As I walked through the Rwenzori mountains, shoes caked in mud, I couldn’t help but think one thing: I’m lucky to be alive. Something about the foggy, tree-topped peaks and the company of my friends from Indiana University made me rethink my appreciation of nature and the world I’m a part of. I had seen some of America’s natural parks before; my family took trips to the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado when I was a child. But my experience last weekend in the Rwenzoris made a much more personal impression on my mind.
The Rwenzori Mountains reach heights upwards of 5,000 metres. In 1994, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park was recognised as a World Heritage site, and is home to Africa’s third highest peak, Mount Stanley. Rwenzori in Lukhonzomeans, “rainmaker” or “cloud-king”.
I live in Indiana, one of America’s flattest states. In my hometown of Carmel, one can drive for miles through streets and farmlands and remain at a constant level. To reach any substantial hill I’d need to drive two hours south to Brown County or Kentucky. I think the steepest peak I have to climb back home is the four flights of stairs up to my apartment every day.
So, the idea of a trip to the mountains was even more exciting. It was an opportunity to leave my wonderful but sometimes stressful internship at the Daily Monitor behind for a couple of days. I thought I would take a day to take in the mountain breeze but little did I know I was about to receive a wake-up call.
The escape from the hustle and bustle of life in Kampala was refreshing. The mountains commanded attention with their silent power as I walked along the steep hiking trails. I paid more attention to friends around me and the locals we met. It was a chance for us to put down our phones and laptops and just be together. It is rare that a group goes without the internet or the constant interruption of a cell phone these days.
At work and home, most of us stay buried in the work on our computers or the programming on our television. The isolation of the mountains helped us focus our attention on each other. I felt a greater connection to my friends, and we celebrated our victories and laughed at our struggles. When one of us slid in the mud, we offered our hand to help them up. When one of us sang a song, we all joined in. And when one of us stopped from exhaustion, we encouraged him or her to keep going.
The Bakonjo, people of Kasese were kind and reaffirmed my respect for the people of Uganda. They smiled and waved as I walked past them, and children grabbed my hands as they walked by my side. The evening before our hike we visited a local blacksmith, who crafted knives with elegant cases and spearheads that were sharp to the touch.
We met a dance troupe and ate delicious pumpkin soup and chicken with garlic infused rice prepared by the town’s cooks. The entire time, a guide named Eelly led us. His job was to assure our safety and make sure Mzungu didn’t get lost in the mountains. I asked him what he loved about the Rwenzoris. His response was short, and made me think about my hometown and how different Eelly’s life and mine are. “I was born here. I grew up here, and I live here now,” he said, “In the end... who knows?”
We set out on our hike at 8.30am underneath the brilliant glow of the morning sun. We stumbled upon a little chameleon, which changed colours when we set it on a friend’s shirt. We passed local farmers as they tended to their plots of cabbages, bananas and cassava. We wove through the tangled mountainside of vines and roots. We even stopped by the freshwater stream and stood on massive boulders. My favourite spot was at our highest elevation of 2600 km where we stopped in awe of the view. I could see the entire valley and the peaks of distant mountains. It was breathtaking.
And the heavy thud
I fell on the way down. Sliding through the muddy trail, I clung to the side of gigantic rocks and landed on my backside. I ride my bike around everywhere at home and play sports with my friends, but nothing prepared me for the obstacle course that is the hiking trail. I had to stop to gain my footing, and the elevation made my heartbeat fast as I powered along. My balance was tested as I moved from rock to mud and back to rock. The experience was humbling, and I think an easier hiking trail wouldn’t have made as much of an impact on me, nor would the challenge be as memorable.