Written by Dimitri Vergé, April 2016
Photos by Magali
With the main Easter MCU trip to Mt Elgon being already fully booked, we planned a last minute alternative trip for more hikers to enjoy their 4-days holiday, and headed to Karamoja again! Two cars with ten of us inside departed towards beautiful Mt Napak, part of the “Karamoja triangle” (the 3000m high Napak, Kadam and Moroto – on a clear day, you can see the two other mountains from each peak). It was the very end of the dry season, and while we kept our fingers crossed for no rain, we were a bit worried about the water situation on the mountain.
After a long day driving (on a good road from Kampala to Soroti – less so afterwards) and enjoying the sights of Mount Iriri and Mount Napak approaching, we camped at the same school as the former group did (Pilas Primary School on Google Maps, a right turn before the town of Lothaa – also called Iiriri trading center), enjoying the same fire and the same dozens of curious kids around us and laughing at everything we would do. A contact from Moroto had given us the phone number of a local guy, Pieter, who could help us find a guide; after a few hours waiting with for only answer from him “I’m almost approaching” repeated several times on the phone, we all went to bed to meet him in the morning.
During breakfast we met with Pieter who ended up coming with us on the mountain. He also found us another decent-looking guide, Anthony, en route for the summit, which we could not quite see from the school since it was hidden behind a few impressive cliffs. We left around 8.30 and the guides were already impatient, telling us we were late and that we’d reach the summit by 7pm at this pace. The water situation didn’t seem to bother them too much, “it is there”, so we packed 3-4L each, to make sure we’d have enough for the whole day at least.
The first hour approaching the mountain through fields and passing typical tiny Karamojong habitations was scorching already and we found ourselves happy to finally start hiking uphill, as it was also more shady. After an interesting bit following a riverbed upstream, there seemed to be two ways up, a steep straight one and a longer easier one doing a kind of loop. We thought to be already a bit late (7pm…sic) so we chose the steeper one. It went fine but was a bit challenging for some people in the group, and we could not imagine this steepness lasting til dark. Though not the steepest part, at one difficult section I had to use the rope to help people get up as the rocks were covered in soil, which would constantly fall off. Not cool during the rainy season I’d imagine.
We continued our ascension until noon; an impressive range of cliffs was still ahead of us, and we were wondering which way our guides would find to make us pass these. Compared to the ones we previously found for Mount Moroto and Mount Kadam, our two guides/porters were correct: no kat chewing, no alcohol, a decent knowledge of the mountain and of good English. But it was just impossible to get a proper answer from them when it came to water sources (extremely important especially at this time of the year) or even how far the summit was. At some point the two of them were doubting about the presence of water on top of the mountain, after having assured us for the last 3 hours that “it is there”. They then told us that it was there indeed but far, without being able to tell us more about it than “very late”. This became very frustrating for everyone, and the whole group asking more and more questions was probably confusing the guides even more; better letting one or two members of the group only taking part of the discussion.
So we were not so sure about the water anymore, but deep in the mountain already, so we still decided to go on. At 1.30 we stopped for a short lunch break pretty much at the middle of nowhere as the steep part didn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. No one said it but I’m pretty sure that everyone thought “Oh man if it stays that steep until 7pm, that’s a really challenging mountain!” After 30min our guides showed signs of agitation and told us we should move on if we didn’t want to get on top too late. The next half an hour was particularly steep, more bouldering rocks than hiking. It was perfectly doable without a rope at this time of the year (zero humidity on the rocks) but I’d highly recommend the use of one for the rainy season, on the way up and down as well. After these slightly demanding (though fun!) 30min, we got to the ridge and the summit was only an easy flat-ish hour away! We never understood this 7pm rush non-sense. From the school to the summit, it took us around 6 ½ hours even with several breaks and a time-consuming section with the rope.
The dense vegetation surrounding us during most of the steep ascent didn’t allow us to fully realize how high we were already; then on the ridge the forest turned into a vast meadow, a plateau offering majestic views on the valley. The fog caused by the heat was unfortunately hiding the 2 other big mountains (Kadam and Moroto) from us. This plateau seemed like it had its own ecosystem with vast green fields and a tiny forest where we spotted some baboons, just way greener than the plains down below. We still had this water issue. When arriving on the ridge we could see the summit on our left, a nice walk along the cliffs. Our guides told us that we ‘d maybe be able find water further on the right. We decided to all go to the summit (an hour away) and that some of us would come back with the guides, lighter backpacks, and empty bottles to go in search of water.
Approaching the summit, we came across a few tiny muddy pools, which we felt we could filter (with tabs and/or UV light) and make drinkable, saving us an uncertain hike further in the mountain. After even more exploration the guides and I found a bigger pool (4x2m) and a decent camping spot nearby. There was almost no view, but not as much clod as anywhere else on the plateau, and the water really close by was a big +; there are probably better spots though. The spot is inside a group of tiny boulders close to the forest, on your right when you’re following the edge towards the summit. I have the feeling that these water bodies are mainly the result of recent rainfalls, and should not be relied upon too much, but these pools were quite big for the end of a long dry season! There were very many black frogs in them as well.
We got to the top at 3pm; we had all afternoon to chill, sleep, start putting up the tents, organizing the water filtering, preparing fire and our dinner… The classic whiskey sunset was cloudy but still beautiful and so were the stars later on, as the moon didn’t show up until late. No matter how hot it is in the plains, it is always a bit chillier at night when you get to 2800+m elevation. Napak is no exception, and even if the wind was less aggressive than on Moroto, extra layers, campfire and diverse alcoholic beverages were much appreciated.
After a beautiful but also a bit too misty sunrise, we slowly set off down the mountain. After the unavoidable bouldering session that we all carefully (either down climbing or bum sliding) descended, we chose to take the longer way down, less steep and also more scenic, along the cliffs and passing by a few huts, most remote but with the most scenic view on the plains below on one side, and on the majestic cliffs above on the other side. As our objective (the blue roofs of the school) seemed closer and closer, the heat was getting worse and worse. We got to the school around noon, completely dehydrated, and after having thanked and payed guides and parking guards, we decided to skip lunch to escape from this furnace!