon after sunrise the following day I looked back at the old volcano. It looked so different from the previous morning, friendly and benign in the morning light. From the roadside local children carrying water waved and smiled. I reflected on the trip. We had almost not come, worried about the long drive, the security situation and the unknown climb. Yet everywhere we’d been met with nothing but kindness. We’d done so much and learnt so much. Yet more than ever I’d learnt how many more questions I still have about Karamoja and how much I still have to learn.