AliceVsVolcano was always going to be a tough fight. Why? Because Mount Elgon is the largest and oldest volcano in the world. It rests in two countries: Uganda and Kenya. It is 4321m high and passes through four different eco systems: montane, bamboo, heather and moorland. Oh yes, and I had decided to make climbing Mount Elgon the start of my training rather than training for it. That was definitely a mistake!
So, there I was, standing at the Rangers’ camp at the bottom of the mountain, huddling into the shade of the toilet blocks with my troupe of trusty comrades.
Team Mount Elgon
Nicola, the CEO of SALVE and the major mover in all this. SALVE is a charity which helps street children off the streets and back into school. I am an ardent supporter and didn’t have to have my arm twisted much to join the adventure; her partner Dan, footballer extraordinaire, and owner of the jungle pants; David and Helen from Northern Ireland and Ireland proving that love blossoms across that border.
Em, fabulous tent mate who has a tattoo of a supermarket trolley; Heather and Sam our speedy and tireless hikers; Erin our USA compadre who found all her stereotypes of Brits confirmed; Mike from Wales keeping up the Celtic fringe.
Stephen, dapper in a trilby, a kid from SALVE and now a peer-mentor; Alfred the Director of SALVE; Lincoln who organised everything with Buutu safaris and spent lots of time at the back with me; Alex and Karim, the rangers; and a group of about twenty strong porters, including three girls and Alex’s son, Shadrak, who is studying to be a doctor and portering in the holidays.
Off we set. Straight up a heinous ascent: 150metres in 1.5km. Panting and sweating and trying to take photos and keep up and ask Alex a million questions, it was a baptism of fire.
Our first two days of climbing Mount Elgon were spent mainly in the rainforest-jungle area. It was like being bathed in green. Giant plants and trees dangling creepers as thick as ropes blocked out the sun. Monkeys chattered overhead and we’d catch a glimpse or see the leaves shaking. Birdsong chirruped out on all sides.
The bat cave
Our second morning began with a shower in a waterfall outside a cave filled with thousands of bats. When I plunged into the water, I let out a scream, which Em told me caused all the bats to fly around shrieking in sympathy.
Two ascents stay in my mind particularly. The first was a hard slog up at the beginning of day 3. It seemed endless and only the camaraderie of Team Karim – the back stoppers – kept me going. We’d stop every so often for a mini break and a mutual sympathy session. That same day, our lunch of pot noodles – oh the joy and deliciousness – was taken half way up another vertical slope of red clay. You needed to anchor yourself to something to stop from sliding down. Pulling myself up to face it was a psychological endeavour of some magnitude.
Climbing Mount Elgon up up
The reward was great, though. We broke out onto the tops. Walking through acres of waist-high flowers and head-high heather. Giant lobelias and groundsel posed like statues in front of the mountains. The sky was blue with white clouds and our peak drew ever closer.
We crossed land blackened by fire that poachers had set. They wanted the green grass to grow up and attract the antelope that they would then hunt. Alex told us that when he caught them, he would give them one warning. After that, they would be prosecuted.
AliceVsVolcano to the end
Summit day was an early start and a day of focus for me. Photographs and questions were kept to a minimum. As the days of climbing Mount Elgon had gone on I had felt better and better and was ready for the last push.
We stopped at a plateau which gave us a view all the way to Kenya. A magical plain dotted with trees and small hot springs was laid out before us. We scoured it for elephants, Sam even got out his telephoto lens but no luck. I’d have to wait for my safari to see them.
Walking up and along a ridge, the Wagagai summit suddenly appeared from behind a rocky outcrop. There it was. We had made it. This was going to be a special summit because we were celebrating SALVE’s 15th birthday. A cake, which had been carried undamaged for all those kilometres was whipped out, candles were lit and we sang a rousing happy birthday. Double joy – celebrating SALVE and reaching the summit with such a lovely bunch of people was an extra special feeling.
But next time… I will train! Because this is what I looked like at the end! Climbing Mount Elgon was a wake up call!
When we got to camp that night and were sitting round the campfire sharing our highlights and basking in achievement, David emerged into the firelight.
‘Does anyone want to confess to having such a bad day that their boxer shorts are in the bin?’
Dan’s Jungle Pants…..
Battleface Travel Insurance sponsored me and donated to SALVE for this expedition. They also provided my travel insurance. I’m hoping I won’t need it as I did with my frightening experience in Jordan.