So just a disclaimer, while this is probably the most interesting blog post I've written, it's also pretty long. So make some tea, grab a sandwich and enjoy! Alright, one Friday afternoon, Leandra and I, and two of the American medicine students, Adriene and Marty, all hopped in a van to head to Kisoro for the weekend to climb a volcano and conquer nature! Seems simple enough, right? Well, keep reading.
The two hour drive to Kisoro boasts to be one of the most beautiful in Uganda, as it allows us to travel alongside Lake Bunyonyi and through the hilly and mountainous countryside. The volcano we were planning on hiking, Muhavura, is the tallest in the mountain range, and stands along the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. On the drive we passed a section of land covered in row upon row of canvas, army-like tents. Lilian, who works for Kihefo, and helped organize this trip for us, explained that it was a refugee camp, for people fleeing the Congo, and formerly for those coming from Rwanda during the genocide. It was a sobering feeling, and a good reminder of the severe turbulence that continues to occur
When we arrived at our hostel, it was already dark and had started raining; some of the first rain we had seen since arriving – as it was now the dry season. Maybe it was the weather and time of day, or the refugee camp, or the fact that we were staying about 8km from the Congo border, but there was a bit of an eerie feeling in the air, and as if we were in a different country altogether.
Our alarm went off shortly after 5am and by six, we were on our way to the volcano, just a short distance away. Oh, and also it continued to rain throughout the night and into the morning. But we figured it should stop soon, as even in the rainy season, it never lasts longer than an hour or two. Besides, according to Lilian, who spoke to the traditional healer, the rain would stop shortly into our hike. Yeah. . . right.
After hiking up to the base camp, we had a quick orientation and met our guide while we waited for the other hikers to arrive. We were told
it would be about an eight hour hike; five hours up and three hours down. Give or take. Maybe the rain turned them off, but the others never showed up so it would end up just being the four of us, our guide and a couple porters. And off we went! We were told to be really quiet and speak softly so not to scare off any animals and lucky for us we caught a glimpse of deer in the bushes and heard some near-by gorillas.
The terrain at the beginning was former farmland, which was still quite thick forest but eventually turned into dense rainforest as we climbed higher. About 20-30 minutes into the hike, my calves were already burning! Jesus, there was no way I was going to be able to climb this stupid volcano. The incline wasn't incredible yet, but the four of us were already tired and struggling to breath, due to the altitude. Let's just make it to the first (of two) rest points, we thought. In the first half hour we had to take about three breaks just to catch our breaths, but eventually, somehow, our bodies adapted to the trek
and the altitude, and everything became easier. I don't really understand it, but the first half hour was the most difficult part of the climb up (key word: “up”). By the first rest point, we were all pretty tried, but I thought, “ok, this isn't so bad anymore. I can definitely manage the rest of this.” Marty asked the guides, “is the rest of the hike like this? Does it get easier?” They laughed out loud, “no, it gets much harder.” Well, shit.
Shockingly, the traditional healer was wrong and it continued to rain lightly, but the forest canopy above us provided some shelter, and all the movement kept our bodies warm. At the rest stop we had a snack and layered on more clothes, as the air gets much colder as you climb. We cooled off rapidly after stopping for only a few minutes, so we continued on quickly. The hike between the first and second rest stop was amazing! The trees were incredible and although it was wet and cold, the mist in the air looked like something out of a movie. I really wish pictures could capture the beauty that was surrounding us!
A couple hours later we would make it to the second rest stop. Here it really began to get cold. . . freezing cold! So cold, Marty's lips were a nice shade of purple. By now the terrain had switched again from rainforest to savannah so we no longer had the trees to protect us from the wind and rain. Despite the intense cold, it was pretty incredible to look down on the clouds with both feet on the ground. After another very short break, we continued the hike. At this point, I started to think again that I couldn't do it. Not only was I freezing and exhausted, but I was starting to really feel the effects of the altitude; a headache was coming on, I was light headed and having trouble breathing. I really found myself having to talk myself into why I should keep climbing. Later, I found out I wasn't the only one on the trip giving themselves little peptalks. We were so close to the top at this point, that we didn't want to back down now. As my body slowly started to warm up, I began to feel ok again. The terrain
was progressively getting more and more difficult, with the ground becoming rocky as the savannah turned to jungle. There were climbing ladders covering sections of the ground and up the sides of rocky cliffs. . . crawling down these in a few hours is going to be hell.
