Nature and travel photographer Matthias Mugisha failed to scale Margherita Peak on his last climb to the Rwenzori Mountains. He was told the failed climb was punishment for breaking some of the rules of the mountain gods- whistling and calling fellow climbers by their Christian names.
My first time to climb to Margherita peak at 5,109 m above sea level in the Rwenzoris was a sweet bitter adventure. It was a dead cold beauty. Indifferent and stone cold, she burnt my lips. It was snowing and cold. Visibility was almost zero. On my recent climb, the weather was better though I failed to reach the peak. I was later told I had been punished by the gods of the mountain for breaking most of their commandments. All was well until 100 metre to the peak when hell broke lose. The temperature dropped to negative digits. Ghostly winds lashed at my face and gave me running nose. One by one, my colleagues gave up the climb. I was determined to push on. But for how long?
Day 1- Ibanda
Five days earlier, The journey had started at Nyakalengijo in Ibanda at the base of the mountain range. Rwenzori Mountaineering Services ( RMS) an indigenous organisation that manages treks into the mountains is based at Ibanda. The high Rwenzoris comprises of six distinct mountains with permanent snow and glaciers. Despite being a few miles north of the Equator. The highest is Margherita peak on Mt Stanley (5,109m), Other are Speke (4,890m) and Baker (4,843m). The snow peaks can be reached by hiking the Central Circuit and Kilembe Trails.
The park protects the highest parts of the 120km-long and 65km-wide Rwenzori mountain range and is home to 70 mammals and 217 bird species including 19 Albertine Rift endemics, as well as some of the world’s rarest vegetation. Though this time we were many climbers, Jack Marubu later nicknamed Bog Master stood out as the strongest member of the team. Marubu and his colleague Steve Kamerino both Wardens from Kenya Wild Life Authority had climbed Mt Kenya which is considered tougher than the Rwenzoris. Marubu’s stout body was a ticked to the peaks of the Rwenzoris. We thought. But we were wrong.
Day 2- The sound of gods
I was one of the last people to start the climb to Nyabitaba, the first stage. I wanted to absorb the natural music of the mountains, the water, trees, monkeys, chimpanzees, three -horned chameleons, leopards, birds, trees, wind, rain and everything that could make sound.
The first sound was noise- the bellows of a black smith. The second was a three- horned chameleon, ( Trioceros johnstoni ). They were two- a male and its sleepy companion. My Guide, Josiah Makwano, a botanist, had told me I have to respect the gods of the mountain by not bathing as they don’t like nakedness. Were the chameleons the gods? he said no. After crossing Mahoma and Bubuku rivers, the climb became very steep until we reached Nyabitaba in the evening.
Day 3 – Breaking the first rule
Our chief guide Josephat Baluku told us in the morning that it was going to be the longest trek of them all. We abandoned our climbing shoes and settled for gumboots because in the Rwenzori, the higher you go the wetter it becomes. Along the way, Makwano showed me unique plants like Scudoxus Cyrtanthiflorus – a plant with beautiful red flowers used to treat madness and chase away demons. Still he told me it was not one of the gods. Where were the gods? Along the way, It was not long before I broke the first rule. I picked a piece of bamboo for a walking stick as we again re- crossed Mubuku river. ‘‘Don’t take a bamboo stick to water.’’ I unknowingly did that a and thus broke the first rule. The higher we moved, the more beautiful the mountains became. The everlasting flowers (Helicrysum Guilemii) , combined with Lobelia Gibberoa decorated the vegetation. Everlasting flowers never wither while Lobelia gebberoa plants are used as medicine to make pregnant women have safe deliveries.
I was the last one to reach John Matte camp in the evening. I was officially named the “Snail the trek.” At night, Margherita peak shone like an iron roof, three days away. She displayed her beauty for all to see.
Day 4 -The rise of the Bog Master.
Marubu enjoyed his status of a superman. From John Mate to Bujuku he did not walk, he literally flew overtaking the experienced porters and guides who are usually the fastest despite the fact that they carry luggage. The porters usually reach the next camp before anybody else and start cooking. But they were worried about Marubu as he was moving too fast risking catching High Altitude sickness. The most physically fit climbers usually fall victim because they move faster than their bodies can adjust.
