Mountains of the Moon
August 4, 2006
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part article on the Mountains of the Moon in Africa. The first part focused on the history and lore of the Rwenzori range, and this part concerns the author’s own trip to the area in 1990.
After our trip to Pakistan, Jaccoux decided that he wanted to continue this kind of adventure travel so he created a company called Jaccoux Voyages. There was an annual catalog. I even signed up for some trips to Nepal and Tibet. The 1989 catalog contained the unexpected news that Jaccoux had been to the Mountains of the Moon with a group and was organizing a second trip. This caught my attention and brought back memories of Ullman’s book and my teenage resolution. I decided to look into the matter further. Jaccoux informed me that he had indeed been to the Mountains of the Moon via Uganda and that the trek up to the mountains themselves was awful. He said that an entire day had been spent going through the bog with no significant gain in altitude. In desperation, on the way down he tried to make his own route through the jungle, which was even worse. One thing he did discover was that there were no dangerous animals or even bad insects – no poisonous snakes and no mosquitoes. This sounded good. He also said that once you reached the high camp you could more or less walk onto the glacier – now known as the Stanley Plateau – which made the ascent of the mountains in the Stanley group rather straightforward. But under no circumstances was he going to do that walk up again. Instead, he proposed to go by way of the Congo – Zaire as it was called then – to follow Stuhlman’s route. He had learned that this was, while not trivial, substantially easier than the one he had taken in Uganda. This was the good news. The bad news, he said, was that getting from the high camp onto the Stanley Plateau was not easy and required some significant technical ice climbing. The high camp was at the snout of the glacier and the retreat of the ice had made this part of the climb fairly difficult. I was, at the time I learned this, not of an age where I was still contemplating difficult ice climbing, But at least getting to the mountains would be something. I said I was interested in going.
The first thing I did was to buy “Guide to the Ruwenzori” by H.A. Osmaston and D. Pasteur. This wonderful pocket-sized book was published in 1972. It contains a brief history of the climbs in the range as well as detailed descriptions of the various routes and treks. I rapidly found Jaccoux’s proposed trek. The first couple of sentences looked very promising. “This is a good and direct route which mainly follows ridges and so avoids the bogs which are so prevalent in the Ruwenzori, besides offering some fine views from the upper parts.” There was a day-by-day description of the four days that it seemed to require to get to the base of the glacier. There was also a map that showed a trail to something called Moraine Hut at the base of the glacier at 14,149 feet. I decided that this would be my objective. Just before I left New York for Paris, Jaccoux called to say that he would not be able to make the trip himself but that he was sending two guides, one of whom had lived and climbed in Africa for several years and the other had made this same trek the year before. He also explained what we would be doing. We would fly from Paris to Brussels and then from Brussels to Kigali in Rwanda. Then we would cross the border into Zaire and spend a night in Goma, followed by a very difficult three-day drive of some 240 miles north to the town of Beni. We would then go the 30-odd miles to the village of Mutsora, which was the headquarters of the Ruwenzori part of the Virunga Park. Here we would get our park permits, porters and a local guide and begin the trek. As I write this I am aware that none of this trip is possible now, nor in any future that I can foresee. This entire area is a tinderbox of armed conflict. I looked on the web for trips to the Ruwenzori and, while I found several offered from Uganda, not one was offered from the Congo. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the world, and it is lost. After an interminable flight from Brussels we landed in Kigali, where it was raining. This was supposed to be the dry season. The drive to the border at Giseyni on excellent paved roads was a delight largely because of the scenery, the rolling hills on which Kigali is built. The date was Jan. 1, 1990, and I wrote in my travel diary of Rwanda naively that it “seems to be a country that works.” Four years later all that worked was the genocide. Crossing the border in Zaire was a nightmare. Under other circumstances it might have been comic. For some reason the border guards demanded my height. I gave it in feet and inches, but they insisted that it be in meters and centimeters. They decided that my height was 1 meter and .25 centimeters. I did not argue. We had to carry our gear across the border where a second bus was waiting. I was immediately struck by the fact that the roads had dramatically deteriorated once one got into Zaire. They would get worse and worse as we headed north. Our first night was spent in the Masques Hôtel in Goma on the shores of Lake Kivu, another beautiful place that is lost. At the hotel I had a surprise. The proprietor was a striking-looking fellow who did not seem quite European or quite Congolese. I was introduced to him for some reason as a physicist. Much to my amazement he said that his uncle had won a Nobel Prize. The explanation, it turned out, was that there were two brothers, Ilya and Alexander Prigogine. They were born in Russia and left with their family just after the revolution. They finally settled in Belgium. Their father was a chemical engineer, so both brothers decided to study chemistry. Ilya stayed with it and won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1977. His older brother Alexander went to the Congo, where he became an expert on the local birds. It was his son who owned the Masques Hôtel.
