Matthias Mugisha Photography


Crazy mountain gods

Posted by Matthias Mugisha on November 2, 2011 at 1:15 PM

 Matthias Mugisha set off to climb the tough Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda but came back a broken man. He never reached the top. The guides told him he had annoyed the gods of Rwenzori by breaking almsot all their commandments.

 The Blizzard.

The temperature is dropping to negative digits. Ghostly windsare picking up momentum.  It’s ghostly white all around. We are ropedtogether like slaves. As ragged mist settles in the approaching dawn, my colleague, JosephatSseguya, now fondly called Bukedde, a news paper for which he writes, shoutsfor help.  ‘’ I’m dying. I can’t breath!’’ he announces. ‘’Drink water,’’ the guideadvises.  With horror, Sseguya finds hiswater frozen.

In thecoiling wind, heartbroken, aging fast, alone, my nose terribly running, itdawns on me that I may lose the battle to the blizzard. During the last five days of climbing the Rwenzori Mountains, Ihad broken almost half of the Rwenzori gods’ thirteen commandments.  Was this how the gods punish?   We hadless than 100 metres to climb. The price was becoming too much.      

  Day one,   Engena’s cross

 Five days earlier, therewas a lot activity at Uganda Wild Life Authority ( UWA) offices  parking yard in Kamwokya for the climb wasflagged off by the minister of Tourism. 

 The minister  handed over the UWA flag to the organisation’sacting  Director for Tourism RaymondEngena .

Forthe next seven days, Engena was not supposed to bathe nor change clothes. Hewas to sleep in the wilderness, trek, sweat, freeze, jump over bogs, getchained like a slave, risk  catching HighAltitude Pulmonary Edema and plant the flag at Margherita peak at  5,109m abovesea level.  He  never made it.

UWAhad planned an awareness and marketing trip to the Rwenzori Mountains composedof their staff members, representatives from the Uganda Tourism Board,  USAID – STAR, the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services ( RMS) and the New Vision.

During the trip from Kampala to Kasese, it didnot take long to  figure out Jack Marubulater nicknamed Bog Master and Steve Kamerino both Wardens from Kenya Wild LifeAuthority.

 Both had climbed Mt Kenya. Looking at Marubu’sstout body, everybody listened in awe about how he climbed Mt Kenya,  carrying food and all related climbing gearin his rucksack. Mt Kenya is one of the toughest to climb.  Many days later, both became causalities of theRwenzori mountains, the most challenging in Africa.

      The last  drop

Onarrival at Ibanda, UWA and RMS had organised a party for us. Total justice wasmatted out to the drinks, All the crates were emptied and all bottles of UgandaWaragi drained to the last drop.  Aspeople staggered or crawled to their beds, I rushed to take the last bath beforeour climb the following day. The gods of the Rwenzoris have many commandments.One of them is:  ‘’Don’t bathe while inthe mountains.

 Search gods

 As the morning sun melted the clouds of night,our bodies and knees melted as the last drops of alcohol sublimed, I was one ofthe last people to leave Ibanda for Nyabitaba camp along with my porters WillyBwambale and Kaguta.  We wereabout 90 including  guides and porters.

 I deliberately and strategically decided to bethe slowest person of the climb in order to conserve energy, absorb the beautyof the mountains, take pictures of every thing including the gods if I met any.My other objective was to  enjoy thenatural music of the mountains, the water, trees, monkeys, chimpanzees, three -horned chameleons, leopards, birds, trees, wind, rain and everything that couldmake sound.

 The first sound of the Rwenzoris came from anunexpected source - the bellows of a black smith, sheltered from the trail by athicket.  The second catch was real - athree- horned chameleon, ( Trioceros johnstoni ). It was peeping throughhealthy green foliage.  A closer lookrevealed its weary female companion. Could they be the gods? The porter shook his head.

 Next was the roar of Mubuku, Kyoho and Mahomarivers.  The trail leading to the gorgesof these rivers had been improved since my last visit. Before the ladders, wecrawled on our bellies, moved with our bottoms while our hands and teethgripped anything the promised gravitational stability including cobwebs.