The higher you go, the less the atmospheric pressure, the less the oxygen and the lower the temperature. The higher you get the less the oxygen in your brain and blood. This can cause several High Altitude Sicknesses like Hypothermia when there is a decrease in the entire body temperature. The symptoms are stumbling, apathy, lethargy, loss of enthusiasm and thinking ability which can lead to unconsciousness and death. The other is High Altitude Cerebral Edema ( HACE) which makes one fail to talk and loose coordination of one’s activities leading to coma and death. Other sighs of high altitude sickness are: constant headache, clumsiness, lack of concentration, yellowing of the eyes and madness. High Altitude sickness can strike anybody at altitudes even as low as 2500m. The trail Bujuku passes through bigo bogs named from the word ‘’bigo’’ meaning falling down. The quick –sand- like bogs can swallow you wholesale in case you miss a step. The best way to beat the bogs is to jump from tussock to tussock which can be energy draining. It is here that Marubu was nicknamed Bog Master. He displayed amazing masterly antics as he jumped over them in record time.
It is also along this trail that one of the Rwenzori’s famous and much sought after plants– Lobelia Baquaertii starts dominating the landscape. Other plants in this zone, which is a transition from heather to Afro Alpine vegetation, include wild carrots (Peucedenium Kerstenii and alchemilla Ruwenzoriensis used to treat worms. After the bogs, one starts the real altitude that supports the growth of the beautiful (Dendro senecio adniualis and the giant lobelias (Lobelia Lanurensis). The commonest bird in this zone is the beautiful Tufted Malachite sun bird. Before reaching Lake Bujuku, The sight of the mountains hypnotised me. The snow, the glaciers and the fearsome looking peaks reflecting the shy sunlight through fog are awesome scenes.
” Triceratops Horridus’ the god
As I stood around Bujuku lake, bewildered by God’s masterly art work, Mt Stanley (5109m), Speke (4890m), Mt Baker (4843m) and Luigi diSavoia (4627m) made of solid rock peeped through the clouds. Some peaks looked 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 the other is the son. Please don’t ask again.’’ he pleaded. Alternately, the peeks looked gorgeous and sinister like Triceratops Horridus, a pre- historic rhinoceros of the late Cretaceous period. I forgot my bamboo walking stick around Lake Bujukuas the gods watched. A sacrilege! ‘’Never take bamboo to a lake.’’ I had committed the same sin twice.
At Bujuku camp, the chief guide Baluku Josephat reminded us of the dangers of over working one’s body. Pinned on the wall in Bujuku cabin were the names of those who had died of High Altitude Sicknesses. Consequently running and the consumption of alcohol were outlawed. Baluku made it clear that whoever had a headache would not proceed. Bog Master had been complaining of a headache but was too proud to announce it.
Day 5 – The Fall of Bog Master.
The climb from Bujuku to Elena camp was steep. Bog Master lost his prestige and crown. He was struggling. At Elena camp, ate my bones forcing me to wear four T-shirts under my jacket. The menacing gods, looking like dinosaur Ankylosaurus magniventris were now directly above. We were told neither to point fingers at them nor to call people by their Christian names. I realized I had broken that rule by calling my guide his Christian name Josiah.
We spent the icy evening sorting out climbing equipment; namely harnesses where we were to be roped together so that if any of us fell into a crevasse, others would pull him out. Each rope was to accommodate six to eight people including guides. Each of us got an ice axe and snow goggles to avert snow blindness. The ice axe, once thrust in ice, helps one get a strong grip. Marubu blew up and announced he was quitting the climb. He pulled out a Kenyan flag and posed for a picture with Kamerino.
The furry of the night gods
Things changed at night for worse. The winds howling like a wolf in the night. Our iron hut was thumped with a roar of fright. As the momentum of the wind intensified so was its harrowing sound. The burly winds, whistling with fury tore through the night, threatening to flip our hut. ‘’ What am’ I doing here.’’ Kamerino asked . No answer. I fell asleep.
The misty ghost
At 4:30 am, we were up and ready for the most difficult 100 metres of the final ascend. Long suffering and weakened ‘Bog Master’ made a u- turn and decided to proceed. After putting on our climbing gear all the 31 climbing souls were chained on four ropes. Each rope had a guide in front and at the rear.
