On bog hopping and jungle treks

Why experiencing something unique is worth sacrificing a camera for

I’ve just been reading the former Welsh rugby international Richard Parks’ latest post following his ascent of Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia last Tuesday. I’ve been following his attempt to climb the Seven Summits and reach both Poles in just 7 calendar months after meeting him during an expedition to Cho Oyu in Tibet in the autumn of 2010. His ascent of 4884m Carstensz, the highest mountain in Australasia, was supposed to be one of the more straightforward legs of his adventure, but this hasn’t been the case. After 5 days of solid rain trekking through the jungles of West Papua on the island of New Guinea, with no opportunity to dry anything out, he has ruined 3 cameras and several items of clothing, including his boots.

But a small price to pay for the experience of passing through so remote a region where very few people have ever travelled? I wholeheartedly agree, for I experienced something similar myself four years ago.

Mountains of the Moon

Mt Baker (4843m) from Stuhlman Pass, near the Congolese border
Mt Baker (4843m) from Stuhlman Pass, near the Congolese border

It reminds me very much of my trip to the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda to climb Mt Stanley, Mt Speke and Mt Baker, the 3rd, 4th and 5th highest mountains in Africa. Often known as the Mountains of the Moon, the Rwenzoris were a legendary place for many centuries until Henry Morton Stanley became the first westerner to set eyes on them in 1888 while searching for the Scottish explorer David Livingstone. The Greek geographer Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd century AD, described the source of the River Nile as two lakes fed by snow melting from Lunae Montis finis occidentalis, or Mountains of the Moon. For a long time nobody believed that snow mountains existed in such a warm and humid part of the world. Stanley himself reported seeing a peculiar-shaped cloud rising above the jungle and forming the appearance of a great mountain. He studied it for a long time before realising it was, in fact, a great mountain and not a cloud at all.

Bog hopping

My abiding memory of the Rwenzoris is of wading through mud at times knee deep, crossing bogland by hopping from tufted grass to tufted grass, and frequently resting branches in the bog to balance across. There were a great many streams to negotiate on stepping stones, but often the stones were limited so that putting your foot in the drink was inevitable. Extreme concentration was required for every step for days on end – to look up while walking meant a slip, a fall, a soaking, and riotous laughter from anyone following behind. I wore waterproof trousers which were splattered in mud right up to my waist by the end of the day. I hung them up inside the mountain huts we stayed in, but conditions were so damp that often they weren’t dry by morning. By tucking my trousers over the tops of my boots, and wearing gaiters over both, I somehow managed to avoid getting wet feet, however. On the unavoidable occasions where my boots had to be submerged, I found that by legging it quickly across the wet area I could keep my feet dry. Our Ugandan guides kept things simple, and wore wellies all the way round.

Another misty river crossing in the jungles of the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda
Another misty river crossing in the jungles of the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

It rained every day, and always a damp mist kept visibility to very short distances. The flora was remarkable, however: the bizarre cabbage-like leaf bundles of the giant groundsel, primeval carpets of red moss, and spiny sword-like pillars of giant lobelia being among the most memorable.

And then there were the summits, which made everything worthwhile. When you climb high enough, you rise above the clouds and damp mist, and realise that clusters of rock are thrusting skywards all around you. There is great variety in these summits, too. Rock gullies and a short snowfield guards the summit of Mt Speke, a full day of tricky scrambling is required to gain Mt Baker, and Mt Stanley even has a vast glacier plateau to cross.

Like Richard Parks I found my cameras were ruined, however. I was distraught when I went on safari to Queen Elizabeth National Park immediately afterwards, and found my stash of rechargeable batteries had completely discharged due to the humidity, and my main camera never did regain the ability to auto-focus. I had to buy a new one not long afterwards. My photos weren’t the best, but rarely can there be more difficult conditions for photography.

The Rwenzoris wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and I wouldn’t want every trek to be like this one. It was the wettest trek I’ve ever been on, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Worth sacrificing a camera for, certainly.

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