Editor’s note: On the occasion of International Mountain Day today, which aims at raising awareness about mountains, we bring you this article, which first ran in New Vision newspaper on Friday, March 12, 2021
By Kalungi Kabuye
I have been in a few tight spots in my lifetime, and inadvertently created some off-the-wall encounters I was lucky to escape from unscathed. But nothing prepared me for the prospect of coming down a mountain at night. Add the fact that this was deep in Karamoja where cattle raiders have been rampant in recent days, and it was not exactly what the doctor ordered.
Mount Morungole in Kaabong district is the third highest mountain in Karamoja, after Mt Moroto and Mt Kadam. In the league of mountains, it is still not that much to speak of, but it is there, worth climbing, so why not? Again I joined the Mountain Slayers of Uganda (MSU) last weekend for the hike, which was rated as easy.
The MSU folks rate their hikes as either ‘easy’, ‘intermediate’, or ‘hard’. Hard is what the Rwenzoris are, intermediate is what I did last year when we climbed Mt Kei in Koboko, and easy was when we hiked the Kampala Railway, 17km of flat terrain. This one was rated ‘easy’, which formed a major part of the reason why I decided to go for it.
After my misadventures on Mt Kei, I decided that the next mountain I attempt, I would be ready for it.
The MSU calendar for 2021 was released in December, so I planned for Morungole as the first of four I would do this year (the President of MSU insists I should do six, but we shall see about that). Unfortunately many things happened and my training was continually interrupted, so I was not quite ready, and in my mind had decided to plan for the next one.
But then came the announcement that it would be an ‘easy’, four-hour hike, and that the next day would be spent in the Kidepo Valley National Park. If you know anything about Kidepo, it’s that there are lots of lions. Everyone that has gone to Kidepo comes back with pictures of lions. I cannot count how many national parks I’ve been to, but I have never seen a lion in the wild.
So here was my chance, do the short and easy four-hour hike, then take a million pictures of lions. It was a deal too good to pass, so I signed on, my not quite fit body notwithstanding.
I should have realised that the very fickle gods were playing duulu with me when, instead of the advertised and emphasised take-off time of 7:00am, the buses didn’t show up till close to 8:00am. By 9:00am, hikers were still coming in, and everyone seemed cool with that.
One thing I learnt about the MSU folks, they don’t stress about small things. They’re going to climb mountains, why stress over a little thing like taking off on time? As one explained, they leave everything behind when they go hiking – all timetables, clingy better halves, crying babies, nosy landlords and all. They just go with the flow, whatever time we get to the camping site will be cool. She added that the last hike to Bukwo, they got to the camping ground at 3:00am, pitched their tents, slept for about one hour, and were up at 7:00am to go hiking; and they had a whale of a time.
So I also went with the flow, and didn’t stress about some little thing like time. The short of it was that by the time we left Gulu for the last leg of the journey, it was almost dark. It was definitely dark by the time we turned off just before Kitgum, and headed to Kidepo, which we reached about midnight. But our destination was past that, and we went on to Morungole in Kaabong district, where we arrived about 1:00am.
There had been reports about cattle raiders attacking villages, but what did that have to do with anything? Don’t sweat the small stuff, so we were cool. By the time we finished pitching tents (I’m getting the hang of it, although for anyone above 6 feet, getting in and out is still a trick), it was 3:30am. There were calls for a late dinner, but I didn’t have the energy, and just crashed.
Next morning we were up bright and early, all ready for the short hike. Usually we carry packed lunch, but since we would be back in four hours, it was decided we would have lunch when we got back.
But those bu-gods had their duulu game on point, and what was supposed to be an easy hike turned out to be harder and longer than the intermediate Koboko one. By the time the back-enders, fondly known as Team Sloth (yours truly included), started coming down, it was getting dark.
The story of how we eventually got back down is for another day, but got back down we did. And when we eventually caught our breath and looked up, we were mesmerised by the sight of a million stars blinking down on us. I hadn’t seen the Milky Way since the days in King’s College, Budo, but there it was in all its majesty.
One lesson from Photography 101 is that when you get a chance to take a picture, take it. Do not wait for another chance, which very often does not come up again. But I was tired, my legs hurt, and it never rains in Karamoja, anyway. So I decided I would photograph the Milky Way the next evening in Kidepo.
Just my luck, and those pesky bu-gods, we did not even see the sunset because of low hanging clouds. But the Milky Way eventually showed up, although not as clear and crisp as it was the previous night. But I did photograph it, and orders are already coming in for copies of the picture.
Oh, and since I’ve now done three hikes with MSU, I’m officially a member, no longer an njuka. And I don’t sweat the small things.
Why Mountain Slayers of Uganda was started
In 2015, six people decided it was time to get out of bars and pork joints and check out Uganda’s outdoors. Thus the Mountain Slayers of Uganda was formed. Also because the mostly expat Mountain Club of Uganda was listening to too many advisories and not getting out enough. Now more than 80 members strong, they have demystified mountain climbing as a purely zungu activity. They have conquered all of East Africa’s highest mountains, and other ‘baby’ but hard-to-climb mountains. And they’re still climbing…