Africa's Other Mountains
Our hike begins with a stop at the ranger station in Budadiri, a small village whose two-digit telephone exchange seems completely sufficient for the entire population.
Word of our arrival precedes us, and we are greeted by a small man who introduces himself as Milton, our guide. After telling him that we plan a traverse of the entire mountain (rather than the more usual up-and-down to the summit and back), Milton disappears to select the "strongest porters" to carry our packs. A few minutes later, he returns with Alex, Francis, and Wilson.
A short negotiation establishes our agreement. We will provide and cook our own food; they will provide and cook theirs. We will make and strike our own camps; they will carry our packs. Milton, being the guide, will carry only his own gear and his share of the porters' communal food (which, incidentally, includes a live chicken).
The porters heft our packs, somehow deciding among themselves who will carry what. Alex, a tall, thin assistant guide who speaks good English, takes mine. Francis, short, sturdy, and silent, takes Dan's. We spend some time showing them the super-high-tech, top-of-the-line suspension systems with adjustable frames, padded hip belts, and doohickeys that let you change whether the weight falls on your shoulders or your hips. They pay attention and nod politely, but when we start walking, only Alex seems remotely interested. Francis and Wilson hoist the packs onto their heads and take off faster than I will ever be able to hike, with or without a pack. Francis, I note with surprise, is walking barefooted.
The climb gently rises through the outskirts of the village, where we pass a series of mud huts with thatched roofs. Our arrival is cause for great excitement, especially among the six-and-under set who shriek, "hello, hello," or sometimes, "goodbye! goodbye!" "Malembe!" we reply, the local greeting. Despite the high hopes of the Mount Elgon Porters and Guides Association, it seems that tourism here is far from an everyday occurrence.
Milton takes about a dozen parties a year up the mountain, rotating in turn with the other guides. What work does he do when he is not guiding tourists? we ask. "I am a peasant," he says.
After a few hours, the route leaves the farmland and villages and enters the forest where we face our first obstacle, the ominously named Wall of Death, a rickety contraption of wooden ladders that leads up the Mudangi cliffs. Compared to the blazing heat in the farmland, the air in the forest is damp, cool, and quiet. I am surprised at the absence of biting insects; somehow, I had supposed that an African rain forest would be abuzz with them. Instead, the only sound (with the exception of my heavy breathing) is the soft clattering of bamboo in the breeze. We see a pair of women coming downhill carrying loads of bamboo on their heads that make our packs look like pocketbooks. "What do they do with it?" I asked. Milton responded with a long list: You can use bamboo for construction, baskets, granary storage, supports for banana plants during the windy season, pipes for water, firewood, food, roofing, for stakes for peas, tomatoes, beans-and (lest we think life was all work and no play) for making flutes.
The list is interrupted by a sudden rustling in the trees: "Blue monkeys," said Milton. His eyes are more acute than ours; we do not see the shadowy forms until he points to them. Then we watch as they soar from branch to branch, agile as circus acrobats, but with no need of a safety net.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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