Part II: Notes from the Rwenzori Mountains National Park of Southwest Uganda


SourDough News | January 25, 2012


John Neary uses a low tech but effective measuring wheel for trail work in Uganda.
John Neary uses a low tech but effective measuring wheel for trail work in Uganda.

Editor’s note: Read “Neary Travels, Part I” to get the back-story on John Neary’s trip to Uganda, which he undertook as an experienced protected area manager for the U.S. Forest Service’s International Programs.

We accomplished some work today, at last. The 20% rule is now understood (trail grades should be less than 20% slope), but that's due in large part to the ridiculously steep terrain we found just below the ridge.

I didn’t measure slopes because they must’ve been 100%. It was very hard to stay vertical at times—one tumble landed me feet up in the brush 10 feet below the trail corridor. How humiliating, but mazungos aren’t meant to be in this kind of thick bush, right? Now and then, I’ll grab a panga (machete) and a stick and start beating the vines back, pretending to accomplish something useful, but my skill is far better spent on trail alignment than on cutting through an equatorial jungle.

Views into the park and the Portal Peaks are stunning as major rivers spill out of thickly forested valleys crested by rocky summits dripping with waterfalls. I came upon a three-horned chameleon that was bright yellow; thank goodness, I didn’t inadvertently beat him with my stick. By 4 p.m., the wind brought thick clouds enveloping us in a fury of mist and flailing branches, powerful gusts followed by drops of rain. Seeing what was coming, we dashed down the mountain in just 30 minutes using a community trail on the other side of the ridge, not soon enough to avoid getting totally soaked. 

It was a steep climb the next day to return to where we left off. After a heavy rainfall that left the trails slick, and then raging tropical sun on our backs, I was sweating profusely by the time we made it to our campsite. Ernest and I stayed back a bit while the crew set up camp in a fern opening atop the ridge. It was a lovely morning and I watched Ernest for a while as he busied himself with little tasks while waiting. Other than the occasional smoke, he doesn’t sit still for long. He’s a tough old guy and I’m sure if we could share a language he’d have some stories to tell. His constant motion is always purposeful, finding a bit of leaf to harvest for food, cutting some vine or a small tree pole to pound and remove the bark for a sinewy rope, smoking out bees for honey. His traditional knowledge is impressive and he seems to live it, and I most enjoyed watching his eyes light up when his son Peter brought some liquid just harvested from a nest of insects below us. It was a sweet gesture for Peter to walk it all the way up the slope to where “baba” was leading us toward the summit. Peter appears to be in his 20s or perhaps 30 while Ernest must be at least 60, sinewy strong and seemingly unstoppable. While the other young men rest in camp in the evening, he picks up an axe to split firewood longitudinally from chunks of tree bole.

Despite being in a protected area, we find evidence of hunting each day for antelopes, pigs and small mammals. Holes in the ground, pointy sticks, rock shelters, and fires—I wonder what the net effect of the hunting is on the animal populations? When we came upon a “hunter’s shelter,” a small rock overhang, I noticed Ernest scoot ahead and disassemble something as Simon and I watched from a distance. He had the guiltiest look on his face that prompted an inquiry to Simon who confirmed it was a snare set for a giant forest rat. Ernest was obviously trying to rid the evidence before the arrival of Joseph, UWA (Uganda Parks) ranger.

I’m treated like a mazungo in camp, separate food made by my own cook, served separately from the crew. I wish I could take part in their socializing but the language and cultural barriers are big. So, I amuse myself watching the scene from my small distance: two cooks over a smoky fire stirring the cassava flour, another young man shaping an axe handle from forest wood, others warming themselves by the fire as Ernest pounds tree bark for his rope, and all the while a constant banter in their local Bakonzo tongue reaching an occasional crescendo of laughs and guffaws. These guys know how to amuse one another without alcohol or other stimulants. It’s a lost art in our culture, replaced by technologic substitutes that lack the depth of connection I see around me here. The axe handle is done now and more fern is being harvested for sleeping mats. The fire smoke is pungent and mixes with the smell of frying goat meat and Irish potatoes.