So this is how it went down. We jumped on to the UWA bus to hit the road to Kisoro. Everybody was happy it was a day time trip as we would get to take in the scenery on the approach to Kisoro. Mountain Slayers Kenya was already up on Sabyinyo that very day alongside a smaller group of 7 MSU hikers who were on a 3-mountain challenge that weekend, i.e. Muhavura, Sabyinyo and Mgahinga. This early party was 18-strong. Their grueling pursuit was not the kind of thing one does for Facebook likes but it is the stuff street cred is made of. As Agasha put it, “the best bad decision I ever made.” With another 47 hikers on the bus then, this was the biggest group to-date, both for an MSU trip and probably for Sabyinyo too.
Anyway, while the advance team was slogging it out, the rest of us were toasting to Maik Voet’s birthday on the way to Kisoro. The Coconut Waragi was broken out, free dubs sent the birthday boy’s way, and where there was no cake we ate gonja, roasted maize and Uncle J’s mangoes. The journey was a breeze. Arrival time: 9.30pm. By this time, the advance party was back in camp, with the Kenyans shaking off the exhaustion and waiting to track gorillas the following day while the Ugandans were preparing to assault Mgahinga on the last leg of their 3-mountain challenge. We caught up with this group briefly before letting them turn in for the night. We then quickly pitched camp in the drizzle and made for the dinner table.
The morning of the hike:
The briefing before the hike was comprehensive, covering everything from safety to keeping the park clean. Quick group photo and off we went. The morning sun was warm on the skin and the light a soft glow that made for beautiful photography. The air was still but fresh. It was one of those mornings that inspired one to hold a brief conversation with the sun, the trees and the birds in the air. It was a beautiful day to hike. The starting point quickly opened out to an open grass patch with views of bamboo forest in the foreground and the jagged cone of the mountain seemingly not far away from where stood. As we edged closer to the tree line, however, the first signs that we were not alone in this picturesque paradise began to show on the trail. What looked like cow dung was soon deduced to be buffalo excrement, the investigators having been guided by two clues;
a) how could cows get into a gazetted park that is a fair distance from the nearest community?
b) the texture of the stool was too viscous to be consistent with that of a cow.
These findings were filed for later reference. Farther forays into the bamboo zone revealed gigantic animal footprints the size of two fully grown men’s feet (that’s four feet). These were unmistakably elephant tracks. The massive beasts had made no effort to hide their spoor. And why should they? It turns out the trail through the bamboo zone follows an ancient one created by the elephants themselves from thousands of years inhabiting this virgin forest. We were certainly the trespassers here. That little motivation to beat it fast did not stop us admiring the beauty of the bamboo forest though. There is something calming about these forests. The straight poles seem to draw out all the negative energy and dissipate it away from your head leaving nothing but pure bliss. You never want the bamboo zone to end.
After almost 30 minutes, we arrived at the first hut. We made a brief stop to shed some layers of warm clothing as it quickly dawned on us that all that brisk walking was generating enough heat to keep the body warm. Dora was calling a timeout already. This was going to be a long day. The hike up to the next resting hut became quickly steeper from here on. Makeshift ladders made of logs nailed together became an increasingly common feature. It was still early days but the group had already begun to string out into ever smaller units. Brothers Ibra and Elijah somehow kept their composure and lifted the spirits of those around them with an endless supply of banter. One could have sworn that they were fueled by banned substances. Hut 2 came and went in a flash, the terrain held its ground and thankfully so did the weather, save for a few cloudy moments spoiling beautiful views.
The human habitats at the foot of the mountain were now beginning to show through a forest of the old man’s beard trees far below where we stood. Silver crater lakes on the Rwandese side of the border added spectacle to the horizon. Mountains Muhavura and Mgahinga coyly peeped out of their cloud cover right next to us. It was hard to escape the fact that we had gained so much altitude in such a short time.
The first group reached Peak 1 after 4 hours. The rest of the splinter groups followed on in waves. You see, Sabyinyo is a mountain with about 5 peaks that give it its name (the old man’s teeth). Getting to any one of them is a commendable achievement. It was therefore not a strange sight to find some limping on the trail. Fay was clutching at straws when she screamed out her bestie’s name chastising them for abandoning her in pursuit of their own glory. If anybody else was suffering, they kept it to themselves quite well.
The uplifting thing about Peak 1 is that once you get there, it is pretty much done. Peak 2 is only 30 minutes away and then it’s one last assault on the main objective, Peak 3, which stands between 3 countries. But just when you think you are done, Sabyinyo throws you the mother of all surprises. The trail to peaks 2 and 3 requires one to descend and ascend steeply, and do this twice. The near-vertical steep ascents are only made possible by fixed ladders. Without these, it would take a mammoth task requiring technical climbing skills to scale the third peak especially.
The ascent of these ladders was testament that the universe will always fall in love with a stubborn heart. Herbert, who hitherto had a self-confessed phobia for heights, scaled the ladders without causing a scene. The third peak of Sabyinyo will live long in his memory as it marked his first successful summiting of a mountain. Aba was the other seasoned hiker to record a first summiting as he defied his demons with the cold weather to show up at 3669m ASL in only a polo shirt for warmth. Anita and the power puff girls (Dav, Nayah and Jovi) defied the rangers’ orders to turn back as they were late for a daylight descent. These hard-headed girls (and only one of them is a Mukiga) rocked up at the summit oblivious of the price they were about to pay on the way down. Old faithful Fundi was waiting at the summit handing out sliced pineapple on an as-stock-lasts basis.
All in all, 39 0ut of 47 hikers made Peak 3 while only 2 did not make Peak 1. That was a very impressive summit rate, more so given the toughness of this journey.
Down and out:
The Baganda have a saying that loosely translates to: when you give chase to another man, you should reserve enough energy in case you have to run back when the object of your pursuit turns on you.
When Sabyinyo turned its wrath back on the hiking pack on the way down, it spared few. It turns out that descending a steep mountain can drain one’s legs more than the ascent. The quad muscles tighten up and the knees take a thorough beating. The eyes strain from concentration as darkness sets in and ladders become treacherous, slowing down progress. The casualty count began to mount as more hikers limped through the pain. With nightfall setting in and the local wildlife on every one’s mind, there was hardly a chance to catch a breath. It was a relief then when the rangers forced two tactical breaks, one at the front and the other at the back in order to rearrange the splintered groups into two for safety. And not long after that, the decision paid off when the ranger in the leading pack fired a shot to scare off a buffalo that had come too close to the trail. Some pseudo experts on matters of ammunition argued that the shot was in fact a blank that was a result of the ranger replacing a magazine that had slipped out by mistake. But a juicy rumour is more exciting than an unsubstantiated fact so the latter opinion was thrown out with a majority vote of 20 to 1. That shot also served to energise les invalides -the disabled- as everyone scrambled around the man with the golden gun. Predictably, everybody kept pace after that, undeterred by injury or the presence of fresh elephant spoor on the trail. What had seemed like a set of complex tasks moments before that was now reduced to exiting safely and worrying about the group at the trail end later. The leading pack eventually made it back to camp at sunset. The trailing pack also made it out safely albeit a further 4 hours behind. And with all 47 hikers finally accounted for, we settled around a fire for warmth, dinner and massage for some. Whatever pains had troubled us on the trail, everybody was in high spirits. It had been worth the trouble.