 After the roaring rivers, the climb becamesteep. A break at a viewing site revealed the source of another roaring source- Rukundo falls, named after the  formerUganda State minister for Tourism Serapio Rukundo. Late in the evening wereached Nyabitaba. The intimidating Portal peeks, shyly peeping through cloudsopposite Nyabitaba reminded us of the task ahead.  

       Annoying the gods

Beforewe left,  our chief guide Josephat  Baluku gave us a brief. According to Baluku,this was going to be the longest trek of them all. Everybody  had to wear gum boost because in theRwenzori, the higher you go the wetter it becomes.

Ihad got a botanist guide who introduces himself as Senior Private  Josiah Makwano from UWA and together with myporter.  As we neared the end of thebamboo zone, Makwano showed me Scudoxus Cyrtanthiflorus – a plant withbeautiful red flowers traditionally used to treat madness and chase awaydemons. Was it a god? No.

 Along the way, I lost my walking stick andreplaced it with a piece of bamboo. ‘‘Don’t take a bamboo stick to water.’’ Itwas one of the gods’ commandments but I was ignorant of.

 The higher we moved, the more beautiful themountains became.  The sight of someunnamed water falls on River Bujuku combined with the imposing Kinyangomaranges on the horizon were a sight to behold. The everlasting flowers (HelicrysumGuilemii) , combined with Lobelia Gibberoa decorated the vegetation in apuzzling pattern. The everlasting flowers get their name from their flowerswhich do not loose colour and texture even if they are dry.  Lobelia gebberoa plants are used as medicinefor pregnant woman   to make them havesafe deliveries. 

 A few metres to John Matte, some portersbrought us hot porridge. By then I was officially known as the snail of thetrekkers. We reached the camp when dusk was a approaching.

 That night, the sky cleared and Margheritapeak, three days away shone like an angel. She strutted her white angelic robes( glaciers) and pure beauty to whoever cared. Overwhelmed by the display ofsplendor, I whistled, thus committing another sin against the gods.  In the midst of the beauty show, Engena’sblood pressure shot up.

 The fall of Engena, the rise of the Bog Master.

Welost Engena shortly before leaving John Matte for Bujuku.  Aggrey Aturinde took charge of the flag withimmediate effect.

 Mountain climbing has its own perils. Thehigher you go, the less the atmospheric pressure, the less the oxygen and thelower the temperature. All these factors have an effect on the way onesinternal organs work.  The higher you getthe less the oxygen in your brain and blood.  This can result into several High Altitudesicknesses.  Hypothermia  is cause by a decrease in the entire bodytemperature. The symptoms are stumbling, apathy, lethargy, loss of enthusiasmand thinking ability which can lead to unconsciousness and death.   The other is  High Altitude  Cerebral Edema ( HACE) which makes one fail totalk and loose coordination of ones activities leading to coma and death.  Other sighs of high altitude include but arenot limited to constant headache, clumsiness, lack of concentration, yellowingof the eyes, madness, etc.  High Altitudesickness can strike any body at altitudes even as low as 2500m.  Every body is vulnerable but the mostphysically fit usually fall victim because they move faster than their bodiescan adjust. The only remedy is to take the patient to a lower altitudeimmediately.

Engenablood pressure shooting up in an environment of low atmospheric pressure was avery serious medical case and he had to be whisked down.

Engena’sexit opened a race for supremacy in speed, endurance, and physical fitness amongthe mostly youthful trekkers.  The flyingteam was lead Jack Marubu, Steve Kamerino and Aggrey Aturinde. Not only didthey run, they flew, overtaking porters. Though porters usually carry luggageof supplies weighing  average of 25 Kg onaverage, they fly where other climbers crawl. They have to reach the next campbefore any body else and start cooking.