The next morning we headed north in a Japanese minibus that might have functioned well in Tokyo but not on these roads, which were in a state of total disrepair. There were giant potholes and gaping ruts. At one point when we were crossing the equator – there was a sign that said “equator” – the bus gave out altogether. It took an entire afternoon to get fixed. We had a scheduled meeting the next morning with the local people who had been hired to help us with our trek so we had no choice except to drive at night, which on these roads was a form of insanity. When we got to Beni it turned out that there was a small airport. We could have done the whole trip in less than an hour. From Beni we headed east to Mutsora – Stanley country. We were now following his route when he came south from Lake Alexander with the Emin Pasha. Stanley had his first view of the mountains from the village of Mutwanga, just a few miles from Mutsora. When we got there it was twilight and the mountains were fully visible. They began to glow in the sunset. It was a remarkable sight. Because of the terrain, once we started our trek we would not see them for the next three days.
The trek proper started the next day from Mutwanga. We had to purchase our park permits, which were then $40 per person plus a camera fee. We also arranged for porters. There were six of us, including the guides, but to carry all the mountaineering equipment and tents required 14 porters and their own guide, whose function was never clear. Each porter, who earned about $3 a day, was able to carry about 40 pounds, mostly on their heads. Each of us was allotted 30 pounds of gear, carefully weighed, to be carried by porters. Anything else we would carry. I decided that all I would carry was a water bottle, iodine tablets for the water, a small pharmacy and a light rain jacket. The first day I planned to walk in shorts and then a track suit when the terrain got more difficult.I am always interested in how a trek like this begins. Where do you take the first steps? Ours began on the streets of Mutwanga, outside the park, then it crossed the Mutwanga River and rose gently on a broad trail through cultivated fields of coffee and cassava. The first hut, the Kalongi, was at 7,000 feet. It was in the park. Once one left the cultivated fields and entered the park the trail got much steeper. I began sweating profusely but saved myself from total dehydration by buying a wonderful selection of the thirst-quenching local fruit, including a pineapple that tasted like ambrosia. By late afternoon we arrived at the hut, which turned out to be brand new with newly built bunk beds on which we could put our sleeping bags. I was tired, but not totally exhausted. I knew from the guide book that the following day was going to be very difficult. The next hut is called the Muhungu. It is at nearly 11,000 feet, which meant we had a 4,000-foot altitude gain. The first thing that happened was that the trail dropped very sharply down to the Kanyamwamba stream. By sharply, I mean sharply. Fortunately, someone had put a rope in place so that one could, more or less, rappel down. The other side of the stream was equally vertical but there was another set of ropes in place up which one could drag oneself. This got us onto a steep ridge and after some climbing there was a flat place to rest, where the whole group assembled. I figured that we had gone up about a thousand feet, leaving 3,000 to go. But the altitude gain was the least of it. We then hit the bog. I have no idea what the British guide was talking about, but this was real bog. It was awful. Each time you put your foot in, it sank with a terrible sucking sound. Your foot then landed on slimy rock, making it very hard to keep your balance. While groping my way through this I encountered a large fellow who turned out to be an American who had been in the Peace Corps and was now working for a local institution that maintained the trails and the huts. It was he that was responsible for putting in the rope we had used below. I cannot imagine the state of the trails now. By the time I got to the hut I was so tired that I immediately fell asleep.
The next day began with still more bog. While slogging through this, I encountered an immaculately dressed British couple coming down. They gave me the happy news that there was only an hour more of bog and then I would find a “flat bit.” The flat bit turned out to be Stuhlman’s old “bottle camp.” The Kyondo hut, the last major hut on this route, was only 700 feet higher so I went directly there. The view of the Margherita, summit of the Mount Stanley group, from the Kyondo hut is one of the marvels of the Ruwenzori. I would have been happy to stay there, but it was not our final destination for the day. We were now going down to camp beside a small lake – the Lac Gris – from which the climbers were going to try to get on the glacier the next day (I planned to head for the Moraine Hut). To get down to the lake required something of a rock climb. I had not done any for awhile so I found it somewhat dicey, even roped up to one of our guides. The porters used a fixed cable. From the bottom it was an easy walk to the lake. I have never seen a more beautiful place.One of the things that you find along the way are the giant lobelias and groundsels, which are a feature of these equatorial African mountains. This bizarre vegetation starts at about 13,000 feet and persists for something like a thousand feet. These enormous plants have evolved to meet the special climatic conditions you find at high altitude near the equator. During each 24 hours they go through an entire summer-winter cycle. At night the water in them freezes, and then thaws when the Sun comes out. In the freezing part of the cycle the plant cannot use the water within it because it is too viscous to circulate. This does not matter at night because the loss of water through the leaves is shut down because the leaves close. But during the day, the plant must be able to transpire. The leaves open and close with the light. It is the weird giant shapes that provide insulation for the plants. Some of the groundsels can grow to be 20 or 30 feet high. Until you get used to them they are uncanny. We pitched our tents by the lake. The climbers were going to get up before sunrise. I was going to wait until it got warmer. Miraculously, apart from the first day in Rwanda, we had had no rain. The next morning was bright and clear. I had a leisurely breakfast after the climbers had left, and then headed up the stony moraine on what looked like a trail. The mountains were out in all their glory to one side. On the other, there was the green of the Congo stretching to the horizon. I climbed to where I could see the Moraine Camp cabin. I decided that I had gone far enough. I had fulfilled a childhood dream.