While scrambling to Sapitwa peak is certainly worth the effort, it is a mistake to plan a quick trek to just do so. Mount Mulanje is a place to meander, sitting by the waterfalls, cooling beer in the swimming holes, and making fires in the mountain huts under the starry nights. We spent four days and three nights trekking Mount Mulanje, and felt like we needed more time.
The beauty of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is defined by the sheer magnitude of the Western Breach, the green misty valleys of Barranco, the most massive glaciers left in Africa, and the gaping Ash Pit in the heart of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing it to gaze at these natural wonders. However, the irony is that easily over 90% of those do climb Kilimanjaro, do not see these sights. They are smitten with a climber’s disease which ranks altitude above beauty when selecting a mountain to climb, and choosing a route up it. It is quite an unfortunate mistake.
While the conditions on Erta Ale are brutal, the show is spectacular. It feels like the lake is alive, changing its moods without warning. Sometimes it flows all in one direction, down into a hole at one edge. Then a fissure in the metallic black crust will slowly pry itself open, exposing a shape like a radioactive snake. This is the time to wait and watch until hot molten, the color of the sun, leaps through the chasm like a ballerina on center stage.
It is hard to keep-up with them, as the trail climbs over a kilometer up in just over four kilometers of hiking, and it is so muddy it feels like climbing up a wall of melting chocolate ice cream. After an hour or so of scratching upwards while slipping downwards, we are sweating in the jungle humidity, being pelted with rain, and I begin to think the ranger may have had a point.
Five days before we were scheduled to climb Nyiragongo volcano in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park, a new vent opened in the crater spewing lava into the air, and creating a cascade of lava “a firefall” into the lava lake in the crater. Upon arriving at the Virunga National Park headquarters in Goma, the park staff assure us they have rushed volcanologists up the mountain, and while the United Nations has put all their staff on evacuation alert, Nyiragongo was safe to climb.
The jungle heat hits us as we descend past the giant bamboo, and views open up of the rolling hills. The porters and guides start finding chameleons all over the trees with horns like triceratops. The land feels ancient wilderness. When we make to the ranger’s station at the park entrance, we stop to sign out, and looking at the registration book, we realize that no one has entered the park in the last six days.
It rains for several hours again in the night, and it makes me feel trapped, knowing the kilometers of tussock meadows between us and the bottom of the mountain are slowing turning into waist deep sludge. Our gateway out is closing. My feet are tender, swollen, raw-open wounds, and I can tell they are already infected.
I drift into consciousness multiple times in the night, waking in a panic that it is time to go and it is still pouring rain, and then the last time the nightmare is true. At 5:30 am, as if on autopilot, we start pulling over, strapping on, cinching, buttoning, and tying on layers and layers of gear, until I am wearing everything I have brought up the mountain.
Bernard points West towards the Congolese border where a Congolese plane flying an aid mission crashed into the mountain mists. Then in a matter of seconds, the mists rise from the forest floor, absconding the surrounding peaks like a bridal veil, as if scolding us to wait until we summit to inspect the peaks.
The shriek of the hyrax pierces the blanket of darkness, and sends a chill shivering up your spine. Its call sounds like the frantic wail of someone that has been mortally wounded, and is slowly dying alone in the woods. As the hyrax call to each other, it seems like haunted spirits are flying around the jungle wailing in the night. They are the mountain banshees of the Rwenzori.
However, the elevation gains were daunting. We would be climbing 3,456 meters [11,338 ft.] in the first four days to a height of 4,620 meters [15,157 ft.], which is higher than anything in the continental United States. Then we would loop back down the mountain in two days.
This piece gives an overview of the plans I have made for my Great African Road Trip, which will traverse 16 countries and cover over 20,000 kilometers over the course of 2016. I talk about preparing to be unprepared, and finding purpose along the way.
Fairy Meadows is the bouquet of alpine flowers set before the towering translucent tomb of Killer Mountain, called Nanga Parbat in Sanskrit. The mountain provides the views that make Fairy Meadows such an alluring destination, but Fairy Meadows are where the legends of Nanga Parbat are kept alive, told by generations of villagers who witnessed the legions of climbers that never descended its icy walls.
Then literally, just for a few seconds, the rising sun burns through the fog, displaying the ledges and vertigo inducing gullies that surround the small pinnacle upon which you perch. Golden red light refracts through the mist, and as if in the eye of the storm, everything seems still.
We were not entirely comfortable there, as we knew rains upstream might flood the river bed in the darkness, but all that descended that night was a piecing alpine cold. We had not brought sleeping bags to save weight, and long before dawn we were all awake willing the sun to pass over the surrounding peaks and flood the river valley below.
The guide picks you up one hour before midnight. He does not need to know where you are staying because the small village of Pura Besakih has only one guest house. The guide speaks broken English, and patiently waits for your final preparations before departure. With a smile, he sets off. Immediately, you are struggling to keep up in the pitch black. He ventures off the rural roads into the fields, “So the dogs won’t attack us,” he explains. This is first time you are glad you have hired a guide.