 The fliers missed most of the beauty of theRwenzori Mountains which unfolds more along the route from John Matte toBujuku.  The trail passes through lowerBigo bogs, Nyamureju, Upper Bigo bogs. Afterthe bogs there is a   scenic climb thatdescends to Lake Bujuku. Here, all the main mountainpeaks come into view.

TheBigo bogs, are named from the word ‘’bigo’’ meaning falling down. The quick –sand- like bogs can swallow you whole sale in case you miss a step. The recentimprovements are the board walks but they do not cover the entire stretch ofthe bogs. The best way to beat the bogs is to jump from tussock to tussockwhich can be energy draining.  Marubu wasnicknamed Bog master because of his masterly antics in flying over these bogs.

  Nyamureju or the ‘‘old man’s beard’’ is namedafter the many tree in the area that are covered in moss. The moss resemblesgraying beards. It’s around Nyamureju that leopards, which have adapted to highaltitude, are rarely sighted.  It is alsoalong this trail that one of the Rwenzori’s famous and much sought after plants– Lobelia Baquaertii starts dominating the landscape. Other plants in thiszone, which is a transition from heather to Afro Alpine vegetation, includewild carrots (Peucedenium Kerstenii and alchemilla Ruwenzoriensis used to treatworms. After the bogs, one starts the real altitude that supports the growth ofthe beautiful (Dendro senecio adniualis and the giant lobelias (LobeliaLanurensis).

 The commonest bird in this zone is thebeautiful Tufted Malachait sun bird which kept my camera busy for some goodtime. Descending to Lake Bujuku, my eyes opened inawe. The beauty, the sereneness, the snow, the glaciers, the fearsome lookingpeaks reflecting the shy sunlight fighting an everlasting war with fog all imposinglystood above us.

     Triceratops Horridus

AsI stood around Bujuku lake, bewildered by God’s masterly art work,Mountains  Stanley (5109m),  Speke (4890m), Baker (4843m) and Luigi diSavoia  (4627m) made of solid rock  peeked  from the clouds.

 White clouds floated leisurely by and I never gottired of gazing.  Only the senecio treesand wobblers seemed indifferent to the frosty beauty. I stood in wonder of thisother world in Uganda.   Some peekslooked terrifying.  ‘‘Don’t point there.Those are gods, we don’t mention names here otherwise we won’t get out alive,’’Makwano advised.

‘‘One is the big man and his wife while theother is the son. Please don’t ask again. I will tell you when we get out.’’hepleaded.  Still I could tell the Savoia glaciersjust above Elena camp which we would reach the following day.  Alternately,  the peeks  looked gorgeous and sinister  like Triceratops Horridus, a pre- historicrhinoceros of the late Cretaceous period. Iforgot my bamboo walking stick around Lake Bujukuas the gods watched.  A sacrilege!   ‘’Never take bamboo to a lake.’’ Goes one of then Rwenzori gods’ dogma.   Kangaroo Court

Inthe new house at Bujuku camp,  theclimbers had a case against the ‘Bog master’. He was too fast. He never wanted any thing across his way. Where theywanted to walk, he would compel them to run. Where they wanted to rest, hewanted to fly. The chief guide Baluku Josephat reminded  us of the dangers of over working one’s body.Moving faster than one’s body could adapt to higher altitudes was likely tolead to High Altitude Sickness.  Pinnedon the wall in Bujuku was information about the likely ailments climbersusually get. What sacred most were the names of those who had died of HighAltitude Sicknesses around cold Bujuku. Running  banned. Also outlawed was the consumption ofalcohol. Baluku  made it clear thatwhoever had a headache  would notproceed.  Bog Master had developed a headache. Since he never stepped forward to announce his ailment, we all kept quite.We knew his days were numbered. And it came to pass.  As usual we had a good meal. We were now usedto eating chicken and swallowing their eggs for break fast.

  The gods’ song

 The wind came with a boomof might.  It howled like a wolf in thenight. It thumbed our iron hut with a roar of fright.  Was this the sacred music of the gods staringat us above Elena hut? We were all shivering in our sleeping bags at Elena campthe following night.  At around 4900metres, only about 100 metres in altitude separated us from our prize – Margheritapeak.

