Mount Sabyinyo’s Ascent, 24 November 2017 – Alexia Falisse – Mountain Club Uganda
It is Friday 23rd of November, a bit after midday in Kampala. The sky is grey, the air cool after the morning’s abundant rain fall. In the craze of Black Friday, our small crew of MCU hikers – Stuart, Jess, Hannah, Bara and myself under the masterly leadership of Lorna – has managed to come together on Lugogo Mall’s parking lot. It is with no regret that we leave behind the shopping-addicts in Dantesque queues, their joins whitened around brand new price-reduced flat screens. Our Living Salon EX is a full option van from the 90’s with ashtrays and electric lace curtains on the windows. Fetishes hang out on the front rear window: a pink monkey with a woolen hat and a Ugandan flag. We’re set to the cold, Gorilla territories.
We leave Kampala in reasonable time, direction the very Southern Western tip of the country, about 500 of the capital. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is not only famous for its big black apes: it also offers outstanding trekking routes. Situated at the very North of the Virunga mountain range, the Park hosts three extinct volcanoes which can be climbed: Mt. Muhavura (4,127 m), Mt. Gahinga (3,474 m), and Mt. Sabinyo (3,669 m). Mount Sabinyo, “the old man’s teeth” in Kinyarwanda, owes its name to its distinctive, multi-peaked outline. Distinguishable feature: at its highest top meet three countries – Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As we pass Mbarara, where we pick up Nick, and engage on the sinuous, mountain road after Kabale, our Living Salon lets us down. It is about midnight in the middle of nowhere, but a helpful cyclist appears out of thin air and fetches water to cool down the engine. It is about 2 am as we eventually reach the Amajambere Iwacu Community Camp and the rest of the MCU group – Cyndee, Dahil and Charles. The night is as short as it is cold – we are at about 2,200m of altitude.
Breakfasts ordered the night before come late or not at all, but we eventually manage to get the whole MCU group to the briefing, where five other hikers join us. Our guide Zach gives us some sparse information about the hike (“short name, short man, short speeches”). Mt Sabinyo’s hike goes through three of the volcano’s five summits, the last one culminating at 3669m. Rain is highly expected, and the path will be muddy. We all pick a bamboo stick (soon to become our best pal) and leave at around 8.15 am. The slope up is first very gentle, almost flat, but very muddy indeed – proper hiking boots (or even gumboots, for rent at the base camp) are highly recommended. Bushy areas succeed to grassy patches, the air is fresh and full of flowery scents. Soon, we make a first stop and contemplate today’s menu. In the distance, the old man is smiling at us, his teeth bare: the adventure has just started.
After about an hour, we enter the primary forest. The path goes up between bamboos, steeper and steeper. A light drizzle comes to cool us off. As we reach the mountain base, after about 2 hours 30 of walking, bamboos have been replaced by high, sinuous, ghostly trees. We engage on a steep, sinuous and muddy path. Pale green lichen covers the branches. Stuart, the group’s birdie, points at a Rwenzori Turaco, endemic to the region. Check on his list as the bird flies away, exhibiting its magnificent rainbow wings.
The ascent becomes seriously strenuous, but the effort is rewarded by the stunning view between the trees: strings of fog run along the bright green, steep volcano flanks. Wooden ladders help along the way, though they can be slippery. Breaths become short with both the effort and altitude, the sound of feet and sticks on the soft ground beats out the rhythm. Around 11.30 am, we reach Sabynio’s first peak at 3423 m. Strange, giant phallic plants (lobelia) grow at this altitude. The weather has cleared and allows us to see already see Congolese towns ahead. Down to our left, houses, trees, farms and fields sketch lines and squares. Rwanda, the Switzerland of Africa. On our right is Uganda, green and wild as far as the eye can see. The contrast is visible from the sky where we now stand and shine – with sweat. Time to recover, and have a look ahead. The brown trail follows the wide, saddle-shaped ridge between the two peaks, down and up again. More ladders to come.
After 30 minutes of rest we continue our ascent. The ladders are steep, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the next peak, not without efforts. At 3537 m, the view is the best reward we could think of; we even enjoy some sun rays as we sit in the soft grass. Ahead, the ladders look steeper and scarier than what we have seen so far. Fatigue clings on to our legs, but the sight of the final objective sets us in motion. After a short climb down, we leave our bamboo sticks below the first ladder up – staircase in fact, with planks for the feet and rails to replace our trusted bamboo sticks. It is steep nonetheless, uneven and vertiginous, broken up by muddy trails and branch ladders. The altitude intensifies the effort. Finally, we all make it to the top – except for two of us, hit by altitude sickness, who went back to peak one.
We enjoy our lunch and some more rays of sun at 3668m. It is hard to fully realise that we are in three countries at the same time. The arbitrariness of borders seems even more absurd when nature is so overwhelming. Yet the tiny tidy fields and farms in Rwanda are a reminder of how borders can dictate people’s destiny. There are two other peaks ahead but no path to their tops, and they are in DRC. There are also two peaks waiting behind, as we must return the way we came – more than enough to fill in our afternoon. It is about 2pm when half of the group starts the ascent.
It takes us about an hour to get back to the first peak. As we wait for the rest of the group, hail starts falling, followed by heavy rain. We cram into the small thatched-roofed hut. Far back, we can see patches of colour climbing down the second peak’s ladders. The rain finally stops and we set off with those who feel unwell and a few others. The after-rain light in the pale green lichen, like tree curtains floating in the gentle breeze, is breath-taking. Between the trees, volcano peaks stand out in the forest. The sun sometimes pierces through the clouds and reveals the profound, bright green of the tree tops. The descent is tough on the knees – thankfully we have retrieved our bamboo pals. The wet (and tricky!) ladders help us down the way. Our thinned out group progresses well, our bottoms sometimes hitting the muddy ground as our feet slip away.
The way down seems endless, our walk becomes automatic – bamboos, ladders, forest, bamboos. The ranger who walks with us, gum-booted, machine-gunned, warns us about possible encounters. A wide animal has made its way through the tight bamboos, probably an elephant or a forest buffalo. It is not clear what is the more dangerous, elephants or poachers, nor how real the danger is. As the ground becomes flatter and we begin to reasonably think about arriving, heavy rain starts to pour down again, and is set to stay. Puddles become streams, streams flood our shoes. The five of us hit the base camp around 6.30, soaked, cold, happy. Up there, the rest of our group is still struggling, the challenge made double by the heavy rain, and soon darkness. Little by little the group gets back to its original composition, filling the seats around the providential fire in the lodge’s dining room. Around 8.30 pm everyone is back, proud and weary. This unforgiving but so rewarding hike will stay in our memories for a long time.