Only another 45 minutes the guides would tell us. . . an hour comes and goes. Only 20 more minutes to the top. . . 30 minutes comes and goes. Then FINALLY! We reached the top! We were so exhausted we collapsed in the mud surrounding the mouth of the volcano, which has now become a small lake since the volcano was no longer active. Suddenly, the clouds gathered above our heads and it started pouring. Absolute downpour! We didn't even move; we just sat there in the pouring rain. Of course, within five minutes of being at the top this would happen. Thanks Mother Nature. And then the hail started. Well it doesn't look like we'll be having our lunch anytime soon. It was still freezing, and now we were soaked to the bone, so we quickly snapped a couple photos (thank god for water-proof cameras) and turned
around to make our descent. I don't know how to express how cold we were, but freezing to death does not even come close. This was literally the coldest I have ever been, and on top of it I was drenched. Even my shoes were filled with water. Marty's once purple lips, were now blue. Our bodies were stiff from the cold, making all movement difficult. All our hands were completely numb, and we had to keep them exposed to grip our precious hiking sticks, which I kept dropping because I couldn't feel my fingers. I even tried switching, and holding the cane in my left hand just so I could stuff my right in my pocket and pump it, to get the blood to flow into my fingers again.
Now, other than the hypothermia-inducing cold, you'd think climbing down would be easier, since there was no incline, so it should be less physically demanding. Right? Well, maybe it would have been had it not been pouring. But now the entire volcano was one gigantic Slip-and-Slide. Each one of us took turns wiping out again, and again, and again. I swear, and this no exaggeration, there was
not a ten foot stretch of that path that one of us didn't fall on. Leandra started counting how many times she fell, but lost count. . . when she was still at the top of the mountain. We all ended up busting a gut and laughing as we each toppled over, time and time again. The string of profanities coming out of our mouths as we took turns sliding on our asses in the mud would be enough to make Gordon Ramsey blush.
I was trying so hard to control my balance and not fall, but the battle was utterly futile. Still near the top of the mountain, I was sliding down the muddy path attempting to keep one foot in front of the other, and suddenly I started to slip. I tried to regain my footing, but ended up just collecting momentum, and in turn start stumbling down the mountain. As quickly as I began to fall, my feet flew out from under me. I slammed into the ground and felt immense pain in my lower back. F*ck me, I'm hurt. Ok, I need to stop and assess the situation. Nothing is broken. I don't
think I'm bleeding. This is a good sign. I looked behind me to see the log that broke my fall and tried to pulverize my tailbone. Marty, Leandra and one of the porters run up to me. Apparently, my fall looked pretty epic. They tried to help me up but I needed a moment. Holy shit, was I sore. I slowly collected myself and got back on my feet. Time to continue down this mountain that is trying to kill me. My fall was a bit of reality check for all of us. Even though I was able to laugh about it, it could have been much more serious. What if I broke my leg? How the hell would I get down? I was a lot more careful as I continued; one more bad fall and the rest of the hike might be ugly.
Well, now I'm freezing cold, soaked, exhausted, AND in pain. I think it's time to start contemplating my options here. I can either a) continue down this bitch of a volcano for another five hours only to progressively feel worse as I go, or b) curl up and die, allowing Mother Nature to
have her way with me. Honestly, there were many times option “b” was a lot more appealing.