As the momentum of thewind intensified so was its harrowing sound. I knew I was not the only onedying of fright.  ‘‘I’m a man from thecoast at 0 metres above see level. What am’ I doing here?’’  Kamerino asked him self aloud, his freightedvoice competing with the sound of the wintry wind lashing at our iron shelterElena hut. 

Earlier in the day, the climb from Bujuku to Elena camp had beensteep. Before Elena, all vegetation had disappeared. What remained was bare rock.  The climb had separated boys from men.  We could tell that Bog Master was quicklyloosing his prestige and crown.  He hadtremendously weakened.

 At Elena which is planted on bare rocks, thetemperature dropped further. I had to wear four T-shirts under my jacket.  But still, the cold ate at my bones. Themenacing gods, looking like dinosaur Ankylosaurus magniventris werenow directly above.  We were told neitherto point fingers at them nor to call people by their Christian names.

 We had spent the icy evening sorting outclimbing equipment.  We all got harnesseswhere we were to be roped together so that if any of us fell into a crevasse,others would pull him out.   Since wewere many, we were to use four different ropes. Each rope was to accommodatesix to eight people including guides. Next, each of us got an ice axe and snowgoggles to avert snow blindness. The ice axe once thrust in ice, helps one geta strong grip.

 After the preparations,Kamerino brought out a Kenyan flag and his counterpart Marubu joined him.Afterwards, they both announced their retirement.

  As the night matured, strongwinds, whistling with fury, tore through the night, threatening to flip our hut. ‘’ What am’ I doing here…’’ Kamerinoquestioned himself another time.  Noanswer.  I fell asleep.

  The white ghost  

We woke up at around 4:30 am to embark on the most difficult andlast leg of the climb.  I knew the last5% of any climb is always the most difficult. Some people give us whileremaining with a few steps to the peak.  Kamerino and Onesmus Muhwezi from USAID STARchickened out. Weakened and suffering ‘Bog Master’ changed his mind and decidedto soldier on.

 Before dawn we were atthe snow line after climbing treacherous rocks using ropes. . After putting onour climbing gear all the 31 climbing souls were chained on four ropes. Eachrope had a guide in front and at the rear.

While in  Mt Stanley plateau than the whether turned sour.  The blizzard was a combination of icy roaring winds, and fog.  With in a few minutes, whitely ghost swallowed us.  Looking behind, the last thing I saw was the meek-eyed gods in the dawn gloom.Born of the silent awe, with snow robes running below their crocodile- like teeth, ( rugged peaks) I though about death and shivered. Through the bleak wind howling through the white expanse of glacier with its associated chill, chained, we grunted.  In fright induced silence, our shoe spikes sunk into the cold frozen ice block. After what seemed like ten years, we crossed the Stanley plateau.   The fall of mighty Bog Master.  The last time I was in this area, there was a lot of snow. The going was easy.  By then, Stanley plateau glaciers were almost connected to Margarita’s.  This time, both glaciers had shrunk and hanging ladders had been improvised to connect the two through a dangerous and jumbled cliff. Our slow pace was interrupted at this point. Climbers had to use the hanging ladders one by one.  Nobody would have dared use those ladders had the visibility been good. A fall from the ladders ended in an abyss.   Because of the human traffic jam at thispoint, we came to an abrupt stop. The break was catastrophic. We froze. ThoughI had put on an extra pull neck and a sweater on top of my four t-shirts, notto mention a jacket and a rain coat, the cold pierced my heart. The onlycreatures that could happily live here, I thought, are those that have a coatlike a bear.

 As the spreading blizzard colonised myclothes with snow flakes, more fog settled in bringing with it a whitely ghostenvironment. Neither was it wise to close my eyes nor to open them. Closing theeyes brought black while opening them revealed a whitely ghost- a contrast oftwo worlds. I was loosing the battle. My teeth started chattering, needles ofcold pain pierced my nose and ears. My feet froze. A whitecloud clung to my brain.

