Thursday, 30 January 2014

Ruwenzori #1: Different Kinds of Epics

Mountains come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are short and gentle day hikes that can divert your attention from an otherwise busy week and help you to unwind on a weekend.  Some are challenging, but you can still get a nice view of the town that you are living or staying in from the summit.  Ruwenzori is neither of these.

Epics also come in all sizes and varieties.  Usually, when you hear the word "EPIC!" used to describe a climb, it means an adventure that  was stunning and awesome and you want to get out and do it again.  Climbers also use "epic" to refer to a situation that became really and unexpectedly complicated in a hurry and turned a straightforward day in a far more difficult adventure, but it's OK because you got through it anyways and it's time to celebrate now.  "Dude, that was an epic!"  "We seriously epiced on that climb when the rains hit and we dropped one of the ropes!"  It connotes something that's simultaneously adventure-cool and terrifying.

Mt. Kenya was the first kind of epic.  Ruwenzori was the second.

I feel I should state at the outset that, despite the problems we encountered, Uganda is a naturally beautiful place that has a lot of areas that are worth visiting.  The country has had a rough recent history (see below), but recently it has begun to seriously reopen to tourism and to welcome people.  Kampala/Entebbe is busy, but a generally friendly and well put-together city.  If the lack of barbed wire-topped walls surrounding all of the buildings (even President Museveni's home) is any indication, it has less violent crime than Nairobi.  The country's periphery is less put-together, but it's suffered a greatly more traumatic history than Uganda's center.

Hearing the word "Congo" doesn't normally bring images of mountains, glaciers, or snowfall to mind.  At best, most people will think of gorillas, the rainforest, and misty hills inhabited by only a few hardy people that know how to survive in the dense, tropical forest.  At worst, people will think of the First and Second Congo Wars of the 1990s and 2000s, during which some of the most devastating, brutal, and perverse fighting of the twentieth century occurred.  The Ruwenzoris form an enormous physical barrier that separates Uganda from the endless violence of the D.R. Congo's North Kivu province.

The journey just to reach the town that Ruwenzori trips are launched from shows you the mountain's remoteness all by itself.  Uganda has a good road and bus system, but it takes about seven hours by bus to travel from Kampala, the capitol of Uganda on Lake Victoria, to Kasese, the last major town in Uganda.  Once you get past the suburbs of Kampala, Ugandan towns get small and spread-out in a hurry.  From Kasese, it would only take you about half an hour to drive into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) if the Ruwenzori Range were not blocking your path.  To get to the trailhead, it takes about 15-20 minutes by car over very rough dirt roads through small farming villages.  You start the drive in the valley below the Ruwenzoris, but you spend most of it driving down a road lined with banana farms.

Uganda is actually as densely populated and relatively prosperous as it is in large part because of the banana.  Apparently, Ugandans began cultivating the fruit, which is originally from southern Asia, around a thousand years ago.  Ugandans became so good at it that it formed one of their staple food crops.  Over the years, they have created more than sixty different banana varieties, including some that are so sweet that they're like squishy little candies.  A bunch of them costs about 2,000 UGX, or US$0.80.  Uganda's Shillings are colorful and interesting, usually featuring the country's iconic wildlife, but a major purchase requires a brick of 50,000 UGX notes (starring the gorilla).  If you bring $400, you can enjoy the temporary sensation of being a millionaire.

[Actually, that's a good idea.  Kasese is a reasonably large and developed town, but the banking services are still limited and the exchange rates get worse the further you get from Kampala.  Should you ever find yourself in rural Uganda, bring some extra cash.]

As the area's location would suggest, it's no stranger to violence.   Uganda was one of the major belligerents in the Congo wars, when it helped to overthrow famous and hated Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.  Later, when Mobutu's replacement didn't please Uganda and its allies, they tried replacing him, then conquering, colonizing, and stripmining the eastern part of the DRC.  For a variety of reasons, the eastern DRC, especially the North and South Kivu provinces (which share a border with Uganda), are a violent mire of strained and complex race relations.  Uganda itself is more of a polyethnic confederation than it is a country.  Uganda is made of several different kingdoms that the British lumped together during colonization.  The country centers around the Buganda Kingdom, which holds much of the nation's political and military power.  The outlying kingdoms don't like this and have a tense relationship with the Buganda, to say the least.  They have a long history of vicious and vengeance-laden warfare.  There have been a lot of different separatist movements, notably Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Just to add to this, one of the world's worst AIDS outbreaks occurred in Uganda in the 1980s and 1990s.  The country's infection rate reached about 15% in the 1990s.  Since then, health efforts, including those by the EGPAF, have lowered the infection rate back to the single digits, but it's still pretty bad.

In this context exists the Bakonjo Kingdom.  Its people are ethnically distinct from the rest of Uganda, but their kingdom has only been recently recognized by Uganda's government.  Historically, it occupied the entire area surrounding the Ruwenzori Mountains.  It's now divided between Uganda and the DRC.  It spent around 40 years actively fighting for separation from Uganda, including a particularly nasty phase against Idi Amin, but currently is trying to get the UN to support its separation from its parent countries.  Right now, the Ugandan side of the area is stable, but people's attitudes reflect the area's history.