Marty and Adriene were walking just ahead of me. Suddenly, Marty slips again, does a hop to try to regain balance and now is unintentionally running down the path, right along the edge of a cliff. Oh god, this looks bad. As she's falling, she grabs onto Adriene, nearly knocking her down and off the path, but this doesn't stop her as she continues running straight towards the edge. Somehow, she manages to grip her feet just in time, with her body leaning over the edge and arms flailing in circles to keep herself from falling over. One more step and she would have been launched off the cliff, head first. How she didn't go over at that moment I have no idea. Reality check #2.
By this point we're all a little battered and bruised, and our legs are continuing to grow more and more tired. We had to use so much more focus on remaining stable because of the slippery rocks and mud, only exhausting ourselves more. My legs turned to rubber, and my knees
began buckling every few steps. All the laughter from the beginning of the trek down had now stopped, and we became silent so we could focus on each and every step. I can not stress how exhausted our legs were at this point. We literally did not have enough strength left in our lower body to remain standing. One small slip, or slightly off step and you went down; there was no muscle left to prevent the fall. My legs were drunk. First our knees ached, and then our ankles grew sore from rolling them on all the rocks. Plus side, the ache in my legs helped me to forget the throbbing pain in my tailbone.
As we were climbing down we met a group of five other trekkers; only one of which made it to the top of the mountain! The other four gave up by the first rest stop. Well, despite how terrible our bodies were feeling at that point, it felt pretty damn good that we were able to go all the way up. Or perhaps, that just shows how stupid and stubborn we were to continue?
I must say, thank
god for our porters! They had to help each of us as our legs continued to give out below us on almost every step, saving us from breaking a leg on the slippery ladders. As they talked to each other in the local language I wondered what they said about us. We must have appeared as quite the mess; four drowned rats, drunk from the waist down, with snot running down our faces. In all fairness I tried to wipe it off once, but only managed to smear mud across my face. You know things are starting to get pretty rough when you say you have to pee and your hike-mates tell you, “just go, man. Your pants are soaked, no one would even know.” For the record, I peed behind a bush, but I can't confirm that's the case for everyone. Also, a tip from Leandra: don't squat in a burr bush otherwise they will cover the entire inside of your pants.
Just as our bodies were nearing collapse we were told we were only 20 minutes away from the base camp. OH MY GOD, I might live to eat another chapatti! At the bottom of
the volcano, the path winds up and down, allowing my legs to sober up on inclines, but with any downwards movement they would be white girl wasted again.
Finally, we saw the light at the end of the forest! Base camp!! We arrived, and thanked our porters for saving our lives and we slowly dragged our bodies down to where Lilian was waiting for us with open arms. After about 11 hours we were finally finished. It took us an extra three hours to get down due to the dangerously muddy conditions, but we did it!
On our way back to the hotel Lilian told us that approximately only 30% of the people who start the climb make it all the way to the top, with many giving up by the first rest stop. She didn't want to tell us that earlier, for fear that we might also give up knowing that most others had. Maybe she exaggerated, but it still made me feel pretty damn proud I made it. Back at the hotel we took a lukewarm shower (the heater wasn't working), and collapsed in our beds.
Adriene and Marty
went back to Kihefo after the hike, but Leandra and I stayed one more night, with the original plan being to do another hike the next day. Well, I'm sure you can guess, but plans changed halfway up the volcano.
We woke the next morning, feeling like we got hit by a bus, and I had a nice black bruise above my tailbone. The sun was also shining brightly, as it had every single other day we had been in Africa. Mother Nature just had to get one more dig in. The hike option was obviously out, as we could barely walk, but since we stayed the night we still wanted to do something fun and touristy, that required no physical activity, before heading back home. So we decided to visit the Congo border! Sorry Mom and Dad, I know I promised to stay away from the Congo, but it was right there, and I was curious! After stopping to take a couple photos, we quickly hopped back into the car, with the radio playing some classic '90's Backstreet Boys, and we made our way back to Kihefo, safe and sound.
That's all, hope
you enjoyed my pain! Bye for now! 😊
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