‘’ Move,’’ I shouted. No body bulged.

‘‘Ican’t breath,’’ Josephat Sseguya cried. He as adivised to drink water  but found it already frozen. He decided toabandon the climb. His action set off a bug that mutated into a chain reaction.

‘‘Ihave good food in my fridge in Bukoto. I have beers, chicken, membership atCayenne.  What I’m doing here? Get me offthis rope,’’ commanded the once mighy Bog Master. Next was’ Jossy Muhangifollowed by Innocent Ijuka  both from UWA.   Withtwo guides I remained the only climber still tied to the rope.‘‘Doyou want to die,’’ a voice within me asked. ‘‘No.’’ I answered.

                 My  bed

  Beforemy last adventure to Margerita, I had longed to touch  Margherita peek. I had fallen in love with herafter looking at her pictures in glossy magazines. She was gorgeous and purelike an angel’s breast; I longed to reach out and caress her white angelic‘robes’ that flow down with great abandon. She gave me a cold welcome. Wrapped in a veil of white fog, she stared at me with stone cold eyes.When I reached for her, she shielded her face in white clouds. When I steppedforward to greet her, she gave me a cold kiss that froze my lips.

‘’Doyou think she will be different?’’ the voice inside me asked. ‘‘No.’’ ‘‘Thenfree yourself man,’’ the voice commanded.  ‘‘Think of your bed and its good contents.  Don’t you miss Kampala Casino and the goatraces?  Abandon the rope man. You are nota slave,’’ the voice insisted.

‘‘Hey,unhook me from the rope,’’ I was surprised to hear myself shouting. Our cursedrope was now empty.

 On the way back, the weather never improved. Thosewho continued moved under the shadow of the whitely ghost up to lovelessMargerita.  As we retreated the threegods resembled Gargoyles,the mystical man-bat not- so- holy creatures which spend much of theirtime as stone figures, but come to life when approached.  I heard the gods laugh in triumph.  Was it high altitude madness?

          Unknown treasure.

Bogmaster was too sick to risk going to Kitandara. Instead he was taken back toJohn Matte via Bujuku.  Many people withHigh Altitude sickness have died while being evacuated from Kitandara. Beforeyou gain lower altitude from Kitandara, you first have to climb up to over 4000metres through Fresh  Field Pass before sloping down.  Before he left, with head bowed, the BogMaster muttered: ‘’ Rwenzori is wild.’’

 The four of us made it to Kitandara byevening. With two lakes, Kitandara is a beautiful place to be. More interestingare the rats that live there eating grass as they wait for visitors. None ofthe guides or staff from RMS had information about the rats.  But these rats could be one of the treasures of the Rweenzori National Park.  There is a species of rodents called the Ruwenzori Vlei Rat (Otomys dartmouthi)  in the Muridaefamily. It is found only in Uganda. Its natural habitatis subtropical or tropical high-altitude grassland.Another is the RuwenzoriThicket Rat  (`Grammomys ibeanus`) also in the  Muridae family. It is found in Kenya, Malawi,Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda,and Zambia. More research is needed about theserats.  Out of a total of 31 climbers,only 17 made it to the top.

 The right to drink alcohol

The journeyfrom Kitandara to Guy Yeoman was an uneventful.  After a steep climb through Fresh Field Passadjacent to Mt Baker, we started descending parallel to Mount Luigi Di Savoiawhich has peaks: Weissman, Sella and Stairs all above 4000 metres.  We encountered more bogs and dearly missedthe Bog Master’s antics.  B y evening we reachedKabamba waterfalls Kabamba or Akabamba waterfalls have an interesting history.

 The Rwenzori Mountains are basicallyhome to two big tribes, Bakonjo and Bamba with Batwa or Pigmies as aminority.  The Bamba live on the Bundibugyoside of the ranges while the Bakonjo are mainly found on the eastern side. Longago, when the Bamba travelled to visit their Bakonjo cousins, they would restat the waterfalls. Some froze to death.  The falls were named Akabamba meaning the place of the Bamba before itwas corrupted to Kabamba falls. 

