A low level of laughter drifts in the air through the wood smoke as we crouch around the flickering campfire. Dotted around the fire are bits of bamboo that protrude from the ground. The sticks are sharpened to a point at one end and have chucks of beef skewered on them hanging over the open fire. The beef both absorbs the smell of the wood smoke and gives off a tantalising aroma.
Bottles of warm beer are passed around the circles while those who have learnt from experience sip of glasses of red wine poured from the box perched within arm’s reach. The sun has long since set on this small campsite in the northern tips of the Rwenzori mountains and the only light now comes from the flickering flames of the fire.
Sat around the fire are members of the Mountain Club of Uganda – a hodgepodge of people brought together by a passion for the mountains. The backdrop to this campfire is the highest mountain range in Africa – The Rwenzoris.
Sat next to me is Tom, a British ex-pat who spends his days working as a photographer for NGOs. He happily tears into the meat fresh from the fire and generously passes it around. I comment on how disappointing my oodles of noodles are in comparison and he laughs a knowing laugh as he takes a sip from his wine.
Opposite me I watch as Daivd, an American law graduate working in the Ugandan courts, chats happily with Manjit, a retired Indian British Doctor who is now volunteering in the International Hospital in Kampala. I catch their expressions in the fire light and their faces give away that they are evidently entering a conversation of substance, the sort of conversation that only occurs after a few beers when you are sat around a campfire.
People begin to pull jumpers on as the fire reduces to embers and the cool mountain air pushes the last of the day’s heat from the campsite. Most people head to their respective tents as the evening draws to a close leaving only the tough or the foolhardy passing around the Waragi. The knowledge of the next day’s walk acts as restraint for some but not all.
As I close up my tent door I listen for a few minutes to the conversation continuing between people who just 24 hours ago were strangers to each other. An ease of conversation created at least in part by the evenings consumption allows for jokes and jesting that would never have occurred elsewhere between such an eclectic group of people.
Despite the differences in age, nationality or anything else, we all there because of an unspoken timeless love affair between man and mountains.
I wake early the next morning before sunrise. The cool dew on the ground soaks into my flip flops as I stumble around half asleep making my preparations for the day’s walk. With a mixture of admiration and annoyance I meet the gentlemen who chose to stay the longest round the campfire and they look surprisingly sharp.
We collectively stumble into a convoy of cars and are driven for a couple of hours to the DRC side of the Rwenzoris from where we will trek over the Bwamba Pass back to the Fort Portal side of the mountain. Everyone sits in a dazed early morning silence as scenery slips pass the car window and we bump our way along increasingly pot holed roads.
We start our accent of nearly 1,400 meters with instant-grueling gradient. The group almost immediately splits into two as people begin to struggle in the now severe morning sun. Once again, with a mixture of admiration and annoyance, I note all of those who remained around the fire the longest striding away at the front. I sigh out loud and convince myself that I am at the back because I am being supportive to the others who were struggling with the heat and gradient.
On the way up I walk the first couple of hours with Stephanie, an American originally from Florida who now lives in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu. We meander together through agricultural land waving at the cries of the local children as we pass them. With good grace and admirable perseverance Stephanie walks up the unrelenting ascent listening to my equally unrelenting views on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
To give everyone a break from the ascent and Stephanie a break from my incessant chattering we regroup and stop for lunch. The views are breathtaking as we look down over the steep slopes onto the plains which stretch out into the Congolese rainforest. From this vantage point you can begin to see why Stanley referred the Ituri Forest as “nothing but miles and miles of endless forest.”
With stomachs filled our small group set off in the heat of mid-day sun with nothing but altitude as relief from the heat. We move out of the agricultural lands and into deep thick rainforest. Walking in these conditions is a continuous contradiction as everything is sodden in the humidity and yet the heat forces a near continuous thirst. Many began to realise that their three litres of water might not be enough to get them over the pass.
Five hours, 1,400 meters ascents and some tired looking walkers later we reach the pass surrounded by thick bamboo forest. A second wind enters the group safe in the knowledge that it is all downhill from then on.
It isn’t long though until the heavens open and hamper our progress. Heavy balls of rain hit the red earthed paths we are following and reduce them to streams of slippery clay. As I pull on my full waterproofs I watch as Manjit smiles to the sky. With a twinkle in his eye he embraces the rain in his shirt sleeves and skips through the thickening mud.
While Manjit dances his way off the mountainside, others slip and slide their way down a series of precarious paths. Red mud marks the bottoms of those who lose their grip while red faces give away that for some the decent is as hard as the way up.
Walking with now almost unrelenting rain we finish our walk on the Ugandan side of the mountain range some seven hours after we set off.
Manjit stands topless as he wrings out his sodden t-shirt while the rest of us peel off our boots. Looking back I see the cloud curl round the hills and cover the path on which we had just descended. There is no hint at how far into the cloud the path goes or how far we had just come.
This small bit of knowledge remains for those who had just walked the Bwamba Pass.
*2 photos taken from Manjit’s blog – http://manjitsuchdev.wordpress.com/ *