When you are in Kasese and environs, you have to be patient.  People range from "unfriendly" to "overtly hostile" towards outsiders, (I assume) in large part because their history hasn't seen many friendly ones.  Tourism in the area is just experiencing a renaissance after a decade of the Congo Wars kept people away.  Most random people in the street glare and service is slow, unfriendly, and comes with grandiosely inflated prices.  Because you're an outsider, your ability to negotiate and haggle is pretty limited.  If you ever want to go, try your best to find a reliable contact in the area before leaving.  Guiding companies can provide this.  It's not about safety, it's about convenience and having someone to negotiate on your behalf.  Despite the cold reception, if you're in Kasese during daylight hours, people aren't threatening.  Even at night, it's a relatively mellow town.  We arrived at about 12:30 AM and had to catch the last motorcycle taxi of the day to where we were staying, then find a bar that was still serving food to get dinner.  Not friendly, not threatening.

If you're going to eat street food, don't watch it get cooked.  You'll see... things.  Our cook dropped some of the chicken on the ground, but fixed the problem by frying it dirt and all in a pan of boiling oil before depositing it in the bag.  Well, it was sterile.  Wiping the knife he used to cut the chicken on a filthy towel he used to handle the dirtier ground objects around his cook station also didn't add the right elements to the chicken's flavor.  But you can't be too choosey at 1 AM.

Our hotel was pretty nice.  It was clearly built for tourists who come to the area for the mountains and the other nearby parks, including some of the gorilla reserves.  It was called the White House.  All over Africa, you'll see odd name and brand appropriations by different small businesses.  I think I've seen a good half-dozen different stores called the "Facebook Somethingorother" in different countries.  I guess it's aspirational and meant to karmically bring success, like a small start-up in the US that only has clients in one town calling itself "Smith Global" or "World Trade Partners" or something.  Realizing that I'd neglected to pack toilet paper, I made a small appropriation of my own from the room.  Don't worry, I left plenty for the next guest.

We slept for a few hours, then got up at a reasonable time so that we could begin preparations for the mountain itself.  Some gear was left behind in Nairobi, so we had to get crampons and ice axes locally.  This started a small odyssey unto itself wherein I learned the value of reliable local contacts.  Our local guy knew he was our only contact and that we had no one else to assist us in getting around the area, so he used it to his full advantage.  He opened the day by trying to charge us $100 to rent the gear, which is enough to buy a good, brand new axe in the US.  We talked him down to the less outrageous $50, but this was only the start.  Later, at the park, he wanted to skim three full days' worth of our park entrance fee for his "services", but we were able to get him down to two with us paying for yet another full day of park entrance fee.  Somehow, we still ended up short of two days in the park at the park gates (I believe those days' fees went to the park itself), so we theoretically had to complete the week-long trip in five days, which is very hard.

Part of our challenge was that I had hired a Kenyan guide, rather than a local Ugandan, to do the mountain.  A very recent change to the rules treats all outside guides as tourists who have to pay full entrance fees, rather than the minimal guide entrance fees.  That ate up our entire reserve fund for the trip.  We spent the first few days of the climb sweating about how we were going to be able to tip the crew and still buy our bus tickets home.

Thankfully?, the crew was bad.  None of the other climbing teams, all of whom used local Ugandan guides, appeared to have the same problems we did.  I think the solo trip combined with the outside guide really caused problems for us.  Other countries are also apparently trying to drive away outside guides to keep the tourism money entirely within the local community.  Small numbers make you vulnerable, and when you're someplace that isn't the home of any member of your team, you kind of have to play ball, no matter how bad the other side in a negotiation is being.  The park had also just changed its rules to require guides from the Kasese-based Ruwenzori Mountaineering Services for all technical ascents, so we had to hire a local guide as well.  We planned to hire a single porter for the food and cook gear, but the park wouldn't let us in without four.  We were really sweating our dwindling money.  The standard tip for porters in the area is apparently $5/day (so about UGX 12,500/day, or UGX 300,000 for four porters for six days, plus the Ugandan guide's tip, which "should've" been another UGX 100,000; bus tickets for both of us were UGX 50,000).  My Kenyan guide had about UGX 2,000 left and I had a little over UGX 200,000.  We spent the first two days of the hike just trying to figure a way out of the mess without starting an incident, which would only be complicated if we were unable to complete the trek in the five paid days.  It ultimately took us six, and we knew it would be hard to avoid that right from the beginning.

Partially in our advantage was the bad service from our porter army.  They showed up well over three hours late (so about four hours after we'd arrived at camp) on our first day.  Between that and our transport day, we hadn't eaten a real meal in two days, so we were... tense.  Also concerned that, after being cleaned out by them and the park, they might have just not shown up and we would've had to abandon the trip.  The first thing they did when they arrived was to ask how much their tip would be at the end of the trip.  This would turn out to be a theme throughout the hike.  I told him that we'd take care of it at the end of the trip after I'd seen all the service I was going to get from them.  He warned me that the porters might not work (...they'd been paid for a week of work in full in advance) if they didn't think they'd be getting a good tip.  I told him that I'd only tip at the end after I knew what service I'd gotten.  He relented, they worked.  But the complaining and demanding of tips with the threat of dumping our gear and leaving persisted throughout the trek.

Besides being nearly out of money, it gave us a great pretext for giving them a small tip at the end.  More on that later.

Anyways, the Ruwenzoris are stunning, but you'll be venturing into an area with a rough history and a dislike of outsiders.  The mountain itself did turn out as awesome as promised.


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