The weather became very unfriendly. We were engulfed by a white ghostly fog moving at a terrific speed. We moved forward and left meek-eyed gods in the dawn gloom. Chained like slaves, we struggled to move through the white expanse of glacier with its associated chill. The bleak wind howled nonstop.. 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 end of Bog Master.
The sound of shoe spikes piercing the ice fell silent as climbers had to use the hanging ladders one by one. Nobody would have dared use those ladders had the visibility been good. Any accident fall from the ladders would end in an abyss. We froze. As the spreading blizzard colonised my clothes with snowflakes, more fog settled in bringing with it a whitely ghost environment. Closing the eyes brought black while opening them revealed a whitely ghost. My teeth started chattering, needles of cold pain pierced my nose and ears. My feet froze. A white cloud clung to my brain.
One of the climbers on my rope hung up after realising that his drinking water frozen. Get me off this rope,’’ Bog Master was next to bow out. One by one, all my rope mates surrendered to the mountain. I remained the only climber on the rope. ‘‘Do you want to die,’’ a voice within me asked. ‘‘No.’’ I answered. The last time I was here, I had fallen in love with Margherita, the peak after looking at her pictures. She was gorgeous and pure like an angel’s breast; I longed to reach out and caress her white angelic robes’ that flow down with great abandon. When I reached her, 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 stepped forward to greet her, she gave me a cold kiss that froze my lips. ‘‘ If you don’t want to die free yourself man,’’ the voice within me continued. “Abandon the rope man, ’’ the voice insisted. I was surprised to hear myself shouting. ” Unhook me.” I shouted. Only two people without a job remained on our cursed rope- the two guides. The re-employed themselves by guiding us down. Later I was told that the gods punished us because we had broken most of the rules during the climb.
THE 13 COMMANDMENTS OF THE RWENZORI GODS.
I was told my failed climb to Margherita Peak in the Rwenzori Mountains was punishment for breaking some of the rules of the mountain gods. Below is the literature about the Bakonjo gods in the Rwenzori Mountains as lectured to me by our chief guide Baluku Josephat The first god is Kitasamba, his wife is goddess Nyabibuya, and their son is Kalisha. Kitasamba is the overall king of the mountain and Bakonjo. The wife Nyabibuya is the midwife and a fertility goddess. That is the reason why Bakonjo women are forbidden to climb the mountain because they are not supposed to be close to their midwife. In addition, Nyabibuya has powers to give or withdraw fortunes. All Bakonjo who want fortunes pray to goddess Nyabibuya. Their son Kalisha feeds all Bakonjo. People make sacrifices to Kalisha in order to get what to eat. ‘‘Before anybody goes to hunt, he has to make a shrine for Kalisha and put some food for him. While Kalisha is busy eating, the hunter will make a kill. Short of that, no kill, thus no food.
Below are the commandments of the Rwenzori gods which have to be observed especially when you are climbing the mountains.
1. Thou shalt not bathe. – the gods don’t want your nakedness.
2. Thou shalt not eat black berries ( I did) If you do the rain will be too much. All rivers will flood.
3. Thou shalt not whistle ( I did) If you do, the floods will sweep you.
4. Thou shalt not call water, salt, rain and lake by their names
5. Though shalt not call people by their Christian names ( I did). The gods don’t want those funny names near them.
6. Thou shalt not point a finger ( I did) It is bad manners and if you do, you will never reach your destination. I never reached Margherita.
7. Thou shalt not climb if you are a woman and come close to your midwife Nyabibuya for you shall become barren.
8. Thou shalt not hunt before laying your sacrifice before Kalisha, the owner of all animals for you won’t make a kill.
9. Thou shalt not carry bamboo to lakes (I did ).
10. Thou shalt not shout or make noise because only bad mannered children shout and make noise in front of their parents. The gods also deserve that respect.
11.Thou shalt not shave or cut finger nails for the gods do not want your bodily dirt in their territory. ( Bog master cut his nails and never finished.)
12. Thou shalt not mention the gods by their name for the winds will sweep you off your feet and kill you.
13. Thou shalt not play sex in the mountain. ( nobody did) It is part of being naked in front of the gods. Ends