 At Guy Yeoman, the ban on alcohol was lifted.A party commenced in earnest.  After adoses too many, everybody wanted to make a speech.

 Jokingly, I was told my failure to reach  Margherita was a punishment from the gods.  I had called people by their first names,whistled, left a bamboo stick by the lakeside and eaten black berries contraryto the gods’ thirteen commandments.    


In themorning, we shook off the hangover and left Guy Yeoman for Nyabitaba, our firstcamp.

The mostamusing place along the trail is a cliff called Karya Rupiha, meaning the placethat drains pockets. The cliff is almost vertical and difficult to climb ordescend.   On my previous adventures, Iremember putting gravitational force to use by sliding with my bottom down thatthat cliff.  Recently, ladders were putin place.

 Karya Rupiha is the place where randy Bakonjomen,  cheaply  bought  girls from their hapless fathers.

Some peopleused to get so exhausted at this cliff and fail to move. The rescue came at asteep price. You had to empty your pockets. Those who did not have money ( Rupiha) would surrender their daughters.  Rupiha is the local name for rupee, thecurrency that was in circulation in East Africain the early 1900s.

 Unmasking the gods

 At Nyabitaba, Johnson Bwambale agreed to tellme about the Rwenzori gods since were now at a safer distance.   ‘‘The first god is Kitasamba, his wife goddessNyabibuya, and their son Kalisha. There are quite many but since we are stillin the forest, I can’t mention all, ’’ Bwambale began. According to his story,Kitasamba is the overall king of the mountain and Bakonjo while the wifeNyabibuya is the midwife and a fertility goddess. That is the reason whyBakonjo women are forbidden to climb the mountain because they are not supposedto be close to their midwife.   Inaddition Nyabibuya has powers to shower or withdraw fortunes. ‘’ All Bakonjowho want fortunes pray to goddess Nyabibuya,’’

 Their son Kalisha feeds all Bakonjo. Peoplemake sacrifices to Kalisha in order to get what to eat.  ‘‘Before any body goes to hunt, he has tomake a shrine for Kalisha and put some food for him. While Kalisha is busyeating, the hunter will make a kill. Short of that, no kill thus no food,’’ Bwambalesaid before naming the 13 commandments/taboos of the gods. 

 The 13 commandments of the Rwenzori Mountains:           

        When in the Rwenzori mountains don’t dothe following:

1 Don’t bathe – the gods don’t want your nakedness. 2    Don’teat black berries ( I did)  If you do therain will be too much. All rivers will flood.

3     Don’t whistle ( I did) If you do, the floodswill sweep you.

4     Don’t call water, salt, rain and lake  by their names

5     Don’t call people by their first names ( Idid). The gods don’t want those funny names near them.

6     Don’t point a finger ( Idid) It is bad manners and if you do you will never reach your destination. Inever reached Margerita. 

7     Don’t climb if you are a woman.   Women are not supposed to come close totheir midwife Nyabibuya. If they do, they become barren.

8     Don’t hunt before you sacrifice to Kalisha. Heis the owner of all animals.  If youdon’t, you wont make any kill.

9     Don’t carry bamboo to lakes (Idid ). It is aconservation measure.

10    Don’t shout. Don’t make noise. Children arenot supposed to shout nor make noise in front of their parents. So the godsalso deserve that respect.

11   Don’t’ shave or cut finger nails. (Bog masterdid). The gods do not want your bodily dirt in their territory.

12   Don’t mention the gods by their name. If youdo, winds will sweep you of your feet and it will be luck if you get out alive.

13   Don’t play sex. ( nobody did) It is part ofbeing naked in front of the gods.        










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Reply Charles
3:57 AM on November 3, 2011 
Great piece Mathias, would love to see some of your photos from this trip. am working on a book on the albertine rift and would be glad to have a new rwenzori collection. I attempted to clim the Rwenzori in 2005; stopped at Nyabitaba!
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